My name is Merrie. I’m 13 and I have left school. My mother and myself and two sisters have run away. We rent a house in Hurstbridge with no electricity, no toilet; just a dunny that we have to empty every week. We have painted the seat pink, I think it helps. It is 1959. This house is at least 3km from the station. I light the tilly lamp every morning and run down to the station in my thongs. It takes me until Eltham station to tidy up. I get a full time job copying out electricity invoices at the town hall in Melbourne. I start very early and while I wait for my sister and mother after work, I teach myself to type. I meet my husband, much older than me. At 15, I conceived my first child, followed by another conceived at 16. At 21, I had my third child.
My little brother walked up my drive with a duck he had shanghaied from a dam. It took all night to pluck it, being winter, it had lots of feathers. He wanted to go to school and I talked to the Principal at Eltham High School who agreed to let him attend. My husband left me. I gathered if I could get Mick into Eltham High, I could try too. I was the second mature aged student to be allowed full-time study. Marie Louise was the other mature student and we are still in touch, both of us then single mothers with three children each. She drove her brother’s Porsche, in full racing harness and smoked flat out, as I did, we sat out the front of the school with the older boys knocking on the windows for a fag.
I worked, at times, full time and managed to finish two years of study (wonderfully flexible and understanding teachers) and after sitting HSC obtained university entrance. I met an old school friend who later moved in with me. His wife had left him for a university professor and he was not kindly towards my university study. I had started a Law/Arts degree at Monash, after a lot of pressure, I left and we managed and lived in a Milk Bar for 18 months. Sheer drudgery and very long hours. We moved to Yarrambat, cheap rent, he moved out and I asked to be allowed to study at La Trobe. An Arts degree with majors in English and Philosophy.
La Trobe University became my lifeline. It took me 9 years to complete my degree. At times hitching to La Trobe (no car). Living in a mudbrick shed with a dirt floor, no electricity, tank water. Hard on the children. On 23 acres. Every year I would start out applying for every unit, so optimistic but life very quickly intervened, kids got sick, the money ran out, I needed to work. I gathered another partner who was very supportive, as were friends. My partner and my children and mother were at my graduation in 1981. They were all so proud, they said they deserved the degree as well!
As you can gather, I have left out far more than I have written. It is very hard to convey just how beaten down I felt, having children so young, others did not hold back on criticism I was considered pretty but dumb, very “lower class”. So ignorant, I spoke well but learned to keep my mouth shut at an early age, in case I was found out…not educated!
Studying gave me the confidence to apply a different form of thinking to raising my children, who have all done well. I became a teacher, taught overseas. Was a professional actress for 10 years…did lots of different things, travelled extensively. I could not have achieved without that piece of paper, sad isn’t it!
I am confident, very happy and still very curious about life, still studying. So grateful for Gough Whitlam and La Trobe for making all things possible. Thank you La Trobe!