NOOSA – Amongst the joys in life of most school teachers is to run into or receive a missive from a former student who has done well in life and remembers their schooldays with some fondness rather than as a dreadful chore.
Although I taught school for only three years, this kind of pleasant coming together has happened to me a few times.
Most recently it occurred yesterday, when Dr Robert Johnston, an ex-pupil at Kundiawa Primary A School, my first teaching post where I taught in 1964 and 1965, was kind enough to use our Comments section to renew an acquaintance from 55 years ago.
“My sister and I were among the 10-15 students in your one room, all ages, school in Kundiawa during 1963-67,” Robert wrote. “It was - by far - the best educational experience of my life.”
Well, I’m ruby red with embarrassment as I respond to this, Robert. I do recall those days clearly and what seemed like the daunting challenge of a novice teacher in a one-teacher school with pupils ranging in educational needs from Preparatory to Grade 6.
My next gig was at Gagl Primary T School, perched in the foothills of the Bismarck Range roughly midway between Kerowagi station and Mingende Catholic mission, where there were four teachers and 150 pupils.
But Kundiawa A always remained special –because it was first and because of the unusual circumstances which made it a school at all.
One of the commitments the colonial Administration made to expatriate folk who decided to accept jobs in the then Territory was that their children would receive an education equivalent to that they would receive in Australia.
This was a real challenge in tiny outposts like Kundiawa, which had a population of about 80 expats at the time – most of them single men like me.
When I was told that Kundiawa A would be my maiden posting, I was initially disappointed. After all, I’d just finished two years training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, in Sydney with the specific goal of teaching in T (indigenous) schools.
But Kundiawa A needed an Australian qualified teacher and I was the man. It was a narrow thing as it turned out. If a community couldn’t muster 12 children of primary school age, it would lose its right to a teacher.
Kundiawa could muster eight. But with Heagney’s two mixed race kids, the daughter of a Papua New Guinean doctor who was given a leave pass and an under-age child who we were able to sneak in, the magic number was reached and the school survived.
But there was no school house, although the community had rallied together to build one, so the temporary arrangement was to hold classes at the Chimbu Club, where two things would occur simultaneously at four in the afternoon.
School would finish and the first drinkers would arrive.
That said, most mornings around ten you could hear a rustling behind the shuttered bar and the whistle of gas entering a keg as mechanic Cec Schulz curated his regular glass of morning beverage to keep him alert until lunch time, when Dick Kelaart’s Kundiawa Hotel opened.
It was fine balance between education and libation at Kundiawa A – and eventually I moved the entire school across the road to the living room of my dilapidated quarters, known locally as the haus pik (pig sty).
This required the bemused approval of my housemates, cooperatives officer Terry Shelley (who was to marry a Chimbu flower and spend his whole life in the region as successful entrepreneur and community leader) and heavy equipment driver and heavy drinker John Jones.
By the second year of my term, the new school building, right alongside the haus pik, was completed and at last Kundiawa A had its own quarters. A very fine building it was too.
The parents were always very supportive of the school, and of their young schoolmaster, and I found the task of teaching the Kundiawa dozen a real pleasure.
I discovered that teaching pupils whose ages ranged from six to eleven was not so difficult, it just required a bit of organisation – and part of that organisation was the willingness of the older students to assist with the learning of the younger ones.
So I thank Robert Johnston for bringing back these joyful memories of the real reason I was in Kundiawa – to teach school – and not just to enjoy the Chimbu Club and its frolics and, with the late Murray Bladwell, to publish the Kundiawa News, which was by chance to guide me into my long and rewarding career in the media that continues in its latter stage with PNG Attitude.
I was sad to hear from Robert that his parents, Jack and Una, have died. I recall them well. Good, decent people; great contributors to our small community; and always interested in their children’s education.
Robert said Jack and Una long remembered a stanza from a song I wrote for one of our occasional concerts in the Chimbu Club: “Maruk, maruk, maruk / We always smoke maruk / Maruk, maruk, maruk / The tobacco that makes you crook.”
Yep they were the days before we knew that all tobacco made you crook, not just maruk and brus.
Jack and Una may well have recalled another of my favourite lines: “POs 1, POs 2 / CPOs can POQ”. But then probably not.