Things were tough in 1939, although you would never have known by the way 12-year-old Billie Barrett was skipping home from school after the last day of the year’s final term.
Final in more ways than one.
That night, her widowed mother came home from her job as a seamstress. She was tired as usual and worrying about how she would ever buy the Christmas presents, as well as maybe a small ham and a chook.
“Billie,” her mother began that night, after a dinner of baked rabbit, the Great Depression’s staple meat of the poor. “You’ll have to leave school and get a job.
“I just can’t afford to keep you there anymore.”
Today, Billie is a bright-eyed 94, a little unsteady without her walking stick but still as sharp upstairs as the day her early education came to an abrupt end.
“I loved school, really, really loved learning,” she said last week. “But two weeks after Christmas, I was at the biscuit factory.”
The girl who had been at the top of her class packed crackers in Port Melbourne for 14 shillings a week. True, there was less rabbit on the kitchen table, but fewer servings of baked bunny seemed a poor reward for what necessity and the ethos of the times said was a girl’s lot.
Get a job, work, marry, have kids, go back to work – that was the preordained female path, and Billie was at pains to stress that she followed it with no small degree of pleasure, partnered through life by a “wonderful man” and blessed with “wonderful children”.
But always there was that small, offended memory of a mind that was eager and inquisitive but had never been allowed to blossom in the classroom of ideas.
Billie was an office girl, secretary, and eventually a manager at Gough Whitlam’s original Medibank, “right up until the Liberals got rid of it, laid us off and paid us off”.
There were short-lived office jobs and part-time gigs for the next decade, until not long after she turned 60, when she put an end to work once and for all. Her children had grown and flown, and there was a comfortable amount in her retirement account. For the first time she was her own master.
What to do? The bowling club was a diversion for a while, a short while. It soon paled when she discovered that the men expected their ladies to make the sandwiches and tend the tea urn.
“I’d been taking orders from men my entire working life and I wasn’t going to do it for another day,” said Billie, eyes flashing. “No way was I prepared to put up with that.
“I wondered ‘Why not uni? I might re-start the education I never got’.”
The ever-curious mind
The idea niggled from one winter’s day, when a complaint about a lack of curried egg sandwiches became the spark that really lit Billie’s fuse.
Unlike many mature applicants, she had no further professional ambitions, as her working days mercifully belonged to the past. But what had never died in her was the deep curiosity and lust for learning her teachers had recognised all those years ago.
“I was self-educated, you see,” she said, with a gentle wave of her wrist at her bookshelves, which are heavy with the classics, from Aristotle to Emile Zola. “It was time to make it all connect.”
As the weather warmed, so did determination. Billie researched courses, applied and was accepted after completing an essay that she suspects was intended to demonstrate that “someone who left school at 12 was up to the work”.
Her choice was arts, with the emphasis on English and history. She did her four years at Melbourne’s Swinburne University in the late 1980s. Her results were good, but marks had never been what it was all about.
“I don’t think I’ve got as much pleasure out of anything, not ever before in my life,” she said.
“It’s a challenge – you must commit to do the work and study. The rewards, though, are golden.”
The most cherished and enduring gift of her studies were the discussions that challenged – “stretched”, as Billie puts it – ideas and perceptions that had evolved over long years of wide, solitary reading.
Billie leaned forward in her chair as she spoke, her chin all but resting on her walking stick. Her hip had been bothering her, but there was nothing aged about the fire in those eyes.
“I went to uni for the knowledge, but most of all I went for myself.”