Karangahake School and District 70th Jubilee 1889-1959
It was a lovely bright morning. Farm chores had been disposed of and the animals were loitering about enjoying the sunshine before dispersing on their eternal hunt for food. Intermittently the cow-bells tinkled gently to the cud-chewing, and a homely cackle came from the fowl yard. Always an early riser, Dad had been up since the tuis heralded the dawn and now his axe could be heard ringing in the bush on the hillside.
There was tremendous excitement inside the little four-roomed cottage. The date was the third of February, 1902, and schools were opening after the summer vacation. The two elder children were to be presented for enrolment and Mother was taking them on the long trek to the big school at Karangahake. Edith was seven, but being delicate had been kept at home till Nellie, a big, but dreamy four, might be allowed to accompany her along the hazardous road.
The little girls gazed at their not very young work-worn Mother, with something akin to awe, when she appeared in her unfamiliar best, but by no means new dress — a regal creation of pin-spotted saffron, its skirt almost sweeping the floor and its high-necked close-fitting bodice buttoned down the front to just below the neat waist-line. A large once elegant hat was firmly pinned on her beautiful piled-up hair. There was just a suggestion of apprehension in her usually patient manner as she cast an appraising eye over her small daughters.
There was Edith, with her long hair in a pigtail, her small pale face consumed by her own intensity, and a certain frustration that might make life difficult for her, and Nellie who lived in a world of her own. She had the country child's shyness but underneath was warm-hearted and friendly. "A softy" her father said, because of her exasperating tendency to grieve over such things as the fine fat pigeons he shot in the miro and puriri trees, or the kaka and kiwi skins he tacked to the kitchen wall. Though not at all practical, her droll imagination rescued her from many a dilemma.
They stood there expectantly in their highly-polished boots, one pair fairly new, the other "handed down" and rather too large. Their longish gown-like cotton frocks were topped by gleaming-white starched pinafores, and they wore mushroom hats with elastic under their chins. Each clutched a sugarbag kit containing a mystery lunch, specially contributed by Grandmother, and wrapped in a sheet of "Weekly News," plus two dusters for slate cleaning, a wet and a dry one. To be sure Edith's kit also contained a book, for she was already a fluent reader, a fact which baffled Nellie, as did the knitting and crochet, the work of her sister's clever hands. Her own lack of ability rather worried her.
Will it matter, Mother?" she asked anxiously.
"No dear, you will learn at school. Now both of you run over and say goodbye to Gran and Mary, and then come quickly. The eight o'clock whistle will go soon."
Farewells being said, the immaculate group set off down the hill and over the bridge. Grandfather was busy getting metal from the punga fringed creek and they paused to shout "Goodbye" to him. At the road-side "bread-box" they all turned instinctively. On the verandah of the cottage beside their own, two figures were waiting — darling silver-haired Gran, holding the much loved two-year-old Mary, who was waving vigorously. Doing likewise, they turned resolutely and gave themselves to the narrow cobbled road.
The first mile, through picturesque wild country wound down hill, making them want to run, though the rough loose stones and the pinafores urged discretion. Leaving the main highway, where the big hotel provided for wayfarers, they toiled up the old Rahu Road, through the well-settled Mackaytown and descended the exciting Jacob's Ladder steps to the footbridge by the Doherty's Creek Ford. Then they were in Irishtown and followed the thickly populated road beside the brown river. Great wagons drawn by sweating teams lumbered past them and many other children were going in their direction. But several times they met small groups of weary miners returning home after night-shift, carrying their crib-tins and swinging their candle lanterns.
The din of the batteries, that had seemed only a rumble at home, now crashed on their ears like thunder, as the great crushers ground the quartz to powder. Their own living had been linked with the land, not so much with the golden seams of the "Underground," but with the scant surface soil that was cultivated to grow food for themselves and their animals. Their immediate back-ground was the bush, a mysterious living thing that was continually subjected to sacrifice, giant kauris, timber of all kinds, exploited to supply their daily bread and future needs.
The rarely visited mining township with its noise and excitement, seemed like a new world. They passed through it now, their dusty boots clattering on the unaccustomed pavement, their eyes infatuated by the shop windows and yet drawn to the amazing sharp-peaked mountain that towered above them, and to the great cages that magically sped up and down the sloping wire ropes. Turning their backs on this scene they began to climb the flights of long steep steps that led to the school. They were facing the gleaming peak of the "White Rocks" now, nature's old and marvellous monument that broods over the nurture of Karangahake's young.
The playground was full of children, big and small, but Mother found her way into a corridor where other parents and beginners were waiting. At last their turn came, and a big girl ushered them into the Headmaster's presence. They knew that his name was the same as their own and had pictured him as a duplicate of their father. But Mr Augustus Scott was entirely different and they stood speechless before this solemn dark stranger, who seemed to think that birthdays were tremendously important. When Mother explained about Edith he nodded his head in understanding and wrote in his big book, but when she said that Nellie was only four, he looked at her alarmingly and his voice was stern.
"No," he said firmly. "You must take her home till she is five. Miss Palmer already has far too many children — nearly 80 and she cannot take four-year-olds."
A monitor had been told to take Edith away, but suddenly there was a commotion in the corridor. A voice was saying, "Well, you're a big kid to be in the baby class," and Edith's voice shouted back, "I can read and write and you leave me alone!"
Two pink spots in Mother's worn cheek deepened as she rose, but desperately she made one last plea.
"Please Mr Scott, could Nellie stay just for today?"
The answer was decisive but not unkind.
"No — I'm sorry. She is a big girl, but in no time she would be crying for nothing and adding to our problems. The Mackaytown Side School should be opened soon after she is five and I advise you to let her start there. But you could go and see the Infant Room before you leave."
They found their way there, and met Miss Palmer, so incredibly slim and neat in her white blouse and long dark skirt. She was surrounded by multitudes of children, but she assured Mother that Edith, who was already reading to her, would be put into her top class and that she would herself see her as far as her own Mackaytown home in the afternoon. Arranging to meet her there, Mother and Nellie left the building. Hand in hand they silently began descending the steps and then Mother asked, "Did you like seeing all the children?"
A queer voice replied, "Not very much. There's too many."
Mother's hand tightened on the small one and they both stopped and looked at each other. Nellie's tear-filled eyes fell and she faltered, "I'm not crying — for nothing. These ugly boots — they hurt me."
Then she buried her face in Mother's voluminous skirts and wept.
With little consideration for her best dress Mother sat down on the step and began removing the offending boots, well knowing that the unutterable source of sorrow lay deeper than that. When Nellie looked up she was alarmed to see tears running down Mother's face.
"O, Mummie," she cried in an agony of sympathy. "Are your feet hurting too?"
Mother smiled wryly.
"We'll go to Mr Searle," she comforted. "He will hammer down the nails. And then we'll go to Miss Bullian and buy a new hair-ribbon."
So kind Mr Searle put the boots on his last and gave them a good hammering, and then dusted them till they shone again. And kind Miss Bullian, who saw Mother so seldom, invited her to have a cup of tea at the back of the shop. Remembering Gran's lunch in the sugarbag kit they unwrapped it and shared their bounty. What joy after that to choose a ribbon from the beautiful showcase. Life was indeed wonderful and one forgot about the pain of all the things one could not talk about.
"Then," as every child ends a story, "they went home."
O God, give us ability
To see ourselves,
Not as we fear we are,
Nor as we would wish to be,
Nor yet as others see us,
But with understanding
And sun's clarity