Crossing the Desert

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The tired confusion on my face, and the strained smile on my mother’s tells a story. I know where I am, but I cannot remember it. Strangely enough, I can remember standing in the snow in Germany many months earlier dressed in a green, hooded, furry coat, but I cannot remember standing beside my mother and brother, in our winter clothes in the heat of late summer, in 1951 at Central Station in Sydney, after a hellish journey across the desert.

But I do know exactly how you were feeling Mum, because years later, you told me. You could barely hold yourself together, and yet, you did. With two babies, what else could you do?

Soon after we arrived at the Northam Refugee Camp in Western Australia, my grandparents who were already in Sydney, started the process of getting us over to New South Wales.

The first leg of our journey was by bus to Kalgoorlie, then across the desert by rail. When we boarded the train, families were separated—women and children at one end and men at the other, meeting only in the dining carriage for meals. There was no access to water and no provision for the needs of babies, especially for those like my brother, who was bottle-fed. Dad managed to get hot water to wash the bottles, but Mum was left with the dirty nappies. She washed them in the hand basin of the toilet late at night and held them out of the train window to dry. It worked well until one night there was a desert storm, and all the nappies were covered in red dust! Disheartened, she wept.  

We arrived in Melbourne at 9 p.m. seven days later, but the ordeal did not end there. And I know just how you felt with what came next Mum. You and Dad were told that you had to change trains in Melbourne for Sydney, but no one bothered to tell you that the train for Sydney departed the following morning. You had no access to timetables nor were you given any information as to where you could find accommodation for the night. With no English, you had no idea how to ask.

You were not only isolated, given what happened next, you were also ignored.

You had nowhere to go, so all you could do was sit and wait. Fortunately, it was summer so being out at night was not overly cold. And that is exactly what you did. You sat on the station, with your babies, all night. It would have been clear to the station master that you needed help—a family who did not speak English, but true to the xenophobia at the time, without a glance or a word, he turned off all the lights, locked the doors to the station buildings and waiting rooms, and left.

My father, who could always move mountains and get things done, must have felt useless and completely emasculated. He carried out a bench from the platform and moved it to the side of the building to afford some protection for the hours to come. Mum laid me down on the seat between her and Dad, and my brother, who luckily had a full bottle, fell asleep in her arms. And that is how we spent the night, with no food or water.

When the sun came up, exhausted, we boarded the train for Sydney. While we were not separated this time, Mum was in such a distressed state she had no memory of this last part of the journey. The experience had stripped her bare, emotionally, and physically.

As with all non-English speaking migrants, the introduction to our new life was proving to be very tough indeed. All we had left was the hope that what was to come, would be better. 

© Inara Hawley

The Path to Teaching


In hindsight, the path leading to the important choices we make is usually very clear, even if the beginnings may appear to be somewhat tenuous and difficult. But sometimes, it’s precisely because those beginnings are difficult that a particular path is taken.

When I was five years old I started school, but because I couldn’t speak a word of English I walked into a very scary and confusing world. Had it not been for the little boy who lived next door taking me by the hand on that first day, I would have been totally lost. But the truth of it was, when it came to school, I was lost … for quite a long time.

4th Class School PhotoWhether it was the xenophobia which was rife in Australia in the 1950’s or the fact that I was so quiet no one noticed how much I was struggling, my early school life was a soul destroying experience. And because no one bothered to reach out, isolation and a lack of confidence became my daily school companions ~ quite a paradox for a child, who outside of school, was lively and confident, and gave piano recitals and ballet performances regularly. Of course by the time I was in second class I knew the drill ~ I was no longer confused, just isolated and afraid to speak up. That’s me above in the front row holding the board in my year five class photo.

It seemed that I could not touch the heart of any teacher until I was in the last year of primary, when low and behold, my teacher was not Australian, but Polish!  She not only noticed me, but praised me. And suddenly my world changed ~ I excelled, and I topped the year! I also found my first school friend that year, a German girl who, like me, had her own struggle ~ she had a debilitating stutter. For the year we were together we became firm friends and I was in heaven ~ a friend and a teacher who both cared. It was bliss!

During the years up until then I was very much alone, even in the playground. I was so reticent and shy I can’t ever remember playing with the other children. I guess it was because I was different, and of course I was! So I sat by myself in my short uniform ~ everyone else wore theirs below the knee, with my warm winter woolly undershorts ~ usually a nice bright colour knitted by my grandmother, eating my black bread sandwiches filled with either jam or liverwurst. While modern day bullying didn’t exist in the 1950’s, differences were not accepted as they are today. If you didn’t fit in you were not included, and I didn’t fit in simply because I didn’t know how to bridge the gap. I was too shy.

Path to Teaching - My Family in the 1950sApart from that last happy year, it’s hard to remember any really joyful events in primary school. Those happened at home with my family and the kids on our street with whom I played every day ~ I had no problem fitting in with them. It’s there that I felt confident, comfortable and happy ~ all the things I didn’t feel at school. Kindergarten for instance, was a nightmare. The teacher was a witch and in fact proved to be a very cruel individual. It would have been blatantly clear that I didn’t have the language skills to ask for anything, let alone wanting to use the toilet. The day came when I could hold it no longer, and as we all stood in line holding up our paintings, I felt the warm trickle of a puddle spreading at my feet. I not only had to clean it up, but that became my spot for the rest of the year! I was 5 years old, but even a 5 year old can feel overwhelmingly humiliated.

And there were lots of instructions which passed me by as well. There was the day I sat outside by myself while the whole school community was in the main hall enjoying a performance. I was sitting there alone because I had not paid my money. It’s not that I had forgotten … it’s that I had not understood I should bring it. I was only in 1st class. And then there was the day I fell ill. It was the middle of summer and very hot, but rather than telephone my mother to come fetch me, the school told me to go home. I had a raging temperature, but stoically started walking! By sheer coincidence my mother was on a bus going into town. Shocked to see her 7 year old daughter walking alone on the main street in searing heat, she jumped off the bus and reached me just in time. My legs buckled and I collapsed. She picked me up and carried me home.

With this level of incompetence and insensitivity, you would be right to wonder why my parents didn’t hit the roof. They did the best they could, but unfortunately they were having as much trouble as I was trying to integrate into the Australian way of life. As it was, by the time I was seven I spoke the best English in the house. And it was not the European way to let children sleep over or go off to someone’s house for the day without parents, nor was my mother comfortable with letting me go on school excursions. In those very raw years after the Second World War we were very protective of our own, particularly in a country where we were not openly accepted, so we kept to ourselves and created our own communities. While I became far more self-assured in high school, and my parents became more relaxed as well, a pattern had unfortunately been set and I found no joy in being at school or in learning ~ then friends and rebellion were more important, and my education fell by the wayside.

While this may sound like a sorry tale, it isn’t. It’s certainly a shameful tale about the school system at the time, but not about me. The education system may have failed me, but I didn’t fail myself. None of it made me crumble, and none of it made me feel like a victim either. It actually made me stronger and more determined to do well in life, which is exactly what I went on to do. In years to come I understood that being ‘me’ and having had ‘my’ experiences was my greatest strength. Even though at times I may have aspired to be ‘the same’, it was actually the fact that I was different which turned out to be one of my greatest inspirations ~ the memory of how difficult and lonely those early school days were inspired me, as a mature age student, to become a teacher. I wanted to make a difference, especially for those who struggled. And what I found was that I not only got the university education I didn’t pursue after leaving school, the children I taught satisfied a deep longing within me to see every child shine.

Without doubt teaching has a special place in my heart, but what is abundantly clear is that when we choose to use our challenges, past or present, as inspiration rather than allow them to defeat us ~ when we treat them as a launching pad, we ignite passion and fill our world with purpose. And we can make that choice at any time … about any challenge.

Inara Hawley © 2013