Florence believes she has had a wasted life.
When she was a small child, she was abused by an intruder who came into her bedroom at night. She remembered not breathing, and ‘going away from’ what happened. She was then abused by a friend’s uncle, and later by her own father.
There was much domestic violence at home and her mother suffered mental breakdowns, so Florence had no support system in place. She said what happened to her at high school needs to be taken in the context of these early experiences.
When she was in Year 7 at a government school in Sydney, her all-girls sewing class had a replacement teacher.
Florence told the Commissioner the teacher acted differently towards her than her classmates. ‘She sat in front of the class and said, “I don’t know how anyone as beautiful as you could be so stupid”. She said that twice … it’s like she started to alienate me from the other girls.’
Another time, the teacher leant across Florence’s desk and pressed her breasts into Florence and didn’t move when Florence tried to move away. Then she asked Florence to come and see her at lunchtime.
‘I went into the room … the teacher said, “Do you want to be my friend?” I didn’t know what to say.’
The teacher grabbed Florence’s hands and made her touch her. Florence said it was clear she’d had an orgasm, but she didn’t know what it was at the time. The teacher then touched Florence in the same way, at which point she blacked out. The next thing she remembered was going out the door and huddling up on a seat outside.
Having to go back into the next sewing class was horrible. ‘It was like dying, to go into that room. And I have this kind of disgust about myself that I didn’t push her or kick her, that passivity which I think has followed me through life.’
She did tell one of her friends that the teacher had touched her and somehow the story got to the headmaster. She was called into his office and questioned, but she said she was terrified of him because he used to cane the boys, so she said nothing.
‘This is another huge shame that I’ve carried, that I said no because I didn’t want to tell him all those personal things that had happened. And I’ve carried that guilt of being a coward when I should have told him.’
Finally, the teacher stood in front of the class. ‘She says, “I am leaving because some wicked, terrible, evil girl has said things about me and I did not do it”. I had my head down and then, again, I feel like a coward.’
Florence said she has carried a lot of shame about her body throughout her adult life, but the biggest impact on her has been social isolation and a lack of trust for people.
‘I just locked myself in my room, I had no social life and people lost their joy. I’ve had a friendless, isolated life. I can talk with people, but that destroyed a trust that was never regained.’
She had a very poor working life, frequently being sacked because of her inability to concentrate. She married and had children but said she was ‘full of fatigue’ during their childhood.
She has never reported the abuse to the police because she said she felt so insignificant and she still can’t risk the idea of her trust being violated again. But an apology from the Department of Education would make a difference.
Florence had some very specific recommendations for the Commission as a result of her experience.
‘I’d like the education department to never allow a teacher to be alone with a student. I’d like children to be educated in knowing what abuse is so they can recognise it. And for them to know their rights around when a teacher oversteps the mark. And I would like young people to know what safety is … And it needs to start very young.’
About the Department of Education, she said, ‘They have to lift their game in terms of who gets into the system. They should enrich young people so they go out and they think they can take on the world. I didn’t have a sense of anything I wanted to do, who I was … I feel like a wasted life’.
Florence was very grateful to the Royal Commission for the opportunity to tell her story and for the high standard of care she’s received.
‘When I rang here and the counsellor said it was sexual abuse, it was almost overwhelming, the acknowledgement, that someone else has said that … That’s when I cried, because I knew the loss.’
She said it has also been very liberating for her to be able to set the record straight, after carrying a heavy burden for many years.
‘It’s been very positive and it’s been, for someone who’s felt a coward, it’s been as though I’m not a coward, speaking up.’