Story: Country schooling

Little River School, Canterbury

Little River School, Canterbury

Harvey McQueen writes about going to Little River School during the early 1940s.

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Contributed by Harvey McQueen

I went to Little River School during the war years. Despite the war, the Canterbury Education Board built a new school to replace the old one which had burnt down when the chimney caught fire. Education minister, the Hon H. G. R. Mason, arrived to open it. He spoke about country children having the same opportunity as town children, and how his government had ended unemployment ‘for good’. The building had folding French doors facing north, windowed down to floor level in front of the two rooms, junior and senior separated by the teachers’ quarters. There was a bike rack (hardly used) and, luxury, a shelter shed – all very posh though the classrooms remained fairly spartan.

I sat with Charlie Timothy, a Māori boy from the recently closed Māori school. Learning Pooh songs from my book, we used to go round together chanting ‘Cottleston pie’ and similar ditties. We rote-learnt maths tables, had a spelling test each day, and I moved from inelegant printing to even more inelegant writing. After gas-mask practice we all sang ‘Land of hope and glory’. We took time off from lessons to hunt for ergot, the black fungus that grows on tall fescue, which apparently would stop soldiers bleeding to death. We didn’t find much, but searching for it was a change in school routine.

The state was concerned about our health. Pupils took it in turns to be the milk-monitors. The bus from Christchurch left crates of pasteurised milk under the blue gums by the tennis court. If not picked up immediately it would get warm and go off. When the bus arrived late, as it did frequently, we had extra time off school, mainly passed in gum-nut battles. As this was the time our tables were heard it seemed a good period to miss. If it was really late, we would skip sums as well. Free apples were also part of the system. Milk and apples made sense in town, but in Little River less so. But now as I read of malnourished kids in our classrooms I wonder whether something has been lost – a common sense of care for the nation’s young people.

Something often happened on the walk to or from school – a swarm of bees on a gorse bush, a thrush nest in the hawthorn hedge. Often there was stock being driven. We helped turn sheep away from the wrong road and down to the station yards, though in the event of cattle we would hop through the fence away from danger. Certain drovers caused more trouble than others did; we learnt to recognise those whose whip or dogs would stir a beast into rebellion. On a frosty winter’s morning we called at the blacksmith’s shop to warm up and to watch the horses’ hooves rasped before the red-shot shoe was nailed on. The old folk in the cottages we passed knew about school. They asked me my tables. ‘Did you get the strap today?’ they would ask, shaking their heads at my negative response. Obviously standards were slipping. We went past the railway turntable, a marvellous place for frog hunting. If we timed it right the train, steaming quietly, would be waiting to be turned around. The fireman would let us help him push it. Bliss!

The huge gum trees in the Farmers’ Co-op paddock were felled, the trunks blasted apart by gelignite. The men allowed us close while they awled the hole, put in the powder but always escorted us out of danger before the fuse was added. The man who remained to light it scampered away as it started spluttering. The log would jump, ages it seemed before the noise would hit us. Something to do with sound not travelling as fast as light. I asked Miss Banks. For once she didn’t teach us writing first period. She gave a science lesson, my first. Waves we couldn’t see carried light and sound to us, at different speeds. It stuck, the first actual thing I remember being taught. I asked, could the invisible waves go round corners? Suddenly, she remembered we should be practising our writing. ‘And how does colour travel?’ ‘Be quiet Harvey and do your work.’

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How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Country schooling - Personal experiences of country schools', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008