It wasn't a very auspicious beginning to a new job. I had been appointed sole teacher at Parua Bay No1 School.
There were two Parua Bay Schools in the early 1950's and the No1 School was the furthest from Whangarei. Parua Bay No 2 School was at Tamaterau, much closer to town.
The time came for me to meet the chairman of the school committee and to view my new job. My wife and I headed off in our pride and joy, a slightly beaten up Morris 8. We rattled and jolted our way on the notorious Heads Rd until we almost reached the foot of the hill at Solomon's Pt. Suddenly there was a crack and the next second we were on our side on the beach extricating ourselves from our poor little 'Morrie'. One of the steering rods had given up the battle.
What to do? We wanted to make a good impression on our yet to be met chairman and we had an appointment to view our new school with him. So, nothing daunted, we dusted ourselves off, checked for broken bones and set off to walk the considerable distance to Ernie Williams' house along what was then known as the Ridge Rd. We abandoned 'Morrie', to be retrieved later, and thought Ernie would take us the rest of the way to the school in his car.
We were a couple of naïve Townies. After commiserations, Ernie said: "Ok, let's walk down to the school, it's only two or three miles away." So we walked. We stumbled along the dusty road, along the ridge past the cemetery and down the long hill to my new work place.
There it was. One lonely little classroom, a shelter shed, a boy's and a girl's lavvy and a tiny bare earth playground, all surrounded by high manuka and gorse. Across the road was the only other sign of civilisation – a cream-stand. However, to me it was a little piece of paradise. My own school, my own job and I would be my own boss! So began eleven very happy years teaching in the country.
Having inspected the school, we walked back to Ridge Rd with Ernie, rang my brother, a mechanic, who came and retrieved 'Morrie' and a week or so later, safely housed in the old school house in McLeod's Bay I began my country teaching career.
I arrived on the first morning, bright and early to be greeted by the first child, who had already arrived and left his horse in the horse paddock, the only piece of cleared land near the school.
Soon the rest of the children arrived – all nine of them, from primer one to standard six. I rang the bell and they all lined up in front of the classroom patiently waiting to check out what their new teacher was going to be like. After the 'Good morning, Sir' chant was over, I went in the door expecting them to follow. Instead there was a pause, and a small voice asked: "Are we going swimming, Sir? The tide's in."
We went into our classroom. The standards chanted their times tables, the primers, all two of them, drew on their blackboards at the back of the room, and it was time to go swimming. I asked one of the 'big' children to lead the way and off we all trudged clutching our togs and towels, along a track, across a field and down 'The Rolling Bank' to the beach. When I asked how the steep slope got its name, one of the children told me it was where, in the early days, Kauri logs were rolled down to the beach to be rafted together and towed to a sawmill in Whangarei. When I asked the children about changing into their togs, I was told the girls went behind that flax bush, the boys went behind another, and the littlies got changed where they were.
So began countless swimming lessons over many years. I quickly became enchanted with my little family. They worked and played so well together. There was only one cloud on the horizon. There was only nine of them and, if two children left, we would have reached the dreaded number of seven, which was the magic number making a school viable.
We hoped for a miracle, and it happened. The school was surrounded by large tracts of old gum fields, poor infertile ground dotted with hundreds of gum holes where the valuable kauri gum had been extracted many years before.
Then, the value of trace elements added to the exhausted soil was found to be effective and the waste land could be transformed into productive farmland. That meant farms for returned servicemen, and so the miracle of the rehab farms began for us. First, a project manager moved in and he had children. We knew more would follow as the farms were developed. We were saved, as our roll steadily grew.
Suddenly our quiet scrub-covered patch of land was host to the roar of bulldozers and chain saws and, later, the buzz of tiger moth planes which introduced the new phenomenon of aerial top dressing.
As each new farm was developed, it was balloted for and the lucky returned serviceman moved, with his family, in to a brand new home on a brand new farm. Some years later, two of those houses were destroyed by a tornado, but that's another story.
In time our school roll grew so big we were entitled to a second teacher – but only if she had a space to teach in. We still had only the one room, which was beginning to burst at the seams.
So, in typical country fashion the school committee said: "Let's turn the shelter shed into a classroom," so they did. We had our second classroom, a tiny shelter shed with my wife and a friend as part-time teachers. We had moved in to the big time. We were a two-teacher school!
Eventually a proper classroom was added to the first lonely little room and the tiny school on Ridge Rd was consolidated with ours, bringing a full-time teacher, Stella Beasley, with the few children from her school with her.
By this time, we had a brand-new teacher's residence adjacent to the school, and a small school bus to collect children from the surrounding areas. When I left after eleven years, there were 65 pupils.
As I occasionally drive past Parua Bay School today, with its cluster of classrooms, I think back to swimming lessons, when the tide was in. I think of nature study rambles on the beach, where we studied the ancient Maori middens on the foreshore where the boys got changed behind one flax bush and the girls behind another. I think of sunlit afternoons when Mick Kunac, who lived along the road would ring up and say he'd finished picking grapes for his wine and would I like to bring the children along to help themselves to what's left. How our little crocodile of children would head off clutching their school bags to take a few grapes home for mum and dad. They all went home with full tummies and I left their mums and dads to deal with the consequences.
There are so many memories, so many happy occasions. There is one constant though; As I roll down the car window and listen, there is still the happy chatter of children at play. Some great things never change!
Abridged from True Tales
of Whangarei Heads. Stories are currently being collected for a second edition: 'More True Tales of Whangarei Heads'.