Topic: Primary School by Margaret Doull

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Primary School


The shape of my school


one square room

coats and bags

in a side porch 

an oblong front porch for lessons

and the headmaster’s large desk


A country school


a small school

a mainly boys’ school

a primers to standard 6 school

a solve your own problems school




Seven–aside barefoot running fast our team could win

at practice us girls the opposition learning dummy passes

someone taking a mark with a stinging leather ball




You be the patient

just one prick with a holly leaf

you’ve germs on your tongue

your turn in the electric chair

ring the phone to make you startle


Hide-and- seek


some time for being alone

safe-home by the Kowhai tree

crashing into the wire netting

surrounding the tennis courts



Co-operative Games


games came in cycles

for weeks on end;

marbles, barbadoor,

hopscotch, skipping.


We skipped with a long rope

‘wash the dishes, dry the dishes

turn the dishes over’ at ‘over’

I always flinched and lost track

of the swinging rope


working together  moving the jungle gym

helped by girls and little ones

the big boys lifted heavy pieces into place


Fierce Games


Marbles could be quite competitive

but the fiercest game we played was war

stinging blows on bare legs

from the bullet shaped seed pods

of our own magnolia Rustica Rubra


Day Dreams


a different childhood

female company Little Women

real snow not the pure white ball flowers

of the Virburnum tree too fragile to climb

blooms out of reach




We competed like fury;

climbing along the Lawsoniana wind break without sliding off down to the ground

indoors we raced through maths and spelling no idea that I’d be the only one to go to Varsity





I always believed I could read

so embarrassed at matching the wrong words to the page

once I’d learnt to attend to the print not the pictures

I heard others reading just telling them the word.


No teaching skills needed.


I helped the primers with circles and posts,

a sentence using the day’s letter;

Elephants don’t ever eat eggs.




Our pride and our embarrassment

always late driving us to school

if only she were ‘like other mums’

who let their children walk or bike.


If only she weren’t different

she didn’t really belong, played the piano

read and relaxed in the afternoons

wearing an understated fashionable frock




Crossing James Bridge as a child

I regularly imagined a swimming

lesson in the river below the bridge but

the school pool was built the Summer

I started school

the pool took days to fill

ice-cold water pumped from the well

we’d dip our hands in to see if the sun

had warmed it enough for us to swim


the pebbles in the concrete pressing into my thighs

as I waited already shivering for the signal to jump in.


Certificates set out the goals; floating five yards, amazed to have reached the wall

grazing finger tips, flicking water from my face, a caul of salty mucus

a starfish with bubbles and open eyes, lying spread on my back.



I enjoyed the steps towards turning my face to breathe

but never got that next sticker for swimming a length

I stayed holding to the bar practising breathing, pulling forward to make waves

ring-a-ring- a- rosy, sitting on the bottom looking up at the teacher


arms stretched forward to the flutter board kicking to make the water bubble


working towards my own goals; eyes stinging with chlorine, nose full of tears

watching the confident swimmers diving and showing off their advanced skills.


practising life saving (Holga Neilson) on the front lawn;

lie the patient on his side, check the tongue’s

forward. Arms under face, press the back;

a combination of clear airways and CPR

a cure for choking, perhaps. Learnt so earnestly

I could still pass on the instructions.


Yes it was a lawn, mown by the boys once a week

while us girls had sewing lessons; hand sewing and hand mowing.

pot holders from sacking cross- stitched in wool,


tray cloths, slips and panties (my mother’s suggestion)

daintily handmade but why not ‘machine them’ the others said. 




Vaguely I remember

 my first days

the bell ringing, lining up outside


April Fool’s Day


thumb tacks on chairs

‘smack me’ labels on backs

sneaking out to knock

on the class-room door

praise for the cleverest trick


Scrubbing out


a task for everyone; gathering wood

heating the water on a fire out the back

hot water swirling over the wooden floor

older children scrubbing, hopping out of the way

younger ones rinsing with cold water 



I remember vividly the smell, padded

leather gloves tied on although

I only had one turn at the boxing bag.

We all could try new things

knew who was good at what.




We looked at everyone because we knew them.

No need to modestly or politely lower eyes

nor need for eye-contact when we recognised

every detail; shirt, shorts, jersey, fresh haircut

or fringe trim. We belonged to Bainham school.



Sampler portrait of Maryrose Doull as a child, stitched by her mother



The page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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Primary School by Margaret Doull

Note:About the author: Maryrose Doull, nee Stuart, was born at Takaka Cottage Hospital and grew up in Bainham. She went to secondary school at Nelson College for Girls and then to Victoria University. In 1969, she completed a Masters of Arts in English at Auckland University. Most of her working career has been in early childhood education. She began writing as a hobby in 2010 and has had work published in Takahē and Poetry New Zealand. She is married to Richard and they have two sons and five wonderful grand-children.