Topic: Bush School by Karen Peterson Butterworth

Topic type:

Bush School by Karen Peterson Butterworth was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

February 1940:

My mum and I trudge the mile-and-a-third along the white Clutha gravel road to Maclennan School. We walk through the gumboot and coathook-lined porch and into the schoolroom. Chalk dust tickles my nose. High windows overlook three blackboard-clad walls. The fourth wall holds the door, teacher’s green-painted desk, and fireplace. A curtain divides the primers from the standards.  

I meet the head teacher, and then my primer teacher, who introduces me to my desk-mate, Marion. I want to talk to her but I know it’s not allowed until playtime, because I’ve already spent one term at school, staying with my Nana in the nearby metropolis of Owaka, with its electricity, shops, telephone exchange and garage. My parents feared the bush children would be too rough for me. Now I’m considered able to cope.

At playtime we primer girls sit and eat our play lunches. Mine’s an apple. Theirs are biscuits. With my mouth watering, I show them the biscuit I must not eat till lunch time. ‘My Mum can bake, so there.’ They all want a nibble to prove it, and my biscuit vanishes.

A primer boy swaggers up. ‘What does the bull do to the cow?’

‘It rides on its back,’ I say, to gales of giggles.

‘No,’ he says, ‘It fucks it.’

The laughter turns raucous.  

When Mum picks me up after school, I ask, ‘What does fuck mean?’

‘Don’t you ever say that word again,’ she snaps. ‘It’s very rude. Whoever said it is badly brought up. Now, what did you learn today?’


April 1941:

My younger sister Gwytha joins me at school. At first Mum and another beginner’s mum take turns escorting us to and from school. Before long I’m allowed to go by myself and look after the two smaller girls.

A big family lives on our route, and several times five of their boys have run out and hit us. Once they took off my sunhat and put it back on with a bumble bee inside. Dad has spoken strongly to their Dad, to no avail. After the third occurrence Dad gets time off work and hides behind a manuka tree. When we girls reach their gate the five boys rush out. Dad emerges, slaps the eldest boy round the head with a rolled-up copy of the Otago Daily Times, and tells them off severely.

At home Dad coaches us. ‘Bullies are really cowards. You just have to hurt one and they’ll all run away. So here’s what you do. You break off a long claddy (korari) stick before you get there, and when they run out, you poke the biggest one hard in the tummy with it. Then run like the wind.’

From then on we go armed, and the day soon comes when the bullies rush out again. The other girl and I run away, but Gwytha runs straight at the eldest with her claddy and gets him square in his middle. He howls, and the others cluster round him while we make good our escape. I’m deeply shamed by my little sister’s boldness, and vow to be braver next time, but there never is a next time. Dad was right about the cowardice of bullies.


Standard years, 1942-47:

When I reach Standard 1 (today’s year 3) the roll has shrunk below 20 and a sole charge teacher takes all classes from primer 1 to Standard 6. She’s the first of a succession of young women teachers. Most male teachers have been called up to fight in the Second World War. She appoints lunch monitors to keep order while she cooks and eats her lunch in the school house.

One day she leaves her desk drawer unlocked. The lunch monitor steals her strap – so far unused. He cuts it up with his pocket knife and gives us each a piece to throw over the fence into the blackberries. The teacher knows about this not uncommon ritual, and keeps a spare strap. She is duty bound to strap us all, but she concentrates on the ringleaders and only tickles the rest of us. We can now boast we’ve had the strap and not cried, a badge of honour. The bigger kids wince, shake their hands and walk stiffly back to their desks.

Learning is easy in a sole charge school. The progressive steps of reading, English,  arithmetic and other subjects are presented to the relevant class each year. The bright ones look up at the blackboard and learn each lesson (subject and predicate, say, or long multiplication) the year before it’s their turn. In subsequent years they get bored and read under their desktops: while the less bright see each lesson repeated enough times for most to master it. We also help each other out. Our range of ages and small numbers make us feel like a big extended family (quarrels and all).

One February we return to find nearby Stuarts School has closed and its remaining pupils have joined us. I record my resentment of this invasion in an essay, which the teacher then reads to the class (how sadistic of her, I later think). An ex-Stuarts boy sits behind me, and henceforth he frequently digs his pen-nib into my back through my jersey and blouse. One never tells on classmates, so I hold back my yelps. One bath time Mum notices red bumps on my back. I tell her they’re hives and she rubs calamine lotion on them.

At reading time the top two standards are sent to read the School Journal in the playshed, with a senior pupil deputed to keep order. The biggest boys have a marvellous repertoire of dirty rhymes and stories, which they proceed to teach the rest of us. My ‘dirty’ vocabulary grows rich, though I’m still a bit sketchy about meanings.

One afternoon Gwytha and I walk home along the railway line (strictly forbidden, but we know no trains are due). We’re gleefully chanting all the dirty rhymes we know. The road runs alongside, hidden by toetoe, mikimiki, and blackberries. At the end of a specially raunchy verse, a loud laugh makes us jump. Our Dad has been biking alongside, listening. He has more sense than to punish us. His ridicule puts our performance firmly in its place.


The big adventure:

Most bush families can’t send their children to high school, for there is no school bus, and boarding away from home is expensive. So Standard Six (today’s year 7) is full of pupils repeating the year until they turn 15 and can leave. Dumb and bright alike, these seniors are big and bored. At lunch time they often climb the fence into the bush and disappear for the afternoon. Strapping them makes little difference now they’ve learnt to rub macrocarpa juice into their hands beforehand.

‘How would you kids like a walk?’ a big boy asks the rest of us one lunch hour. We say yes, and mesmerised by his daring, we follow him through the school gate and onto the main road. There we march in an orderly crocodile.

On our way back a farmer leans over his fence and asks, ‘Where’s your teacher?’

‘She’s just round the corner,’ a big boy counters smoothly. ‘We’re having a nature walk.’

We breathe again and march on.

But the farmer remains suspicious and reports us. We all get the strap. There’s no time to rub macrocarpa juice into our hands, and this time only the primers get off lightly. Our parents, appalled at the risks we took and our challenge to adult authority, pack solidly round the teacher, and there’s more trouble at home for all of us.

The next year the war ends and thereafter we have male teachers. They are bigger and deeper-voiced than the oldest pupils, and there are no more lunch time excursions.


More memories:

·       The smell and roughness of scythe-cut grass.

·       The dent in the school tank made by an athlete being coached in the hammer throw by a former teacher who was a medal winner at the British Empire Games.

·       Marching in to school to the Invercargill March, and singing, ‘Hitler, you’d better watch your step.’ The song ends, just as the gramophone winds down, ‘You will need it to read it in jail, just before they hang you, Hitler!’  

·       Reaching over the fence every summer to pick blackberries nourished by generations of unwanted sandwiches and cut-up teachers’ straps.

·       Learning to swim in sun-warmed tidal water; and the time an eel swum under my arm.

·       Playing the part of Huckleberry Finn at a school concert, dressed in overalls, with a dirty face.


Historical footnote:

Maclennan School (first known as Papatowai School) opened in 1912 and closed in 1956, when it was consolidated with Tahakopa School, five miles away.


Further reading: Eight Schools in the Bush, Edna Peterson (ed.) First published 1972. Revised and updated 1997 and published by Tahakopa School Centenary Committee. ISBN 0 473 04133 2.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion