It has been fascinating to watch how my grandchildren have embraced the concept of “home schooling”, as the restrictions introduced during the Covid 19 pandemic, turn their whole learning experience upside down. My own children, and now their children, have always had face to face learning in the classroom, but as a child, I undertook several years of a much different form of home schooling in the fifties. Our family had moved from a well-established, mixed farm on the outskirts of Canberra, leaving behind expanding educational facilities, to live on an undeveloped sheep property, halfway to Yass.
Whereas today, my grandchildren can interface with their teachers, join online hook ups with fellow students and download assignments at the click of a button, my lessons came by mail from the Blackfriars Correspondence School in Sydney. They were delivered weekly to our roadside mailbox, together with a fresh loaf of bread from the bakers at Yass. We actually lived closer to Canberra than Yass, but borders and boundaries clearly marked us as being a State responsibility, and this separation meant there was no bus running to the small primary school in the village of Hall, because that was in the ACT. And, as there was no bus travelling the other way to the Murrumbateman School, several local families found themselves in this predicament after buying and occupying post-war, soldier-settler blocks, carved off from the old Jeir Estate.
Although I had spent my early childhood on a farm, it was still a dramatic change to leave behind the playgrounds of a small school in the city, say goodbye to playmates and teachers and move to a more solitary classroom in a converted office in our “new” house on our “new” farm. The house was true to the architectural style of the early fifties, timber clad, double fronted, no verandah and a jaunty, “look at me” façade, that brazenly defied winds and weather atop a small hill above the Yass – Canberra Road. We had sanded and varnished wood floors, lots of built-in cupboards, airy, sunlit bedrooms, three fireplaces, the latest linoleum in the kitchen, a thoroughly modern bathroom, and no electricity. So despite both external and internal refinements that acknowledged Australia’s progress after the Korean war, our cooking was done on a slow combustion stove that burned all day and all night, our refrigerator ran on kerosene, our water came from a bore and limited rainwater tanks, the radio was battery operated and our lighting was courtesy of Aladdin and kerosene lamps. 1956 came and went, Melbourne staged the Olympic Games, and we still waited for power to be connected.
I settled into school by correspondence quite easily and I enjoyed the one-on-one connection with my teachers, based so far away in Sydney. Riding my pony down to the mailbox to retrieve a brown envelope that contained the coming week’s lessons and the “corrected” workbooks from the previous period, became a highlight of my schooling. I scanned the comments excitedly and grew to love those faceless instructors. My poor mother (a city girl who fell in love with a farmer), struggled to manage her household, with its lack of conveniences, let alone supervise an easily distracted pupil, who just longed to escape scholarly pursuits and flee out to the paddocks with her father. I was therefore very lucky indeed to have the wonderful teachers who recognised the divided loyalties of one of their distant students. I was introduced to a learning environment that sat comfortably with my interest in stories and writing, and the daily urge to desert reality and gallop my pony through imaginary forests and ancient canyons.
The best part about doing “home schooling” was taking advantage of the ability to complete lessons as quickly as possible. This then justified outdoor and paddock activities. The pony was always easily caught and any excuse to join Dad doing sheep work or to explore the furthest reaches of our new farm, took priority over Mum’s attempts to encourage more feminine pursuits. The tomboy in me surfaced defiantly and I soaked up any farm experience, pushing aside, needlecraft, fancy cooking and home duties. When I look back now through precious memories, I can see an element of approval creeping into the notations on my weekly school work, as city based teachers fostered my passion for reading and expressing the thoughts tumbling around in my imagination. An appreciation of art was ignited and genuine comments attached to my drawings led to a passionate, later interest in painting and photography. I can’t draw to save myself, but I understand structure, light, form and texture, thanks to those special early years. The frustrated artist in me is today expressed through my photography.
With two granddaughters now facing the challenges of home schooling in a different era, I can totally empathise with their desire to rush through lessons, and, in an obviously genetic link, turn off laptops and devices, grab a snack and head for the horse yard. Both girls ride and have developed a deep love of all things country, ensuring that technology plays a necessary, but secondary role, in daily routines. Should I be concerned that they are spending more time galloping rather than Googling? Will their education suffer because they zoom through the paddocks with the wind in their faces, rather than Zoom through a link with an online community? When they return to school, will they be disadvantaged because they have enjoyed this unique freestyle learning opportunity? Is it a serious mistake to allow them to see, hear and feel the world around them, rather than instructing and tutoring them in “how they should” see hear and feel, that same world?
As I sit on the verandah, cup of tea in hand, and listen to the sound of horses coming along the gravel drive, I think fondly of those days of my own home schooling and hope the giggles from the approaching riders will be what they, in turn, remember.
References: Blackfriars teacher checking needlework, NSW State Archives, c.1946 <www.records.nsw.gov.au/about-us/rights-and-permissions>