East Kew and School
I was then 9 years of age, my sister Marie around 17 and a half. About the house itself I remember few things. A broad drive which crunched satisfactorily under foot, being thickly paved with little dark stone chips. These adhered to the shoes and shook off all over the house, even after industriously using the door mat.
I remember the sort-of enclosed back room which my mother called the vestibule, and where we often had Saturday lunch. This mostly consisted of salads and Belgian sausage, similar to Strasbourg and which, I was told, had previously been called German sausage. During the 14-18 World War, it's name was hurriedly changed and hitherto "Berlin" buns became in south Australia "Kitchener Buns", and in Melbourne just Jam Buns.
I remember all Saturdays as sunny, and my father, then, as humorous and optimistic. My mother was always optimistic. She believed in fairies and miracles and my sister was then at the height of her beauty and had not retreated into the melancholy disappointments and near-agrophobia which ruined her life.
On Saturdays she always "did" the flowers. Weekend shopping was not then what it is now. The grocery boy called during the week and took an order, which was duly delivered. The baker's cart, drawn by a docile horse, called every day. Milk, with a rattle of bottles and the thump of running feet, was delivered during each night. The butcher called and also delivered. A smiling and courteous Chinese brought fruit and vegetables once a week. Cries of "Rabbit-oh" and "Bottle-oh" were common in the streets.
But Friday night or Saturday morning shopping was for the little extras. The small items of toiletry perhaps, or occasional delicacy. And always for Marie, a bunch of feathery gum-tips and perhaps Iceland Poppies or whatever was in season and cheap.
The table on the verandah would hold these, all our vases, and all her gleanings from the garden while she arranged and re-arranged.
Results were always spectacular. To this day when I view a clump of beautiful blooms, their grace unrealised because of the way I have thrust them in a clump into a receptacle, I mentally apologise to her. She, who could make a few leafy twigs and a dandelion look like a florist's masterpiece.
I remember the postman delivered twice a day, his whistle exciting. Ice-men came with huge often dirty-looking blocks of ice, which they hoisted onto leathern shoulders with wicked-looking picks, and carried into the houses which had ice-chests, children hanging round the carts to pick up pieces of ice to suck.
Many houses, including ours, did not have ice-chests, let alone refrigerators. Many, as we did, had a meat safe and/or a Coolgardie Safe - an iron framework with Hessian sides and a galvanised tray top, kept filled with water. These served quite efficiently for meat and butter storage.
Telephones were a luxury and so were cars. In the whole of Hale St. there were only a handful of either.
The dining and bedrooms, kitchen etc., of the Hale St. house, I do not remember at all, but the small "front" room has lived in my memory as the scene of many piano recitals by Gordon Rodda, pianist for J. C. Williamson musicals. There I would sit gloomily enduring in the window seat, while my grandmother and mother were spellbound on either side of the instrument.
It was here also that the incredibly long legs of one Dick Rivron, chorus gentleman, bisected the room when he did the splits from corner to corner and much relieved my monotony.
From this house I peered through the paling fence at the Bartletts and their 13 children, and ranged the street to borrow babies.
It was from this house that I attended my new school, East Kew Training School as it was then, and may still be, called. I was put into the 3rd. Grade with a Miss Preuss, whom I remember only as very large and florid. In fact, in my mind, the word "puce" always confusedly wears her face.
I have no true recollections of her, except that she was severe with me until I had learned to write a different "r" and "t" to those I had learned in Burnie, and to say "grade" instead of "class".
At the half year, I think I went into the 4th Grade, with Miss Parsons, whom I remember as uniformly beige. In fact, somewhat parsnip coloured, "parsnips" inevitably being her nick-name. I remember a few friends but I was never the most popular girl in the class. I was inclined to use three long words where one short one would have done and, because I was a fatty, I assumed an air of superiority in case anyone was about to pick on the fact. Some inevitably did. I endured the taunts, "Gnaw-a-Bone swallowed a dictionary" and the brilliant quip, "Gnaw-a-Bone, haven't get your belt on, couldn't get it round ya", quite often hurled across the fence that divided the boys playground from the girls.
Although co-ed classes, all boys sat together on one side of the room and girls on another, and the playground was strictly divided. Nevertheless, the school was experimental and I think advanced for its times. Classes ran from 1st to 6th grades and on to 1st and 2nd forms, known as "F" and "E".
In addition on the ground floor there was a classroom known as the country school. This room held a composite of all grades, under the supervision of a head teacher, Mr. Hogan, a very pale, thick-set man with curly snuff-coloured hair and an uncertain temper.
Trainee teachers came and went and presumably learned how to manage a small school, mixed in age and ability, as most of them would be sent first to country districts where exactly these conditions would prevail.
The children were usually those sent from other grades because they were in need of more individual attention. To be sent to the country school was not regarded as an honour.
As well as the high school forms, and country school, a separate building had recently been erected in the grounds - a then very modern and well-equipped kindergarten. This was my joy. All the little ones wore blue pinafore bibs with their names embroidered on the fronts and, occasionally, as a reward for some accomplishment, older girls were sent over to help the teachers. Once or twice I was granted the privilege, and wallowed in reading stories or supervising games.
This plan for the school meant that children could start kindergarten at pre-school age and continue their whole education up to second form in one environment. In view of the bewilderment and havoc caused to many by constant changes of school, this system must have constituted a plus and was pioneered by the then Director of Education, Tate.
In the 5th Grade our teacher was Mr. Jamieson, a short sometimes peppery little man with a mass of black tight curls and a very large nose. He was father of five. He did have a habit of hugging and kissing the prettiest ten year olds. I wasn't one of these and I heard in later years that the tendency must have grown on him, as he was convicted of offences against some of his pupils. I was sorry to know this as he wasn't a bad teacher and seemed to have a reasonable sense of humour, which must have failed him in the end.
6th Grade was Miss Bayles, a reddish-brown bunned, reddish-brown tweeded lady whom I liked. She was severe but reasonable.
And then the High School, and two years of Miss Doris Baxter. Miss Baxter was English. She had thick crinkly light-brown hair, deep set grey eyes behind which laughter always seemed to be lurking, triangular eye-brows, and a wide mouth with a gap between the two front teeth. A mobile, expressive face full of intelligence and humour. A small energetic body, she was above all a dynamic and stimulating teacher.
Now, more than half a century later, I can still conjure the sound of her voice and the strength of her personality. She was not the sort of teacher for whom one developed the celebrated school-girl crush. I remember a student teacher when I first came from Tasmania. A Miss Hattie, blue-eyed, golden-haired, rose-leaf cheeks with deep dimples, gentle, kind, round and cuddly, for whom a dozen little girls waited after school and vied for attention and favours.
Miss Baxter was not one of these. I can see her as she pounded the length of the platform, slashing chalk-marks onto the long blackboard from end to end, explaining, enlightening, delighting in the precision of maths, or the beauty of a poet's words - willing her class to share, to see, and to understand.
Many of us did. We had never before had a teacher who brought instruction into the realms of reality, or who allowed subjects to inter-mingle in her classes, so that history, poetry and mathematics were woven into a whole tapestry, each bearing some relation to the other, and all being applicable to living.
We were allowed opinions and discussions. She was always ready to listen, yet discipline in her classes was utter. Hitherto I believe, with most of us, school subjects were quite apart from anything relevant to our lives, learned by rote, remembered for exams, and quickly forgotten. For me at least, Miss Baxter changed that. In maths a great white light streamed onto Geometric and Algebraic mysteries. History and literature came together, and French became another door to History and Literature. Until High School we had one teacher in each Grade for all subjects. Then, we had Miss Baxter and a Mr. Greening who taught Geography and Science, at both of which I was, and remain, miserably inept.
For occasional fill-ins the headmaster Mr. Hubert Barnsfather came to the classroom. Mr. Barnsfather was a fair affable man who trained a few strands of sandy hair across a balding pate and whom I chiefly remember standing at the top of narrow, uncarpeted stairs beating time with his palm on the newel post to the scratchy gramophone, as we marched up two by two. The Gramophone either played "Men of Harlech" or "The British Grenadiers" and as Mr. B beat on the post, a strand of his hair bounced up and down in time to our tramp, thud, scrunch, scrape, thud.
Each Monday at Assembly, girls mustered on one side of the fence, boys on the other, and the flag was raised. The boys saluted. We all placed our hands where we imagined our hearts to be and recited:
IloveGodandmycountryIhonourtheflagIwillservetheKingandcheerfully obeymyparentsteachers AND thelaws.
With, for an unknown reason, tremendous emphasis on the "AND".
Most days I went home to lunch - a very short distance. My mother always knew I was coming. She could hear me singing at the top of my voice all the way. Quite often I dawdled because I was reading as well. I remember crossing roads reading. I can't think of anywhere this could be done today.
On one occasion I was crocheting a long chain of pink wool, having just discovered how to do it. Intent on this task I was in the middle of Hale St. when a boy called Noel Williams whizzed by on his bicycle and knocked me flying, half a mile of pink chain and all.
This may account for the fact that I lost all interest in crochet and other such pursuits from that day forward.
Sewing classes which were obligatory for girls were the bane of my existence. My sister who had attended the convent in Wynyard Tasmania, with a gentle Nun, Sister Agnes for sewing teacher, sewed exquisitely, but my horrid attempts never had two stitches the same size. They grew greyer and more dingy as I picked and unpicked and tried again, never succeeding.
I developed a mysterious illness which came upon me only on sewing days. Later, at High School, I had a recurrence on days of dissecting for science.
My amiable mother never seemed to notice how this strange illness came so regularly on Fridays, or how quickly I recovered when the danger hour was passed.
On the rare occasions when I bought my lunch, one shilling or one and six was the usual amount. This could buy a large oval meat pie, filled with genuine minced beef for 3d, a cake 2d, and a banana 1d, or an apple. Then, for me, the highlight of the day. Off to Holmes the Hardware Store to choose a butter dish for my mother. Over the years, she must have had the biggest supply of butter-dished in the district.
I knew every flower and bird, and every flute and bow on every butter-dish in the shop. Good ones were seven pence ha'penny, with the occasional sixpence, and sometimes fourpence ha'penny. Clutching my change I would sort through, weighing the pros of lilac or cornflower, the cons of a faint blur or blemish. It never once occurred to me to buy something different. After school I could hardly wait to see my mother's incredulous delight at the surprise I bore. I was never disappointed.
It was about this time that I fell out of love with Willie Bartlett, aged eleven and into love with Harry Wilson who was 21. It was here also that I went through my cowboy phase, when I read, wrote, thought, talked and play-acted only cowboy stories.
On the whole I was happy at school, though seizing every opportunity to take a day off, particularly on sports, sewing and science days. At all sports I was a total loss, and always last to be chosen by team captains. As I was very plump I couldn't run, and my eyesight was too faulty to be accurate in ball games. Although I had no wish to be good at sport, the rejections at side-choosings were a blow to my doubtless inflated ego.
Sewing was not for me. Dissecting frogs was not for me. Geography with maps to be drawn, rubbed out again and again until the paper was worn through, was not for me.
English, French, History, Maths, Singing, not called Music then and conducted by a many-toothed lady of uncertain age, Miss Rhea? suited me well.
Once a week the mother-craft nurse called armed with a large celluloid baby and all sorts of accoutrements. With these she instructed girls only in the art of caring for an infant. Bathing, changing, burping, feeding, etc., and here I shone. We had exams in the lore of the Truby King book, and I always got maxi marks.
English was my favourite subject and here I also always had good marks, though Miss Baxter marked my papers much harder I thought than others. "You write so well Norah," she once wrote severely "that you must certainly try to do better." In a way I understood her and I did try. Too many words, too many adjectives, sometimes inappropriate to the subject, were my downfall. Her slashing red pencil would ruthlessly bisect them, and at the bottom of the page a few sizzling words would shrivel my pretensions.
But I won the prize in a short story competition she ran and I heard many years later that she had read my essays as examples to many later classes. She once told my contemporaries to watch for my name on the covers of books in years to come, and I am sorry that I have never justified her faith.
All my life after I left school, we exchanged Christmas cards and met twice - once when my dear friend Doreen and I called to visit her in her house at Canterbury, a Melbourne suburb, and once she visited me at Brighton, when I was a young mother with two very small boys.
Many times we planned to meet and many times something prevented it. When I was 56 or so Rupert my husband, and I, went overseas. That Christmas I received no card from her, and learned later that she was gone. But to me she could not die.
When I was leaving school, two years after leaving East Kew, she was highly incensed, stamped her foot (a habit of hers) and demanded that I go on. It was at this time that she offered to pay my expenses from her own pocket. But for better or worse, my parents, much influenced by me I admit, declined.
I don't think she particularly liked me. Some aspects of me irritated her, I believe. Among them my indolent plumpness, my untidy fair hair, and my pretentious vocabulary. She was spare and trim and radiated energy. I think her favourite amongst us was a girl called Sheila Grey. Shiela had a straight shining honey-brown bob, long amber eyes, and a slim athletic figure. She was intelligent and did well academically, as well as being a leading light of the basketball and swimming teams. Shiela epitomised the head-girl of the school-girl literature of the day, "Betty Barton, Heroin of the Fifth", and I the Bessie Bunter figure.
Though obviously Miss Baxter liked Shiela, as everybody did, she never showed favouritism. She was disciplinary in class. If for instance, as I frequently was, you were caught reading under the desk-flap during a lesson, she would confiscate the book, and engage in discussion of its contents.
But when I was to leave school, Miss Baxter could not bear what she saw as the waste of a human being she considered to have potential for achievement. Hence the offer.
She was particularly angry because at that time my Uncle Arnold Seitz was Director of Education in Victoria and she saw it as a sin of omission on his part that I was not to continue my education. She knew that my parents were not in a financially favourable position.
I heard from others many years later that she had guided several people through University with varied help. Funds, accommodation, extra tutoring and practical advice.
On the first day of the High School phase, I met Doreen Healy, now Ellis, lifetime friend. She had attended Kew State School until 6th grade.
On the first morning she and some others stood on the platform by the teacher's desk and were introduced to us all. Doreen looked embarrassed but humorous. She had a pointed pixy face with very rosy cheeks, a broad calm forehead and big beautiful long-lashed eyes. The only truly green eyes I have ever seen, which to this day, a lifetime, three children, many grand children later, retain their look of limpid innocence.
I have never, I repeat never, heard her utter a malicious word about anyone. Ruefully indulgent, in humorous vein, perhaps, sadly compassionate perhaps, but malice - never.
We became friends from that day forward, though as chalk and cheese in many ways. In the intervening 60 years we have never once quarrelled, probably due mainly to Doreen's gentle tolerance. Our life-paths have separated for long periods, but we have picked up the threads many times as though our last meeting were yesterday. We may only be together again for a few hours, but for those hours we are still the same two people who had an instant understanding and affection for each other on that school day long ago.
Doreen had a store of elocution "pieces", having learned this, in those days popular accomplishment. Every second little girl, and a few boys, went to elocution lessons after school, or dancing - and sometimes both - and performed at school concerts and impromptus in the classroom.
I attended as little as possible, and in my glowering way despised the results - until Doreen - who never failed to roll me in the aisles with her tongue-in-cheek performances. I still believe she could have been a great comedienne.
She was popular with our other class-fellows, but remained my staunch and unfailingly loyal companion throughout our two years High School at East Kew. We delighted in speaking to each other in ways incomprehensible to others, invented extraordinary tales of our adventures, which Dor would recount with utmost gravity to open-mouthed audiences, while I provided embroidery.
We read the same books, roared the same popular songs, "Minnie the Moocher" was a favourite, slept at each other's houses and, in many subtle ways, knew each other's hearts.
Dor often helped me with my horror-story sewing and I spent many happy hours in her company. She was an excellent swimmer and good at sport, but this never seemed to come between us. Her only brother Valentine, a year or so older than we were, played the saxophone in a band and I thought this most glamorous.
The Healy home in Kew was often full of young men involved with the band, and I managed a slight crush on Val who was attractive and pleasant always. But it was so slight that without any return to feed on, it died painlessly.
Dor's mother Daisy Healy worked for her living and her grandmother Mrs. Creagh kept house for the family. I loved to go there. Mrs. Creagh's kitchen was warmed by a wood stove, from which she whisked huge batches of delicious flat three-cornered scones, which one split and buttered hot.
Whenever I slept overnight, I shared Dor's high double bed, and we would giggle and talk for hours.
Doreen left school at the end of the East Kew two years, to be apprenticed to a Swiss dressmaker, under whose tutelage she became highly skilled, while I attended East Camberwell Girls School for a further two years.
We drifted apart for some years. Meanwhile we both married during World War Two. On meeting again, we discovered to our astonishment that we had not only married in the same Church, but on the same day, and only 1 or 2 hours apart.
We now live a state apart, she in Victoria and I in New South Wales. But when we meet, our affection for each other is no less, I believe, than when we were both fourteen.