Leah Francis : Finding the Way contents

Boarding at Darlington

To parody a greater writer, I've lived in boarding-school, I've lived at home. Home is better.

Until the 1970's most children who were blind or who had severe low vision had no alternative but to go to special schools. These might be schools for "the blind" or for "the deaf, the dumb and the blind". In Australia there was one such school in most capital cities.

Because public transport was limited and few people had cars, most children lived at their schools during the week, and went home on weekends and for holidays. People from the country and some others would go home once a month, or only in school holidays.

Joan Ledermann (nee Eshman), who went to the Institution with me, is an example. She lived with her parents, her three sisters and brother on a six-hundred-acre farm at Glen Valley near Inverell in north-western NSW. In 1935 she and her mother made the (then) two-day train journey to the Institution in Sydney where she would remain for six months before going home for the three-week winter holiday. She was just five. The fun, fights, adventures, tragedies – the very essence of farm and family life had etched themselves on Joan's heart and set their mark on her mind and manner. The open space, the sheep, horses, calves, chooks and the welcoming fragrance of burning logs and home-made breads gave place, without warning, to the confined, enclosed boarding-school where the pervasive smells were of carbolic soap and jams, pickles and sauces made at the IXL factory across the road. Even though she was blind, the child must have an education. Where else could she go?

Mercifully, in 1942 blind children vacated the Institution to make room for airforce barracks. Joan returned to the family farm, where she learnt a little from the braille notes prepared by her boarding-school teachers. It was three-and-a-half years before she went back to boarding-school. In spite of the gap, she knew more and performed better than those of us in Sydney who had been given face-to-face teaching during that time.

The farm had deepened her family bonds and broadened her knowledge and experiences, not retarding, but enriching her academic and life education.

My experience was equally dramatic but less traumatic.

I left home for boarding-school when I was five. On Monday mornings Auntie would take me to the NSW INSTITUTION for the DEAF, the DUMB and the BLIND in City Road, Darlington, now occupied by the University of Sydney.

On Friday afternoons Gran would bring me home for the weekend. On the way she would buy me two cakes at the shop near St Peters Station. One day the shop-keeper gave me a "maori doll". She was made of a velvet-textured fabric and wore nothing but a grass (raffia) skirt and metal bracelets and ankles. If it hadn't been for this doll I might never have understood the war-time cartoon about the soldier who was reprimanded for chasing the "native" girls around the paddock. "But you told me to get all the grass off the place", he protested.

Darlington, as we called the Institution, was all right, but it took time for me to lose my fears of the cold, echoing buildings. We slept in a large dormitory containing twenty-five beds, each with a chair beside it. At the end of the dormitory was the "locketry", It contained baths, toilets and washbasins and stands of open metal "lockers" where we stowed our toiletries. One girl kept hers in a "wash-bag." She continued to do this until she died in 2002, aged seventy-nine. Even when she lived in her own flat, with her own private space, the wash-bag hung by her basin.

Instead of windows, that dormitory had chain wire, with sliding metal shutters which were closed when it rained. They rattled in the wind, and their rattle reverberated through the long, narrow room which had no soft furnishings to cushion the sound, and always frightened me.

At the other end of the dormitory were two teacher's bedrooms, each with a window looking into our two long rows of beds. These teachers would open their windows to quieten us or stride in to see to a problem, or mostly to keep us in order.

We little girls were confused and afraid in this vast . Mysterious sounds would come from everywhere and nowhere. I could never work out where they came from.

At nights we would lie in bed, three or four little girls, alone in that vast, empty space.

As I revisit it I remember tramping up the stairs after "tea" to clean teeth and climb into bed. On one night a week a teacher would read us a story or a poem, or chat to us. On other nights we talked to each other. Girls who had some sight would jump from one bed to the next, all the way down the room, but usually they were caught.

When it by cold we would snuggle under the blankets. Rose would tell sad stories, almost always about a baby dying slowly. Or we would list our aunties and uncles, competing to have the greatest number. Or the shutters or the lockers would rattle. Someone would tell us a ghost story.

When we ran out of ideas we would say our prayers. Sometimes the girl who said hers most quickly was the winner; or whoever said the greatest number won. I could never get past nine. There was God bless mummy, Gentle Jesus, Our Father which art in heaven, Jesus friend, and on they went. But the catholics always won. They can say ten hail Mary's three times and that made thirty, and you couldn't beat that.

In the morning the outside world called to us: doves and sparrows and many others. We were no longer locked up alone.

We shared the vast dining-room with "the deaf" though we had separate tables.

The noise we all made dragging our chairs out and pushing them in seemed like thunder and I was bewildered by the babbling during meals.

The deaf children said "grace" before meals, and we blind children at the end. Most of us were not thankful for the food we were obliged to eat. Lumpy porridge, stale bread and swill, called tea, for breakfast, slimy stews for lunch, followed by desserts of bread pudding, rice and the like, usually with lumpy custard, and bread again for tea. On Wednesdays it was sausages, peas and mashed potato – the best meal of the week, and now and then we had jam roly-poly or lemon sago. These were treats.

There were five small classrooms for blind children. We were referred to as blind, but most people had sight – some enough to read print. A few got drivers' licences when they were older and at least one boy drove a truck in the army during the Second World War. Nevertheless, everyone learnt braille and most were blindfolded when they were little, to prevent them from "straining their eyes" by reading braille by sight.

We had no contact with "the deaf" in the classroom and we had separate dormitories. Often in the playground and when going to meals we were together. The people who had good sight – "good partialies", we called them – enjoyed playing with the "deafies". In some ways they had more in common with them than with those of us who were blind, or almost blind.

Deaf children often moved quickly but they scraped their feet. I found this sound almost as scarey as the sounds they made with their throats and mouths.

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