Marion’s Story: My Education

Marion’s parents knew how important a good education was for her. Despite racism, set-backs and a low confidence, Marion kept pushing forward.

Believing it was a winner, I re-wrote the story for an English assignment in Year 7 and won a prize. The following is the same story, revamped for a Year 10 assessment. There was no point in wasting a good story and it was a proven winner so, of course, I won a prize again.

Both of my parents wanted their children to receive a good education and did everything within their power to ensure that happened.

Mum was well educated and, I believe, before her time. My father on the other hand was not. I remember he often told me how important school was and would say, “Go and learn all you can so you can get a good job and make a better life for yourself.”

Dad often told us that he was not permitted to go to school. When he was young, Aboriginal girls only went to Year 2 and Aboriginal boys went to Year 3. This was the government policy. So Dad learnt to write his name and in his words, “A little bit of reading and counting.”

My parents, especially Mum, expected most of us to complete Year 10. This was a good expectation in those days, as many Aboriginal children were not completing Year 10, dropping out either in Year 8 or 9. Our parents did not push us into completing Year 11 and 12, so no one did.

Like most of my brothers and sisters, I started school whilst still living on the reserve. With school came great change and it was change I did not welcome. It was a whole new and very different world for me. I sat with Mum waiting to be enrolled. I was five years old and had not been able to attend kindergarten because, as Mum explained, we lived too far out of town.

For Year 1s, the first two weeks of school were only half-days. Mum explained that she was unable to pick me up, so I would need to remain at school the full day, catching the bus home with my brothers and sisters.

I found school extremely hard. I had no friends and found it difficult to make friends. During the first week, some of the girls told me quite openly, they were not allowed to play with me. At the time, I never really understood why, but I soon learnt that many parents did not want their children associating with a native from the reserve.

I also remember it had a lot to do with my colour. The first day at school one of my cousins, who lived in town, explained that I was too black to play with. She informed me that it wasn’t a good thing to be so ‘black’. Angry, I told her I liked being black and I was glad I didn’t belong to no ‘milkman’.

My uncle had often told me, “White Noongar kids belonged to the milkmen who were milk white.” He would always laugh at my serious face and add, “Aren’t you glad to be black like me?” My response was always, “Yes, I am glad to be black.”

I remembered being surprised at school one day when one particular girl’s mother explained to us both how we were related. At first, I thought she was lying, as I had never seen them on the reserve, and all my relatives came to the reserve, or so I thought.

This girl was quite fair, having blonde hair. Although she told me she wasn’t, I knew she was a Noongar and told her so. She told me in a very serious tone that I was a “Boong from the Boongs’ camp.” I understood the camp bit because I had heard the reserve being referred to as the camp before by our Sunday school teacher, Miss Jones.

My so-called cousin got away with calling me a ‘boong’ that day being the first day of school and all. However, it was the only time she got away with it. I soon learned the meaning of this term. It was also a term I would hear for the rest of my school life.

Mum had tried very hard to make school as smooth as possible. I had a school uniform like everyone else, a new school case, pens, books and crayons; whatever was on the list. My teacher was impressed and told me so. I remembered this as I had never heard such a word before and asked Mum what the word ‘impressed’ meant?

My older brother George, who was at high school, or my sister Janice would wait for me outside a particular shop and wait until I had bought lunch. Once I had started walking back to school, George would ride off back to high school and Janice would walk me back to school. Thinking back, I believe they took turns.

Even though I had such support, I hated school, my teacher and the other kids. I was experiencing racism at its best. No child would drink from the fountain after me nor would they use the same toilet I had used. I heard the song, “Nigger, nigger pull your trigger bang, bang, bang” every day as well as the terms ‘black boong’, ‘Abos’ and ‘Boon-a-rig-in-e’ rather than ‘Aborigine’.

Regardless of such suffering, Mum never allowed us to stay home from school. We had to go every day. I was always getting into fights, and often threatened to tell my oldest brother Fred on the bigger kids. It was Fred’s last year at school and I used it to my advantage. I envied him so much as he was finishing and I was just starting.

The first term at school was the most difficult for me. On reflection, I think school was a total culture shock. I had never experienced racism at this level before. Everything was foreign and new to me. After an exceptionally bad week, I decided I needed a day or two off. Dad was the best person to talk to about school.

The following is a personal story I first wrote when I was ten years old. I called it a Willy Willy. It basically describes the Noongar meaning of the Willy Willy.

I kept the original story as it was the first time I was ever asked to take something to show the Principal. The Principal was impressed with my story. He gave me the biggest gold star I had ever seen, explaining his gold stars were made especially for good children.

Believing it was a winner, I re-wrote the story for an English assignment in Year 7 and won a prize. The following is the same story, revamped for a Year 10 assessment. There was no point in wasting a good story and it was a proven winner so, of course, I won a prize again.

A Willy Willy (with modified paragraphs – Ed)
It was a hot Sunday afternoon in February 1968. I sat on the veranda of our house on the reserve talking to my father. I was five years old, I remember this as I had started school and had just finished telling Dad about the whole school experience. I hated everything about school, the smell of the classroom, the white kids, the school bus, the school bus driver, but most of all I hated my teacher.

There was a long period of silence and I remember thinking how Dad had shown no interest in what I was saying. But, I kept talking as my aim was to try and get out of going to school tomorrow.

After some time, we saw a Willy Willy form from across the main road, it gathered up the dust and started to swirl, it crossed the main road and was heading towards our house. We sat and watched as it built up momentum collecting everything in and around its path. The wind was both hot and strong.

It stopped, running out of steam and dumped what it had collected on the way at the side of our house. “Quick, go see what that old fulla brought you,” said Dad. I didn’t look for the old fulla, I knew he was a spirit in the wind of that Willy Willy. I went and retrieved some pretty bird’s feathers and different coloured leaves.

Again a long period of silence as Dad sat and rolled a couple of smokes and then as he lit one said, “See that Willy Willy? See how it kept them good things and let go of that bad stuff? That’s what we gotta do in life.” I looked towards some old bits of rusty tin and wire that had been dragged across the road but came no further, also bits of paper that had been thrown out of the Willy Willy.

Again a period of silence and then, “Stop being wild (Angry) it’s no good for ya, you’ll make yourself sick. Best to let it go now, you’ve had it long enough, time to let it go.” All I could think of at the time was how many years I still had left to go to school.

There were times after this that Dad would say, “What did I tell ya about that Willy Willy?” However, the most memorable was after a physical fight with an older sister who had eaten my chocolate. Although I got a couple of good hard hits in and felt satisfied with my effort she was older and bigger so I came off the worst.

However, she must have felt guilty as the next day she threw the same chocolate to me stating ‘here’. Still angry and not wanting to as Dad said, “Let go.” I threw it back at her using language unfit for a five year old, and copped a good belting from Mum.

As I sat on Dad’s knee crying and looking for comfort he said, “Now what did I tell ya bout that Willy Willy? Mmm what did I tell ya?” My sister, feeling bad for causing me to get a belting again, came with the chocolate, this time holding it out for to me to take. I looked at Dad, he looked at me and I took the chocolate.  THE END

During the winter months, I had infections in both ears but I still went to school with discharging ears. Mum supplied me with cotton wool to place in each ear and I would change it during recess and lunch. To me, it was useless going to school. I had no idea what the teacher was saying. There were days when the pain was unbearable and I remember some days vomiting a number of times, forcing a staff member to take me home.

I attended a number of appointments at Princess Margaret Hospital and Mum was informed that I needed an operation on both ears. I was not permitted to go into Year 2 and had to repeat Year 1. I was devastated when I overheard my teacher explaining to my mother that I was ‘slow’.

My mother refused to accept I was ‘slow’, explaining to my teacher I was partially deaf and was awaiting an operation. Nevertheless, I was kept down in Year 1, something that would have a major impact on the rest of my life.

In 1969, I started Year 1 all over again. My niece Donna started school and another cousin, whose mother was one of my older cousins. They were always visiting Gran at the reserve. This second time around was better in that I had family I accepted and knew with me in class. Funnily enough, my cousin who lived in town was kept down as well.

There was also a new non-Aboriginal family that had moved to town that had bought the farm next to the reserve. There were three girls. Lyn the youngest was in Year 1 with Donna and I.

We became friends and Lyn invited us to go to her house to play after school. We would walk down the road to her home after school. Lyn’s parents treated us the same as any other kids that visited their home. I will never forget going to Lyn’s sixth birthday party because it was the only birthday I was ever invited to during school.

Feeling quite at home and comfortable with Lyn’s mother, who seemed young like my older sisters, I asked her why she liked ‘black people’. She laughed at my question and responded with, “I like all people, doesn’t matter what colour they are and I teach my girls to do the same.” Such a response had renewed my faith in ‘white people’.

I had the operation on both my ears in 1970, and life was much easier especially at school. However, my Year 1 teacher’s words that I was ‘slow’ stayed with me and unfortunately I believed what she said.

When I was at high school, the grades were Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. For maths, there were four categories: Basic, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. I remember when I started high school, all of us ‘Noongar kids’ were put into ‘Basic’ for everything. It didn’t really matter how well we performed in primary school, this is what our grade was.

I found the first half of Term 1 in Year 8 a piece of cake. So much so, that I completed the work set for me and then I completed a couple of my friends’ work. Being the good friend that I was, I let them copy my work especially in maths. My friends and I did this for a couple of weeks. I thought high school was going really well, until I was called up to see the Deputy Principal.

I wasn’t afraid, as I liked the new Deputy Principal. He seemed to be a fair person and made me feel good about myself. He told me I had some excellent reports from primary school and was a good student. We had what I considered to be quite an in-depth discussion about learning. How to learn? How not to learn? Why we should learn?

By the end of it, I understood what I was doing was wrong. I was not helping my friends at all. That day my teacher taught me the meaning of the word ethics. He set an assignment for me. It was to find out the meaning of morals and principles. The best part was I could work on this assessment during class, as I was usually the first to complete my work. I had one week to complete the assessment.

I liked this teacher and wanted to please him, so I worked on the assessment at home. I asked Mum for help. She would never write any of my assignments. As always, I was told I had to do the work as it was my assignment. Mum gave me ideas of how to set the assignment out. She told me to read about my topic and then explain it to her.

Something I remember Mum always saying, “If you can explain something to others confidently and they understand you, then you know your topic. If you can’t do this then you need to learn some more.”

She would prompt me, asking for examples of what was morally correct as well as what was morally incorrect. Mum and I discussed morals and principles and their meaning. At the conclusion of this assignment I explained the correct way to help my friends. I received ten out of ten. I learned ‘How to Learn’ which was the title of my project.

I ended up being placed in the higher grades of Intermediate and Advanced for my core subjects, but refused to be moved into a higher class. After much discussion with the Deputy Principal, I remained in the same class with all my friends and relatives, but was provided with a higher standard of work to complete.

Over the years, I have doubted my abilities and never made the most of the opportunities that came my way. Some of my teachers tried hard to convince me that I was a capable student, encouraging me to further my studies. I never really believed them, thinking they were being kind and took the long way around to do things.

As a student, I always accepted help but refused to allow anyone to complete or do my work for me. Something my mother had taught me to do early in life.

At university, in my view, I noticed that some Aboriginal students allowed others to write their assessments. They were setting themselves up to fail. I came to believe that these students certainly had a different attitude towards study than I did.

I was shocked at the marks I received at University as they were good and, although I did well, there was still some doubt about my ability until another in-depth discussion occurred, this time with one of my lecturers.

This lecturer made me realise a few things. The first was that I had never wanted anything handed to me because I was Aboriginal. I wanted to be treated the same as non-Aboriginal students and he had seen this in my attitude. This lecturer believed in me, making me finally believe in myself, so when he told me I was very capable of doing a PhD, I enrolled in one.

> My Resilience