By Michael Bott
In many ways I had no idea that the bliss of my pre school years would ever end. I just always thought that I would be little, that big people would always be big and caring, that death was somewhere else, it was not in my world. The sun shone in summer and there would always be warm food on the table. That mum and dad knew everything. My grandparents were lovely cuddly people. I didn’t know how they fitted into my world, they just were.
Unlike mum and dad, they had special powers, they could remove their teeth, which I thought was pretty cool. Nanas were better cooks than mum and could make such things as golden syrup puddings, jams and scones. Unlike mum and dad, they would also buy you ice creams whenever you went to go for Sunday drives in ancient round cars that drove sedately like galleons on a tar seal sea.
I remember that every now and then there would be big celebrations like Christmas, where an old fat man dressed in red would somehow slide down our central heating ducts and deposit presents around our plastic tree. Then sometime in around March or April chocolates and spiced buns would suddenly appear.
Sometime in about March 1971 my mum got out her Singer sewing machine and told me, “Right Michael, let’s make you a book pouch.” I was excited, “A book pouch!” I loved books and it was for me. I chose the fabric – green cotton. I remember mum stitching the pouch, her fingers guiding the fabric under the needle, and her then stitching two domes to secure the pouch. Then in her careful hand, she wrote my name in ink at the top of the pouch. But still I had no idea, why I would need a pouch?
I remember my first day when my mother, my near constant companion from beyond my first memories put me in my fairisle jumper, woollen shorts and handed my brown leather satchel, containing egg sandwiches and some chocolate and a piece of fruit and declared, “Well you’re off to school today.” “School why? What is that?”
Off in the car to Mayfair Primary School, I had often seen it but had no idea what it was all about. As I entered the school building I recall what for me were long cavernous corridors lined with rimu that smelled of wax polish, toilet deodourisers, oilskin raincoats and school bags all reeking of peanut butter and egg sandwiches.
Mum marched me past all these strange sights and smells and up to a wooden and glass door, a portal to my first encounter with the New Zealand school system - to Room 1 and my first teacher, the grandmotherly Mrs Bonguarde.
There for a few hours I was made to feel special, “This is Michael” “Who will be Michael’s friend for the day?” “Thank you Mark, can you take Michael and show him around during playtime.”
I was marched to a mat, and Mrs Bonguarde recommenced reading “Little Black Sambo.” Mum had somehow vanished, I was on my own.
One thing I do remember about my first day is the end of it. Books were being given out to my class-mates to take home for reading. I went to the end of the queue and waited to be given a book. “No Michael, you can’t have a book?” “Why?” “It is too early, you haven’t learnt to read yet. You can get a book in two weeks time, you will have to wait.” “ But Miss I can read.”
The tears welled up and I remember being bitterly upset and not being given a book, because the system said I was unable to read, even though I could. Evidently I must have created a scene, and I was eventually given a book.
But the damage was done. I was marked – I had cried and had shown weakness. Little did I know that I had marked myself as a target for attention. I suppose being a runt as a child, with sticky out ears, knock-knees, and cursed with a stutter to boot I had marked myself out as a target from my first days at primary school.
When I ran, my legs used to splay out in an ungainly fashion. I supposed I stood out as different. A couple of days later, while running in some game, I remember suddenly hitting the asphalt, my knee stung, blood flowed. I looked up and saw John grinning at me. “Why?” “You’re a cry baby and you run like a girl!” As with a brand applied to the hide of a cattle beast that burns into the flesh, I was now branded by the school bully. I was stuck with that label throughout primary school.
As I hit the ground that day it struck me that what was for me the golden optimism of childhood had begun to be stripped away as painfully as the skin off my knees.