When my husband and I were still teaching, it was the mark of the downward decline of the holidays when the first “Back to School” catalogues arrived in the letterbox.
As the child of a teacher, we were always away for our holidays and eked it out ‘til the last moment, returning only a couple of days before school started.
But the first day of school was always exciting though. The thrill of finding your new classroom, a new teacher, a new (pre-used) desk, a new elbow buddy, and a new place to line up for the parade.
Today there are copious book lists of what is required and everything is new even if last year’s pencils, textas and crayons still have a good few square metres of colouring left in them. Our books were diligently covered by mum usually with brown paper and a picture stuck on the front. When clear plastic came along, they were covered with that as well.
The writing books were usually the grey-green Exercise Book issued by the Department of Education Queensland. The words “for school use only” were written on the front, while the back featured a cartoon about road safety; saying things like “never play on the street or run after trucks to hold on to them”.
I have been told that some schools used these books to supply to children whose parents could not afford their own books. As such, they were a bit of an embarrassment and so were well covered up. We just seemed to have them supplied to us.
We had the Colombia colouring pencils; good quality, made in Britain and lasted an age. Of course, everyone had the same so mum put a strip of patterned contact around the tops of each one to make sure no one took mine. Guilty admission here – I used to sit next to a girl in Grade 7 who used to borrow my pencils and then chew them so I sprayed the ends of them with Mortein.
In Grade 7 I was given a set of the new-fangled Pentel felt pens for my birthday. They were so cool, I looked after them so well that I still have some that work today.
Our erasers, or rubbers as we called them (although that can be a little confusing these days), were the half-and-half ones with the white half for pencil and the sandy grey part for ink, which usually ended up making a hole in the page where the mistake was.
Yellow plastic Bic pens with a blue or red end were kept with everything else in the zippered tartan pencil cases with little slots to put the letters in for your name.
Food at school was basic with a piece of fruit for morning tea and sandwiches for big lunch. In summer you might get a frozen cordial in an opaque plastic flask that had a coloured lid you could use as a cup.
These things went with you from year to year along with the Duro hinged lid backpacks (we called them ports – which is why they still have ‘port racks’ at school) that were made from heavy cardboard with leather straps. It was a rare event that they would be replaced – it would take some serious damage to cause that to happen. Mine always seemed to smell of bananas.
School uniforms would be ready to go on day one and were either from the previous year with the hem let down, a new one made on the holidays, or handed down from a friend or sibling. We had straw hats that got horridly crushed and bent when shoved in our bags.
It had an elastic strap to hold it on with that mum insisted I wear in front of my ears for fear they would grow outwards from the pressure of the elastic behind them.
For me, the smell of a fresh page in a writing book and a just sharpened Columbia HB takes me right back. The smell of squashed bananas inside my old port is so visceral I can conjure it up as part of the experience. But we’ll leave the Morteined pencils out of the equation.