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I left my boys with my sister and drove down the dirt road for my interview with Bella, these interviews that I organise have me anxious and out of my comfort zone every single time. I arrived at Bella’s home and after initial greetings, and quick catch ups with her parents over a flute of champagne, Bella and I got comfy in the lounge room for a chat.
The first question that I asked Bella was, “tell me what boarding school has been like for you?” This eloquently spoken 16 year old young lady started her story.
“I left home in 2013, as a year 8 student at St Hilda’s on the Gold Coast. It was my first time leaving home for longer than a week or two.”
“It was terrifying, boarding is terrifying, but, it has been amazing.”
I promised myself on the drive over that I wouldn’t get emotional. Well, that first sentence killed that promise. My nose started to run and my eyes misted over.
Sport, socialising and being active in the community is big part of the culture of living in the bush. Bella has built close friendships from being a team player as a young girl. As luck would have it she was introduced to her closest friend at a sporting carnival playing netball, and the girls went on to board together at St Hilda’s. There are not only rural and remote girls at the boarding school but a number from Papua New Guinea, Asia, and some prefer boarding over home.
She tells me about the process of being dropped off at her second home.
“For first time parents they are advised to leave a bit earlier so it doesn’t get too emotional. Our parents settle us in and then we head to the boarding house.”
The head of boarding and the boarding mums are at the school for the arrival of the girls to support them in getting settled. Helping the girls set up their new bedrooms, getting comfortable in their new surroundings. Bella is following in her mother’s footsteps at St Hilda’s. She was blessed to be allocated to the boarding mum that guided her mum, through the boarding years. The boarding mum also holds strong ties to the family. Bella’s granny nurtured Bella’s new boarding mum when she was a student at St Hilda’s.
“A boarding mum is a lady that comes to work and looks after boarding girls, they are so kind. I had her in year 8, I was her granddaughter and she loved me the whole way through. So when I finished year 8, I moved boarding house and she moved with me – she was with me for the next two years. I then moved again and now she is looking after my sister. When I started, I mean we were the babies, we are their babies, the babies of the school. These ladies are our mums while we are school. They are a big part of us, I mean we spend more time boarding than we do at home. So they become very special to us.”
“They looked after us through it all. We were naughty, but god they love us.”
Tears are now flowing freely down my face. For Bella, knowing that this young woman is so loved by so many strong women. For her mother for being so courageous and dedicated to her daughter, her education, and growth and sharing her child with another woman that Bella loves so much. And the boarding mum, what a special lady to devote her life to opening up her heart to loving and helping raise teenager girls so far from home.
“As a year 12 girl I get an individual room. They are very nice. The mums come around at 7am and wake us all up. Breakfast is 7.15am so we get dressed and ready to go to breakfast or we can make brekky in the boarding house. We usually just sit and have time with the mums in the morning, watch the news, get ready and then off to school. After school is where we go and do co-curricular activities or tutoring if we have to, otherwise we just go back to our room and do whatever we want until 5.00pm. Prep is at 5.00pm, so we study time until 6.10pm and then go for our dinner sitting, 6.40pm we have prep until 8.30pm. We can study in our rooms or they provide tutors in the boarding house. Most of them are old St Hilda’s girls as well, they come up we chat and study. From 8.30pm is for showering, studying or visiting friends in their rooms. It’s just like home you go around and chat to the mums, chat to your sisters.”
Bella acknowledges the social skills she has developed from being a boarder, she tells me about the situations faced by boarders that sometimes are out of their comfort zone, and what she has learnt from that.
“Every term we change rooms, you find when you’re living beside different people you become better friends with them. A few years ago I was put beside this girl and I was like, “oh no, I do not want to be beside her”, but by the end of the term we were really good friends.”
I have to laugh at little when she is telling me about the deep friendships that are forged in the boarding house. She makes it sound like a five year slumber party with your besties.
“It’s so much easier in boarding to make friends. I mean everyone is your sister we are so open and comfortable with everyone, maybe a little too comfortable. We are always talking to people, always with people, you just get so much confidence. Best part of boarding is just always being with your friends. In the end you are boarding more than you are at home and they are your second family, they just mean so much to you. I mean we can go out on leave on the weekends, but sometimes you just want to say home and hang with your girls. I have boarded for five years and yeah this is my last year. So daunting. I mean I am not going to see all of those girls every day and it is going so fast. I mean crazy fast, and scary knowing it’s nearly over. The whole time you think:
“Oh gosh I want to get out of here”. But now, its like, “oh no! I am getting out of here soon”.
And with friendships established with the girls you live with, you also build relationships with their family. The girls are “allowed out on leave” every weekend. There are a couple of weekends a term that are dedicated to the families and them spending time together.
“I mean, for all the times that mum and dad have come down I don’t remember a time that we just had us as a family. We always take out my sister’s friends or my friends, if they are stuck in. My really good friend, her mum lives in Western Australia so every time mum and dad come down we take her out.”
Bella compares going out on leave to see her parents with the feeling little kids get on Christmas Eve. “Oh yeah, it’s like I can’t wait to see them, I mean we only see them a few times during the term”.
Then for the families the routine of drop off and settling in to school is repeated. Drop off at school, mums and sisters are allowed up to the rooms for settling in, but being a girl’s boarding house, dads can’t go in. Bella tells me, most of the parents sign their girls in at reception, the girls catch up with friends before starting their school routine again. Obviously this is easier on some than others.
“Lucky for me I get to see mine every few weeks, which is very nice. I can also go over and see my sisters in their boarding houses whenever I want, and they can always come and see me.”
Bella participates in a new initiative for the school. She has taken on additional “sisters”. The program starts before the little girls arrive at the school some starting in year 6. Year 12 students connect with them by sending Christmas cards and wishing them a happy new year. On arrival at the school the big sisters look after the little ones, help them with the settling in, they help with homework, and offer support when boarding is overwhelming. Bella is positive that this new programme has helped the little girls greatly.
“I know my first year we all thought we were pretty tough and would hold back the crying. You always end up crying. All you want to do is go home see your family, god, even see the dog. We never had any older girls to help us get through it. Oh, those older girls for me where so scary, they were so big and we were so little. By doing this we are breaking that, we are good friends with them, and both of my buddies are good friends with my sister.”
She is home now for the school holidays, I ask her what it was like this time coming home.
“It’s is so good, so amazing to come home. I mean everything changes. Last time when I was home everything was green, but on the turn to brown. But I got here the other day and there is knee high green grass and we have puppies”.
“I mean and coming home to mum and dad and my youngest sister, oh, it’s everything”.
She goes on to tell me that she hasn’t always been positive and accepting of her life of having to live away from her family to receive an education.
“I am ok now with going away, but in year 9 I threw the biggest tantrum. I was not going back to school. I was not going back to boarding. There was nothing worse. So I just refused. I was just like “nope, I am not going back”. But yeah, year 9 was my worst year. Year 8 is so surreal, so new and exciting. Year 9, I knew what to expect, I knew what was going to happen and I was just like nope, I won’t be leaving mum and dad and my sisters. It was terrible. Eventually, I got in the car and I was taken back. Year 10 was so much fun.”
Year 10 for Bella was not only receiving an education from the school but from travelling the world. Bella an active student at St Hilda’s participates in sport, the adoption of little sisters, and she also represented the school in an exchange program to Holland for six weeks.
“It was the absolute best experience. I had never travelled overseas before, and then I ended up going to Holland living there for six weeks, oh amazing. I was really keen to travel everywhere when I got home from Holland. But now I just love being home. Australia is the best.”
In her last year at school, having made the most of her experiences as a boarder and in her education Bella has completed a hospitality and barista certificate and responsible service of alcohol certificate. She is currently working on her certificate three in childcare and works at the St Hilda’s day care centre with the pre-preps. So what is happening next year?
“Next year I will hopefully go north, maybe the Kimberley’s and either go jillarooing or governessing for a couple of years. I want to eventually go to the Marcus Oldham College”.
This portrait was a difficult piece to create as openly as I normally write. When I was crafting this piece I didn’t simply have Belle to think of. But her parents were taping away at my heart as well, that was the prickly part. I wanted the story from the mouth of the daughter that lives this experience. I wanted this interview and this story because I bow down to the parents that share their pre-teens and teens with a second family so generously. A big thank you to Bella and her Mumma, love you both for sharing your unique story.
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