My best teacher

18th September 1998 at 01:00
The best thing about being taught by nuns was that they encouraged you to do something, rather than aim solely for marriage and children. I am 61 and was a child of the Depression, when university wasn't the norm, especially in Australia. But the nuns encouraged all of us to go to university.

My parents were station hands in New South Wales and I moved from one rural convent school to another until I was 12 and went to High Cross College in Sydney. It was an intellectual school and I was a bluestocking. The school - in Belle Vue Hill, one of the ritziest areas of the city - was fee-paying. But I was there on a scholarship. There was no entrance exam but it happened that I was in a class of 21, all of whom went on to become Somebodies. One became a doctor, one a veterinarian, one a violinist, another the chief archivist of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

My school years contained a number of good teachers. No one stands out in particular, but several were memorable, if only for their own personal hang-ups.

Old Sister Benedict, for example, who taught maths, hated the idea of any of us wearing trousers (we didn't anyway) and would say: "If you wear slacks, I'll give you smacks." She was a holy terror, very irascible, short-tempered and would jump up and down and yell and scream at the drop of a hat. She was small and plump and not a particularly good teacher, but we all did well in spite of her.

Sister Immaculata, who taught chemistry, was a jolly person, but impossible to please. Even when three of us in the class came first, second and third in the state in our matriculation exams she didn't seem impressed. She had whiskers, which fascinated me, and was very good at basketball as I recall. I enjoyed chemistry and she was a good teacher. I was one of those students who was good at everything - except games. I was a fat child. My nickname was Jumbo.

Sister Teresa, who also taught chemistry and, I think, physics as well, was very beautiful. She was much younger than the other nuns and had a sweet nature. She was very dark, perhaps of Italian origin.

Then there was Sister Ignatius who was very old and the head of the school. She taught English and warned us: "Woe betide the girl I catch reading Georgette Heyer. She is utterly immoral." At the time I remember I was reading a banned novel called Love Me, Sailor - replete with four-letter obscenities and graphic descriptions of sex. She thought we should stick to respectable Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy and people like that.

They were Sisters of Mercy so they all wore black habits with a traditional wimple. The school uniform was quite attractive. The tunic was well-cut with pleats at the side of the skirt instead of the usual box pleats and was a beautiful shade of pinkish brown. We wore fawn shirts and a brown tie with a red and fawn stripe and panama hats, fawn lisle stockings and brown lace-up shoes.

In our final year we had to go to school on Saturdays and were allowed to wear our home clothes but there were strict rules about what was considered appropriate - dresses must never be low cut and always had to have sleeves. I remember one Saturday the glamour puss of the class arrived in a dress which, by modern standards, you would not call low cut, but the nuns sewed crepe paper around the neck and put in crepe paper sleeves.

I was never top of the class because I refused to do well in religion and it irritated the nuns. I could score close to 100 per cent in every other subject but in religion I got 50 per cent, always. My family were atheistic and I went home from suffocating religion to an atheistic household. I succeeded at school despite my teachers and became a neurophysiologist.

I don't look back on my school days fondly, except that I liked being there better than I liked being at home where I was the odd one out in a family of athletes.

And the nuns also gave me a very valuable piece of advice. Catherine Gaskin, who had been a few classes ahead of me, wrote This Other Eden when she was 16, and, knowing I also wrote, they advised me not to attempt to publish until I was into my thirties, otherwise I would not be able to cope with success. I took their advice. My first novel, Tim, came out when I was 34.

Colleen McCullough lives on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Her second novel, 'The Thorn Birds', sold more than 30 million copies in 20 languages. The latest, 'The Song of Troy', is published by Orion. She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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