Joanna’s primary school in Sydney was run by the Australian Council of Churches in the early 1980s. She endured a reign of terror from her Year 2 and 3 teacher, Miss Beth Hardwick. ‘Sadistic … I think I can use that word.’
The question Joanna keeps asking herself is ‘why?’ She cannot understand why someone would deal out physical and sexual punishment to a small child that way. But she now understands what an easy target she must have been.
‘I was very timid and extremely quiet … I don’t remember even really being disciplined.’ She was very close to her mother. ‘I was just always a little bit in my own world.’ Her father wasn’t religious but he worked hard to send his children to a private school.
Hardwick had sole use of a small house on the school property. There was a classroom on one side and a small office and back room on the other. ‘She had us all to herself.’ No one else was there and so she had free rein to do as she wished.
It began when Hardwick started scraping the skin behind Joanna’s fingernails. ‘She’d just tell me how filthy and disgusting I was.’
It developed into sexual abuse including digital penetration. Joanna was completely terrorised. Her classmates were also terrified of Hardwick because she was so violent but Joanna doesn’t think they were sexually abused. Her sister, who was more outgoing, was also in Hardwick’s class.
Hardwick wouldn’t have had time to abuse anyone else, as she kept Joanna with her every lunchtime and recess. It was like living in a horror movie, Joanna said.
Joanna’s mother was a member of the Pentecostal church and was visited by Beth Hardwick almost every day. If Joanna didn’t come and sit on Hardwick’s lap, she’d be given a hard time the next day at school. She despaired of ever escaping.
‘I just remember thinking, when I was seven … is this all there is to life? It’s just awful. I remember thinking, it’s not really worth living … I just thought it would never end.’
Joanna has repeatedly tried to fathom Hardwick’s mix of sexual abuse and humiliation. What gets to her is that Hardwick would throw her around the room, sexually abuse her, then stroke her ‘and use it in the name of God’. She’d take Joanna back to the classroom and say, ‘You say the prayers for the afternoon,’ knowing that Joanna was in tears and could barely speak.
On one occasion, the two sisters stayed the night at Hardwick’s house. Hardwick nearly drowned Joanna in the bath while she was sexually assaulting her. Her sister heard her screams and came in. Hardwick bribed them both to keep them quiet.
But Joanna’s terror of Hardwick kept her mute anyway. ‘I never opened my mouth and never told anyone.’
Joanna kept getting urinary tract infections and vaginal discharge. She does not remember the doctor, or anyone, asking her about sexual abuse at the time.
After one and a half years, Hardwick’s abuse finally came to light. Joanna’s mother saw cuts on her daughter’s head and was told that this was where Miss Hardwick hit her with a metal ruler when she gave the wrong answer in class.
Her mother went straight to the school principal. He moved his office into the separate house so he could supervise Hardwick. Two days later she was dismissed from the school.
But Hardwick continued to haunt Joanna’s family, and Joanna remained as scared of her as she was at seven.
One day, years later, when Joanna was in her 20s, Hardwick rang her mother. Joanna ‘just lost it’. She told her never to ring the house again. She told her mother about the physical violence, how horrific Hardwick had been to her at school. She stopped short of disclosing the sexual abuse.
Then, when she was about 30, Joanna experienced a bout of severe depression. She suffered nightmares that were accompanied by physical pain. She then told her mother about Hardwick’s sexual abuse.
Joanna believes the abuse set the precedent for her life and that to a certain extent she gave up on life then and there. She finds it hard to leave the house and suffers from anxiety and severe depression. ‘I’ve always been very frightened and afraid of people.’
Joanna hasn’t had counselling. ‘I’ve pushed myself to lock it away in the back of my head somewhere and not think about it.’
She was able to talk to the Commission now that her father has died. He wouldn’t have coped with knowing about it, Joanna said.
Joanna has not yet sought any compensation nor reported the abuse to the Pentecostal Church, which now runs the school. She’s talked to police about Beth Hardwick but has felt ‘really defeated’ by their request for dates and times. Many memories of her abuse are in the form of flashbacks. But she’s motivated to get the information out there.
Beth Hardwick had always worked with children, in children’s homes or schools. ‘People would think she was just wonderful … because she’s dedicated her life to helping children.
‘Why should she get away with having this perfect record when she’s done this?’