Topic: Pride and Punishment by Patricia Simpson

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry about the Tauranga Primary School during the 1940s.

Arcived version here.

“Mum, I don’t want to go to school.”

 These words exasperated my poor mother. She would answer in her usual fashion.

“You have to go to school; it’s the law.”

My reply, obviously designed to seal the deal, would be, “Smack me, Mum, but don’t make me go to school.”

Sometimes this would work and I would get to stay home - without the smacking. Other times I would be bundled on to the school bus by my frustrated mother, who would then worry all day until I returned. The lack of any form of pre-school attendance meant I was totally unprepared for this separation from family.

My first day at school was daunting. As a child I suffered with asthma and had been over-protected by an anxious mother so going to school was like a punishment. The infant teacher’s name as I still recall was Mrs Green, and she was definitely not going to stand any nonsense from the likes of me.

 In 2004 Tauranga Primary School celebrated one hundred years on its present site. Prior to this, school buildings had been moved to and from various sites over the years with the first school established by the Church Mission Society as far back as the 1830s on the site where The Elms now stands.

The design of Tauranga Primary School in the 1940s was such that the Junior School was housed in buildings on one side of the road and the Senior School on the other. This meant that my older sister had limited access to the Junior School to check on me and I felt very alone.

I should have counted myself lucky to start school in 1949 as my older siblings can remember time away from school in the early months of 1948 when all schools were closed due to the polio epidemic. The Correspondence School provided lessons by mail and some lessons by radio broadcast during this time.

Our school was close to the harbour and at lunchtimes the seagulls knew where to dine out.  In the first week or two of starting school I was absolutely mortified one day to be chosen as a target by a seagull intent on bombing practice.  All those kids and it had to be me? My bowl-cut blonde hair was slimy with the mess and my face bright red with embarrassment.

However, I soon settled in at school and enjoyed the company of friends. In the yard of the  Junior School a stand of bamboo made a great hiding place and this proved itself during many a game of hide and seek.

The School Dental Clinic was located near the roadside and was raised on high foundations. The story went that there was a particularly vicious magpie that hid under the building awaiting its chance to attack small children  - as if the ‘Murder House’ itself wasn’t bad enough. Stories of the dreaded dental drill had some children fainting before they even made it to the chair.

Eventually I, along with my classmates, progressed to the Senior School across the road where Primer 4 and Standards 1 to 6 were located.  At the entrance to the Senior School stood a huge pepper tree. Whenever we had occasion to enter or leave from this gate yet another school story dictated that you were not allowed to talk while under the tree or some kind of ill  luck would pursue you. It took me a while to realize it was just the teacher’s way of keeping us quiet for a few minutes.

 In the 1940s the school swimming pool was a tidal pool sited near the present railway bridge.  Pupils would march down to First Avenue for swimming lessons. My older sister remembers an occasion when a shark had gained access to the pool during a high tide and it might have been that occasion that necessitated a move to 6th Avenue beach for swimming until our school pool opened in 1952.

I don’t remember the school having much in the way of play equipment, but we were never at a loss for games to entertain ourselves. The games seemed to change with the different classes. At seven or eight years old skipping was a favourite and someone could always be relied upon to bring a long rope to school, which enabled a large number of children to take part. “Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper” we would chant as the rope turned faster and faster. 

Knucklebones  were another favourite with some pupils being the proud owners of the genuine sheep knucklebones, boiled and scraped clean for use. French knitting also had its day with a dozen or more girls lined up along the wooden seating busy with their wool and cotton reels complete with tacks. The boys declined the opportunity to learn French knitting, preferring instead to play marbles.

 Four Square played with a large rubber ball became popular in Standards 5 and 6 or alternatively the girls would bring a basketball to school in a handy string bag in order to practise goal shooting. We all aspired to belong to a school basketball team (it’s netball now), which in those days consisted of nine team members as opposed to today’s 7-a-side version.

 A favourite place to play or just to sit and eat lunch was ‘The Big Tree.’ This tree (probably a fig tree)  was enormous and boasted a huge, twisted external root system that provided space for a multitude of children. It sheltered us from sun or rain, spread its branches for climbing and was privy to many a childish secret whispered between friends.

There were also school-based activities we practised during the year, and one of these was folk dancing. I’m not so sure the boys liked this, but it was very much enjoyed by the girls who were keen to show off their skills and their best skirts at the annual School Fair. Also on fair day marching around the field to a rousing, somewhat crackly recording of military style music was done with relish if not much precision – left, right, left, etc. Though not perfectly executed, with the whole school taking part in these activities a sense of pride in our school was instilled in us.

The annual School Fair was well-supported by parents and I was always delighted to see my mother and her friend (luckily both of small stature) having to sit on diminutive chairs in the cooking room for their morning tea, which they had helped to provide.

Discipline was much more rigid in those days and there was always the terrible prospect of ‘getting the strap.’ This was usually only a threat, but we did have one male teacher whose threats frequently became reality. He was a burly man, his girth encased in a waistcoat from which dangled a pocket watch chain. He would rise up onto the toes of his soft-soled shoes and with the strap gripped firmly in both hands would bring it down with some force onto the trembling hand of the unlucky victim. It was no use pulling your hand away as this would only prolong the punishment and humiliation.  

I remember being on the receiving end at least twice in his class. One of those times was apparently for ‘wool-gathering’ which I took to be picking off the tiny bobbles of wool from the hand-knitted jersey of the boy in front of me. I had been tempted but had not actually committed this crime and consequently was indignant about the punishment. It was only much later that I learned what wool-gathering really meant.

This same teacher managed to redeem himself by other means. He was an enthusiastic member of the Forest and Bird Society and a good teacher. After a weekend in the bush he would bring back samples of native trees which we would learn to name and there were many children who in their turn joined the Forest and Bird society and carried on their knowledge and interest to adulthood.

Our school was frequently visited by a local identity nicknamed ‘Springheel Jack,’ so called because of his unusual way of walking. His real name was Michael Hodgkins, a nephew of Frances Hodgkins, the well known artist. Springheel Jack was a well-educated man, but had chosen to live a nomadic life, spending his days walking miles with his dog Angus. He would visit the school at lunchtimes and playtimes and the children would gather round to see what he had in his secret sack this time. Usually it would be samples of flora or shellfish from around the district and he would impart his knowledge of these things to interested children.

If asked a question about a particular subject , next time he visited he would produce notes neatly written in pencil on the subject along with a detailed diagram to give to the child concerned. He had particular interest in shellfish and collaborated with a Dr Childs in the publication of a booklet entitled Shellfish of the Bay of Plenty. He was a gentle, well-spoken man but unfortunately due to his eccentricity and scruffy appearance was sometimes the target of ridicule in the community by the local lads who would then experience his temper.

His skin was tanned and leathery from the hours he spent exposed to the elements and his grey hair grew long and untidy, but we loved his visits and learned much from him.

Some of our education came from an unlikely source as detailed above and we also gained an extension to our musical education from the school caretaker who was an accomplished violinist.

Our formal education included spelling bees, which I enjoyed, and morning talks, which I did not.

Sewing class was the bane of my life but it is amazing how much time can be wasted picking up (accidentally?) spilt pins from the floor.

The three Rs were the basis of our learning and I well remember in Standard One reciting our times tables every morning in sing-song fashion – they are still filed away in the grey matter.

 The three Rs were joined by a fourth R and that one stood for respect, which was certainly expected of you.

Thanks, Mum, for ensuring that I attended school.



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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Pride and Punishment by Patricia Simpson


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