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Desk-top memories

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.23, 19 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Shifted house, downsized and there is no room for my single-seater school desk so I have put it in my office. And much comment it has prompted I must say.

It is interesting that you can deduce a lot about the nature of education and the times as they are revealed in a piece of furniture such as this.

For a start it is made out of beautiful Kauri timber. Many of these grand trees of the forest must have been committed to providing seats for school kids over the years. Still it was a time when native timbers were plundered for use as housing framing and flooring. But clearly there was little teaching about renewable resources and the importance of sustainable forest management.

The seats are in the nature of stable boxes or the stalls in a cow shed. They provided a clear anchor for students and kept them sitting nice and straight facing in the proper direction – which would have been the front of the room – with little movement other than on the prompting of the teacher. These were classrooms in which students undertook one-way instruction and daily gave thanks for that which they were about to receive. Along with the discipline of the seating arrangements would have gone another discipline of hands up and permission given prior to the offering of an answer.

The top of the desk itself is offset to the right. Of course, all normal students were in those days right-handed and lefties were not to be encouraged. Fixed attitudes would also have underpinned how writing was taught and there would only have been latitude for individual style at a later age.

This desk has a feature that is nice – the top also slides backwards and forwards to allow students of more ample proportions to enter and exit the stall. This particular desk came from a secondary school – a Catholic girls’ school actually and Sister Augustine would not be pleased at all at what was written under the desk top. Graffitti is one of those things that has given rise to legends about how outrageous things were said but I wonder if it was more talked about than practised. Hacking grooves into the edges seems more to ave been the work of idle hands than any attempt to break out!

This desk has its original inkwell, a lovely ceramic receptacle with a concave top with a hole in the middle. What a pleasure it was to be chosen to fill the inkwells. Taking a bottle of Stephens Ink – usually black or blue/black – the chosen one would then walk around the room filling inkwells from the lovely neck of the bottle that was complete with a little pouring spout. Now, many of those who see the inkwell launch into a story about how their mother had her pigtails dipped in the inkwell presumably by the loathsome boy or horrid girl in the desk behind. 

Again I wonder if this really happened or was it one of those urban classroom myths that have persisted.

In Standard 3 and Standard 4 I sat in the double seater version of a desk like this. You certainly had to get on well with the other inhabitant but I don’t recall any real issues apart from the odd bit of cheating in which we led each other astray.

It was quite a routine to have a desk inspection. The class would be given a warning of the inspection and there would be some frantic cleaning out of paper, the odd old school lunch or part thereof plus perhaps items of clothing worn to school but not worn home. “Don’t forget to bring home your green jersey,” had been the parting words from Mum for a week now.

Surprisingly the last two years of primary school were the only years I sat in a desk such as this. In the primers we sat on Lilliputian chairs at low tables – but I am really very confused about all this. In Standard 1 and Standard 2 we have new square desks with lift-up tops. But in Standard 3 and Standard 4 it was over to Mr Burr in the old block with the original furniture. My picture of him is of a short man sitting behind the old style teacher’s desk – the oblong one with the 4 inch upstand across the front of it. This was rimu I imagine as I have one and it is rimu. The room was very full of furniture.

I bought my old student desk through TradeMe and was surprised at the number of school desks for sale. Actually it appeared at that time that there was actually a school selling off its furniture over the web. The items for sale were not antiques or perhaps even worth much but they were clearly the square student desk on a tubular frame and I wondered how good an image this was for a school and for education.

Where would it end? It might be a good thing to have a giant education jumble sale as a fund raiser at a central city site. Old School Journals (I would be in for these), unused scientific equipment, sports gear no longer needed and old, really old school desks would be a great attraction I would have thought. But what would the Auditor General have to say? There must be a huge amount of stuff lying around schools that is worth something but is of little value to a school.

But I wouldn’t trade my little desk for anything. I am small in stature so can sit at the desk and work. It is just right for writing with a fountain pen. Now…. that reminds me. On the desk is a little wire stand just up by the inkwell for the placing of the nib pen. This seems to me to be a gracious touch. I have only recently understood the teacher’s joke all those years ago when I asked what it was for. “That’s for his nibs!” he said with a smile on his face.

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