In year 7 I started at a very expensive, Presbyterian all girls school. It was a big change from the small co-ed public school I came from.
I remember the first day well, walking down our red dirt road to the bus stop, the dogs following me until the highway when I shoo’d them back to the property.
The bus trip from our sleepy little country village started with local kids like me, then as we got closer to town the ‘country bumpkin’ ratio fell as more and more girls in their uniform panama hats with braided hair and special hat badges joined the bus. They would cackle and squeal upon seeing one another, conversing only with each other, not even noticing me sitting there. I adjusted the collar of my perfectly pressed white shirt, felt the crease of my brand new tartan skirt, and stared at the dusty, squeaky brown leather shoes that I knew would blister my ankles before the day was out. As I tightened the simple pony-tale beneath my badge-less panama hat I knew instinctively that I was alien. An invisible alien.
The first week was scattered with awkward moments. I felt ill at ease and couldn’t seem to understand the language they were speaking. Teachers and students alike seemed to know something I didn’t. I quickly learned to speak only when spoken to. ‘What does your Dad do?’ a smarmy blonde girl asked. ‘He’s a farmer’ I replied. ‘How many acres?’ ‘Umm I don’t know we have about 200 or so’… she made a snorting sound, looking down her nose at me..‘We have 3000 acres… it takes a helicopter to check our fences!’ she cackled and turned to walk away with her three other braided, badged and mean spirited friends. I just looked down at my dusty, brown shoes. They hurt.
Lunch hours followed in a series of similar humiliations until I found myself retreating permanently from the grassed area for the relative safety of the dining hall. The boarders would all have lunch there and day girls could buy lunch, so I paid my $1.50 for a sandwich from the friendly lunch ladies and sat alone at a big table in the air-conditioning. By week 3 the lunch ladies were my only friends and I continued to find comfort sitting alone in the busy dining hall. I could camouflage myself amidst the noisy lunch goers until the bell rang and it was back to class, with Mr White, who was nice enough..but still I only spoke when spoken to.
One day before recess, the aptly named Mrs Leopard came into our class to announce that auditions were being held for the choir during the second half of lunch the following day. FINALLY a language I understood! This was my chance to do something I loved, something I was good at, maybe there was a choir badge? Maybe I would make a friend?
The next day I was so excited I skipped lunch and arrived early in the assembly hall. I couldn’t wait to sing! I removed my panama hat, fixed my pony tale and straightened my collar. At 1:15 we all stood in line on the stage as directed, awaiting our opportunity. Mrs Leopard went down the line shouting orders like, ‘Stand up straight girl! ’Feet shoulder width apart!’. I stood tall, I was going to impress her I just knew it – she fixed her gaze upon me, looked me up and down and barked ‘No’. I was confused! I said to her ‘But I haven’t even sung yet?’ she shook her head dismissively, ‘How do you expect to represent this college when you can’t even be bothered to shine your dirty shoes?!’. And that was it. My last chance to assimilate was gone.
I have never forgotten how piercing her words were and how wounding her judgement. That afternoon I walked the red dirt road home, kicking up dust with every step. I went straight to my room and cut my pony tail off. My mother was horrified, but I was determined never to braid my hair, or shine my shoes, or try to polish myself to fit into their world again. I would remain an alien.