In early summer, just before the cicadas had started singing, our kindergarten teacher formed us into a crocodile, and we marched over the hill to Mount Atkinson Primary School*. I hadn't previously heard of crocodile formation, and I remember being disappointed that it didn't involve actual man-eating reptiles.
There was no disappointment about the school visit itself. The Primer 1 teacher, Mrs Phelp, was so gentle and friendly that she seemed to project a golden aura of loveliness -- rather like Glinda the Good in the Wizard of Oz. She spent a few moments with each child (I was even allowed to sit on her knee), and then she played us the LP version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. We crocodiled back to kindergarten while she waved fondly from the classroom door. I didn't want to leave.
I paid another visit to school after Christmas -- this time alone with my father. The headmaster asked if I ever wet my pants. What a disgusting question; didn't he know that I was nearly five years old? I contemplated the beauty of the coming year: the prestige of being a school-goer, the tender affections of Mrs Phelp, and endless sunny mornings of Beatrix Potter stories.
My fifth birthday fell on a Thursday. Heavy rain in the morning didn't dampen my enthusiasm -- although I did experience a twinge of panic when my mother left me in the classroom. Mrs Phelp seemed strangely distant. She led me to a large bucket and handed me a lump of clay. My classmates were busy at work-tables making snakes.
I sat down and fiddled with my clay. At another table, two boys became involved in a scuffle. Mrs Phelp strode forth and dragged them to the front of the schoolroom. I noticed that her face had become flushed and crimson. "This," she announced to the class, "is what happens to children who fight." She grasped the boys firmly by the hair, and cracked their foreheads together. They reeled backwards, wailing and clasping their brows.
It was a horrifying moment. The sound of the boys' heads knocking together was particularly nasty. I'd somehow expected a noise like ripe coconuts -- the sickening wet crunch, and the screams of the punished were infinitely more disturbing.
Mrs Phelp's temper was on a hair-trigger for the rest of the morning. There were no further physical corrections, but several times she shouted and ranted at children (over trivial matters) until they were left sobbing. By lunchtime, her resemblance to Glinda the Good had entirely evaporated. In fact, if Mrs Phelp had flown away on a broom-stick, leaving the words 'Surrender David' as a vapour trail in the sky, I wouldn't have been at all surprised. And I would have surrendered, too.
During lunch break, the six-year-old girl who lived on our street cruelly rejected my overtures of friendship, on the basis that: a) I was only five years old; and b) I was a boy. I was left to wander, spurned and friendless, around the playground. I had never before felt so alone and miserable. An older boy stopped me, and informed me of his intention to report me to the police. I protested my innocence. The boy assured me that I was guilty of "throwing a pie at a policeman" -- and that he'd seen it with his own eyes.
I now realize that this was a feeble joke. At the time, however, I ran terrified to the back of the school where -- I imagined -- the police were less likely to search for me. There was an old air-raid shelter built into the hillside near the school incinerator. The entrance to the shelter had been blocked off, but through the bars I could see a long tunnel snaking underneath Mount Atkinson.
Two older boys were loitering near the shelter. I asked them what it was. One of them replied in a very grown-up manner -- I suppose he was eight or nine years old -- that it was where the headmaster put naughty children for punishment. And by the look of me, he said coolly, I could expect to spend a bit of time there.
It was all too much. I sat on the stairs at the back of the school and began to weep uncontrollably. Eventually my sobs diminished, and my attention was drawn to a trickle of liquid, dribbling down the steps. I wondered if a pipe were leaking in the cloakrooms. Upon further investigation, I discovered -- to my horror -- that the liquid was coming from my trousers. It was the sort of accident that hadn't happened to me in a very long time.
After lunch I sat damply in the schoolroom as the junior mistress took us for a lesson. Mrs Phelp was elsewhere -- perhaps summoning an army of winged monkeys. The class was asked to stand for a game of 'Simon says'. One of the new boys in the class, Troy, remained seated. He suffered from cerebral palsy and couldn't walk without crutches.
The junior mistress ordered Troy to stand. He was unable to explain his predicament. Several members of the class tried to give an explanation on Troy's behalf -- but made themselves incoherent by speaking at the same time. Enraged at the apparent act of rebellion, the junior mistress attempted to drag Troy to his feet; and when he collapsed on the floor, she pulled down his pants and belaboured his bare bottom.
Troy was removed from school shortly after this incident, and a year or so later it was rumoured that he had died. I've often wondered whether the rumour was true.
As a new entrant, I was allowed to go home at two o'clock. I remember the enormous sense of relief when my mother collected me. And the inconceivable thought that I would have to go back.
In time, however, I adjusted to school. I never liked the place -- but there were some mitigating features. The school grounds were surrounded by native bush. We were strictly forbidden to go beyond the playing fields, but I spent many lunchtimes illicitly climbing trees and exploring a leaf-stained creek. There was a hollow puriri tree where I used to read. Even now, if I were asked to describe a perfect afternoon, I couldn't do better than a book under a puriri tree with speckles of sunlight across the pages.
In Standard 4, presumably due to an administrative error, I was briefly appointed 'bell monitor'. I was a total failure, and once achieved the spectacular feat of keeping the entire school twenty minutes late at lunchtime while I watched an eel in the creek. Strangely, I was never punished for this enormous crime, which makes me wonder if the teachers weren't secretly grateful.
My first day as a school-goer contained all the ingredients that would characterize my subsequent school experiences: fear, bewilderment, violence, and injustice. I didn't know it then, but by Standard 4, the happiest of my school-days were behind me. From this point onward, things would begin to seriously deteriorate.