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Unpacking boxes, finding memories

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.15, 24 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I have just shifted house and have come to realise that the act of unpacking has something of the excitement of an archaeological dig about it as layers of items are revealed, the tissue paper gently put aside, the bubble wrap giving a distended glimpse of whatever is inside.

Many more, than I might have realised, of the bits and pieces that were dragged across the suburb had an education link and this surprised me. Foremost amongst these was the sigle seater kauri school desk. It is over 100 years old and was recently restored in a most caring way that would have found approbation on The Antiques Roadshow.

“This is a most splendid example of the New Zealand school desk from the late Habens or possibly early Hogben era. Tell me, did you use this type of desk yourself?” “Well actually only in Standard 3 and 4 where we had the double seater model.” Ah yes, that was a later innovation. I adore the patination of the desk, the delicious ink drops around the inkwell. And this is what sends shivers down my spine – an original white ceramic inkwell. Thank you so much for bringing it along. The problem is that it doesn’t easily fit in the new place!

Not like the rimu teachers desk that I got for the new study, that fits, but only just! It has the same ink stains. I remember being chosen to go around the classroom with the large bottle of Stephens Ink with the little pourer at the top of the neck. It was with great power that each inkwell would be filled. The desk has an upstand around the front that always faced the class and approaching the desk, especially if summoned, had all the solemnity of Judge Judy – “Please approach the bench!” But it is a grand teacher’s desk.

Packing up was full of surprises. I came across an aged brown paper bag that had treasures of school in it. The items given to us when Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1953 – a medal with a blue ribbon and a fold out concertina-picture of the state coach – were especially fun. So too were some secondary school artefacts – the sergeant’s stripes from the school cadets.

Let me make clear that I gained these stripes while playing in the school band. At the start of the school year all the boys in the school were lined up on the field in order of height so as to make up platoons of boy-soldiers that looked good on parade. My brother and I were second and third from the end. A tiny little fellow was at the end. Well we were placed in the last platoon – tiny soldiers too small to carry a gun! It was either this humiliation or joining the band and eventually making the level of the three stripes – no, not adidas!

Finding each little memento triggered memories and stories, some told truthfully, others embroidered by time’s multicoloured threads.

Then there were the boxes of the kids stuff – her three girls and my two boys. Why do girls save old school uniforms? And school magazines while boys save little that their father hasn’t thought to put aside. One box had all the school reports from father and two sons. I can say confidently and on the strength of this robust sample that reporting improved dramatically between the 1950’s and the 1980’s. The only example of my own school work that I appear to have kept is a Camp Diary written for a Form 1 camp in 1957. I must say that if I was in my own class 15 years later I would have been repeating much of the work – it was pretty unformed in every sense of that word, scrappy and untidy. I assume the ticks on each page meant to indicate that it has been sighted.

What worries me a little is that I have yet to find the box with the various collections (well that is rather a grand word for it) of school journals, reading series, Biggles and The Hardy Boys. They must be here somewhere waiting their turn.

School Journals were an amazing feature of New Zealand schools and provided generations of little readers with little readers to cherish and, proudly, to take home for reading each night. Often this was done in a little cardboard folder carefully made and decorated (crayon and dye again!). Little readers had access to the work of such writers as Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Elsie Locke, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy who published her first work in a School Journal. Poets such as Alistair Campbell and James K. Baxter were presented alongside playwright Roger Hall and writers Jack Lasenby and Anthony Alpers and artists Roy Cowan and Juliet Peter and E Mervyn Taylor. Children were allowed to read the best of those who wrote and illustrated. What a goldmine it was.

And there is a copy of a Broadcast to School booklet – just like a School Journal but printed to go with the regular broadcasts to school – remember when the loud speakers were vehicles for the delights of music and singing and the spoken voice rather than the squawking purveying of messages and admonitions from those who must be heard despite not being seen?

The last treasure I come across is an old book, a copy of The Education System by A G Butchers published by the National printing Co. Ltd. of Auckland in 1932. Butchers earlier wrote another book called After Standard IV., What? and here we are in 2008 still asking what is essentially the same question. I often dip into this book to remind me that education is a profession of tradition and nowhere more so than in the issue it grapples with. Butchers deals with the hot topics of the day – assessment, funding, control, the structure of the system, how to keep kids in school, and many more.

It’s a bit like shifting houses – we still get up in the morning, go to school and come home at night. What takes so long to put stuff in cartons and to take them out again are the many little journeys of remembering that it all unpacks.

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