There is a positive trend on social media referred to as #thislittlegirlisme that I believe is important for girls to know about. In this trend, women from all walks of life post photos of themselves as young girls and they reflect on their dreams, challenges and insecurities which led to their success as professional women. The #thislittlegirlisme hashtag was set up by the founder of the international charity, Inspiring Girls, Miriam González Durántez. She identified that young women felt inspired when older women shared their real stories on social media.
I would love to hear stories from the #remarkablewomen in our Perth College community accompanied by childhood photos. To kick-start this movement, I have shared my story below. I hope it helps to inspire the students in our care.
I am sharing this story because I want young people to know that even though the world can be volatile, tough, complex and confusing, they are still 100 per cent capable of living fulfilled lives.
I am a bit late to this movement, but I did want to tell you that this little girl is me.
In this picture, I am four years old. I am on the plantation in Carnarvon, where I was born. You can see me with my mum, dad and much-loved aunty. I could never see myself as the future Principal of Perth College.
Even though I was born in Australia, I did not speak English. I slipped quietly into Year 1 in primary school speaking fluent Portuguese. The school put me in a class with my cousin and we spoke Portuguese to each other for the year! In the following year, they split us up and I started to learn English.
My parents immigrated to Australia in the 1960s from Madeira Island in Portugal and relocated to the coastal town of Carnarvon, 900 km north of Perth. Although Madeira Island is now a playground for the rich and famous, in the 1960s it was impoverished and my parents arrived in Australia, like so many immigrants, with many hopes packed tightly in their suitcases, but few resources.
My parents were workers on a banana and tomato plantation. They worked seven days a week (and nights too). My mum worked harder than some of her male counterparts as well as cooking, cleaning and raising me. She was isolated and lonely. She never once in her working life received her pay cheque – it was always given to her husband and she had no control of her finances.
We were poor. My parents tell me stories of working entire seasons and receiving no payment. They were told the plantation owners did not make a profit and could not pay them..
My parents spoke (and still speak) Portuguese at home, so I did not have anyone to help me with my schoolwork.
At school, I never dared to put myself forward. I did not see myself as a leader. Yet here I was in Year 3, coming home, showering myself and my brother, doing my homework, setting the table and waiting until my parents got home to make dinner for us late at night. I translated for my parents from an early age, wrote their cheques and paid their bills.
My mum would say to me over and over again “Education is the key. With an education, you will never need to rely on anyone to survive”. She would also say “I want you to have a better life than I did”.
In Year 5, mum attended a parent/teacher night with one of my cousins who acted as a translator. My mum was hopeful. She could have done with something to justify her hard work. The teacher told my mum I was not capable of going to university. My mum was devastated. She knew that education was the only way for me to have a better life.
I did not do exceptionally well at school. But, like my parents, I knew how to work hard. In Year 12, I woke up at 5.00 am to study every day. I would write my study notes as questions with headings and my mum would sit on the edge of my bed trying to read my headings in broken English. She did this day after day.
I graduated top of my class for several subjects. I gained entry into every university in WA and I had the pick of courses and pathways. I was the first member of my family in Australia to make it to university and I chose to be a teacher. I felt called to help young people and to change the belief that you couldn’t be more than other people’s low expectations.
I went to university and started teaching at 20 years old, before I’d even completed my studies – I had young people in my classes who were 17. I became a Deputy Principal at age 25 which was unheard of for women in education at the time.
I now have a Bachelor’s Degree, two Master degrees and have been enrolled in Doctoral studies. Best of all, I have the privilege of serving my community as Principal of Perth College.
I am the keeper of important stories, so here is one more I’d like to share. The Sisters of the Church founded Perth College to help girls like me. They believed what my mum believed – that education was the key to unlocking choices and opportunities for young women.
Education was/is not just training for our economy. That is important, but education for the Sisters had a higher purpose. It could enable young women to transcend mainstream expectations, to think for themselves and direct their lives to the sacred place where an individual’s character strengths met society’s needs and made the world a better place.
Reflecting on these photos of the girl on the plantation in Carnarvon, if I could give myself some advice, it would be this:
Work hard, just like you are doing. But don’t work hard to be enough or to be worthy. You are already. You are loved in every fibre of your being. Work hard to realise your full potential. Life is difficult and precious, but with hard work and great skills you can furnish it into something beautiful that the world can benefit from.
My story is not easy to tell in these public mediums. I spent much of my life being ashamed of my background and believing I was not capable, but I am sharing this story for two reasons. Firstly, because research by the Inspiring Girls charity, set up by Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, suggests girls have higher personal and career aspirations when they hear the stories of other women succeeding. Secondly, I want the young people I lead to know they are capable of the remarkable, of breaking barriers, working through challenges and contributing positively to this world no matter what their background, social status, religion, gender, culture or personal challenges. I want young people to know it is worth the struggle and that there is much to be hopeful about.