Miss Watts, the Grade 5 teacher at Patti’s primary school in Sydney, was often nasty to the kids. But the way Miss Watts treated Patti went beyond the usual range of meanness. Her comments began after the class started their mandatory exercise regime. Watts would take Patti into the store room and stand very close to her. Then she’d make comments about her body, such as ‘Have you got hair there? Have you got your period today?’
Patti was an early developer, physically, and she believes Miss Watts ‘just could not handle it’. If Patti stepped back, Watts would step forward into her space again. It was unbearable for Patti, who was very self-conscious about her body anyway.
Watts made comments to her in front of the other children as well, such as ‘Why don’t you start wearing a bra? You’re jiggling all over the place’.
Patti didn’t wear a bra because no-one else in primary school did. There was nowhere to dispose of sanitary pads because no one else was menstruating. Patti often had accidents because her mother, who played down her early development, didn’t ever remind her that her periods were due.
When Patti moved up into Grade 6 she got on very well with her new teacher Miss Whitely. But even though Patti was in a different class, Miss Watts still approached her and made comments. ‘Those conversations just went on and on and on.’ She’d tell Patti her hips were bigger, that she’d put on weight and that her breasts were getting bigger.
‘She took an unnatural interest in my body … And to me at the time that was mortifying. Because I wanted to ignore it.’
One day after Watts had confronted her yet again, Patti went into the toilet and punched the wall. Her friend Melinda insisted Patti tell her what was wrong. When she heard about Miss Watts’s comments she forced Patti to go and tell Miss Whitely.
Whitely, who was also the deputy principal, told Patti she’d take care of it. The principal was informed by Whitely about Watts’s comments but he didn’t believe them. ‘I’m not doing anything about it, but if you want to, go ahead,’ he told her.
Watts came up to Patti later and told her that Miss Whitely had spoken to her. ‘I don’t remember the words, but I remember we got back to my body, during that conversation … I don’t think she could help herself.’
Patti didn’t tell her parents about Watts’s comments because she was ashamed. Also, they were ‘hopeless’ about sex and sexuality and were very repressive. ‘You’re not to be sexual’ was their attitude.
All in all, Patti endured Miss Watts’s comments for two years. After Patti had left school, Miss Whitely talked to Patti’s mother about Watts. Patti doesn’t remember details of the conversation but Whitely did tell her mum how the principal had passed the buck.
When she was in Year 11 Patti made a statement to the police about Miss Watts but she doesn’t think they took any action.
Patti believes the ongoing harassment from her primary school teacher had a huge impact on her adult life. ‘Those kinds of incidences create a pattern, a dynamic.’ She questioned her sexuality for a long time and was supremely self-conscious.
‘I was a very vulnerable girl who became an extremely vulnerable adult.’
She couldn’t open her mouth in front of boys – she was too scared of being bullied. ‘I gave up on men.’
She fell into relationships she didn’t really want, and endured excessively rough handling from partners. She had a psychotic episode in her twenties. ‘I know that mental health issues derive from double binding and harassment … and I lost it. I lost my mind.’
Only now in her 40s has Patti found a safe relationship with someone who really cares for her. ‘And that saddens me … I’ve missed out on a lot.’ Even now it’s hard for her to enjoy her body.
But she does do things that help her emotional state. ‘Doing things that make you happy and bring you joy and make you feel good. That’s what helps. And socialisation’s really good.’
Patti felt sad at the end of her talk with the Commissioner. ‘I consider the work that’s going on here really important. And so when you know it’s important, it makes you go back there, I suppose.’