Teaching at Greg Greg 1960-61

Greg Greg

I'm not sure on which map I found Greg Greg after receiving my appointment to teach there. The notice only said Greg Greg, Riverina Region. Riverina Region was a huge administrative area stretching from Khancoban to Wentworth, and north to Young, Temora and Griffith. Eventually I found the tiny dot which located Greg Greg south of Tumbarumba and north of the Murray.

My brother generously offered to drive me from Sydney and his remarks as we headed farther and farther down the highway, past Goulburn, Yass and then Gundagai were of wonder and incredulity. (Even in 1960 driving so far from the city was a venture not readily undertaken and destinations more distant then Goulburn, Bathurst or Newcastle had an aura of the exotic and the unknown.) When we left the highway and travelled through Tumut and Batlow an increasing tone of dismay crept into his remarks. The grim silence accompanying the final section of the journey on the winding, rough, dirt road from Tumbarumba through Tooma was broken by expressions of amazement on arrival at Greg Greg and finding it consisted only of the school, a solitary box kept company by a large tree in an overgrown paddock, and a handful of scattered houses, the homes of the valley's mainly dairy farmers.

In fact I was not greatly perturbed at my situation. Having elected a small- schools training course at Bathurst Teachers' College, I fully expected an appointment to a one-teacher school. Although the distance from my home in Sydney was a little disconcerting, the scenery through which we travelled, especially towards the end of the trip, and the welcome I received were not. My arrival began an attraction for Greg Greg which developed strongly during the two years I stayed there and has remained since.

It helped that I was offered permanent board and care by the de Hennin family. Many teachers in similar circumstances were rotated each term through the homes of local families and some of their tales of the living standards and family interactions were quite disturbing. I was well looked after in very comfortable circumstances and made friendships with family members that I am pleased to say still flourish today.

Greg Greg provided a wonderfully gentle introduction to teaching. The children, sixteen in number, were extremely acquiescent and co-operative. 

I cannot recall any difficulties with their behaviour towards me or between themselves. Not that everything was always perfect. One afternoon there was a knock on the door at about 4.15. It was the father of four school-age children who lived across the road. His terse and somewhat cryptic declaration at the doorway was, "We're one short!" My obvious puzzlement led him to add, "One didn't get home." It became easy to understand the message when I simultaneously heard a tiny sob coming from behind the door. I opened it and there stood John, the missing child. With a terrible sinking feeling I remembered I had told John during the afternoon to stand in the corner at the front of the room because of some misdemeanour. Either he had pulled the adjoining door across the corner with himself behind it or it had been pushed there by other children. Whatever the cause, he had stood there in complete silence as I went about my after-school work and perhaps would have been there until I discovered him when closing the door on leaving. My embarrassment was profound. Fortunately the father did not make an issue of my mistake, and I learnt never to put children in corners ... especially if they were not likely to advertise their presence if forgotten!

Although it covered the same areas, the syllabus was much more limited than that offered at present. There were no "perspectives" to be integrated across Key Learning Areas. Personal Development was considered too personal for dealing with at school, and extracurricular activities were either bowling to the teacher during lunchtime cricket or helping him clean the school on Friday afternoon. The cleaning attracted an allowance of $1 per week, a welcome addition to my salary of $45.20. I think that the District Inspector of Schools (long may his name be feared!), the highest position one could conceivably not-aspire to, was paid about $85 per week. (The Premier of N.S.W. received $230 per week.)

The days were spent doing Reading, Spelling, Grammar, Written Expression, Mathematics, Social Studies, Natural Science, Art, Handicrafts and Music.

Generally a "one-teaching-style-suits-all" approach was endorsed but variations to suit individual needs were implemented intuitively. All desks and seats, even for the infants, were screwed to the floor, and there was no other indoor space for their learning. Progress was by a rigid lock-step advancement, with all children expected to acquire particular skills or knowledge at the same time.

Reading in the infants was taught from the basic readers as supplied by the Department. There was a book of pre-reading activities called, I think, Let's Read which was to be introduced to the Kinder children in Term 2. In Term 3 they could start on A Book to Read, and master the 30-or-so sight words it contained. The "story" featured a suburban middle-class family, the children in which were the famous David, Sue and Wendy. One illustration showed their father, dressed in suit, tie and hat, driving off to work in his modern Holden sedan. To the Greg Greg children whose fathers didn't leave home to work and who never wore coats and ties while at work, it must have been somewhat perplexing.

Later the children were taken through It's Fun to Read, Gay Days, Open Road and Travelling On. The method of treating these books was very prescriptive and manuals were supplied to tell teachers when to introduce them, how to teach with them and the rate of progress that should be maintained. I think the Department's expectation was that the First Class children at Greg Greg would, on a given day, be doing the same reading lesson from the same page in the same book as the rest of the First Class children in N.S.W. would (or should) be doing.

In regard to teaching aids and equipment, the school had very little apart from the basic necessities supplied by the Department. As part of our course work at teachers' college we were required to make pre-reading materials, and we muttered darkly as we cut out and pasted pictures to make sets of shape-matching, colour-matching and jigsaw activities. When I started teaching I realised how useful these aids were and my regret was that I had not made them in greater quantities. After a child had accurately and very quickly completed an activity for about the fifth time, it became difficult to persuade him that there was some benefit or interest to be derived form doing it again. As always, children at this stage of learning had a voracious appetite for engaging in any work given them.

I should mention that in my first year there was no electricity. There was a radio which was driven by a car battery. A treat for the children was to view strip films shown by the battery-powered projector. The problem was the battery would be flat in a short time and then had to be taken to Corryong for recharging. There was no lighting and I suppose that on dull, overcast days we just carried on as best we could. Being the only public building in the settlement, the school was used for meetings of the progress association and I remember attending meetings at which Tilley lamps were used to provide light.

An important event was the connection of mains power to the settlement. Until this time the residents had their own rural power plants, sets of about ten car batteries which stored the 32-volt electricity produced by a diesel generator. When fully charged the batteries supplied household power for a few days. Then the lights would begin to fade, gradually becoming dimmer and dimmer and the book one was reading would need to be held closer and closer to the eye or to the fire. It became a waiting game, through the dim stage, into the "brown-out" and progressing perhaps by the next night to the gloom. Eventually someone would say, "I'd better go and start the generator," and within a couple of minutes the room was, relatively, flooded with light.

The contractors bringing the electricity worked with remarkable speed and anticipation mounted with the march of power poles across the flats. I can't remember any official switching-on ceremony but it would have caused much relief and delight when the convenience of mains power became a reality. However, it was noticed with some dismay that the 240 volt illumination revealed room interiors that, with accumulated smoke stains and fading paint, were not as bright as had been thought. Amongst the costs of conversion to the power was added that of painting, which in some cases led to new curtains which in turn led to new carpets and the possible replacement of some furniture. The farmers appreciated the benefits of electricity connected to their dairies but were not impressed by the expenditure incurred on their homes. It was ironic, by the way, that with the nearby Snowy Mountains Scheme producing power for vast and distant areas of Australia, Greg Greg was so late to receive its supply.

During my two years at Greg Greg the children did not go on an excursion. On a few occasions I took some children to the river after school to try to teach them to swim, a venture which, considering their almost total lack of ability and the swiftness of the river's flow, I later realised was not without its risks. At the time though it did not cause me concern, in the same way that the lack of school outings for the children was not regarded as anything untoward.

The school did not have the phone connected and in an emergency I would have had to send a child to the nearest house. The settlement was serviced by one party line and the operator in Tooma would dial the subscriber's code to establish a connection. Every phone on the line would ring but only the one whose code it was should have been picked up. It would seem that some people became easily confused about the pattern of rings and picked up their phones to see if it was their call. For some reason it usually took them a few minutes to establish that it was not for them after all.

Because of the inconveniences involved, I rarely used the phone on school business. I had just about no contact with the District Inspector of Schools. I did not have any days off sick, partly because I would not have known how to organise a replacement, if one was available.

I had one day of professional development and that involved a visit, with other small-school teachers, to Tumbarumba Infants. How this was organised and what happened to the Greg Greg children for the day, I cannot recall. I do remember the assembled small-schoolies marvelling at the vast amount of stores and equipment being held in the school. I suppose that on a proportional basis the school would have had no more resources than we did, especially as the supplies were issued by the Department on a strict per capita basis.

The schoolroom was heated quite effectively by a Warmray wood heater. It had to be because on the frequent foggy days (Greg Greg: Place of Frogs or Place of Fogs?), when mist would still be present into the afternoon, icicles would still be dangling from the fence at midday. An enduring memory is of the indoor barbecues. It was the custom for families to kill a steer in winter, hang the carcass In a shed and let nature provide the refrigeration. The children would bring a piece of steak to school and at about midday the enamelled cover-plate on the Warmray would be removed to expose the heater's metal casing. On would go the meat and the room would rapidly be filled with the aroma of sizzling steak. It certainly put an edge on one's appetite!

The children lived reasonably close to the school. Most travelled by car, one group of parents forming a car pool and taking turns to provide transport for a week. During my first year I did not have a vehicle and depended on these parents to take me to school. The mailman came through at about 5 o'clock on three afternoons and I would often wait for a ride home with him. Otherwise my time at school for lesson preparation and administration was very limited.

Being without a car caused some inconvenience. Greg Greg people mainly did their shopping after lunch on Friday. Not only did this diminish the number of children at school but it lessened my opportunities of obtaining a lift into town. People were willing to buy my necessities for me, toiletries and cigarettes, but other items were more difficult to organise. My pay cheques would arrive by mail but the problem was to get them to a bank. In the days when "short back and sides" were expected, I went one full term without a haircut. I did obtain the occasional trip to town, either with a local on Saturday morning to Corryong or with the teacher from Ournie who would make a long detour to collect me for a visit to Tumbarumba. I went with the de Hennins to Albury one weekend and I remember spending money like a prince on clothes. These trips, though modest enough, provided a welcome break from life on the settlement.

Not that life at Greg Greg was any hardship. On many afternoons I would have a hurried afternoon tea and rush off on a "hunting expedition." Armed with a short-barrelled, single-shot .22 Stitz rifle (how come I can still remember the name?) I would head into the hills around the settlement and declare war on the rabbit population. In the time available I would add to the lead deposit in the hills and occasionally bring back a rabbit or two to supplement the dog's food. My lack of success could be attributed to the absence of an adjustable sight on the rifle, or to my vague unease in shooting animals.

Anyway, the shooting was just an excuse to walk the hills. It was always something special to sit as evening settled and view the darkening landscape of the valley below and be lulled by the distant and familiar sounds of the milking drawing to its nightly conclusion. I could not help but think of the opening lines of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Then a downhill tramp through the gathering gloom and increasing chill to the indoor warmth and light. A hearty meal of mutton stew with dumplings would be followed by a few hands of Five Hundred or Cribbage. The men would go to bed early ready for the morning milking and I would read for a while. A simple routine but very satisfying.

The District Inspector of Schools was based at Tumut, about 120 km away on difficult roads. I was visited twice in my first year, the first time without any notice (and therein lies a story I may relate at some other time). The second visit was for my annual inspection and, as was the procedure, I was notified of the week, not the day, when I could expect him. It happened that the week he was to visit coincided with the car pool turn of a lady who, with her busy list of morning tasks, sometimes found it difficult to be on time. I contacted her and told her how important it was for me to be at school by 9.00 a.m. every morning of the coming week.

In spite of her best intentions, she was late collecting me on Monday. As we approached the school I was anxiously looking ahead to see if the inspector had arrived. To my relief, I could see no sign of him. It was an unpleasant surprise then, as I was hurrying in, only a few minutes late, to have him appear from behind the school. He had driven in, closed the gate and parked his car round the back of the school. It did not get the inspection off to a relaxed start. Later in the day he asked me why I was late and I explained my reliance on parents for transport. His curt response was, "I suppose you've heard of bicycles." When I later received my inspection report it contained a critical reference to my lack of punctuality.

The inspector was "one of the old school" and, amongst other traits, was very fastidious about his appearance and very correct in his demeanour. At lunchtime he said he would join me outside in my supervision of the children, implying that this was naturally a daily routine for me. He must have known that it was quite unnatural, as there was no necessity to supervise such a small group of well-behaved children. To their puzzlement, we joined them under the big tree. Like me they watched engrossed as he carefully removed the lid of his lunch box and daintily unfolded the soft, white serviette in which his sandwiches were wrapped. Like me, they saw the rush of blowflies instantly descend. After all, every local farmer raised pigs, and it was summer. The look of aggrieved distaste that soured his face was something we will never forget. "Perhaps," he said, "we could make an exception today and eat inside." Perhaps we never should have been outside in the first place!

I did not realise at the time how patient and how tolerant the Greg Greg parents must have been. I was barely nineteen years old, of only average maturity, and although I thought I had everything under control, I must have made my share of blunders and misjudgements. (At a more appropriate time I will relate how I came to conduct school on a Saturday!).I cannot recall receiving any complaints from parents. In such an isolated location, having such problems would have added to the difficulty of the job. Maybe the parents, and children, allowed my earnestness to compensate for my inexperience. In my defence I will say that I was committed and sincere in my efforts, inadequate as they may have been.

Though mainly uneventful, my time at Greg Greg was always interesting and enjoyable. It was the kind of first appointment (Teacher-in-Charge, the equivalent today being a promotions position for experienced teachers) undertaken by many teachers at that time. Most were challenging situations but provided the opportunity for the rapid development of teaching, administrative and inter-personal skills. Small-schoolies regarded themselves as a distinctive echelon in the service, and many remember this part of their career as a time they would not have missed. The tales they tell each other, of events inside and outside school, might be coloured by some unintended exaggeration but the sense of adventure, of growth and esprit de corps shines through.

I am thankful for the opportunities Greg Greg provided. I am grateful for the many kind and thoughtful people who helped make my stay so pleasant and memorable.