There probably won't be any official commemoration, but this year is the 50th anniversary of the infamous 1969 Kaitaia College UE accreditation party at Masters' woolshed, Ahipara.

You didn't have to have been accredited to be there, of course, and some had already made it into what was then the Upper 6th, now known as Year 13, but it was a sufficiently significant tradition to warrant the presence of a teacher or two, and even a fleeting visit by the headmaster, the redoubtable John Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell, who was succeeded in 1970 by the much more affable Peter Andrews, was to be feared. Very free with the cane, and never remotely interested in hearing the case for the defence, he would prowl around the college throughout the day, hands clasped behind his back, black gown flowing, looking for ne'er do wells. He would even burst into a classroom if the teacher appeared to be failing to maintain the required standard of decorum, and take over to show him or her how it should be done.

It was no surprise, therefore, when he arrived at Masters' woolshed that night, although the only drama involved a boy who had officially completed his education, and planted himself at the top of the steps leading to the door, intending to share his innermost thoughts with the man who had tormented him for the previous five years.

Advertisement

His skin was saved by history teacher Bill Wilson, who pretended to be engaging the teenager in animated conversation, and restrained him, as the headmaster passed, oblivious to the passion that threatened to overwhelm his former student.

There was worse to come on Monday morning.

It seems that the Saturday night refreshments had included a bottle of sherry. If memory serves it was contributed by Geoffrey Austin, son of the National bank manager (whose greatest claim to fame was being locked in his vault with his staff, by a couple of armed bank robbers. That kept Kaitaia talking for a while).

Assuming there is a statute of limitations, the writer can confess that he had a sip of said sherry, as did everyone else, as the bottle was passed around. By means that have never been divulged, Mr Mitchell found out, and his vengeance was truly awful.

First period Monday morning was music, a ripple of fear spreading through the room when Mr Mitchell, looking even sterner than usual, flung the door open and entered. He picked up a conductor's baton, by the wrong end, stalked to the back of the room, behind the last row of kids, and struck the one on the right, Geoffrey Hooper, on the head with the knob of the baton.

Geoffrey lowered his head, covered it with his hands, and mumbled something to the effect of "That hurt," not loudly enough to drown out Mr Mitchell's command, "I will see you in my office at 9 o'clock."

'Bong' went the knob on the next head: "I'll see you at at 9.10." Bong: "I'll see you at 9.20." And so it went on around the room, each of us sitting there, knowing what was coming and powerless to stop it.

The inquisition didn't take long. Well before day's end 12 kids — Calvin West, who was one of them, reckons it was seven — were suspended for two weeks. These boys, some of them in their final weeks of secondary school, were from 'good' families, the children of upstanding, respected citizens. The news that their offspring were temporarily unwelcome at school would have stunned them.

Advertisement

As far as the writer is aware, not one of those parents complained to the school. One of the suspendees told the writer a few years ago that his parents had complained all right — to him, he said, as he vigorously poked his chest with his own finger, but apparently they accepted that their sons had misbehaved, and must now pay the price.

No one would have gone to Facebook, even if it had been invented, protesting against Mr Mitchell's totalitarian style of discipline. No one sooled a lawyer on to him or the board of governors. Indeed the parents might well have imposed punishments of their own, in addition to the ignominy of being suspended.

The writer escaped unscathed incidentally, and was even complimented by Mr Mitchell for choosing his friends with care. Those friends — Keith Dawson, Ian Foster and George Jujnovich — were also absolved of any culpability.

How Mr Mitchell found out what had gone on that night remains a mystery, but the bottle of sherry was not the only banned substance. Calvin West, who arrived with enough beer to open a bottle shop, was quietly told to make himself scarce but was caught up in the dragnet, and there was a bottle of Coca Cola whose contents might not quite have been true to label.

Whatever, there was no sign of drunken debauchery. By 21st Century standards it was all very small beer, to coin a phrase, but some paid dearly for stepping outside very well defined boundaries.

And everyone involved, not just those suspended, learned some lessons, which they already knew. 1 — Teachers ruled. 2 — Parents always backed their kids' teachers, at least in front of their children. 3 — Boundaries were totally inflexible. They were made of concrete and steel, instantly and universally recognisable. 4 — Kids misbehaved at their peril. If caught, there would be consequences.

What would happen in 2019, d'you reckon? Well, for a start Mr Mitchell would have been charged with assault — family lawyers would have seen to that — and his career would have been over. The student body would have been in uproar, and the parents of the despicable 12 (or seven) would have rushed to the defence of their children. The lesson would not have been that boundaries were not to be breached but that kids' have rights, and that this scandalous overreaction might well have scarred them for life.

It isn't only the accepted standard of discipline that's changed though. In 1969 teachers taught. And after school many of them gave freely of their time to all manner of activities, from rugby and cricket to drama, music, and in Bill Wilson's fondly remembered case, pot holing.

Teachers in 1969 probably weren't especially enamoured of the Minister of Education, whoever he was, given that we had a National government, but they didn't go on strike. They didn't need to. They were paid well enough, and more importantly they weren't overwhelmed by a ridiculous bureaucracy that would not have benefited a single solitary student. And still doesn't.

Pity Chris Hipkins wasn't at Masters' woolshed in 1969. If he had been, he might realise that he could endear himself to teachers, at no cost to the taxpayer, simply by taking an axe to the bureaucratic interference, the political correctness and the obsession with process that has wrecked what was once arguably the world's best public education system.

He might wonder why a kindergarten teacher now works 60 hours a week Monday to Friday, and still has to catch up on the weekends. He might ask himself who benefits from the changes that for many have made teaching a nightmare, while achievement levels continue to decline.

He won't, of course. More's the pity.