As a pracademic, it would be fair to say that I’m passionate about education. Human beings learn and adapt to their environment continually. Unlike other animals, we come out half-baked and spend the rest of our life pruning and wiring neurons in our brain in response to the process of learning.
Like most Kiwi kids, my start in education was at kindergarten, where children from the age of three or four had the opportunity to socialise, play and learn. I met one of my good friends, Andrew McNaught at kindergarten and we remain close to this day. Such is the benefit of growing up in New Zealand.
However, it was not until primary school that I had my first taste of what I would call formal education. My education was no different to most New Zealanders. Coming from a Catholic family, St Teresa’s School, was my parents’ primary school of choice, doubly handy as the school was walking distance from my house. Given that we went to church each Sunday, finding my way to the school next door to the church was hardly a struggle.
I still have many fond memories of my time at primary school. I remember my first day, meeting who would be my classmates for the next few years. I remember becoming aware of how different we all were and recognising my home life was not the same as other children’s. I remember the excitement of not knowing the future, but that I was up for the challenge.
In reflecting on my childhood to write this short blog, I realise the education I received in those years was far less about formal teaching and far more about the things that matter. My time at primary school was when I established lifelong friends, began to see character traits, and potentially forged my passion for an academic career. In many ways, this is when I learned some of my most crucial life lessons; lessons that have remained with me to this day.
Lesson 1: The subjectivity of truth
Children learn to lie around the age of three. Hence, I must have been capable of lying by the time I went to school. My first memory of being lied to was when I was five or six. Patrick and I were playing in the corner of the schoolyard, between two pre-fabs used for teaching. We disagreed about whose turn it was to play with the ball, and not being diplomatic, decided against talking to sort the matter.
Patrick wore glasses, which was problematic if any fighting broke out. While I cannot remember the catalyst, I do remember (believe?? 😊) that Patrick started the fight. What happened next was predictable. In the ensuing skirmish, Patrick’s glasses fell off. As luck would have it, Sister Rose was passing and Patrick and I were soon separated. So began the standard interrogation of what happened, and most importantly, who started the fight.
I can remember little else about the conversation other than Patrick telling what I can only describe as some of the greatest fiction I had heard as a six-year-old. “That is not what happened, Sister!” I said in protest. However, my words landed on deaf ears. I was the one who received the ruler across the legs – a common punishment in those days.
The punishment was, however, inconsequential. What was far more critical to my life was the realisation that one could say things that were not true but would become real in another person’s mind. This notion was revolutionary to me, and many times when I find myself in a situation where someone is knowingly lying, I think back to that playground incident and how it prepared me not to be shocked when the truth is sidestepped.
Lesson 2: Real educators create passion
Everyone knew Mrs Fitzgibbons. To this day, she remains the favourite teacher of my friends from that time. Every month Mrs Fitzgibbons would create a theme for the class. The class would still have the usual suspects (math, English, reading) but Mrs Fitzgibbons would supplement standard topics with a unique topic for the month. Topics included dinosaurs, astronomy, and Maori myths.
We would rush to class on the first Monday of the month to see how Mrs Fitzgibbon had decorated the classroom. There would be murals, posters, and statues all around the room. More importantly, there would be space for us to put up our work, as we would know that a deep dive into the topic was the order for the month.
I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had the educational experience afforded to me by Mrs Fitzgibbons. She ignited the joy of learning in me that never left. The joy of education and the passion for teaching was inspired in me by Mrs Fitzgibbons. To make an impression at a formidable period in life means a lot and sets a young person up for life.
Lesson 3: Injustice
This lesson was short, sharp, and memorable. I cannot remember the supposed offence that had happened, other than to know that it was minor and did not warrant the action that followed. The class, all thirty of us, was marched outside and asked to say who made the animal noise in class. From memory, it was a class affair, and consequently, we all put our hands up.
Sister Margret was having a bad day. We all knew when she was having a bad day as her lips turned down even more than usual. As was often the case, her moods passed on to the class, and we would always be on edge when our regular teacher was sick and Sister Margret would substitute.
Today was a particularly bad day. Sister Margret was not in a good mood and was looking for an excuse to take it out on the class. The result of our solidarity is that one-by-one we received the ruler on the back of the legs. I remember some of the more sensitive class members crying, and I remember the feeling of unfairness.
I hate injustice, but I recognise that it is common. Primary school was far from the last time I experienced injustice, but it trained me not to be surprised when people act with malice, unwarranted aggression, and temper. I never forgot that lesson. Recognising injustice and Tennessee telling me Santa Claus didn’t exist were two childhood illusions shattered that year!
Lesson 4: Tradition and rites of passage
Karori was a suburb known for its frosts in autumn and chilly winter mornings. A tradition at St Teresa’s was we would have folk dancing in the large concrete area between the learning pre-fabs and the church on frosty mornings. I would walk up the hill to school and within 150 metres of the school gate, I was able to hear the music playing from the speaker.
Dancing with the girls was not high on my agenda of preferred activities as an eight-year-old. But it was traditional for the school, and that tradition seemed to make the practice not only fun but something to anticipate with joy. If you woke up and there was a frost, you knew what to expect.
There were many other rites of passage that came with attending a Catholic school. My First Confession and First Communion were two that immediately come to mind. While I’m not a practising Catholic now, despite my cousin being the local parish priest, I do look back on the traditions of the sacraments as something that had meaning in my life. Sure, I would change the lesson plan if I were going through the process now. However, there is a benefit to understanding and experiencing tradition, even for atheists such as myself. While spiritual messaging may not resonate so well with me, I don’t underestimate the value of traditions. Life education is very much about stages, and having them marked by such events with corresponding learnings, if done appropriately, is a contributor to a well-rounded education
Lesson 5: Friends for life
Primary school is when I made my closest friends; friends who I can still rely on today. The greatest gift from St Teresa’s was meeting my best mate. I remember the day Joe got moved into our class. Joe’s family had arrived from Uganda, having escaped the reign of Idi Amin. We hit it off immediately. Our interests were the same. We shared a competitive spirit, albeit he was an edge or better than me in every pursuit! We enjoyed the same sports, an interest in science, and when home computers became a reality, we would go down to James Smith’s Corner to play on the latest machines.
Joseph has been by my side at every step of my life. Primary school is the time to cultivate such friendships and to keep them for a lifetime. I was fortunate that despite going to different colleges, our friendship endured. When Joseph went to Otago University to become a doctor, we stayed in touch. Being in Singapore during COVID, what I miss the most is my summer holidays with Joe and his family.
By the time I was nine, my friends and I began a new adventure at intermediate school – an all-boys Marist school. St Teresa’s got me off to a great start in life. I owe a lot to the local parish, and it is moments like this, when I reflect on my good fortune, just what a debt I owe.