lifestyle

This is my experience of being a private schoolgirl.

I still find myself in heated debates at dinner parties in the Public vs Private quarrel, while friends who are now parents themselves begin to wonder which direction they will choose. Steiner? Art School? Local public? Boarding school? Are any better than the rest, or is the whole schooling system flawed from the top?

Regardless of the *many* arguments, one general Australian sentiment remains the same: private schooling guarantees the right start in life.

But what IS the right start in life, exactly? Emerging from an environment that turns normal adolescent growth on its head – stunting any kind of personal and social growth, but accelerating academic/career growth well past their years? I graduated from high school with no grasp on body confidence, sexual knowledge, interpersonal social skills, or concept of healthy balance – but hey, I had a five-year-study-plan, and I sure could type fast!

This is my experience:

Shiny forehead, braces, braided hair – puberty was not kind on me.

My trajectory of growth during high school was an exercise in normalisation. 

At the start of school, I was soft, malleable, and delightfully enthusiastic for anything and everything. I was kooky and creative and used to do things like make a pencil case out of old pair of jeans, or make my school friends hand-drawn zines, or paint my plaster arm cast to look like an x-ray.

But by the end of high school, I was hardened. I had bunkered down against the continual onslaught of academic comparison, anxiety-inducing ‘life prep’, and school-aided competition socially among my peers. I straightened my curly hair, wore Ralph Lauren polos, and listened to the right music (which I hated). Weird was not cool. Weird was a threat.

It has taken more than a decade since graduating high school to soften up again, to learn to trust women again, to learn to trust teachers again. But really, it was about to learning to trust in myself enough again to believe that I could be a success.

A handmade pancake fascinator: as you can see, I have definitely got my weird back. But it took time.

Everything from sports carnivals to exams, school formals to school plays, morning swimming training to parent teacher interviews were doused with hefty splash of judgement and competition.

With private school fees climbing to now sit, on average, between $20,000 to $33,000 per year; the median wealth of your peers is considerable. We were rich girls judging rich girls, a petrie dish of bitchery and exclusion, all fighting each other for…well, I’m not even sure what. From a tender age I was accutely aware of what car we drove, what my parents did for work, and what brand of clothes I was wearing.

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Did my private school work to counteract this behaviour? No. If anything, it was encouraged. Students with parents who actively participated in the school’s events as volunteers, financial supporters, or otherwise, were celebrated. Those who didn’t felt their inadequacy clearly. The school needed the riches of the families who attended, and it is now, many years later, that these desperate clutches for their favour become pathetically clear.

The private school mentality starts young.

Private schools ARE businesses.

Students become walking billboards, constantly drilled with propaganda that sadly – as we have seen in recent days – they struggle to let go of. And then go on to instill in their own children. We are looking at a national system that pairs outdated teachings with modern day marketing, churning through pupil after pupil, sifting mercilessly until they find a nugget of gold.

Private schools: an exercise in weeding out who is useful, and neglecting those who are not.

Schoolkids are too young and too impressionable to be treated as an employee in a greater business scheme.

It takes years to shrink your focus down back into yourself after high school. Years. To let go of the ‘all for one, and one for all’ mentality of the private school elite and realise that the only person who need to please is yourself is a hard journey.

I have little doubt in my mind that many of my self doubts were born in a competitive school system that was quick to place you on the ladder against your peers, but slow to ever celebrate your value.

It’s wasn’t until well after university when I was out of the ‘system’ and into the real world, that I could see the money-making private school business for what it truly was.

I still compare myself to the person my school showed me to be ‘complete’ – a high earning professional working in a standard industry, with a husband and children. What private schools forget to remember is that there is a bigger, beautiful, messy world out there of artists and the night-shift-workers and gay people and infertile women and people who feel depressed and people who lose their jobs for no good reason and women who think happiness is far more precious than career success.

Sarah Haynes, I silently screamed watching you up there on the podium, ponytail just right, uniform ironed, spotlights adjusted to focus on you, the shining example of the young Australian school girl. It reminded me of what a prison that image can be.

But then you started talking, and pissed all those people off – and a big smile spread across my face.

The private school rebel is not dead.

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