Topic: Yesterday’s Schools by Janet Pates

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

In the 1940s everything between Maori and Pakeha was sweetness and light; no conflict, no resentment. At least that’s how many of my generation remember it.   Closer to the truth is the fact that even in rural areas, let alone the cities, there was little conflict because there was little contact. The community may have mixed at football matches and some social events but there was almost no interaction on the home front and certain social boundaries were seldom crossed.

The exception to this was at school, where, in my case, about eighty percent of the pupils were Maori and where, in the way of children, friendships and enmities were founded on more valid bases than that of skin colour. The tone was set by a headmaster who held the post for sixteen years. By this time, nearing the end of his teaching career and with rather less enthusiasm for sports than some of the parents would have liked; he was an upright character whose moral values no one could fault. He did his best to pass those values on to us, and generally succeeded.

Assistant teachers came and went. Some were immediately embraced and respected whilst others, perhaps from more affluent, city backgrounds, were treated with what I believe the army calls, ‘dumb insolence. ’ One such teacher earned the amused scorn of the children when, faced with the task of checking heads for lice, she took to the task with a pair of knitting needles. 

With many Maori families eking out a subsistence living from river, swamp and stony hillside land, there were certain health aspects which couldn’t be ignored. My parents handled this by laying down ground rules which applied across the board. My sisters and I were taught not to put our heads against any one else’s, not to swap lunches or to wear another’s clothes. If we caught the odd batch of ‘cooties’ from time to time, they never proved fatal!  

At school, every Thursday was health day. After the afternoon break, the head master took the boys to the shelter shed where they stripped to the waist and could be seen cavorting about, indulging in some good natured pushing and slapping whilst the two female teachers dealt with the girls in one of the class rooms. The girls were not subjected to the indignity of stripping to the waist but had their clothing peered down and heads checked for lice.  Serious infestations were dowsed in a hand basin with the pungent remedy of the day (largely kerosene, I suspect) and ‘school sores’ were anointed with large dollops of either a white or foul smelling brown ointment which was supplied to the school in large tins.  

Due to the over crowding and poor housing of much of the Maori community, tuberculosis was an ever present threat.  From time to time the district nurse arrived with her much loathed needle and the Maori pupils only, were subjected to TB tests.  No doubt this targeted health care was well intentioned but it caused understandable resentment on the part of our Maori classmates and smugness upon that of the Pakeha children, but the mateship of the playground ensured these were short lived.  

Our play time was largely unsupervised and unorganized. For boys, marbles and a ‘skonks’ a skittles type game played with spent shot gun cartridges were favourites, whilst for the girls it was skipping, hop scotch and various ball games. The seniors also played a no holds barred, mixed gender team game that we called soccer, the aim of which was to kick a tennis ball over a goal line.  It had but one rule.  Bare feet were mandatory.  No one was ever seriously maimed.  

A copy of the Treaty of Waitangi hung on the wall of the senior class- room but I don’t recall any of the children regarding it with particular interest. Yes, we were taught something of New Zealand history, albeit from a view considerably skewed toward British imperialism, but to me, and, I suspect to my classmates, the conflicts of eighty years previously, felt like ancient history.

At least by this time some progress in race relations had been made.  A report in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper of 1863 reports ‘A few abandoned whares mark the spots where the aborigines resided in indolent content , encumbering the face of a fair and good land, without doing anything to subdue it to the use of man. Soon these traces of occupation will disappear and the waste places of theWaikatowill be turned into fruitful fields, the home of prosperous settlers.’

 Granted, these were troubled times but how rapacious does that sound? Such sentiments show the gulf in understanding which existed between the two cultures with many of the land hungry new arrivals having no conception of the value placed on their land by the Maori.

 As far as I was concerned there was nothing for me to feel superior about. Hand writing, arithmetic, and art, sport; my Maori classmates had the better of me in them all. It was only in the language subjects that I rather more than held my own due to a home background rich in books and reading. 

The children were not forbidden to speak Maori in the playground, in fact I recall the headmaster one day bemoaning the fact that the language was disappearing.  To prove his point, he wrote the word, ‘Waitemata’ on the blackboard and asked, ‘Who knows what that means?’ Immediately the hand of the class clown shot up and he replied ‘Beer! Sir!’ Never the less, the use of the language was not fostered and we learnt no more than a smattering of words.  Today, it’s hard to believe that, a mere twenty nine years ago a telephone operator was demoted for using the greeting ‘Kia Ora.’

By the end of World War 2 colonialism with its attendant gains and losses had been consigned to its place as a passing phase of history, whilst better transport and more work opportunities brought improved living standards to these back blocks districts.

Recently my old school held its centenary.  Urban drift and the changing pattern of farming has seen the roll reduced to less than half, the old building with its  distinctive smell of chalk dust and oiled floors, has been replaced by a more modern structure, the so called ‘tomorrow’s schools system  has wrought changes of administration but school is still school. Its pupils appear to be thriving, the use of Te Reo is evident in the class rooms and health days as we knew them have become a little mourned part of history.   


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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