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‘I never questioned whether I could do something because I was a girl’

I went to Presentation in Windsor from Ashwood because my mother went there, but she grew up in East St Kilda. She went to Windsor because her mother was educated by the Presentation Sisters in Daylesford, which is now home to the Convent Gallery, and added to this mix is that we had relatives who were Presentation nuns.

The grounds of Presentation College Windsor, which plans to close in 2020.

The grounds of Presentation College Windsor, which plans to close in 2020.

Indeed, my first memory of Windsor was going to morning tea to visit these nuns in the convent, a place of complete mystery during my school days. The magnificent building was home to many fantastic women who were for me role models of staunch feminism.

Sadly, my next recollection is not so great. It is my first day at Windsor, year 1 (back then the school went from prep to year 12 and borders still resided on the school grounds).

It also marks the beginning of my path as an advocate for social justice as a great injustice was inflicted upon me by Sister Rosalie. She slapped me behind the legs because I had the insolence to walk to the front of the line. In my defence, she had told me to line up alphabetically; where else was Anna Burke meant to go?

I’m not going to embellish and say that everything about being a student at Presentation Windsor was phenomenal, it wasn’t, but it did give me the best education my parents could afford, created lifelong friendships I cherish to this day, instilled in me a sense of my own self-worth, ensured I never questioned whether I could do something because I was a girl, and cemented my strong sense of equity for all.

My mother, Joan, greatly enjoyed her time at Presentation; she maintains friendships from her time at school and her phenomenal reading voice she attributes to her education. Several of the nuns who taught my mother taught me.

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The day I asserted my own authority over a very short and in hindsight, elderly, nun is a stand-out. In year 5 we were doing reading cards. It was not going well, so I tore the card up in front of the sister and said I’d had enough. It was after that my mother got me help for my dyslexia. The school, to its credit, assisted me greatly when I finally sat my HSC orally.

The school also ensured I would never have a fear of public speaking and would be able to give a speech at the drop of a hat. Both participating in school debating and as the MC at the inaugural music festival gave me the opportunity to strut my stuff on the stage. Why was I MC? Because my girlfriend threw me out of the choir because I couldn’t sing. My first year as MC the principal told me I was terrible, but it was going to be OK because I was going to do much better the next year. And I did.

It is terribly sad to think that the presence on Dandenong Road of that imposing wall (which during my time at school still had broken glass cemented into the top) may be coming to a close. It is a place that has long been providing education for girls in the Catholic faith at an affordable price in a very groovy location; developing great women – turning out politicians, judges, doctors, nurses, journalists; pursuing excellence in education, leadership and social justice, while instilling compassion in all its pupils.

Myself, I can look back at some fond memories, some injustices and some times where the school failed, but now my thoughts are with the students, staff, and current and future families of the school who have been left shell-shocked by this decision and are now uncertain what the future holds.

Anna Burke is a former Australian politician and current member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

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