Saturday, January 16, 2010

Memories of my early school years

In 2009, Malabar Public School, enjoyed 100 years of being a local school with a very close knit community. Alison Jones put together a book to celebrate this Centenary, containing history and anecdotes from pupils and staff, past and present. As a past pupil, this was my contribution, although what was published in the book, "The history of Malabar Public School : celebrating over 100 years" was an unedited version of my story which appears in full below.

School Begins!
My first day of school, January 1960
Malabar Public School, NSW

I began my education at Malabar Public School aged four and a half in 1960. My mother, Marjorie Roberts (1938-43) and her sisters, Doreen (1932-37) & Beverley had all attended the same school during the 30’s and 40’s. My mother’s strongest recollection of primary school was during the period of WWII, when the students were taught how to hide under the school desk, whenever an air raid siren sounded. This, and learning how to use a gas mask, must have been both fun and scary for a young girl. Her other memory was of being rapped over the knuckles with a ruler as she wrote with her left hand which was unacceptable in those days – everyone should write with their right hand! Many of my great aunts and uncles, born between 1896 and 1916 also attended Malabar after the Roberts family arrived in the area in 1911. Many of my second cousins were also students there – one was even in my class! And I believe that another generation of the original Roberts clan still attends this great school.

Malabar Public School, 1940, 1st class
Marjorie Roberts, mother of Linda Smith, is seated 6th from Left in second row

On my first day, my mother walked me to school, with a banana and a vegemite sandwich wrapped in grease-proof paper rolling around in my large (to me) cardboard school case. We walked along the middle of Austral Street, which in the 60’s had no street guttering and had beautiful coral trees all along the road. Houses were built only on one side of the road; the rest was heath-land, all the way to Little Bay. I wasn’t scared, nor excited, just full of wonder.

The Kindergarten classroom was in a new building. Looking back it was probably the best year of my schooling. The classroom was light and bright. There was an aquarium and shells and many different sea objects; rocks, sponges, fish skeletons on display, and I knew I would feel at home there as the beach had always been a part of my young life. I didn’t know much about music, but I was always pleased and delighted when I was chosen to play the triangle – no other instrument interested me. We learnt our arithmetic using brightly coloured Cuisenaire rods, which were always fun to play with and made the early subjects of addition & subtraction, very easy to understand.

As I progressed, school became much harder. Being one of the youngest children in my year, I was put into a class then known as “Transition” – a composite class of 1A & 2B. Many of the children I had started with ended up in the year ahead of me and I ended up with pupils who had started the year after me. The school was very strict and I remember the whole of the Infants school sitting in an old, cold large and dark room, where we had to learn how to tie our shoe laces. No one was allowed to leave for playtime until they had accomplished this (then) almost impossible task. But learn we did – and very quickly as well.

Malabar Public School class photo 1A/2B 1962
Linda Smith 2nd from Right, Bottom Row; 2nd cousin Kenny, 5th from Right, Bottom Row

We learnt to spell by repetition – all the children reciting the letters out loud after the teacher. We could not move on to a new word until the whole class could spell the word correctly. From Second class till this day, I have never forgotten how to spell CAULIFLOWER! The same method was used for learning our times tables; 2x2=4. 2x3=6… but only up to 12x12=144! When it came to multiplying numbers greater than 13, this method caused many difficulties in later years as gadgets like calculators did not exist then.

My strongest memories come from Third class onward. Our teacher, Mrs. Helen Strath, seemed very strict. During those years, both girls and boys were allowed to be caned for misbehaviour, and Mrs. Strath did not tolerate bad or silly behaviour. At one time I was in trouble for something, probably daydreaming, and was told to go to the Headmaster and be given three strokes of the cane. Instead I told him that Mrs. Strath wanted the cane for someone else and I was to take it to her. He gave me the cane and I hid in the bushes for 10 minutes or so, then I returned it to the Headmaster. I was eventually caught out and received five, very painful, strokes across the hand. However one lesson I have never forgotten, was once when Mrs. Strath asked me what I was doing, and I, being smart, answered “nothing” – day dreaming again probably! She would not take that for an answer and I was made to stand in front of the class and demonstrate how a person “Did Nothing”. As I stood there, she asked the rest of the class what I was doing. Class mates called out that I was standing, breathing, blinking, shaking probably as well! So no matter what you may think, you are always doing Something!

The move from the Infants school to the Primary school was a big step. We had never been allowed to interact with the “big kids” and now I was one of them. We were allowed to play on the steel monkey bars and house frame, which were erected on bumpy asphalt down the hill from the Infants school. No one minded if we hurt ourselves, it was all part of the fun of school. Friends would pick each other up to walk to school together and sometimes we would arrive at school early, so we could play without interruption or supervision. We would hide in the coal bin, which was at the end of the toilet block and get up to many stupid things, but no one, so far as I know, was ever seriously hurt; just lots of gravel rash and skinned knees.
Saluting the Flag at morning assembly
However, being in Primary school brought to us all kinds of other activities and duties where you had no choice but to participate. Every morning we would line up in our class, one behind the other, in a straight line while the flag was raised and we sang “God save the Queen”. We had to play games like tunnel ball and other really boring ones that I can’t even remember. We had to learn dances like the “Pride of Erin” where all the girls would sit along the benches while the boys were allowed to choose their preferred partner, and then we would slowly and numbly go round and round listening to dull music, which was played on an old portable stereo set, up in the bottom playground.

The girls liked to play Elastics or Jacks at playtime and lunch. Sometimes we played marbles with the boys, but they had their own games and somehow the areas of play were clearly defined.

© National Library of Australia
© National Library of Australia

One of the horrible rules of my days, was that each child was given a small bottle of milk to drink at morning playtime. The milk would arrive early and be left in crates just inside the gates on Franklin St. No matter how warm or awful the milk tasted, we had to drink it in front of a teacher. You were not allowed to take it away in case you threw it away. Milk at that time was not homogenized as it is today, so there was always a layer of cream at the top which was hard to swallow. The best way of downing this foul stuff was to have a flavoured straw to drink through. The straws were made of paper and had swirls of either chocolate or strawberry powder running up the inside, so when you drank though them, the milk became flavoured – what a great invention they were. The shiny foil lids did come in handy for making interesting things such as Christmas decorations, or we would save them for a “Foil drive”, an early recycling scheme for aluminium.

In Fourth class, 1965, our teacher was named Mr. Savage, but despite his name, he was a very patient teacher. On the 14th of February of the following year, 1966, Australia’s monetary system was to change from pounds, shillings and pence, to decimal currency, and it was Mr. Savage’s job to teach us how to calculate how much a penny, a pound or two shillings was worth in dollars and cents. Now it is part of everyday life, but then it seemed very complicated. There was a song to help us remember the change over that I can still remember; and it goes like this, sung to the tune of “Click Goes the Shears”

“In come the dollars and in come the cents
out go the pounds and the shillings and the pence.
Be prepared folks when the money starts to mix
on the 14th of February 1966.
Clink go the cents folks
clink, clink, clink. Changeover day is closer than you think.
Learn the value of the coins and the way that they appear
and things will be much smoother when the decimal point is here.
In come the dollars and in come the cents
out gp the pounds and the shillings and the pence.
Be prepared folks when the money starts to mix
on the 14th of February 1966”

The change from the Imperial System of Measurement was also gradually changing to the Metric System, so we also had to learn things like how to change miles travelled into kilometers, how tall we were in feet and inches into centimeters, a pint (600 ml) of milk into a litre, and how much we weighed from stones, pounds and ounces into kilograms and that was very difficult. After 40 or more years, I still don’t know how tall I am in centimeters, only what my height is in feet and inches!

In Primary school, each week we had a religious lesson from either an Anglican Minister or a Catholic Priest, for children of the two different faiths. A couple of children in my class, including me, had been Christened in either the Presbyterian or Baptist Church, and we made the argument that, as we were neither part of the Church of England, nor Catholic, we should not have to attend these lessons. It was a pretty weak argument in reality, but we got away with it. Instead we were given (what we thought) the exciting tasks of going to the cake shop to buy morning tea for the teachers, or making copies of new work sheets using what was known as a Roneo machine or mimeograph. This was an early form of photocopying, but much more complicated. The task was accomplished by feeding individual sheets of foolscap sized paper through a roller that copied the image from a stencil, using methylated spirits and ink, which was poured into the machine, so that blue and blurry images and words would appear on the new pages.

By Fifth class we were beginning to be the “big kids” of the primary school, and the teacher that I loved and respected most of all teachers I have ever encountered, taught us that responsibility went hand in hand with being more senior. His name was Mr. Beath. Fifth class was when we gave up writing in lead pencil, and learnt “running writing” using pen and ink. Each desk had a hole where the inkwell was placed, and our pens were made from plastic and had replaceable metal nibs, for an easy change over when the nibs became bent, broken or split. If our writing was passable, we received our “pen license”, which meant we were now able to do our work using a pen, such as a Bic or Biro.

The Senior School was forming a choir, and each child had to try out for it by singing alone, in front of all our class mates, and be judged by the teachers as to whether we would be accepted or not. It was a very frightening experience and I remember how frustrated the teachers became when we were singing a Gilbert and Sullivan song with the lyrics “…Tit willow, tit willow….” – we would all burst out giggling as this was basically a forbidden word for children to say, then we would have to start the song all over again. Even after the explanation that a “Tit” was a type of bird, we could not stop giggling!

Mr. Beath also taught us a degree of religious tolerance and understanding, in days when many children, began to skip Sunday School, and instead go to the beach. But on Ash Wednesday in1966, which in the Christian Calendar is the first day of Lent, in the lead up to Easter, Mr. Beath came to school with an ash cross marked on his forehead. Many of us were confused, but he calmly explained the religious symbolism of the cross and why he chose to appear publicly with his beliefs so visible, as well as why we did not have to if we didn’t believe in the church. Each person was entitled to their own beliefs, and no one should condemn or chastise another because of those beliefs, or non beliefs. If kindergarten was the best year of my schooling, Mr. Beath was by far the very best teacher in all my years of ongoing learning.

By far the most exciting time at school for me, was the beginning of each year when you bought your new exercise books and covered them with brown paper and cut out specially produced pictures from magazines where spaces were provided for you to put your name, class and school. Before each new school year began I was allowed a new pen and lead pencils, but the most important luxury for me was being allowed to buy a new coloured pencil – a “Derwent ©” coloured pencil! During school holidays, my mother would take me into the city to a specialist stationary shop, and each term I was allowed one new coloured pencil. The range of colours available amazed and astonished me. Each time, it probably took me an hour to decide which colour I would like. These pencils were never wasted, and I still have the stub, about an inch long, of a bright purple one, which was (and still is) one of my favourite colours. Our pencil cases were important too. We had wooden ones that had a sliding lid, and compartments for your rubber and lead pencils, and it would then swing out to reveal your coloured pencils underneath.

School Badge
Malabar Public School always took sport seriously, after all, the school motto is “Play the Game”. In summer the girls played softball and we played basketball (now known as Netball) in the winter. There was an A and B team, with fierce competition to be chosen for the “A” team. Every Friday afternoon we played against the other local primary schools, including Soldiers Settlement, La Perouse, Chifley, Matraville, Maroubra Bay and Botany.

One year, both basketball teams from our class went to Queanbyean, near Canberra for a weekend of competition against their school team. This was organized by Miss Hallam. I can’t remember who won, but it was fun, even though we had never really experienced such cold weather. We each stayed, or were “billeted” at the home of one of the girls from the opposing team. This in effect, made us all friends, and was a very interesting learning, sporting and socializing experience.

Basketball B Team with billets at Queanbeyan

Playing sport amongst other local schools, and becoming friends with them, was a great asset when we went to the Schools Camp at Broken Bay during 4th and 5th class. We already knew some of the other pupils, so it was not as intimidating as it might have been if we had had no contact with our new bunk mates beforehand. 

“Broken Bay National Fitness Camp” was a real adventure for those of us that attended. We had to catch a train to Brooklyn, located on the Hawkesbury River, and then we were taken across to the camp by boat. With our suitcases, it was a steep climb up to the camp itself. When we were all assembled, we were allocated huts or lodges for 6 students share and sleep. It was a mixture of fun and responsibility at all times. We explored aboriginal caves and rock art on bush walks, we learnt how to use a bow and arrows, build camp fires, learn new songs, how to make a bull-roarer and do wood work…. all sorts of activities that I had not participated in before. On the other hand, every morning we had “Bunk inspection” and our beds had to be made perfectly. We also had a daily roster of camp duties, in which everyone had to take a turn. These included cleaning the ablutions (toilet - shower blocks), being put on “slops duty” at mealtimes, which meant that all plates were handed to you, and you had to scrape the remains of the mostly inedible food into a great bin, then wash the dishes. But all the same it was a fabulous experience being able to mix with others, as well as learning and exploring places outside of the experiences of our small community at Malabar – a time to see other possibilities in the world.

During my years at Malabar Public School, there was no school library, nor was the present branch of the Randwick Library yet built. I have always loved reading, and I looked forward to the monthly arrival of the “Mobile Library” – a bus that could only handle two or three students at a time, as shelves lined each wall and we only had a narrow isle in which to search for new treasures. So we had to wait patiently in line for our turn to scrounge the well known shelves for something new to read. This was another place where I had trouble making up my mind in what to choose, but always came away with a load of books to see me through to its next visit.

In 1967, Sixth class was my final year and the study became serious, as our marks would determine which grade we would be put into at high school (1A, for the brightest students, down to 1E). What we studied is hard to remember. Some lessons were done with the aid of an ABC schools radio program, to which we had to listen attentively, in order to complete projects. Discipline was still very strict, and sports taken just as seriously, and somehow we survived. However it was also a very uncertain period as we were transforming once again; this time from being the “Big Kids” in a small school, to the ‘little kids” in a Big School. There was no orientation program, or opportunity to look at what our future (for most of us) at Matraville High would be like. So with a sense of pride at completing the last year of Primary School, I also felt a tinge of fear as to what the future would bring.

The end of school brought about one extraordinary event though, which I can’t pass up telling. Exams finished, we were allowed a party in the storage room under the Infants class rooms. Our parents prepared lots of cakes, fruit salads and sandwiches as well as soft drinks, which we brought along especially for the big celebration. Being our last day at Malabar Public School, we did not have to wear our uniform, so all dressed up, ready for the next stage of our life, we had an explosion of silliness which ended up in a massive food fight. We had cream and drinks and all sorts of gunk staining our clothes and sticking in our hair – what a way to go!

6th class farewell - dancing like dags (Left) while the School Captain gives a speech (right)