I started primary school in the Little River library. The old school, built in 1880, near the cheese-factory had recently burnt down - an over-zealous pupil stoking the fire too vigorously had caused the chimney to catch fire. The resultant blaze destroyed the building - a calamity to the once-thriving mill and farming community; time at that school was a shared memory. Throughout the war they dated events from that fire. Makeshift classrooms were hastily found, first in the public library, then in the Pop Aitken’s hall, the Triangle.
Miss Banks my teacher approved of me. I was bright, christened "brainbox" by the other pupils. The loss of my father made me for the older girls an object of sympathy. At play and lunchtime I set up school and taught them. Giggling they carried out my orders, especially my parody of Miss Banks calling out "Board". When she said that, the person holding the card rushed out to clean the blackboard upon its easel and hand the card on. Woe betide the child who didn't realise they held the card. This daydreamer several times received a gentle cuff upon the head. My attempts to imitate this with the girls created great mirth, as did my refusal to let them leave the room to go "wee-wees" despite their urgent pleading.
Miss Banks came across this charade. Her punishment was to give me extra time practising my writing on the blackboard. I am left-handed. Miss Banks insisted I use my right hand. I began to stutter. Mum complained. Miss Banks remained insistent. Mum set Pop her father, a long-time school committee member, onto her. I was allowed to revert to the left-hand. Miss Banks sounds a tartar. She wasn't. I helped her hear the reading of the other primers. Without realising it, I was being bent to my career.
Miss Banks and her successors, no nonsense teachers, formal, quick to chide and slow to praise, extended me by exhortation. Nothing child-centred in their approach. Uniformity was their practice, not diversity. Dr Beeby might be in his office in Wellington setting education alight but in rural Canterbury we learnt the basics of colonial life - no nonsense, thrift, hard work and the glory of the British Empire. Rather than problem solving, 'sums' were a series of drills.
Recently, a friend's five-year old who had just started school told me "we're doing 'shapes' at school". Inquiry reveals it is maths. And they work in groups, talking together as they do their shapes. In my primers we worked silently on our own, changing books to mark each other's work, the teacher calling out the correct answers from the front of the room. At the end, she recorded our marks in her record book.
A hand-bell summoned us to line up outside the classroom in two rows, one for the boys, one for the girls. Wet days, we were allowed inside, but quietly. At break one played but there were tasks, cleaning and clearing. I hated washing the blackboard. The bigger children carried it back to its easel - often not properly pushing the pegs in so that as the teacher wrote it would dramatically collapse. Having seen the ambush set, I'd wait anxiously for the inevitable crash. I recollect little infant art and even less music. Maybe it was my inclination, but probably crayons, paints and plasticine were in short supply during the war. This reflected the community. Local people hung family and wedding photos on the walls, or coloured pictures from calendars or magazines stuck behind glass and fading in the sunlight.
The temporary rooms were spartan, no doubt materials and charts lost in the fire were hard to replace. Chalk was in short supply. We did Phys Ed daily, outside if fine, inside if wet - it consisted mainly of physical jerks and lots of relay games. We didn't change. Sweaty and smelly we trooped inside for geography where I would always shine by knowing where things countries were, especially all the red ones of the Empire. Once a week the Union Jack was hoisted and we sang the anthem, "God Save the King".
While praising my cleverness, Miss Banks despaired of my untidiness. "Harvey, your shoe-laces are undone again." "Your o's should be round like an orange, not uneven like a duck-egg." "Hold your chalk steady." "Will you fill Harvey's ink-pot Marlene, he'll only spill it." "What will your mother say?" "That is a margin, don't go over it." "Australia is not shaped like that." And my posture. "Sit up boy, you'll end up round-shouldered." "Don't slouch." "Your shoe-laces are undone again."
We sat in pairs in rows, forbidden to call out. There was considerable copying from the board. We used cardboard coins to practise counting money, and a post office box for real coins - "save for victory". There was a reader with a story about how the weather god dropped a rope from the sky. But farmer Brown wanted sun for his hay while gardener Jones wanted rain for his vegetables. Mrs Smith wanted it fine for her washing but Mrs Green wanted it wet for her flowers. So the rope was taken away. One should be stoical about weather, like life. We also had lessons about health - unless you cleaned your teeth Bertie Germ would attack.
A modern infant room seems light years away. The teaching I encountered was closer to that of my grandparents than that experienced by today's beginning pupils.
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