Some fifty plus years ago, two restless twelve year old girls depart the dry wheat plains of the Wimmera. In a two-tone, blue Ford Customline they are driven 200 miles to their new home-away-from home in Geelong.
It’s the start of a new school year. Their parents have invested in a prestigious boarding school that will hopefully sand off their rough edges and give them an education that’s better than what’s available 25 miles from their doorstep.
A large suitcase for each child holds their most treasured possessions. Among them: six pairs of brown underpants, six pairs of brown socks, two brown check school uniforms with boater hat. The fawn pleated uniform with green tie and felt hat is for more formal occasions such as wearing to church, sometimes twice on Sundays. Their mother has painstakingly sewn their nametag into the seam of each garment to identify it at the school laundry.
For the raw and naive tween-ages, boarding school is an exciting prospect. There’s a sense of adventure but little expectation of the unknown.
A House Mistress formally greets the family upon arrival. When she gets to know the girls better, she utters in desperation: ‘Your poor mother, how could she have had two of you!’
Across the road from the main day-school they are ushered through lush grounds into a large foreboding two storey house with a wide winding staircase to dormitories above. Randomly the two girls are separated into their spartan dorms where they are allocated the sixth bed in each room. They are introduced to their room mates who already know each other from the Western District or from the previous year.
There’s no teary farewell and their parents drive the lone journey home. Ignorantly, the girls look forward to what’s ahead, but that’s before the emptiness sets in. They are alone for the first time and must establish friendships and break into cliques.
All week the six new boarders in their form are subject to rumours and innuendo about what awaits them on the weekend – Initiation. It will be their first major challenge.
When lights are turned off by the housemistress in each dormitory that Saturday evening and the house is in lock-down, some 20 girls gather in their pyjamas in the downstairs dorm.
The ring leader of the Initiation reads out the first rite of passage to the new boarders:
‘One at a time, you must stand naked on the bed in front of the full length window with the blind up and light on and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ without laughing. If you laugh, you’ll have to start again’.
The new girls who are still coming to terms with their pubertal bodies are embarrassed and terrified. No-one but perhaps their siblings or family have seen them naked before.
It’s obvious that they will be humiliated and ostracised if they don’t join in the ritual. In front of the same taunting audience, they still have to attempt a somersault naked on top of the cupboard which is dangerous and ultimately abandoned.
Everyone bows to group pressure and participates. To decline is not an option.
Initiations were a clandestine rite of passage that generations of new boarders underwent each year and survived. Was it right or wrong? Did it make them stronger or more resilient and would it happen today?