Sunday, December 16, 2007

The past

In early 1962, at the age of 22, I was posted as Teacher in Charge to Arehava Primary School in an isolated spot in the Gulf of Papua. The school was made of bush materials and the floor was beach sand. It was only about 50 meters from the surf.
I was part of a major push by the Australian government to provide ‘Universal Education’ to Papua New Guineans…providing native English-speaking teachers as mentors for native teachers. Tough work for a 22 year old! I still keep in contact with several of those ex-students. They are in their late 50s.

Many of the Std 6 kids in my class were probably 16 or 17. I say probably, as it wasn’t important for the people of the area to record or remember when they were born. At the beginning of the school year an assessment of age for entry into Grade 1 was made by telling the child to put his/her arm over the head and try and touch the ear. At the same time the teacher looked to see if there were traces of armpit hair.

There was a steep learning curve in dealing with native staff and their families as well as village leaders, sorcerers and of course students.

I think back on those years and wonder if many of today’s 22 year-olds would cope with the isolation, diplomatic wrangles with staff and villagers and almost complete lack of contact with family and friends.

I made a few blues in the first couple of years. One staff member thought I had insulted his wife, also on staff, when I suggested that ‘Roll me over in the clover, lay me down and do it again’ wasn’t a really appropriate song to teach grade three kids. He later wrote a letter to the District Superintendent saying that I was ‘doing the crocodile business and not the school business’. He and his wife got a transfer, not me.

I had a .45 colt automatic pistol I bought from a planter and a gun was pretty important to kill the croc at the same time as a harpoon was rammed into its head.
I only went croc shooting with villagers twice, at night and only one croc was shot. Some crocodile business!

There was a nice teacher from New Ireland. He was settling in well and I taught his wife how to make pikelets. We got pikelets every recess for ages. After a couple of months his wife started screaming and wailing from their house on the school lot. I had to try and calm her, but as soon as I went she would start up again. She had dreams that her husband was having an affair with a student. This went on for a few days and we found that one very large Std 4 girl had gone bush. Turns out that my teacher was giving her extra curricular treatment in his toilet. Emergency! I had to ride the school bike along the beach and through numerous creeks to get to the government station to talk on the two-way radio to the District Superintendent to have the teacher shifted immediately before the villages speared him. We managed to organise a tractor and trailer to come to the school and we loaded all their gear on the trailer just in time. As the tractor and trailer made its way down the beach a large group of villagers arrived looking for him. Too late!

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