The boarding school uniform

Written by Tanya Heaslip

November, 1974.

‘But Mum!’ I said with tears in my eyes. ‘If I wear this, I won’t know who I am’.

The image staring back at me from the mirror was definitely someone I didn’t know.

It might as well have been a scarecrow.

Thin arms stuck out of an oversized stiff wool maroon tunic and blazer. Thin legs were stick-like below, in brown stockings and brown shoes. A white and maroon striped tie was pushed hard up against the top button of a white shirt, as if to choke her. Long, loose hair was now tightly entwined in maroon ribbons and pigtails. Her eyes were wide and scared through the speckled glass.

The strong, but scrawny, twelve-year-old bush body had disappeared.

The free-spirited and free-living bush child who lived in jeans, riding boots and checked shirts had been replaced by someone – something – unrecognisable.

And, to use an expression I’d learnt in a book, now looked ‘quite hideous.’

‘No, no, no! You’ll be you, of course,’ Mum said. ‘Just you in your uniform, darling.’

But she looked down at her hands and I saw a tear pooling on her cheek.

‘I won’t!’ I crumpled, turning away from the mirror. ‘I’ll be someone different! Look at me – a stranger!’ I yanked at the tie, hot tears now falling onto my cheeks.

‘Why would you say that?’ Mum’s voice sounded strangled.

‘Because I went down to the horse yards a while ago. Wanted to show everyone what I looked like in my new school uniform. And Mick saw me and said to M’Lis, ‘Who’s that?’’

M’Lis was my soulmate sister. Fourteen months younger than me, M’Lis and I were like twins. The thought of leaving her was even more unbearable than practising ‘dress-ups’ in this new boarding school uniform. She was always there for me, always had my back. But this time Head Stockman Mick’s question left her lost for words.

Finally, she shouted, ‘It’s Tanya of course!’ but Mick simply shook his head and said, ‘Strike me pink. Would never have recognised her. Never seen her in a dress before.’

I was lost for words too. If Mick couldn’t recognise me, there was no hope. I’d done more musters with Mick than I’d eaten steak for breakfast, and that was saying something. He’d known me for years. Did I look that unrecognisable?

‘Mick was just teasing!’ said Mum, fussing now with the ribbons, but I wasn’t convinced.

I’d spent my life surrounded by cattle and stockmen, with dogs and horses for friends, with family as my foundation, with the wild empty space of the outback in which to play. I’d sat with my sister and brother in a little schoolroom, following Correspondence School ‘sets’ under the supervision of our governess, and talking to our teachers at the Alice Springs School of the Air by radio for half an hour each day.

I knew almost nothing of the outside world except when I’d read in books.

And, I didn’t wear dresses.

Going away to boarding school would transform me into someone else, in every way. It would transport into a new world where even I no longer recognised myself. It would change me for ever. I knew that because of what I could see staring horribly back at me from Mum’s mirror.

And Mick’s comment, joking or otherwise, had confirmed my fears.

My face burnt, my hands felt sweaty. ‘Mum, I’ve got to take this stuff off!’ I started ripping the tie from my neck. ‘And anyway, this uniform is toooo big!’

But the boarding school introductory letter had instructed Mum to buy the uniform several sizes bigger than necessary. And Mum had dutifully complied.

‘Girls grow quickly at this age,’ the Headmistress had written in tones that sounded brisk and no-nonsense, ‘and as you will not see your daughter for some months to come, it is best to provide clothes she can grow into. Shopping is only permitted in certain circumstances.’

Mum and I had both felt a bit sick when we read the bit: ‘as you will not see your daughter for some months to come.’

It would be many, many months in fact. Holidays were only three times a year – otherwise I would be under the control of that Headmistress, in a city one thousand miles south from home. Communication would come through weekly letters and telegrams in emergencies. I would be alone like I had never experienced and could not begin to imagine. I was going to another planet, where I would be transformed into a scarecrow alien.

Just as I thought I might actually be sick, voices rang through the still air outside.

‘Hey Tanya!’ It was M’Lis and our younger brother Brett. ‘C’mon! We’re going to get the horses in. Dad wants us to move that mob of cattle out of the yards into the Bullock Paddock. Got to do it before dark. Hurry up!’

I gazed at Mum, who looked grey. Neither of us knew how to manage this new world ahead of us. How would I live without her? Without my whole family? I was the eldest child, stepping out into the unknown, with no knowledge of what I was stepping into.

But the question was too big, the answer impossible to know, and so I did the only thing I knew how to do – escape, back out to the bush, and forget everything.

So I threw my new clothes into a pile on the bed, pulled back on jeans, checked shirt and boots, hugged Mum who was sitting quite still, and ran.

As fast as I could.

Out the door, into the dry, hot air, into the blue sky, into my outback world – the place where I knew who I was and where I belonged.

The pink cockatoos squawked in the gum trees along the creek. Eucalyptus hung heavy in the afternoon air. The cattle bellowed contentedly as we drove them towards the hills. I breathed in the sweetness of my mare, her pricked ears, her gentleness. We laughed as we rode, told jokes to each other – this was what I knew.

I breathed in deeply and felt happy again.

Everything else – my future and how I’d survive it – could wait for another day.

Tanya Heaslip was raised on a cattle station in Central Australia during the 1960s and 70s and learnt about the outside world through the Correspondence School, School of the Air and storybooks. She spent many hours dreaming of the overseas lands depicted in those studies and stories. Tanya went away to boarding school as a twelve-year-old, which later led to her becoming a lawyer, but she never stopped dreaming. In between practising law, she travelled to many of those lands, and later wrote about both her bush life and travel experiences ‘Alice to Prague’ (AU 2019) and ‘An Alice Girl’(AU 2020). Tanya will release her third memoir next year ‘Beyond Alice’ (AU 2021), which focuses on those boarding school years, with lashings of outback adventures in between! Tanya now lives back in Alice Springs with her husband. She is the President of the NT Writers’ Centre.