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Beyond expectations - A girl's education in New Guinea


An entry in The Crocodile Prize

The girls’ boarding school

I WAS 14 WHEN I LEFT HOME to attend boarding school at Notre Dame High (now secondary) School in the year 2000. A Catholic girl’s boarding school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, it is located on the outskirts of Mt Hagen city.

Coming from a staunch Catholic family, my dad proudly told me that it was the best school for us girls and that surely father knows best.

The thought of going to a girl’s boarding school sounded fascinating. It felt good to get away from what was ‘usual’. The usual flow of things at home made me tired and I had to make a choice that would open me up to new experiences, adventures, environment and people.

I was ready for a change but everything also has a their downside. I spent my entire childhood with my family and going away was a hard thing to get used to. I rem cried a lot and was very homesick in the first few weeks.

However, my elder sister Savina was a senior at the school, so I was not alone. As the weeks, months and years passed I fell in love with the school and it became my second home. I eventually settled in and made some great friends and we bonded really well.

Even so, I missed my family and friends back home like crazy. Mobile phones were not an accessory at the time so we’d communicate by letter and I’d always look forward to weekends when my family would visit and the holidays and free weekends when I’d go home.

Everything at school was routine and we moved at the sound of the bell. School rules were quite strict, from speaking English at all times to not going beyond the school boundaries. It was hard obeying some rules but it did make things run smoothly.

These rules also helped to mold and shape us. Every morning, we’d have mass at the chapel, then breakfast. After breakfast, we’d have a couple of minutes to rush back to our dorms to grab our books and whatever we needed for the day as the dorms were locked when we were in class. Then lunch.

After afternoon class, we had just enough time to change out of our uniforms for work parades or other extracurricular activities. Then it was dinnertime. The mess prefects and duty teachers ensured the girls were clean and well dressed for meals. Food was never the same as home-cooked meals but we got used to it.

We studied at night in the classrooms and the duty teachers ensured we are all doing school work. Attendance was checked.

We wore school uniforms - a dark blue dress with collar and sky blue sweater - on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays we’d wear a meri blouse and laplap. We sewed our own meri blouse in Home Economics class.

I kind of felt awkward wearing this but had to agree that we didn’t have to care about what we looked like because there were no guys to impress! We dressed to impress ourselves in our wonderful uniforms and took pride in it.

The weekends were a bit more relaxed than the weekdays but there were still activities, such as work parades, a general clean up, sports, talent shows and of course Sunday mass for the whole school.

 One talent show, my friends and I danced to the song Rollercoaster by the Irish pop girl band B*Witched. It was kind of funny but we totally enjoyed ourselves.

Everyone participated in school activities and this kept us busy and I was thankful for that. Boarding made me more open to new experiences. Being a shy, quiet and introverted girl, I did things that I thought I’d never do, including leadership roles.

I learned to manage my time and concentrate on important things. I didn’t have to worry about many things. Instead of flirting and being engrossed with clothes and fashion, boy related drama and gossip, my priority was my schoolwork and studies.

There were personal and academic challenges I managed to get through. Boarding life also made me more independent and responsible. I got to grow up as my own person without feeling as though I needed to impress someone or get their approval. I learnt to be myself and appreciate it.

The girls were supportive of each other and bonded closely. Living with them in one communal space was a challenge that helped us become closer and form amazing friendship. I loved the moments when my best friends and I just lazed around, acted weird and talked about our future occupations and lives after school. The amount of fun we had was insane. There were of course people I didn’t get along well with.

Though schoolwork was quite tough, the teachers were exceptionally nice and helped us along the way. There was good access to teachers. Notre Dame had a good learning environment and passionate teachers and administration staff. The nuns were nice and caring. In class, everyone was open and participative, no one tried to ridicule another girl. Since there were no guys around, there was no male competition, relationship drama or distractions - that is the beauty of an all girls’ school. We learnt what it’s like to be a woman and held horrifying lessons on puberty.

Every year, in May which is the Month of the Holy Rosary in the Catholic Church, it was a school tradition to hold the May Crowning ceremony in honour of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There was usually a poetry competition beforehand and the writer of the best poem was crowned Mary.

In Grade 10 I decided to try my hand at poetry and I was one of the lucky ones to read my poems. I appreciated the spiritual guidance from religious education class, daily mass a d class retreats. This really helped a lot in spiritual enrichment.

My hard work and dedication paid off, and it was there I developed my interest in writing.  I am privileged to have met some of the greatest people I know and have some incredible memories. I graduated with my Grade 10 Certificate in 2004 among the top 10 students.

Notre Dame High School certainly lived up to its motto ‘Shaping and Nurturing Young Women of Tomorrow Educationally and Spiritually’.

The co-educational school

With high school over, I continued to Grades 11 and 12 at Mt Hagen Secondary School. I felt proud of myself and happy that I would be living at home after four years away. But the thought of going to school with boys struck me as not fascinating at all. For the past four years my world had revolved around women and, except for my male family members, I felt uncomfortable around the male species. This may sound weird to some but that’s exactly how I felt. Because of my limited contact with boys, they seemed like an alien species to me.

My mind started playing scenes of being bullied by boys, called names, laughed at and ridiculed as I had been at community school. I hated being teased and was scared the same thing might happen again. I didn’t know how it would work out but crossed my fingers that it would all be good.

On the first day in class, we the girls from Notre Dame High School cowered in one corner and spoke only to ourselves. As soon as the door opened, a stream of boys bustled in. I turned my eyes away. Too embarrassed to talk or look at them, or even sit next to one.

It was kind of a culture shock going from high school where it was 100% female to secondary school where the majority was male. We never interacted with them in a relaxed way. Some of us got nervous and giggled unnecessarily when around them. Whenever I walked past a group of boys, I told myself to walk by smartly but inside I was dying with embarrassment. 

I became shyer and rarely spoke up in class. I’d stutter when given the chance to speak. My friends and I hung out together most of the time. I was a different person when I was with people I felt comfortable with. This continued for some time until our English teacher must have noticed so she announced one afternoon in English class that she was going to pair us up (boy and girl) and we’d write a biography of our partner.

That moment I froze. Oh no,no,no,no. This can’t be. Now let me get this straight. I am going to be paired up with some guy I don’t even talk to. We are going to sit face to face and have an interview. I can barely look at boys in the eye. It’s really not that simple. I stayed up at night composing my interview questions and dreading tomorrow. Apparently, I couldn’t pretend to be sick because we were going to be assessed.

I wriggled uncomfortably in my seat and tunneled my eyes away from him. This was going to be complicated. My legs were shaking and I could feel my heart beating like a drum in my chest and sweat appeared on my forehead and nose. I stuttered when I try to speak.

He must have noticed my obvious uneasiness and talked to me nicely with a sense of understanding. He encouraged me to be confident and said that men and women had to work together in their working life and we should learn at school. Many things he said really boosted my morale.  I felt at ease instantly and the interview went well.

He told me that he wanted to be doctor in future and he made it to the University of PNG Medical School and I believe he is a doctor now. I said I wanted to be a writer or newspaper journalist. However, I took up business studies in university. The conversation got so interesting that soon we were talking like old friends. He was my first guy friend. I always remember that biography lesson. It opened up a whole new world for me and I am grateful for that.

This happened during the first term of school. By the second term, friendship and communication with the boys became stronger and we became more comfortable. I eventually started talking to boys, and hanging around with them and got involved in group work or study with them.  It didn’t really hurt after all.

I developed a sense of confidence and interpersonal skills around them. The academic competition between boys and girls was enjoyable too. Life is co-ed after all and I’m glad I broke out of my shell and got prepared for the reality of life and the future. There wasn’t any replay of my experiences in primary school, although I was teased by boys sometimes. I met some good friends and teachers too.

Then there were the distractions. Boy distractions. There was a lot of boy related drama and competition amongst the girls. I witnessed situations where girls tried to ‘dumb down’ another girl just to impress a guy. Good thing I was not a boy crazy teenager so I was not affected or directly distracted. But I was glad to learn more about the opposite sex and their behaviour.

There was also dressing and fashion which I had to get used to and develop good taste. And peer pressure. Schoolwork, homework and assignment load was always increasing but, despite these distractions, I did well academically and got a bronze award in Business Studies at my Grade 12 graduation in 2006.

Then off I went to Divine Word University. I felt like I already done everything before. I never felt insecure. It was open to new and more experiences.


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Dominica Are

Thanks Joe and Barbara! Appreciate the comments...There are of course challenges in this tough world and we have to strong..

Joe Wasia

Well articulated. God bless you.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you, Dominica, for this story of your school life. It is very well written and gives the reader a clear picture of your life during your school days.

In fact is sounds very similar to a girl's life back in the 1970s in PNG.

I wish you well in the life that lays ahead of you. But I have to warn you that a woman's life in PNG can be very tough. In the world of paid work there can be many jealousies when you try to make progress and improve yourself. Keep strong and stand up for yourself.

But you may also have the job of making a home and bringing up a family and life can become very busy and very rewarding.

Be kind to yourself. God bless you.

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