AWAY FROM HOME
PREPARATION FOR BOARDING SCHOOL NEEDS TO START WELL IN ADVANCE, AS CLAIRE MACTAGGART DISCOVERS.
MY FAMILY LOVES Christmas holidays at Balcomba, our cattle property 170 kilometres west of Rockhampton in Queensland, with long summer days spent mustering and doing cattle work without a timetable or school routine to adhere to. The weeks slip by until, all too soon, it’s the start of another school year. January back to school was even more chaotic this year with our two eldest daughters offff to boarding school for the fifirst time. It’s true I could have started preparations months earlier, say back in October when 100 neatly stitched name tags arrived in the mail, confifirming that life was about to change for our family, but instead I tucked them safely in the sewing box until about a week before they were to head to school. I began with fervour; the tags were to be sewn on, not ironed, and I was anxious to start offff on the right foot. It turns out you need a lot of name tags for two children going offff in the same year — a lot more than I’d ordered, and after this startling discovery I quickly purchased additional bundles online, which arrived the day before we were due to leave. I sewed late into the night; deftly zipping labels to socks, blazers, sheets and undergarments. We ticked offff lists and I gave Anna, 14, and Eliza, 12, a demonstration of how to make a bed with hospital corners — something I’d neglected to show them over the past decade. Finally the big day arrived. We carefully decorated their new living space in the dormitory with cushions, picture frames, string lights and potted plants (it turns out plants and banged up iphone 4s aren’t trending in dorms in 2017), and before long it was time to say goodbye. It wasn’t until dinner that night with two empty seats that it really sank in… a new chapter begins for all of us. Will they thrive? How will we cope without them? Then, on a more selfifish note, who was going to unpack the dishwasher and feed the horses each afternoon? Our family dynamic changed with ‘the big girls’ away at boarding
school and the ‘little girls’ — Sarah, nine, and Grace, two — at home on our 19,500-hectare cattle property. Roles were reassigned, creating opportunities for our younger girls to take on more responsibility. Boarding school begins as a long-range concept that all too soon becomes reality. It helps to introduce the idea to your children in conversation early on and talk about the many positive aspects. As a family, we toured various boarding schools, both regionally and in Brisbane, so everyone had input in the decision-making process. There’s a lot to consider alongside education such as values, pastoral care, community, extra-curricular opportunities and single sex versus co-education. During the Christmas holidays, I was on a loop dispensing well-meaning but often conflicting advice: “Work hard, have fun — but not too much fun — eat salad and vegetables, go for any sporting opportunity you can but make sure you are on top of your schoolwork, be kind, be a good friend but make your own choices.” I had to calm down and accept that we weren’t running out of time to parent but giving them a chance to flourish in a new environment. Their education and wellbeing was to become a shared role with the school. The boarding staff, boarders and their families quickly became our extended family and it’s important to build and nurture those relationships. I’m grateful that a high level of communication now exists between boarders and their family with weekly and sometimes daily updates. Despite the problems that come of equipping children with mobile phones, it’s wonderful to be able to talk whenever we need. I remember rising early when I was at boarding school to queue outside to use the public telephone. Conversation had to be concise as the minutes and coins dropped away and I was careful to avoid the stares of others waiting impatiently behind me. Boarding life provides structure, camaraderie and independence, and it helps prepare young people for life beyond school. My husband, Andrew, and I were both boarders and I am so glad to have had that experience. There were mostly highs and sometimes lows, but these people became my family and lifelong friends. It’s early days but we are proud of how Anna and Eliza have adapted. When they’re away, it’s their conversation and laughter I miss the most. We are learning to listen and let them lead; it’s their journey and our role is to support. I hope they make great friends and that they continue to grow and succeed. I hope it’s okay that six months in, I've packed up the sewing machine and invested in a permanent marker instead.
Bonnie Truelson, Sarah Mactaggart, Meg Truelson and Rob Mcarthur leading Eliza Mcarthur during a droving trip to Balcomba.
ABOVE, FROM LEFT Claire riding Champagne and her daughter, Anna, on her mare Cappuccino; a stock saddle on the rails at Laurinel, where Claire and the other drovers camped overnight on a two-day droving trip between Angle Creek and Balcomba. FACING PAGE Eliza, Jessica Pearce and Anna at a Laurinel campsite during the droving trip. “We’ve done this trip a few times and it’s such a memorable experience for kids,” says Claire.