52 weeks of Personal History and Genealogy: Week 41: Teachers to whom I owe a debt of gratitude

The topic for Week 41 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Teachers. Did you have a favourite teacher when you were growing up? What class(es) did this person teach and why did he/she make an impact on your life?

Good teachers really do have a pivotal and formative role in our lives. I’ve been lucky to have three teachers who I feel formed my education and in the longer term, my life.

The first teacher I remember as “top of the pops” was Sister Gemma who taught me in my final year of primary school. She was quite young, as opposed to many of the others I’d had previously, and she was certainly switched on and positive. Her teaching meant a great deal when you consider that in those days we sat a state-wide exam called Scholarship[i]. Depending on how one performed in that exam it was possible to gain a government scholarship for the first two years of high school, an important consideration for a working class family. Thanks to her teaching I gained the scholarship and went into my high school with a sound academic result.

The heritage buildings of my high school in Brisbane.

While my teacher in the first two years of high school was certainly knowledgeable and taught us well she was very old, quite eccentric and didn’t engage us personally. Another teacher who taught physiology was quite different:  young (in nun terms) and very intelligent and a spirited teacher. Again thanks to these two teachers I gained a further scholarship for the final two years of high school.[ii]

However it’s the teachers in my final two years, known as Senior in those days, who were even more pivotal. My class room teacher, SIster Mary Benedict, taught us all our science and maths subjects as well as religion, encouraging us to think for ourselves, challenge ideas and stretch ourselves. She was a ball of energy and intelligence, a wonderful teacher and offered great encouragement, knowing when to issue a challenge to one’s intelligence or academic performance.

My other senior teacher, Sr Mary Borgia, was my German teacher who had something of a problem getting the science class to take this non-science subject all that seriously. We used to think her pronunciations rather over the top but I remember on my first foray into German-speaking countries in Europe realising her accent and pronunciation had been entirely correct.  Her teaching has made it so much easier to follow up my German heritage so I’m very grateful to her for this knowledge, however rusty it now is.  On one visit back to the school she told my mother (rather charitably) what a lovely girl I had been –she’d plainly forgotten the day she’d sent me out of class for doing Maths II problems in German class!

There are often criticisms of nuns as teachers but in my thirteen years at school I had only one or two occasional teachers who were not nuns. Not only were the nuns our teachers, but these complex and sophisticated businesses called schools were also run by nuns who had the foresight to move with the times and provide cutting edge facilities for their pupils: we had language laboratories and science labs that were truly advanced.

Many of the nuns were truly superb teachers, influencing the academic success of their pupils not only at the time but also into the future. The good ones taught us to think, to question, and to understand, not to rote-learn.  They also provided role models of intelligent, capable, working women long before feminism came to the fore despite perhaps not quite intending this outcome. For me the excellent teachers outweighed any poorer teachers and I owe them a great debt of gratitude. So many of my positive life memories come from my high school years.


[i] This refers to standard at Year 5, but the exam was taken at the end of year 8 when I completed it.

[ii] For anyone interested there is some information on education in this timeframe at http://education.qld.gov.au/library/docs/edhistory/assess/assess-01-14.pdf

52 weeks of personal genealogy and history: week 39: Least Favourite Food: Smoked cod is yellow and yuk.

The topic for Week 39 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Least Favorite Foods. What was your least favorite food from your childhood? Did your parents make you eat it anyway? Do you still dislike the same food today? How have your tastes changed since your youth?

This was an easy question. Without a doubt my most disliked food was Smoked South African cod compounded in dislike when combined with white sauce. I don’t know why I hated it so, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to practice my dislike. As Catholics in the pre-Vatican II era, we had to abstain from meat every Friday. Consequently that nasty yellow fish would appear on my plate with monotonous regularity, and not liking it was no excuse for not eating it!  As you can readily tell I have not changed my mind about this food despite the passing of decades and I’ve never once eaten it since I left home, and will avoid white sauce whenever possible too.

My current food tastes differ significantly from those of my childhood reflecting the changes to Australian cuisine. I’ve talked about this previously under Week 5, Food.

52 weeks of personal genealogy and history: Week 40: Trouble and Punishment in the “olden days”

The topic for Week 40 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Trouble. What happened when you got into trouble as a child? What was punishment like in your home?

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good, but, like the nursery rhyme, when she was bad she was horrid. On one occasion when she was horrid she must have been given a bit of a smack with the razor strop (those heavy leather belt-like items that were used to sharpen old fashioned razors). Not being too fond of being smacked at the best of times, she didn’t like getting the strop so she decided to do away with it. She dug a hole in the dirt under the house and buried it. From that day to this it has never been uncovered and luckily when the carport was put in, the concrete was laid on the other side under the house. Is this a true story or fiction? I’ve often wondered myself: one day I may have to turn archeologist just to find out. But then a negative result would spoil a long-held memory.

This story should not be interpreted to mean that childhood in the “olden days” was a violent experience, because it wasn’t. Really I have very few specific memories of being punished so I guess if/when I was smacked it didn’t have any lasting impact. I do think most children then knew a smack meant parents were serious about an infringement. I think the fact this memory centres on what happened to the strap is important –it’s not the fear of being smacked, or the pain, that’s stuck in the mind but the insubordination of burying the strap….and seemingly getting away with it. Nor can I recall ever getting the strap at another time, so perhaps the story really is just a fairy tale. A more common form of punishment was being in the dog house, something I really didn’t like despite the fact that no physical punishment took place.

Like Cyndi over on the Mountain Genealogist, discipline was neighbourhood-wide so that if a child misbehaved in another person’s house the parents would certainly reprimand you and you’d know full well that your parents would hear about it soon enough.

Household punishment can be seen in the context of the era by looking at school-based punishments. Swipes of the cane were delivered regularly for comparatively minor misdemeanours. “Sixes” (six hits of the cane) were reserved, generally, for the naughtiest child, often a boy…something to be avoided at most costs, though it was always a matter of honour not to show pain or defeat.  I certainly avoided the cane as much as possible and in fact have no recollection of copping it. Flying blackboard dusters and bits of chalk were alternative forms of attention-getting by teachers in those days.

Violent and aggressive punishment, depending on your point of view I suppose, certainly in 21st century terms, but in some ways more honest and quickly recovered from, when not excessive, than covert forms of bullying or alienation by other children or teachers. These behaviours, while always somewhat evident in the playground, seem to run rampant in the modern day life of children.