Recollections by Mrs Mary Edwards, Pre-school teacher 1961-1967
From memory I think the first teacher was married, and not sure if I was the fourth or fifth teacher, and I was there from 1961-1967. I was not a qualified Preschool teacher but had been an assistant at the Tennant Creek Pre-school for the two years previous, and in Victoria I had been a Girl Guide Lieutenant, Cub Master, Cottage Mother at an orphanage, House Sister in a girl’s home, was married and had three children. I was told at my interview that there had been problems and someone was needed to take on the responsibility of the Pre-school. Mr Ray White, Peko Mine Manager, would support me but he had mining interests to look after and he had said he had the principle that if you had a happy wife and family, you have a happy husband and workman, guaranteeing a smaller turnover of workers. I was to work under the Welfare Officer, Mr Stan Wilkinson.
How was I to get to work? But since that would be my problem, my famous last words were that I would learn to drive, and I did, duly and patiently taught by my husband John, suffice to get me from my home at the Battery to Peko Mine. I knew that my driving was considered a joke, but I got there! No one dared travel with me, was told my car was as good as a clock, drove on occasions with the hand brake on, not to mention getting caught in the middle of the gold escort and a Peko truck driver telling me that he could stop, get out of the truck, run around to the roadside, pick a bunch of flowers and meet me on the other end of the truck by the time I had passed.
The Sydney Sangster Pre-school building was on stilts, typical of all the buildings on the Peko Mine lease. It had a long ramp up to the front door, which consisted of a large room for the children complete with a toilet block and a flat for the teacher. Under the building, on ground level was a fly wired play area, but with the heat and dust, the children preferred the air-conditioned area upstairs. The room had fibro louvres from floor to half height then glass for light, with brightly coloured painted fibro panels in the corners. The fire escape was by a steep set of steps at the rear that I had enclosed in chicken wire for safety. Blocks on a mining lease cannot be fenced but the pre-school was the exception.
I was told to inspect the pre-school get rid of anything I did not need and write a list of what I did need, and the first request was for a truck, and with my teenage daughter Pam we started the sort out. Cupboards were filled with newspapers that were built to store small beds. I worried about the list that I had sent through to the office, which had also included a flag pole as I had found two lovely flags. Mr White’s parting words to me were “you never did get that flagpole” but I was content to drape them within the main room. The cleaner of the building was Mr Alois Holewa.
I worked alone and the number of children varied, the highest being 21, between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The preschool hours were 8.45am to 3.15pm, with a milk break, lunch that they had brought for themselves and a sleep. I had the glass door on the toilet block replaced with a strip curtain, so the children did not have to wait for an adult to open the door and I was in fear of fingers being caught. Towels were taken from the locker, I had placed on several hooks in the wash area, above each was placed a motif and the children soon learned which towel was theirs. Sunshine powdered milk was preferred and mixed the day prior to do away with the powdery taste. At one time fresh milk came in a three cornered tetra packet, so the corner was snipped off and a straw inserted, but I soon realised that the children refused to drink it after a while, as the milk was frequently sour, due to distance in refrigerated trucks from Leigh Creek SA, the time taken and variations of temperature in handling.
I requested that the Supervisor of Pre-schools in the Northern Territory, Mrs Dicker call in when she was next in Tennant Creek, even though she had no authority at this mining pre-school, I had tried to maintain a standard of teaching and care of the children and I needed reassurance. The informal report told me that I had.
Sister Hilda Tuxworth, the Peko Mines nurse visited the pre-school each week for medical checks. One day she rang to say that if all was well she would not come as she was busy. Surprised as I was just about to call her, as Doug Bishop had a screw up his nose, so it was “please come and bring tweezers!”. It was a ticklish job holding him still but we had a success, and found out that he had put it there at home.
Taking over the children at such an impressionable age was a challenge as they learn by watching my behaviour and listening. I was to be called “Mrs Edwards” by both children and mothers at the pre-school. They were greeted with “good morning” each day and we had fun with “please” and “thank you” and once with the mums knowledge I greeted them with their title Miss and Master … and shook their hand, as children didn’t hear their surname that often. Discussions during “Talk Time” were always chatty, one I remember was “who is Grandma” and the shock of their parents being children once with mums and dads was an exciting topic. They would forget where they were most times and would often call me “mum”
Reading stories played a big part and had to be carefully selected. I realised this when a little boy came to me in Tennant Creek and asked “Mrs Edwards, why did they kill the baby?” after the teacher had read them the Easter story. Coming so soon after Christmas no had bothered to explain to children that thirty three years had passed.
There is always one who is different, on my first day I was greeted with “Mrs Edwards I like your petticoat” I looked then asked if it was hanging down and the reply was “no, it’s not” The same miss asked what is thunder during a storm. I thought that my explanation of hot air meeting cold air would satisfy her but no way – the next day I was told that “Daddy said” that is not right. She was well educated at home but when I saw her with the aid of a doll giving a lecture on child birth I thought that it was time for music. There were no hidden corners so I could see what was going on all over the room. I often wonder what she made of her life.
The program was varied – free play, painting, drawing, pasting, blocks, puzzles, stories and music, as we had a piano and percussion instruments. I taught shapes and colours, play with colours on their clothes they were wearing, count to ten, hop, skip and march to music. They were not taught to read or write.
We had many visitors, and one was from the Governor General Viscount De Lisle, and there were nine ladies in the party, including some of our own mums. There were nine little girls at the time so we made flower holders out of pale green paper plates. I picked mauve pussy-cat-tails and was given Sturt Desert Peas. They looked lovely hanging on the wall. I taught each little girl how to curtsy. Imagine my surprise when without a word from me as soon as the party had arrived the children all sat on the carpet, legs crossed. Viscount De Lisle said “How did you make them do that? Do you belt them into submission?” I assured him that I did not. All was spick and span when a young visitor of one of my pupils, dressed in overalls and fuzzy hair, came up and started to swing on the bar that was part of the doll house. Viscount De Lisle thinking that she was a boy said “He’s a tiger isn’t he!” I remember the answer I gave to the Governor General “He’s a she and doesn’t belong to us” She did later on. The girls presented their flowers and the party went on to Nobles Nob when I was told that the Governor General had asked “How does that woman at the kindergarten get those children to behave the way they do?” I think the children must have been in awe.
Chester used to bring the children from Nobles Nob and woe betides if anyone said anything out of place in front of them. Their safety was very important to him.
We had special days and it always amused me that in a land of no rabbits the Easter Bunny could find his way to the preschool. There was always great excitement looking for the eggs as they were hidden in a different place each year. On Mother’s Day the mums were invited to morning tea. Chocolate crackles were made with everyone having a stir. Mum had to have a chair and was handed the sugar and cakes. All but one mum arrived as she was in hospital, so dad arrived and asked if he could take her place. My first Christmas morning tea was a shock. Lovely food wasted – mention the Christmas tree and it was “what will I get?” so that had to change, so for the next twelve months I made plans. We learnt little songs and I told the children that they would dress up. Costumes came from everywhere. They learnt what to do for the Nativity Scene and mums and dads would sing the carols. I announced that there would be a family tea and all members of the family were welcome. Mums were to provide for their own tea and I would look after the pupils. One mum told me that her husband would never come, but there were ways. The children decorated their invitations that had to be handed to Dad, not Mum. They read “Dear Dad, will you bring Mum and (sisters and brothers) to tea at the preschool and hear me sing” signed by the child, and who do you suppose changed his shift to be there!
My daughter Pam helped me – the children had a special decorated table and had an Oslo style meal followed by jelly and ice cream.
After tea it was out in the flat to get dressed as bakers, gypsies and angels. The children made the props.
“The Wedding of the Painted Doll” was a tear jerker. Once a mother told me that I would never get her daughter to sing solo and she had such a sweet little voice. I sat that little girl on a chair with her back to the audience, gave her a doll and she sang the lullaby “Bye Baby Bunting” to the doll. I often look at the slides of those nights.
We always had a Christmas tree and learnt a little song “Christmas is Giving Time” and had spent weeks making gifts for Mum and Dad which were on the tree. One Dad told me that the decorated milk tin was the best ash tray he had.
The children received a gift but it was never on or near the Christmas tree. They looked like angels for the Nativity scene and I still keep in touch with one year’s Littlest Angel, Mandy Luckett. Mandy because she was deaf could not speak. Her mother came to me and asked what she could do as Mandy missed her sisters when they came to preschool. Mandy was old enough so I suggested that she come for the first hour when it was free play and painting, but that only lasted three days. She could follow the stories and loved the music. It was good for the children they cared for Mandy and she could hold her own. I kept the door locked and if I wanted to check her, I folded my arms and looked at her. She went away to Townsend House and came home a few days before school broke for holidays. I told her mum to bring her down. She looked at me for a while, I then folded my arms and she ran to me. I met her last year, and after all that time when I folded my arms, she laughed and put her hands together as an Angel.
One day I read of a competition being conducted by Zippy Starch and why I liked Zippy Starch. I used to boil the starch and use it for paste and discovered that it kept for longer. So I filled in the coupon “We like Zippy Starch because we use it as paste – signed Sydney Sangster Preschool, Peko Mine.” Just before Christmas the carrier delivered a huge carton of sweets to my home and inside a lovely letter to the children. I felt like Mother Christmas as I delivered several packets of sweets to each child.
Not many schools can boast 100% attendance to their committee meetings.
It was essential that children about to start school should know their name and should they miss the bus be able to say “I am Tom White and I live at Peko” to a teacher. A visit by school bus to school to meet the teacher and sit in the classroom was such an event.
They may not remember their days at Sydney Sangster Preschool but life was made easier for them and easier for mums through the support of the Mine Management. When you work with young children you never know the result of your work, but if I have played some part in creating well-adjusted adults who could ask for more.
Mary Edwards – for the Peko Clarion