Country Section by Helen Bing
Early on a Sunday morning my friend Elaine and I boarded the Railway Bus to head up North. We had to go as far as Whangarei, then change buses and head North for another hour. My instructions were to get off at the Towai pub which was home for the next 4 weeks. When I told the driver where I was to get off, it caused much laughter throughout the bus and suggestions of us all stopping there for a break. Elaine had to go a bit further up the road to the Maromaku turn off where her host family would be waiting for her.
My stop. Towai. It really hasn’t changed all that much over the years. There’s a store and a garage and the pub that had been moved in earlier years from the railway station up on to the main road. It had obviously been used as a hotel once, but now the top floors were used by the owner’s family and worker, plus stray student teachers.
My host family were waiting for me, took me in and showed me my room that looked out over the main road. It was roomy and comfortable. There were two school aged girls in the family, who turned out to be lovely kids and a barmaid who was a bit older than me, but proved to be good company during the week. Day one at the school. I was taken to school in the school bus that stopped to pick the girls and I up from outside the pub. I walked around the front of the bus. For future reference I didn’t do that again. The children knew to go round behind the bus. The school was about a mile south of us just off the main road. The Headmaster at the time was a young, fairly ambitious man, newly married, but well and truly keen to do his best for the school and the farming community he represented. He was also very pleasant and made me welcome. He told me about the school. It had 2 teachers, and the children came from all around the area, some of them travelling, by bus a couple of hours a day to get to school. I had yet to meet my associate teacher. She had apparently just coming back into the work force, had been on lots of courses and she just adored the kids. A couple of minutes later a car pulled up, and out of it spilled the lady I was to work with for the next 4 weeks. She was lovely. She was motherly, caring and she ran an all-embracing room.
Next lot of introductions were to the children. It was a class of around 16 kiddies, ranging in age from 5 to 8-year olds. This was the Junior room. The Senior room was next door with, as you would expect, the seniors and taught by the Headmaster. The class was a combination of Maori and Pakeha (European descent) children, most of them from farms around the district.
My time in the school was enjoyable. Part of the time I was like one of the pupils, learning something new every day. Other times I was given groups of children to work with, helping them with reading or maths, writing or whatever other subject was happening. I got attached to one particular child, a young Maori boy, who was one of those children that you come across in your career, that always worked so hard, but everything was still a bit of a struggle. Whenever I had the chance, I would work alongside him.
I soon learnt that there were no such things as proper breaks. With only 3 people in the school, there was duty to be done every day. I also found out about country lunches. The family that I was living with had obviously decided that I needed extra feeding. On day one I opened the lunch box that I had been given to find it stuffed full of sandwiches and fruit. At this rate, my recently slimmed down body wasn’t going to last to well. I was also too timid to actually ask for less food in case I caused offence. There was only one day when I found myself in charge of lunch. For some reason, the adults didn’t appear that morning. Running a pub can mean some late nights. The children seemed to take this in their stride, and asked me to organise breakfast and lunches. That night when we got home, nothing was said, and life carried on as usual.
Evenings were quiet affairs. I usually had work to do or I watched tv with the girls. I was really glad I had a friend nearby. Elaine was staying on a farm opposite the Maromaku School. Her host family, unlike mine, were free in the weekends, and they were very welcoming. I stayed with this lovely family a couple of weekends. I don’t really remember any of the things we did particularly. I just remember their warmth and friendliness.
Part of our assignment was to get to learn something of the areas we were working in. This is where the bus driver became absolutely invaluable. He made time one day after school to take me on the school run. He was a mine of local knowledge as the bus dropped the children at farm gates up in the hills beyond Towai. Our last drop was my little friend from school, who, I discovered, was picked up just after 7.30 on the morning and finally dropped off at 4.30 at the end of the day. Poor wee mite must have been absolutely shattered most days.
It turned out that he lived a place called Ruapekapeka. This, what is now a small dot on the Northland landscape marked by a signpost as you head north, was the site of some fierce fighting during the land wars of the 1800’s. A massacre had occurred here when the local Maori left the safety of their trenches to go and worship on the Sabbath. They had been taught by the missionaries that this was a day of rest and assumed this meant all Christians. The soldiers just saw this as their chance to swoop, and swoop they did.
In week 3 of our country section, we were all asked to gather at a school just out of Whangarei called Glenberie. It was, in those days, a two roomed school with spare classrooms. This was our chance to learn more about the area. My greatest memories include too much alcohol being consume by the mainly male members of the group, then watching them trying to cope with the demands of the next day which included a trip to the Maungatapere dairy factory which was noisy beyond belief. It didn’t help some of the sore heads that groaned their way around the site.
I also was suffering from lack of sleep. We’d been told to bring sleeping bags, but no mention was made of sleeping mats, consequently Elaine and I were sleeping on the hard wood floors. After 3 days of this, I was tired, and I had 2 decent sized bruises where my hip bones met the floor.
Another thing I discovered was that we, that is Elaine and I, must have been the two most well-behaved students in Northland. Everybody else, it seemed, was making the most of the freedom, and underaged drinking was the norm. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could be making the most of the bar downstairs and getting to know the local farmers.
Towards the end of my section, I woke one morning with dreadful toothache. Oh lucky me, I had an abscessed tooth. I heard all about such things, and knew I needed a trip to the dentist. The nearest one was in Whangarei, an hour’s drive away. I figured the only thing to do was to catch the 9 o’clock railway bus into town and try and get it seen to. I made my apologies to the school, caught the bus and off I went. I got into town okay, but where to find a dentist. I went into one of the chemists and asked their advice. They pointed me in the general direction of a Mr Imrie, so I duly presented myself to the receptionist. She was very helpful, and I was seen quite quickly. I assumed I was going to lose the tooth, something that really terrified me, but no, he told me I‘d be able to keep the tooth, packed it with whatever dentists pack teeth with, gave me antibiotics and sent me on my way. I still had toothache, but no gaping hole in my mouth.
There was one last hurdle to get over - the visiting lecturer. He was from the art department, so, as art was one of my specialist subjects, I decided to teach an art lesson. Box sculptures I decided would be just the thing. When I think back, I was probably being a bit ambitious expecting the children to bring lots of boxes from home on the small bus that got us to school. Thankfully, my lovely associate teacher came to the rescue. She must have scoured the whole area for boxes, because by the time the day of the lesson arrived, we had an impressive pile of them. The lesson went reasonably well, I seem to remember. All those boxes got turned into robots, and the kids had a lot of fun playing with them.
Heavens only knows what became of them all. My time at Towai had come to an end. My Mum drove up from Auckland to pick me up. We stayed one extra night at the Towai pub then headed back to Whangarei to stay for a couple of days over the Easter break. The weather was still warm, so we spent most of the days on one beach or another.
These days there is no such thing as country sections. The country service requirement was dropped, so I never did get to teach in a small country school. The Towai pub is still there though. For all the times I have gone up North over the years, I’ve still never had a drink there. And as for the tooth, it’s still hanging on 50 years later.