Thoughts prompted by Laurinda
, perhaps I should say, rather than reflections on the book itself.
I felt quite ambivalent reading this novel, and I'm not sure if that ambivalence came from Alice Pung herself or if it's my own attitude to my education which I'm projecting onto Lucy's story. As I said before, I also went to a posh private girls' school (Presbyterian Ladies' College), and I was a scholarship girl. There is no way that my family could have afforded to send me there and pay the fees, though quite a few of my contemporaries were not particularly wealthy. Their attendance at the school was pretty much the only luxury their families allowed themselves (I should add that the fees weren't at the astronomical levels they seem to sit at today, either).
Coming straight from living a pretty simple life in PNG, and years of vague money worries, I used to fret that we couldn't afford for me to go on excursions, buy a new blazer, pay for textbooks etc. I never actually had to go without, but I never assumed
that I wouldn't. This bred a faint anxiety that dogged me through all my years at school.
Because the school had moved to a new campus in Burwood in the 1950s which was quite ugly and daggy, there was none of that atmosphere of romantic, ancient privilege in the buildings themselves that I found later at Janet Clarke Hall and Melbourne University generally, so our elite, privileged status was not so obvious in our physical environment. But it was constantly drummed into us that we were a) very lucky and b) obliged to pay for that luck by 'giving back' -- through leadership, social work, good causes etc. The emphasis was less on encouraging ambition for ourselves, and more on what we could do For Others. It was just assumed that we would achieve for ourselves, I think.
I adored school and I was (mostly) very happy there. I had some wonderful, inspiring teachers, read some amazing books from the fantastic library, and made some good friends. My interests in literature, history, politics, philosophy and social justice were encouraged, and I came out at the end with an excellent HSC score that got me into the university course I wanted. I took it for granted that women could do anything; it wasn't even a question. Our headmistress was an amazing, strong, gracious woman who was a wonderful role model (Joan Montgomery), and oat of our teachers were women. I was very disappointed when, after I left, the church appointed a male principal.
I did well academically in the supportive environment of school, but I struggled in the self-directed free-for-all of university. I didn't really get how university worked, and I was dazzled and paralysed by the presence of boys. Socially, I was completely out of my depth. I don't blame my school for that, but it didn't help. It took me so long to adjust to life outside school that I wasted a lot of my years at uni. (It also didn't help that I was doing the wrong course.) I see the easy, teasing friendships with boys and girls that my daughter is establishing at her state high school, and the way they encourage the students to navigate life outside the school, and I'm envious.
I'm grateful for the opportunities that PLC gave me, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with the begging letters they send me, as an Old Girl, to contribute to the new swimming pool or the performing arts centre or whatever. It's embarrassing, and I feel like it's a betrayal of the ethos they tried to teach me back in the 80s. I was sheltered there, but maybe it would have been better for my development to be a little less sheltered, toughened up a bit.
This has been a long, rambling post. I hoped it might help me disentangle the good from the bad, but it's all still mixed up in my mind. I go to lots of private girls' schools for work, and I instantly feel at home there, comfortable and at ease. The teachers are usually fantastic, and the girls are always lovely, polite and friendly and often very clever -- just like I was.
But I'm not going to send my daughters to any of those schools. Not even if they win scholarships. And I still can't quite articulate why.