Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Belshaw's World - the Dem school: memory of a living entity

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 15 June 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.


I visited Armidale last weekend for the Dem (Armidale City Public) School 150 year celebration. I had a fantastic time. 

I hadn’t known until the day before that I could go. I won’t bore you with the details, but I had some problems that required me in Sydney. Finally, my wife said, just go! You will be sorry if you don’t. She was right. 

I worked out that if I left Sydney about 4am I could get to Armidale in time for the first event. From that point everything was a rush. This proved to be a problem later, for in getting away in the early morning I managed to leave the coat hanger with all my shirts behind. This condemned me to wear the one shirt the whole time! 

As I drove north through the darkness, I wondered what I might find. 

Last year Bruce Hoy, a Dem class mate, sent me a photo of our year five class. When I posted this to one of my blogs, a number of former Dem people contacted me, so I knew that at least some were going.  Still, I wondered how we might all fit in. 

You see, to current staff, students and parents, Armidale City Public School is a living entity. It is their school that is celebrating its birthday. 

To the thousands of ex-students now living outside Armidale, more than twenty for every past or present student now living in Armidale, it is still our school, but it’s also a school frozen in our memories of the past. 

In the early morning I stopped at Barrington for coffee. There I reflected and jotted down some notes for later use. 

Armidale Dem was a remarkable place. 

As pupils, we were lucky that it was a demonstration school, for this affected the school in a variety of ways. The school got very good teachers to assist the thousands of teacher trainees who attended prac classes. We also had a full school library when this was still unusual. 

All this means that the Dem community is not just past and present pupils, not just past and present teachers, but also the thousands who trained there. This makes for a very large school community. 

I arrived in Armidale about fifteen minutes before the assembly that marked the start of the festivities. Parking the car, I found my way through the school building to the assembly hall. 

Any reservations that I might have had about coming vanished in seconds. The entrance to the hall was crowded. The world dissolved in a mixture of handshakes and kisses. 

That first assembly was very well organised. Yes, it focused on the current school as it should (and that was fun), but there was also a welcome feel for those of us coming back. It was still our school. 

At the end of the assembly we made our way to the school library where a special display had been mounted covering the school’s past. 

The large number of visitors crowded the library. Passage was made more difficult but also more fun because people kept meeting and exchanging comments in front of the photos. 

There was Bruce Hoy’s photo of the 1955 year five class. The half dozen or so of us from that class gathered in front and tried to name all the people. Then there was the photo of the 4 stone 7 pound winning Rugby League team including some in the group as well as brother David and Michael Halpin. 

Memories flooded back.  

I had forgotten that we had to form up in classes to march into school. The photo of the boys’ school gathered in assembly brought that back. Then there were the girls! 

In one of the funniest parts of the school assembly, Tony Windsor explained to the kids that they would make links that would last the rest of their lives. In his case, he said, the girl he sat beside in kindergarten became his wife. 

Like many country people, Tony tells a good yarn. The shock on the kids’ faces as they looked at each other was a wonder to behold! 

In my case, I looked at the photos of display dancing and thought that the sheilas – we still used that term then – were a very strange breed.  

We used to go into kindergarten in lines, boy-girl, holding hands. Then the girls left for that segregated place up the hill.  

Do you know, in all my time at Dem I never went into the girls’ school? I never saw the cedar staircase that Gayle Davies described to us and that was destroyed when the old school was demolished.  

Looking at the word count, I will continue this story in my next column.

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