Topic: When School Was Closed All Summer by Leonie Couper

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1948.  Two fair-haired girls, heads bent, elbows spread, brown legs curled around wooden chair legs, sharpened pencils clasped in young fingers, scrawling in exercise books at the end of a long wooden table.

At the other end of the table a woman in her late 20s, dark hair parted in the middle and neatly fastened with hairclips, laid out a grey army blanket and set to work with her iron on a pile of sun-dried washing.  Above, dangling on a long cord, a naked light bulb teased lazy house flies.  Though it was summer the south facing room attracted little natural light and the bulb burned all day.  A coal range in the kitchen also burned all day heating water in a copper cylinder in an adjacent cupboard.

I was six and still in the primers at Martinborough Primary School when infantile paralysis rampaged through New Zealand in the summer of 1948.  Major epidemics of the dreaded disease had struck before in 1924 and 1936.  Even mention of the words caused shivers to pass down the spines of all New Zealanders old enough to know their meaning.   Infantile paralysis was like a predator hiding around a corner, waiting to snatch the unwary or the unprepared.

Infantile paralysis was so named because its victims were almost always children.  The first symptoms of the disease were headache and diarrhoea, followed by stiffness in the neck and back and then in the arms and legs.  Paralysis, often permanent, followed.  Because the disease struck in the summer months it was thought to be brought on by the sun and unhygienic conditions.  

Later it was found to be caused by a highly contagious virus, spread via saliva or faeces.  Those with weakened immune systems were most at risk.  The sun, though not directly responsible, was not entirely blameless either as it did help germs with their multiplication.

When the first few victims of infantile paralysis were identified late in 1947 public gatherings were curtailed, swimming baths locked their gates and schools closed for the summer.  Instead of banging knees with a classmate in a double desk in an austere classroom we had lessons by correspondence at home.  Lessons were also broadcast daily over the national radio station.

At nine in the morning, regular as the tock of our grandfather clock, breakfast Weetbix wiped from our faces, my sister and I opened our exercise books at the end of the kitchen table.  While we laboriously wrote our two times table and drew Bs and Ps Mum, with iron in hand religiously supervised our formal education.  She had neither bell nor strap - no burning desire either to be a school teacher.

It was a pleasant classroom.  The tempting smell of peanut brownies baking in the oven of the coal range mingled with the clean scent of Rinso as Mum sizzled the iron onto damp tea-towels placed over the collars of Dad’s white shirts.  Outside birds sang from the knobbly branches of the peach and nectarine trees and the sun shone in a bright blue sky.

Most days at the end of lessons my sister and I slammed our exercise books shut, grabbed a peanut brownie each from our grandmother Nan’s baking tray and made off for the end of the hallway that led from the kitchen to play schools with a packet of coloured chalk and a small easel blackboard. 

We took it in turns to be Miss Horley with the wicked stinging strap and Miss Cockerill with the wicked stinging tongue.  We sat our younger brother down on the floor as a pupil.  He could not be a teacher because he was not quite three.

When we tired of playing schools we moved outside to the backyard and made sloppy mud pies in Mum’s enamel pie tins.  When we finished slopping mud we stuck rose prickles to our noses with spit and chased each other around the garden.  We also chased around grinning with quarter orange peels, cut in teeth shapes, stuck between our gums and climbed the wires strung for the loganberry vine which grew against the car-shed wall.  When we reached the top wire we clambered across it to make nests for ourselves in the honeysuckle that tangled thickly at the corner of the car-shed.

If we heard the distant drone of an aircraft high overhead we shaded our eyes, craned our necks and stared into the ether as if it were a UFO.   Although our town had an airfield, top-dressing of the paddocks on the hills around Martinborough had yet to arrive and commercial flights with the newly formed National Airways Corporation were a rare sight in our pocket of sky.

All summer we played in the sun with Dad’s striped handkerchiefs safety-pinned to the backs of our sunhats.

All summer when we emerged from the bathroom toilet, before we sat down at the table for a meal or as we swiped a biscuit from Nan’s baking tray Mum hovered and admonished, “Go back and wash your hands.”

If we protested we had already washed our hands Mum replied, “Well, wash them again; thoroughly this time.”

“Put your hats on,” she called as we scampered through the kitchen and out into the bright sun.  When we couldn’t find our hats we knotted the corners of Dad’s handkerchiefs and put them on our heads instead.

All through the summer heat rose in shimmers off the streets of our town.  Tar melted and stuck stones to the soles of our feet and the soles of our Roman sandals.  All summer black crickets sang from the cracks in the front lawn and golden dandelion heads and rye grass stalks grew tall in place of the dead brown grass.  We sat on the brown lawn in the sun with our knotted handkerchiefs on our heads, playing Tinker Tailor with the rye grass to find out who we would marry.

All summer infantile paralysis never caught us, but it did catch the sister of one of my classmates.  She was eleven, with silky blonde hair that fell in curls around her shoulders.  Her skin was as fine as the china teacups Mum kept for best in the sitting room cabinet. 

No-one could understand why she had been caught by infantile paralysis.  She hardly ever went out in the hot sun and never without a hat. Her fingernails never held the grime of mud pies.  Her family was so clean that even their front doorstep looked as if it should have displayed a fresh paint sign.

We returned to school after the May holidays when the sun had lost its strength and the silent spectre had passed on by.  All except my classmate’s sister who we were told by our teacher was in hospital in an iron lung.  I imagined the iron lung to be like a giant pair of bellows being squeezed down her throat.  In reality it was a cylindrical drum in which she lay day and night for many months; a machine artificially compressing and expanding her lungs.

Several terms later I saw her, pale and fragile as a rag doll standing on crutches on one of the sets of concrete steps leading up to the primary school classrooms.  On her spindly legs were heavy steel braces.  On her face a wide triumphant smile.

As for the dreaded infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis – polio - as it was renamed, the Salk vaccination in 1952 and later the oral Sabin drug in 1960 brought an end to its visits to most parts of the western world.  No-one mourned its departure.


About the writer: Leonie Couper was raised in Martinborough in the Wairarapa District.  She and her husband Ian have two adult children and three grand-daughters all of whom have been coerced and cajoled into listening to, editing or proof-reading a proliferation of written work, some of which occasionally gets published.

‘When School Was Closed All Summer’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was Highly Commended by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.


A drawing of 71 Cologne Street, Martinborough, the writer’s childhood home, by artist Christina Thornton.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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When School Was Closed All Summer by Leonie Couper