When I was 11 in Grade 6 in primary school I had quite a bit of time off school due to recurring tonsillitis. I returned to school and immediately felt that I was being looked at strangely and I remember feeling quite uncomfortable. I sat next to my best friend Linda and thought I would ask her what was going on. I was never in the ‘popular group’ of girls, however I held my own and never got into any fights.
Linda didn’t come into the classroom until our teacher had already commenced the lesson. She hurriedly sat down next to me. I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t answer me, she just smiled and carried on with our work. At recess I followed her outside and when she began to run I did as well, finally catching her right at the end of the oval.
I asked her what was going on and what had happened since I had been away. She replied, “I don’t care if your dad is an Abo you are still my best friend.”
I was dumbfounded, I had no response. Linda told me they were doing a Census at school on all the different nationalities that formed our area and as I was not at school another girl, Michelle, had stood up and said, “Wendy’s dad is an Abo does that count?”
Now you have to realise this was back in Australia in the 1960s when there was a strict White Only Policy. Apparently there had been a huge backlash at school from other parents to have our whole family removed. It seems a lot can happen in 16 days away.
I returned to the class before the bell and I spoke to Mrs Trail, my class teacher. She said I was still the girl monitor for errands in the classroom and she wasn’t going to let something like my father’s cultural background change anything. I could see that she didn’t believe me when I told her he wasn’t an Aboriginal.
I sat down to do lessons, but I was so angry and hurt. Some of the kids in the class where mouthing ‘Abo, Abo, Abo’ under their breath when Mrs Trail had her back to us. I didn’t cry, I didn’t see the point, it would have been a sign of weakness. I decided to have it out with Michelle at lunchtime and as she ran out of the class I ran out after her. I caught her on the oval and grabbed out at her top. She turned and swung a punch right into my left eye. That was it, I let loose on her and it took two teachers to separate us. We were both taken to the headmaster’s Office.
Our headmaster was a wonderful kind man and I was very sad that I was in his office for fighting, but I stood my ground and told him everything. Michelle’s mother was called and she was taken home. I begged to stay at school, I knew that I would be in for it when I did go home, so the headmaster kept me in his office and talked to me about anger and hitting people even if they deserved it. It was the first time I ever had a talk one-on-one like that with and older man, my father never did and my grandparents were dead.
He walked me back to class that afternoon and as I went inside I turned and hugged him. He smiled down at me and patted me on the head. Everybody gasped when they saw my face and ripped shirt. He had a word to Mrs Trail about what had happened. She returned and the lesson went on.
I had softball practice after school and even though I was sore I played. The sports teacher knew what had happened, but we just carried on.
After practice I walked home with Linda and as we turned the corner to my house I saw Michelle’s mother’s car in our driveway. Linda said, “Ill come in and tell your mum everything.”
“No you go home, I’ll be fine,” I told her.
I walked down the driveway to the back door, (the front door was for visitors only). I took my shoes off and placed them in the laundry and called out to my mum.
“Come in here Wendy right now,” came her loud angry voice. Michelle’s mother was smiling at me.
My mum said, “I don’t fight the kids’ battles, Dawn, they have to learn for themselves that life isn’t a bed of roses. Wendy why did you hit Michelle?”
I told mum the whole story and my younger brother, John, came out of his bedroom and said that the kids at school had been teasing him about Dad being a ‘Black Abo’ and that was why he had been pretending to be sick. Mum turned to Michelle’s mother and said, “Children don’t see colour, that comes later in life, however children do repeat what they hear their parents say. I think you should leave Dawn before I lose my temper and set Wendy on you!”
I had to wait up and tell my father when he arrived home from work and he listened and sat very quietly. When he told me to go to bed I was relived, I thought I was going to be punished.
Next morning we all went to school and Mum and Dad went to see the headmaster and have a long talk. When Michelle returned to school she was moved to the other Grade 6 class and I tried to have as little contact with her as possible.