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The Old Schoolhouse

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Sketch on page 18 of 'The Old School House'

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I HAVE sometimes wondered why they built the old schoolhouse in that stretch of bush the settlers have still left in its primitive state, because of its barrenness. Not a child of those who went to it daily but had a fair walk to reach it. The settlement was a selvage running along the river valley, skirting the hills that hugged the valley in a kind of jostling embrace, as though trying to push it back to the water's edge. From this selvage of rich farm land came the children that filled the forms of the old schoolhouse. That is to say, old now; it was new then. A fine place we thought it, roofed with the first galvanised iron that had come to that district from the limitless world without, of which Melbourne stood, to us, as the centre. We had never seen galvanised iron before; we had known only bark as a covering for rafters. The settlers, in their haste, and because of the difficulties of transport and the pressure of profitable work, had contented themselves with humble enough houses; a kind of superior mia-mia structure generally did service, though one remembers that the early houses, crude as they were, were generally comfortable.

I remember when the Spearys got a sawn-timber ceiling and floor in their best room; it was a nine-days' wonder; an audacious, even a mysterious circumstance. The Speary boys, who were really grown men, with fluffy whiskers, had noisily enough cut the material for this improvement to their home in a pit they had made for the purpose in the bush beyond the creek. The old sawpit we had played in later, sometimes, when we strayed unusually far into the bush. Claribel had, on one occasion, brought away some of the sawdust for her doll that was leaking badly. Still it was a kind of mystery, that ceiling and floor in the Spearys' best

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room, despite our knowledge that they had not come there by supernatural means. To us younger ones, that is. To the elders, who had seen much before getting jammed into that nook on the far edge of the wild, it was perhaps only an audacity, and a sign that progress could come to the wilderness as elsewhere. It was a foretaste of things to be.

They went and admired Spearys' room, and we went too. We smelt the green wood, sappy and tangy, and sweeter than when it was whole. My mother praised it all when we got home to our earthen floors. My father tended to disparagement; he had enough work ahead without rushing into imitation just then. The wood would shrink, he said, and knives and scissors be lost down the cracks of the floor. The Spearys were proud of it; Mrs. Speary dressed better, it was said, to live up to it; and I know, beyond doubt, that Lucy Speary began to put on airs on the strength of it. We had quarrelled, she and I, about some trifle, and she pushed me with a contemptuous sniff—“You haven't got a board floor.”

But, for the schoolhouse, the splendour of its roof and general structure, this bold step forward of the Spearys' had in no way prepared us. The day the school opened I remember well. It was a beautiful spring morning, and when we came over the hilltop that gave us a sudden vision of the new building, our eyes were positively dazzled by the beauty and brightness of the roof flashing in the sun. It was symbolic of the irradiation of learning on ignorance; of knowledge on innocence. But it was too sudden, our first introduction to that sight. Fortunately for our understanding, the processes of instruction within the school proved to be of a more graduated and gradual nature. Our eyes ached at the whirl of stars the sunlight made of that roof under which we had been impatient to assemble, and we hung back. It seemed like going into the world, and we had not realised it. The boys pushed on promptly. “Not a bad-looking place,” said Fred, patronisingly, to hide the thrill it had given him. Nearer, we saw a round chimney of black iron, and the walls outside painted like father's dray. No, not like father's dray, for that was red, but the dray was the only thing we had that wore a

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coat of paint. The walls of the school were white, or nearly so, and flashed at the addresses of the sun almost as brightly as did the roof that we lost sight of presently at closer approach. Inside, the building was cleaner than any school I have since seen, or ever think to see, unless I become an inspector of new buildings of the kind. It was white from the hands of the creator. It awed us, not that our homes were dirty—who so clean as the wives of the pioneers? But this was so new, so white.

I was one of the little ones, and had a place allotted me on a form when we were sorted out. I thought it lovely to sit in a row; we never sat so at home. Anyhow, to sit with strange little girls is much more interesting than to sit with one's sisters. The forms were one above the other; a gallery of them along one side of the school. The gallery was full of children all grown along the selvage of creek. Some of them I knew, some of them I did not know; there was not much visiting except among near neighbours.

At first I was too shy to notice my surroundings or my companions; then I began to look about me. The rest of the space, except where our hats and bags hung, was taken up by desks with ink-wells let in at regular intervals, and there were new slates lying in rows, and beautiful pencils with coloured paper pasted round them. We in the gallery had no slates and pencils; how I wished we had. There was a blackboard on an easel in front of us, which I found later was to be a kind of collective slate for the gallery; the teacher wrote on it, and we learned from it. In front of the scholars' desks was the teacher's, a wonderful piece of furniture I thought it. I nudged Claribel, next me, and whispered, “See the chest of drawers.” I'd heard of chests of drawers, though we hadn't one. But though this had a long drawer under the lid that lifted up, we soon learned it wasn't what I'd thought it to be. The lid sloped, and the teacher wrote on the sloping part, sitting on a high stool. Later, I discovered that, besides paper and things of that kind which she kept in her desk, it was the receptacle for confiscated articles belonging to us children. I brought my favourite alley one day—

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we played at home with boy cousins, and had what are usually thought to be masculine tastes in games—to show Daisy Speary, who needed impressing, and that found its way into the teacher's desk. It was a week before I gained courage to ask for it, and then I didn't ask; it was Dick who did so. But Daisy was clumsy to let that alley drop, and roll as it did, and leap down the gallery steps, so that not even the most lenient teacher could ignore it. Dick asked for it when he was seeking recovery of his 'possum-skinning knife, which had been confiscated, too, when caught in the act of nicking his desk. For we were human children, and with aboriginal proclivities, sins or not, I cannot pretend to say. Know, then, that the virgin freshness of that dazzling interior—of the exterior, too—was before long transformed to a very work-a-day appearance. There were originally but carefully drawn maps on the walls, but soon, perhaps in a spirit of imitation, there were freehand maps in black miniature prodigally splashed about desks and floor, as well as more upon the walls than the Department vouched for. Nay, even the ceiling, I believe, shared the speckled condition of the rest, for there are such things as squirts where the objective is out of arms' reach.

Those who sat next me, and those around me, I gradually took stock of as that first day wore on. Everything was to be begun. The children had to be sorted; in the first place they were drafted according to size. It was the only plan till something of our accomplishments was known. Somewhat small for my age, I was first placed on a lower form of the gallery. That was tentative, till the next test was applied; information as to our ages was then sought. That sent me to a row higher up. Lastly, places for many of us were changed again, when the educational test was put. Some of the bigger ones came down, and some of the dots were given the importance of a seat at one of the desks. It was really an examination of our parents, as well as of us. Some of the parents had given their children a good start, while waiting for the erection of a school in the settlement. There were others of the parents who, through lack of time, thought, or educational capacity,

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had done nothing in the way of teaching their children. It was a painful hour for some of us; a triumphant time for others, that period of final winnowing.

I remember seeing, with amazement, Jim Speary, one of the brothers who had sawn the wonderful timber, pass from a higher desk to a lower one, amongst lads of seven or eight, to begin his A.B.C. His fluffy whiskers looked strangely out of place amongst the babies around him. His embarrassment would have touched the hearts of any but children. We read shame in it, and a tendency to rebellion, but, mean little primitives as we were, we were all a-grin. It put us at our ease as no other thing had done that morning. Looking back now I am ashamed, though we were, perhaps, but as most children in our cruelty. Extreme youth does not instinctively regard as above laughter, fear or pain the first elements of tragedy, as Aristotle long ago laid it down.

The long limbs of Jim Speary, seeking to coil themselves into the small space available under the low desk in which he found himself, aroused our secret mirth, as well as the fact that one to whom we tiny ones had been disposed to look up merely because of his size should not know his alphabet. The teacher was a more fully developed human being than any of us, however, and she quickly and charitably readjusted her system of classification. She recognised that in placing us, after all, size must be considered as well as educational qualification. She put the bigger children, literate or illiterate, at the highest desk in the school, and, we soon observed, administered to them a mixed curriculum. No doubt that wise plan kept some of them from going back to the plough. Ignominy before grimacing urchins is not to be endured by the self-respecting who can turn a straight furrow.

What a task our teacher had! We were a queerly mixed group of urchins; more of us than one might think, from that narrow selvage of river-flat. It grew children abundantly; there were one hundred and four of us written down on the roll that day. How well I remember the strangeness of some of the names as I heard them for the first time! Those of neighboring children, because quite familiar, seemed fit and good.

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“Shadrack Speary,” for instance, and yet “Edith Graham” turned me to smiles and peeping looks. Some of those names, how familiar they became later in the companionship of work and play, in the many incidents of praise and blame that made up our school-life, as these things make up school-life everywhere, whether it be lived within renowned classic walls or in the environment of a bush State school.

I doubt if again, after that first day, the whole one hundred and four of us were all under the school roof at once. Amongst the universal instincts of children is, perhaps, to be classed the truant-playing instinct; and where can truant be so happily and profitably played as in the Australian bush, and where are there so many allurements to play it? Our frequent falls were venial, and who would not have fallen? It was a point of honour, for one thing, never to let a snake, once seen, escape us, and what could we do but wait for one that had escaped into a hollow log, to emerge and receive the quick despatch? It was, I say, a code of duty, and if the day on which such an adventure occurred had promised to present some knotty problem in arithmetic to us, that was merely coincidental. Eve was beguiled of a serpent, and we would avenge her.

School, as the unknown, was a place to be flocked to; school, as the daily objective, ceased to excite our curiosity. Besides truancy to keep us from its portal, there was work at home, always plenty of it, on the soil of that selvage. It was astonishing the potatoes that were annually produced along that strip of flats, and there was a theory amongst our elders that young hands are most expert in potato-picking. Fathers of the pioneer type regarded it as child's work; the hired men had long backs, and, besides, disdained it; if young folk had backs, which was doubtful, they never ached. Even school was preferable to most of us, but none ever played truant from homework for all that; it wasn't feasible. There were many home duties that called for a break in our attendance at school; parents had not had time to get used to the idea that the State had a prior right to the working hours of their children, and so, when there was a push of work on the farm, the teacher had to rush the children along for the examination

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when she had the opportunity. It was hard on us, the opposing theories of parents and Government, regarding our brains and hands, and I feel in my bones that it was hard on the teacher under a system of results. Poor, hard-worked, passing race of pioneers; there were many things that were hard on you, too, and we forgive you for causing us aching backs, ay, and sometimes aching heads, too!

The teacher battled on; it was in truth, a battle, parents and children both often pulling against her, while she sought to bring her little gang of primitives in learning and in manners up to standard. There were shy and bold ones of us; fast and slow; defiant and pliable; and all to be brought to a prescribed level. I close my eyes at this distance of time and place, and see again that little old school, dirty enough before my day with it was done—and now, I hear, the prey of the ants—and I see again the familiar desks and faces. I con again the dog-eared book, and add up the sum that refuses to come inside rules. I hear the buzz of the younger ones repeating what to me, in my higher estate, is trivial and easy, so that they all seem dunces. I note the easy performance of the classes above me, and hear myself sigh, wondering if I can ever do as they do with the vulgar fractions.

I see again the afternoon sun striking through the western windows; beating on our weary, dronish heads and tired forms. I watch again, and again fly into a world of my own with them, the midgets of the sunbeams whose world has no desks, no tasks, whose knowledge is feeling and dream.

And I see again, too, the fair-haired teacher, young, and with such violet eyes—they made a secret poet of me—going from class to class, from task to task, indefatigably, amongst her first generation of scholars. I see her sometimes now amid other scenes, still bearing youth and hope and vigour in her heart, still having heart and hope for humanity, young and old, and I wonder how it was that we left her these things. And I also wonder, sometimes, if we did not teach her something, little monsters though we were. There must have been something in us; some compensation from intercourse with us. We failed at least, to break her heart, or sour her; both we

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and the succeeding generations of us. It may be that she found a satisfaction in her ministry; even a reciprocity of gifts.

It brings back youth, and the long, long thoughts of youth, to dwell upon it all. These thoughts come stealing upon me, as the scents of the bush used to come floating in, and as the sunbeams used to fall on the western windows of that old schoolhouse so long ago.