Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Hardy Breed

Last Saturday the final rugby test was played at Carisbrook in Dunedin, a bleak spot, exposed to the southern winds. It's also unique, it had character. When I went in the 1950s, after the high grandstands of Christchurch, its low-slung one appeared diminutive. They are building a fancy new stadium in the north of the city. There’s an item in this morning’s paper. A new stand there has no toilets. The architect left them out and the mistake was not picked up along the way. They breed them hardy south of the Waitaki.

Over thirty years ago I started work in the old Department of Education in Wellington. After five years as an inspector of schools I’d been promoted to Head Office. My office window looked out to the railway station and the snow-clad hills at the head of the Hutt Valley.

I was jack of all trades and master of none. I was asked to approve the plans for a refurbishment of Otago Boys’ High staff-room block. Whether I should have been doing this job is another issue. I was. It was part of the brief. I said, 'I know nothing about such issues'. 'Have a look', my boss said. So I did.

One thing stood out. No women’s toilet! I queried this and was told I was quite right. So back to the Otago Education Board’s draftsman. He consulted the Rector. There was no woman staff-member nor would one ever be appointed. Visitors could use the ablution block at the reception area near the hall entrance. The decision was not an oversight; it was policy.

I dug my heels in. As an inspector in the Waikato area I’d seen an increasing number of women teachers in single-sex boys’ schools, private and public. In time, this could happen in Dunedin. Further there were increasingly new library assistants and other ancillary staff appointees, almost all female. I was looking at things to come, not the present.

The southern reply was equally adamant. I sensed masculine outrage at this jumped-up Wellington bureaucrat telling them how to conduct their affairs. Their cosy club atmosphere was not to be shaken by the addition of femininity. They’d have to watch their language. I stuck to my guns. Both common sense and the future were mine.

Nothing to do with this issue, I received promotion to another division in Head Office and lost touch with the debate. Such is the nature of paper-pushing. Rather soul-destroying work a critic may say. It is, but it is necessary, it has its uses. If certain paper-pushers had enforced the requirements about oil-drilling the Gulf of Mexico spill may not have occurred. I say ‘may’. Humanity cannot guarantee ‘failsafe’.

Somewhere along the line somebody involved in the new Dunedin grandstand didn’t do their job properly. I say this not to blow my own trumpet. There were probably other things in that school plan I didn’t see, like power points in the preparation room. [Computers, what were they?]. I’ve made mistakes of commission as well as omission all my life. We all do. That’s why systems of checks and balances are instituted. We lower their use and number at our peril – in this instance, bladder control. They slow things down but they prevent blunders.

When I was a boy at Christchurch Boys’ in the 1950s there was one woman on the staff, at reception and telephone. I visited in 2005 as a co-writer of a book celebrating its 125th anniversary. The ratio in the staff-room was about 50/50. There was a plesant atmosphere. Several people commented about women teachers, "normal now and accepted." “It’s had a good effect upon classroom and staffroom.”

Here's an excerpt from my write-up. 'Contrasting the school he attended to the present day one, Colin McIntosh (1945-49) comments “There was no gymnasium, but the basement, a dark concrete bunker under the hall (now the library) was used on wet days and there one learnt the art of survival not only at Phys Ed but also at interval and lunchtime. This hall had no panelling. The walls were plain red brick. The stairs were plain concrete. (It must be remembered there had been a war and austerity still was the nature of the period). There were no counsellors, deans, transition coordinators, career advisers, teacher aides, sports coordinators, nurses, technicians, executive officers, nor a full-time librarian until 1960 or 1961, There was a secretary and a bursar, Captain Billy Hoar who had trained men for the First World War. Sex education hardly got past the amoeba and the hydra.” I am confident Otago Boys' post-war would have been similar.

A rough count (internet) of present staff at Otago Boys' reveals about 17 women teachers and 13 women support staff. I say 'rough' - a school staff is a moveable feast.

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