Off To School

October 14, 2019
First day of school

GARY STEEL’s daughter started school today, but this old dad – still haunted by his own school experience – looks on with a mixture of fear and optimism.


First day of school

The anticipation was killing me. Or rather, a mixture of excitement, anticipation and dread.

I hope that the dread is merely a random, floating fragment – pointless negative detritus based on my own experience – because I desperately want my 5-year-old’s school experience to be a wholly positive one.

From the age of 3 she has wanted to be of school age, and as she got closer to turning 5 she got more strident about it all. For most of the year she’s been telling me that she’s bored with kindergarten, but in my floating detritus looms doubt that school won’t be anything like she expects it to be.

That’s what it’s like to be an old dad. When you’re 60 and your daughter is 5 and is about to embark on her school years, and your primary school experience was back in the mid-1960s and your memories of it are murky and dark and contain little in the way of joy or anything much to cherish.

Yesterday, she was just a wee strawberry

Back then, at Hamilton’s Knighton Road Normal (ha!) everything was done with military precision and discipline, and keeping us in line and making us shut up was more important than actually teaching us anything. And teaching was by-rote stuff, nothing very creative. We were always having to assemble and stand straight and sit straight in our very uncomfortable chairs and freeze in the middle of Hamilton winters in prefabricated classrooms with ineffectual heating.

It was an anxious experience for me from the beginning and I’m pretty sure it’s led to a lifetime of social anxiety. I was a shy boy in any case, as I’d been a sick infant and a frail boy and as I hadn’t attended kindergarten and hadn’t been around other kids (apart from my much older brother and sister), suddenly sticking me in a classroom with grim-faced teachers and the pandemonium of 40-odd 5-year-olds in a classroom was all too much.

She eats with a bit more decorum now
She eats with a bit more decorum now

On the first day, I wet myself. I was so shy that I couldn’t ask the teacher to go to the toilet. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. There was free milk available at play time – horribly lukewarm milk in small glass bottles – but I was too slow to get an unspoiled one. There was always a rush and the bullies would intentionally push in the foil caps and poke their tongues in or spit in there and then grab an unspoiled bottle, leaving the dregs for unlucky dweebs like me.

I must have been a sorry sight, because I had a bad case of hayfever and there was a line of Wattle trees just outside the classrooms that, every time they came into flower, made me sick. The teachers just kept me inside the classroom nursing my perpetually running nose and eyes and bulging, itchy eyelids. Eventually, I needed to go to the doctors every other week for an injection, and it was wonderful getting off school even if the needle itself was a traumatic experience.

I was a sickly child

This hayfever injection experience taught me a valuable life lesson, however: that good things often come from suffering. To compensate for the pain, Mum would let me buy a comic-book, but like the nerd that I am, my comics of choice were Casper The Friendly Ghost and his alter-ego, Spooky.

It says a lot that the injection experience was a highlight of my primary school years. My other memories are mostly frightening ones. In what they called Primmer 4, my teacher was a Miss Bagley, whose idea of discipline was to grind her stilettos into the feet of pupils, or pick them up off the ground with their hair. I told my parents what she’d been doing and they met up with the headmaster about it. I don’t think she was sacked, but I do remember a few years later when my father showed me a picture of Miss Bagley in the Waikato Times as an ambassador for New Zealand cheese in the UK.

Even though I was clearly a dweeb, like most young boys I had heaps of energy and loved outdoor activities. I loved the idea of running marathons but I was only good at sprints and I aspired to play soccer but soon found out that I was hopelessly slow and nobody wanted me on their team. I guess that was the start of a lifelong trend: that I would do my own thing, and never be a team player.

An idyllic family scene but school was a nightmare

But you get the picture: what I remember of my school days of more than 50 years ago still gives me the heebie jeebies, so it’s hard not to feel anxious about my 5-year-old on her first day of school today. This, despite the fact that I know things have changed radically over time, and the fact that my daughter is healthy and has had opportunities that I never had, like going to kindergarten and Play Centre and making friends and becoming an adept conversationalist (and canny manipulator!)

She knows and has experienced so much that I hadn’t at the same age. At that age girls are often leagues ahead of boys socially and intellectually, but the differences between the mid-1960s and 2019 are extreme.

Unlike her dad, she’s healthy and resilient

I need to reign in my anxiety because I have a great amount of optimism about my daughter’s educational prospects. And I don’t mean academically, just that I think she stands a good chance of getting a rounded education at her primary school, not just made to sit on a hard seat to learn by rote by teachers with rulers ready to whack any kid who makes a peep.

I know the new headmaster there (and his family) and they’re great people. Maybe I’ll be able to enjoy my daughter’s ride through primary school, and maybe (just maybe) it might help to exorcise my own school demons.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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