Primary years

I began writing my memories in this post, and i think i’ll put down some more though it is a very messy state right now.

my first three years were at Farrer Primary, a small public (government) school in the newish suburb of Farrer, in Canberra’s south. My grandparents had lived there and mum in a house next door, so it made sense although we all soon moved away, my grandparents to a bigger brick house with a view of the mountains in Fadden, mum back out to the farm with dad, and as a consequence i experienced a lot of being driven around and picked up from school, and this led to the new trauma of waiting to be picked up while the playgrounds emptied out, and the exciting relief of a familiar car, dad’s old yellow holden ute or nana’s brown saab.

i remember once after nearly everyone had left and a strange curly haired woman walked up to me and said she was picking me up for mum and dad.. i took her word for it and went off with her.. how easy it is to fool young kids. Fortunately she was actually a friend of the family and it was the night of the 1983 bushfires when the roads to burra were closed, and my cousins and i had to stay in town with dad’s sister.. a very exciting night for all of us cousins sharing bedrooms.  The blackened trees along the burra road were a curiosity afterwards for many months and years.. one old burned out trunk that looked like a monstrous open maw was there until they straightened the road just a couple of years ago, around 2021.

it’s funny how many clear memories i have of the ground, from all that time spent sitting on it when you’re a little kid in primary school..  i have a strong sensory memory of the tight woven emerald green carpets of the demountable classrooms and library at Farrer primary .. and the squidgy rubber flooring in the hall that we would pick at and get told off for during music lessons.. learning the do re mi fa so la.  The hot grey asphalt of the assembly area outside the classrooms.. burning legs and gravel stones pressing and sticking onto our young skin.

my teacher for kindy and again in year 2 was Miss Sharah.. a gentle kind teacher with a pale round face and frizzy black hair and i cried when i left school for the last time knowing that i’d never see her again, although she also seemed to dislike me at times.. she once refused to let me go to the toilet cause i called it a ‘lavatory’ (an early experiment with language that didn’t play out the way i expected). mum tells me that Miss Sharah encouraged her to get me tested with a psyche for strangeness.. i don’t remember this.. i did visit a psyche who said i was a nice normal kid.  Another time she seemed to tease me and said i was a girl because of my long hair.. i didn’t mind but mum and nana somehow found out and recounted the story for years. One day she had a jar of olives to share and i was too scared to try one.. it was the end of the day and i just ran off..  and then regretted it for years and now whenever i eat olives i wish that I could let Miss Sharah know that i had conquered my fear of them.

difficulties with food were getting up to stride for me around this time.. i was a picky eater and i liked mushy plain things like many kids.. but at the same time mum was keeping me on a strict healthy diet and so i wasn’t having a lot of cake or sweets at this time. She took me to a food specialist about my eating problems and he suggested to her that she try and get me to eat jellybeans if i wouldn’t eat anything else.. of course i would have been happy to eat jellybeans. In the playground i remember picking up chips that other kids had dropped and discretely eating them for a treat. Back at home i could also subvert mum and get my sugar fix from grandmas house next door as she always had a reliably stocked lolly jar, famous to all my cousins. Minties, fantails, cobbas, clinkers, liquorice all-sorts, raspberries, all stuffed into pockets, the guilty wrappers to be found by mum later on. Mum is a great cook and made lots of tasty meals i think i was just a bit sugar starved in those early days and i certainly have caved in to my sweet tooth now in my adulthood.

I was nearly always alone in the playground.. living in my own little world.. the strange kid.  I did have a couple of memorable encounters. One with redheaded Mary in the pipe tunnels where we explored our bits. Another with Troy who was a bad kid, but i stuck with him because no-one else would. I remember once in year two at his instigation we seriously harassed a kindy girl down by the boundary fence. I still feel terrible about all that.. the distinct unease of being the sidekick of a bad person.. though i seem to remember getting him to stop and walking away. I wonder if Troy went on to a life of crime.. i think he might have had a scary home life as i visited there once and he tried like a maniac to stop me from leaving. How confused and dreamlike all our early friendships are.  I was secretly for most of my early years intensely in love with a girl in my class called Libby, who had a friend called Sally. Even now those names resonate for me with a special significance. I tried to enhance my friendship with Libby by sharing a biscuit at the start of recess .. but although she accepted it, she was not open to further conversation. I carried the scar from this rejection for a long time.

kindergarten alex

I can clearly remember my kindy and year two classrooms with Miss Sharah, and the activities there, watching playschool on the big telly, boards covered in words we were learning to spell, messing about with an early Apple IIE printing dot matrix cards, shyly taking my book to the teacher’s table for marking, the science exhibition by some year six students who had invented glasses with tiny windscreen wipers.. but strangely i have no memories of my year one classroom.

At the beginning of year one I tried to get into a different class..  in the first week.. it was at the start of the day where we all lined up and i simply joined the end of the line of another year one class, the class with the cool male teacher, and hoped that no-one would notice. Well they didn’t notice for about half a day then my actual teacher came and took me back. This was Mrs O’Neil with stern glasses and a dress with big buttons. I don’t think i had a terribly happy year in that classroom .. i must have been living inside my head a lot that year as i have a strange memory hole. My first years at school on the whole were a trauma, Farrer Primary was essentially a frightening place to me. On the other hand i was doing quite well at the learning part of it, at the things like spelling which were the measures of our success then. I don’t remember anything being a challenge except the social aspect of it all, the authority and the new routines when i just wanted to be home on the farm with mum and my new baby sister.

My lack of friends caused some concerns to my parents but i managed eventually to get invited to a girl’s party.. i forget her name but i remember her being kind to me.. i was one of only two boys invited alongside all the girls from our class .. her parents commented on how well behaved i was in comparison to the other boy.  i think this was a kid called Jonathon who i befriended and he even came over to play with me after school at nanas house once, a rare playdate. Nana would recount the story for years after about how uncontrollable he was, bouncing a basketball all over her petunias, and how he wouldn’t eat the fruit plate she prepared, saying “haven’t you got any biscuits?!”. But really he was a fairly normal hyperactive kid.  By year two i had a friend called Benny, a proper nice friend, and we went to each other’s birthday parties and i started to have a normal social life in the playground.. but then the impacts of all that driving were beginning to wear on everyone so it was decided that i would change schools and so i had to say goodbye to Benny and Farrer.

Funnily enough, a couple of friends i made later in life also went through Farrer primary and it turned out we had all been in those playgrounds together but we couldn’t really fix any definite memories of each other from those days. It’s interesting comparing the impressions we all had of different teachers, and Miss Sharah was a favourite.

Queanbeyan Public School (QPS) was a more sensible school to go to from Burra as I could catch the school bus that went past the Burra park and so get to know the other burra kids with whom i now shared a rural home life, as opposed to the public servants’ children i was mingling with in Farrer. Mum and dad were not public servants, mum was working at home bringing up my sister, building up the garden, dad was working in the shed on the property, running his own business welding together steel gates to deliver all over town. So I started there in 1986, in a class with the firm and kind Mrs Lumsden, tall with short straight light brown hair. My parents had decided, with their concerns about my shyness at school and social difficulties, that i should do year two all over again. This might have been a mistake in retrospect as i spent a lot of the subsequent years of my schooling being a bit bored with the curriculum, and of course it meant that i had to endure an extra year of school overall. It’s an interesting choice when putting your child into school, if you get them in one year earlier you are gifting them another year of their adult life in a way; as they emerge from school a year earlier. But then it’s probably more of a struggle, especially in the early years when you’re young if everyone around you is older. But anyway at the time i was very happy with the change, as the year two class i had with Mrs Lumsden was a lovely one and for the first time at school i really thrived.

That year i wrote my first poem – about Haley’s comet. It’s got a bit of an Edward Lear ring to it.. the first verse went:

“Little comet in the sky
like a tadpole very high
will you ever, ever die?
little comet in the sky”

I also wrote and illustrated a short story called “the brick” about the adventures of a brick as it went through its life, being built into buildings and collapsing out of them, ending its life as a paperweight. My teachers loved it and it was typed up and bound – and for the first time i felt recognised and valued at school. My confidence increased dramatically at that moment, and this carried me through my years at QPS.

The classroom environment that Mrs Lumsden created was calm and relaxed. There was a pile of farmyard animals we could play with when we finished our work, and a listening station with cassette tapes and banks of big comfy headphones. We had art classes where we made candles and things out felt and did lino cuts (using those sharp tools at quite a young age!). I remember once when the blackboards had been repainted Mrs Lumsden had to prepare it by laboriously covering the whole board in chalk then rubbing it all off again. The playground was full of interesting pine log playground equipment (since removed, alas!) and mature elm and oak trees – it was an old school, most of the buildings were from the 1920s, the art rooms were even older. The whole atmosphere was somehow more pleasing to me and i began on five mostly happy years of school. My own kids went to QPS for some of their primary schooling and although it’s changed a bit i think it still has that same feeling as when i went there, some of the same teachers were even still hanging on twenty years later..

It’s hard to pick out a few things to record here from my years at ‘Isabella’ as QPS is affectionately called.. memories of buying hot soup and meat pies from the canteen on cold winter days.. flocks of pigeons flying around the old redbrick buildings. More green carpet.. sash windows chalkboards high ceilings, scary heaters breathing gassy fumes, bright globs of bubblegum stuck under the tables. The change from early years where the playground is dominated by boisterous older kids who seem so sophisticated and worldly to later years when you rule the roost like a little aristocracy. The changing fashions of marbles, yoyos, cats cradle games with string, matchbox cars. I loved my big bag of marbles – some of which had been dad’s before me, and a dramatic moment when i was encouraged by some older kids to tip them all out so they could have a look… which they did, picking over them.. and then later when i went through them all i found that some of the best ones had been stolen! I was doubly distraught as i saw myself as the custodian of dad’s collection though of course he didn’t mind.

In writing this i find that its at about this age – eight or nine – that my memories are becoming richer and more complete, which means that i must be more selective about how i recount them and in deciding what i must leave out. Up to this age everything is burned into my mind like a laser but the context is often lost. The years that follow are already woven into a more complex narrative with a layer of interpretation and action.. the voice in my mind that increasingly gave meaning to events the very moment they were lain down. Coming back to these now its tempting to adopt an even more magnanimous summarising voice that ties everything into the great narrative of my life… but that threatens to bury my lived experience which is what i really want to lay bare.. i am trying to be an archaeologist.

In the library in year five i accidentally on purpose nearly electrocuted another kid.. it was during my fifth year and i had got interested in old calculators. A friend bought in one of those old calculators that plugged into the wall. We were in a little room by ourselves in the library and plugged it in then took the cover off so there were live terminals exposed. Knowing that it could be deadly, i encouraged another kid that was there to touch the terminals. First just one and then both at the same time.. he said he felt a kind of jolt but he was ok. But i think it might have knocked the fuse out of the library as the library teacher knew something was up.. our parents got letters from the principal .. but the school never really knew how bad it was. And even though i think i knew in my mind that death could result from touching live terminals, it still seemed like it couldn’t be that real or easy to end a life. My thinking went something like that. I do have a dark streak, this was one of those times. I don’t know why but sometimes i do seem to encourage others to do self destructive things. Perhaps its retribution for all those earlier years of feeling alone in the playground. I do self destructive things to myself too.

But in contrast to those early weird and lonely days at Farrer, I was finding my feet and my identity at QPS. My friend Paul once told mum that i was the class clown and i was a bit aghast but it’s true that i liked to be entertaining. I leaned into it and i also drew on my life at the farm to colour my personality. I got fanatically into old engines and a friend of mine Emmett became obsessed with v8s and drew pictures of them and hung out in the backlot behind his house near the railway station, looking at the old burned out cars and engine parts. We walked over to white rocks on the queanbeyan river where people burned stolen cars and rolled them over the cliffs there, and explored the caves and clambered among the blackberries and the limestone. Emmett was my best friend. He had a cool, wild edge, and attracted and influenced me so much. We were both into engines, cars, dogs and he introduced me to rock music – Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He had a pink electric guitar and lots of boss pedals. I think i’ve written about Emmett before on this site. As well as masculine things we were also really into teddys – we had pound puppies and a whole fleet of other teddies we’d named and i had constructed a ‘teddy town’ out of boxes and things in my room.  We took the teddys for picnics and once we built a campfire in a bit of bush just on the edge of town around Barracks Flat and it nearly got out of control. The teddy’s had a band ‘Black Floyd’ and froggy was the singer, Garfield played guitar, Hory Gory a sort of gorilla played drums, Dog (from Footrot Flats which we loved) was a backing vocalist, and Bill the pound puppy drove the bus. We would get so excited about teddy adventures. I suppose we were about 9 or 10. One day before a sleepover a teacher confiscated one of Emmett’s teddys because we accidentally dropped it over the boundary fence. I remember feeling the deep injustice of it, the lack of recourse.

Injustice also struck one day when i was playing by myself in the sand pit and a big sturdy older kid stomped on my fingers as he walked by. I got cross and threw sand in his face so he just walked up and punched me in the nose.. it bled profusely and i was in the toilets for ages after all the classes had gone in. But i had a strange feeling like i was the one who should be embarrassed so i never told anyone about it. In later years whenever he saw me he’d laugh at me, it was one of those stupid schoolyard things that stays with you. I think i might have tried to punch him back but i am such a weakling it had more or less no effect at all, i can visualise my thin paper like wrist just folding up with the impact.

My first and longest friend through those years was Anthony, a tall quiet boy, we met in year two and hung out on and off right through till year six. I had several sleep overs and playdates at his house on Glebe Avenue which was right opposite the showground entrance. We’d go over there on weekends and watch the greyhound races. His was a nice old house with one of those mysterious sewer vent pipes in the backyard.. his grandma lived next door – i discovered that she had a painting by my grandma hanging over her fireplace! Hers was a big house over two blocks, it’s gone now, replaced by ugly units, but Anthony’s is still there. His mum could get cross and once we were playing with our pet mice and must have been a bit rough cause Anthony’s got a broken leg .. his mother went completely beserk i remember thinking it was an over reaction but perhaps it wasn’t really. She used to use a wooden spoon and had it out once when we got back too late from a walk along around the Queanbeyan river down by the suspension bridge. I found corporeal punishment terrifying although mum and dad had smacked a bit when i was smaller.. (she didn’t use the spoon on me). Anthony’s dad had died when he was a baby, there was a picture of him with dark curly hair like Jim Morrison.  Anthony started getting a moustache before any of us and we were all very curious to learn about using a razor from him. He went to a different high school to me and we lost touch though i heard he changed his name to Tony and got into music.. we’d probably have continued to get on well.. maybe he’ll show up again one day. I think we had the same birthday or something funny like that.

By year six, age 12, i had a strong gaggle of friends around me. I was on top of the world, somehow having managed to get voted in as a school prefect, i spent the year running assemblies and having an access-all-areas pass to the school to add up house points written on the blackboards of each classroom to determine who’d be winning the weekly trophy handed out each Friday. I had a crush on my teacher, Mrs Williams, and a real life girlfriend Maria who i drove around in my old mini minor on the farm which only had two gears. Things seemed to be going fine and life was going to be alright.

old school photo
my year four school photo

this series continues in a way over here: high school years


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