Cole cocks his leg and aims a stream of wee at the red brick wall. It leaves a dark, dribbly stain. I can see what he’s doing from the back step of our Forestville house where I wait while mum gets the camera ready. I’m with Mark and Kelly and we’re all in our school uniforms—my dress is green and white checks with a yellow girl-scout tie. Mum has tied my hair tightly in three bunches, one over each ear and one at the top of my head. I’m wearing short brown socks and shiny brown school shoes, Catholic brown. The kids who go to the state schools, the pubbos, wear white socks and black shoes. I am four years old, almost five. It’s January 1970, the first day of the new school year—my first day of school.
On the cement step next to me is a small brown school case with a semi-circle handle. I’m not happy about this case because it’s a hand-me-down. My uniform is also hand-me-down. I am the youngest of three so that’s the deal – I get second hand stuff, names scratched out, stickers over stickers. Kelly crossed out and Jane written in bolder, darker ink.
Mum is wearing her short pink dress with the bow at the front.
‘Look at the camera kids, say cheeeese.’
Years later, when I look at the little white-bordered photo mum took that day, the first thing I see is Cole’s wee patch on the wall.
There’s not much inside my school bag, just my lunch and a pencil case. Lunch is a perfectly-made sandwich; two slices of frozen Fielders Fresh white bread with butter and a scraping of Vegemite, cut into four triangles and wrapped in crisp baking paper. It’s like a little present waiting to be opened, thawed to fluffy freshness by lunchtime. Play lunch is an orange, peeled round and round very carefully so as not to break the ‘snake’, then wrapped up and sealed tightly with Glad Wrap. The sandwich and the orange are in a brown paper bag. Mum says the budget won’t stretch far enough for a lunch box.
My pencil case is blue. It comes with cardboard letters cut out to spell your name. The letters slide inside small plastic windows on the front of the pencil case but you have to be careful because if you force them, they’ll crinkle up. I wasn’t careful enough, so the ‘J’ is creased, which I’m a bit cross about.
Our school is in the same street as our house —up the hill and over a busy road. There’s a zebra crossing (not a real zebra) and we have to wait for all the cars to stop so we can cross safely. Cole really wants to come with us and mum has to hold him by the collar while she waves us off. Once we walk past Newtown Parade, she takes Cole around the back and closes the gate so he can’t chase us up Brown Street.
My kindergarten teacher is Miss Lister. On that first day, Miss Lister wore a beautiful white flowy top and light blue pants with big flared legs and platform sandals. She is much younger than my mum and even prettier. At the end of the day, when I get home, I tell mum all about my pretty teacher and how I wish she could be my mother. Mum looks a bit sad when I say this. She makes me a cold Milo, just the way I like it: two heaped teaspoons of Milo at the bottom of the glass and carefully poured milk so as not to mess up the Milo.
I gently poke the Milo with my spoon until it plops to the surface in one lovely chocolatey blob.
Ma says running a good farm matters just as much as getting a good education. We don’t have too many schools round Armidale, only St Mary’s, but Ma says we can’t go. Da needs all of us at home for chores. So she teaches Jack and Millie the three ‘r’s – reading, writing and rithmetic but Jack reckons she don’t do so good in the rithmetic department.
Every morning after breakfast, Jack and Millie and Ma sit at the big brown kitchen table and do lessons. Until today, I sat right up the other end watching, quiet as a little mouse.
Today it’s different. Ma gets Jack and Millie going with their reading. They have their heads pressed together over the pages Ma wrote up in her own handwriting. Their lips are moving but they make no sound as their eyes follow the words across the page. They look funny doing that. When they finish Ma will ask questions about the story.
I’m jiggling in my seat because today Ma is getting the chalkboard ready for me. She is writing big letters for me to copy. I don’t know what the words say cause I can’t read yet. I’m holding the chalk in my left hand—Ma says I should try and use my right hand but my fingers on that hand don’t know how to hold the chalk right. Ma says a proper teacher would make me sit on my left hand and force me to write with my other hand. I’m glad Ma’s not a proper teacher.
Through the kitchen window I see Da galloping across the top paddock on Nell. He’s still far away but there’s a cloud of red dust behind him so he must be coming at a good clip. Ma catches my eye and turns to see what I’m looking at. She jumps up from the table and rushes out to the verandah. Jack and Millie follow her but I stay inside.
After breakfast but before lessons, Ma had been peeling oranges with her little sharp knife and she’s made three perfect snakes with the peel. I hold one of the snakes at the tip and stretch my arm as high as I can. When I let go, it drops back onto the bench in the shape of the orange.
Nell slows to a trot as Da brings her up to the fence, dismounts and throws the reins over the gatepost. I scamper outside past Ma and find a not too wormy apple on the ground under the old apple tree.
Da is carrying a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He’s smiling his big happy smile, the one that makes his eyes crinkle at the edges.
‘It’s here Ma!’ he hollers holding the parcel up above his head, even though Ma is now standing right up close and can hear him perfectly well and see the parcel with her own eyes.
I hold out my hand nice and flat and Nell’s soft mouth tickles as she picks up the apple. One crunch and it’s gone just a few bits of spit and chewed up apple fall into my hand. I wipe it on the back of my dress and pat her smooth brown nose.
Ma is undoing the string on the parcel. Jack and Millie are on either side of her trying to get a closer look. She carefully unwraps the stiff paper and inside is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Inside that brown paper parcel tied up with string is a little pile of books—real books with proper letters and even some pictures.
‘Look children, your brand new schoolbooks are here. Me and Da sent for them all the way from Sydney.’
Ma fans the books out in front of us, just out of reach.
‘One for you Jack, one for you Millie, and this last book is for you Jane, just in time for your first day of school!’