The Southern Cross

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Journey to truth

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When Cabra College old scholar Alison Appleby responded to a call for volunteers to assist with the school’s archives and heritage museum, she thought it would be a good way to reconnect with a place dear to her heart.

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But as she delved into the past it made her reflect on her own experience of the Dominican spirit as a boarder at Cabra in the eighties.

Her family’s connection with Cabra began in 1944 when her mum Ruth (nee Harvey) obtained a boarding scholarship. At the same time, Kathleen Slattery from Snowtown attended Cabra, graduating in 1945. Ruth would go on to meet and marry one of Kath’s brothers, Tom Slattery, and Kath would go on to join the Dominican Sisters and work in the missions in the Solomon Islands for many years.

“Thus Cabra was now cemented in our family history,” said Alison, whose three older sisters also attended the school.

Writing in the college’s biannual magazine The Good, the Beautiful and the True, Alison recalled visiting Cabra for the first time as a six year old when the family dropped off her older sister Angela in 1978.

“Have you ever walked into a place and felt a connection you couldn’t explain? A sense that touches deep in your soul and you know there’s something special about it. The foyer was darkened, hallowed and there was a peace and sacredness. It was an intense connection. I can’t really explain it. I just knew I was meant to be there.  So, I waited. Patiently. And when I returned nine years later, I knew I was home,” she wrote.

“You see Cabra was to be the first place where I was able to feel normal, like one of the crowd. I had never had that in my life before. I had never been able to just be ‘me’, the real me, in public before. I had never not experienced racial discrimination and harassment, in some form, at school before.”

Alison grew up on a farm 10km north of Snowtown in the Mid North of SA. The youngest of the eight Slattery children, she was adopted by Tom and Ruth.

“I was the only adoptee and only coloured child in the clan,” she wrote.

“In fact, I was one of a handful of coloured children in the whole district, the others being Aboriginal foster children.

“For much of my childhood I experienced racial taunts and slurs, almost every day. Many of these were directed toward my skin colour and I was called many names, some derogatory to Aboriginal people. I knew I was different. As everyone in my family were white, as were most of the other families in the town, it was very obvious. I also knew I wasn’t Aboriginal, I was from the Pacific Islands. But brown was brown and people didn’t know or want to know the difference back in the 1970s.

“It was more than appearance though. I felt I couldn’t be myself. I was teased for my love of singing and dancing, for my athleticism in sports like javelin and running, for those things that came naturally.

“During my younger years I learned very well how to wear ‘my emotional mask’, so when I went to Cabra it was exhilarating to not have to hide. It was also daunting as I could now see a whole new way of living and thinking. I felt that I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life.

“There had only ever been one place I could call ‘sanctuary’ – our family farm. Cabra would be the second. Thinking back on it now, I am not sure I knew how to cope with being myself 24/7. I was at Cabra to be educated. It just wasn’t only academics I was learning. I was starting my journey to truth, to find myself. It was not going to be an easy path.”

Alison in her school days at Cabra College.

In the years after leaving Cabra, Alison struggled with self-esteem and self-identity. She experienced personal trauma and learned resilience in coping with the racism and bullying that continued.

“I found my soulmate and rejoiced at becoming a wife and mother. I delighted in finding my birth mother and struggled again with identity when I suffered great loss on the passing of my parents,” she said.

“I confronted those wrongs done in the past and reconciled myself over opportunities missed, chances not taken. I found my voice and overcame my need for acceptance. I have made a truce with my depression and now allow myself time to deal and to heal.”

Alison discovered her talents lay in creative arts, particularly graphic design and digital publishing.

“I have learned to work to live, not live to work. I listen and consult rather than condemn or judge. I am not defined by the things that have happened in my past and I know I have been guided by God to places of safety and sanctuary when faced with life’s most difficult challenges. I am thankful and humbled by the life I have been given,” she wrote.

Alison said she was grateful to have been given the opportunity to play an active role in the guardianship of the college’s history as well as to reconnect with her own history and that of her family.

“When I entered the gates on Cross Road in 1987 God knew I was ready. When He led me back in 2019, He knew I was done. I had found my truth and once again I was home.”

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