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In 1974 I was 17 and in my last year at a Catholic girls school in Melbourne. My father was flying high on the corporate ladder and my mother was schizophrenic; something we’d grown up accommodating and accepting. I was quiet and studious and loved school. I lacked the social pizzazz of my parents and siblings so everyone was taken aback when it was discovered I was pregnant. My teacher at the time was Sister Gemma. The nuns had not long before been given the option to revert to the names they were baptised with. I think my teacher’s previous name was Sister Germaine but my memory may be wrong. She was young compared to many of the nuns and there was an innate kindness and glow about her that I particularly remember. She was a passionate educator on many levels.
During my pregnancy I was living in a house close to the school and Sister Gemma would walk down and set me essays and work so that I could pass my end of year exams. In the 1970s a young pregnant girl was a pariah; people on buses and in Doctors waiting rooms moved away from you and pinioned you with glacial condemning looks. Because of this I rarely left the house except to go for check-ups. Sister Gemma seemed to take the pregnancy in her stride and treated me normally. I have no idea how she managed the permission to come and teach me. I think her treatment of me allowed me to retain a small hidden measure of self-respect. The fact that I admired and respected her and she still accepted me made an indelible impact on me and reinforced my will and ability to survive. Unfortunately I went into labour 10 days before I had to sit the exams.
When my son was born he was put up for adoption and I was sent away. I often think it was because of Sister Gemma’s belief in me that I was able to return to Melbourne to claim my son then go back to school to finish my education. It was very tough. I had no family support and had to have a part time job to get through, taking my baby along with me – an unthinkable situation today! I won a scholarship and went on to train as a teacher. I contacted my old school soon after graduation and discovered that Sister Gemma had gone as a missionary to South America. I wrote to thank her for standing by me and promised I would strive to be a teacher of her calibre. She wrote back but the letter was heavily blacked out and to this day I haven’t been able to trace what happened to her. Her gift changed my life and today I consider my life has been incredibly rich and well lived and my children and grandchildren are my lodestones. Sister Gemma was the lynchpin in that life.
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I went to a large high school in a smallish town in north west Tasmania in the 1970s. My favourite teacher from this time taught me Social Science in 1976, when I was in Grade 10. I'm guessing, but I reckon she was in her late 20s at the time. One of the great things about public education then was that most graduate teachers had been recipients of bonded studentships which paid them at university and then posted them to schools all over Tasmania, so schools had an even chance of receiving talented younger teachers to their staff, most of whom wouldn't have been "locals" and the kids in the schools in small towns really benefited from the injection of "new blood" and the perspectives of people who had lived in other places. My favourite teacher was a bit different in that she had taught at a couple of other schools before coming back to her home town to teach us. Social Science was the sort of subject that could easily become a wishy washy, busy work subject involving "projects" and posters with colourful headings and content shamelessly lifted from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, although it was best if it wasn't because it provided a basis from which one could launch into matriculation History and Geography. Our class in Grade 10 found out very early on that with Chris Rowe as our teacher, there'd be fewer coloured pencils (actually, there weren't any), no plagiarism, not one single project with headings and lots of essays posing questions that tested our analysis of Third World Development issues, Chinese revolutionary politics and the motivation of Wartime leaders. Mrs Rowe expected us to read widely and consider issues that extended beyond the coverage of the local newspaper or commercial radio station and she made listening to AM compulsory homework. She also strongly suggested we invest on a thesaurus if we wanted to enrich our prose. In lots of ways she rocked our whole lives as our families stretched themselves to accommodate her challenges. Chris Rowe was a girl from Ulverstone, but she didn't fit small town boundaries, talked about her travels through Asia, assumed that we'd all continue with our education and demanded that we lift our game in preparation for the HSC. I think that for the girls in the class in particular, she provided a role model that inspired many of us to look beyond where we had before and she sent us off to year 11 with confidence that we could hold our own amongst kids from many other schools. Although she left to have her first child after 2 terms of that year, her influence stuck with us. We were a little bit in awe of her; we wanted to do well because she expected us to. Chris continued to teach until retirement only last year. I know for sure that there would be hundreds of people who'd concur with my assessment of her as an exceptional educator indeed.