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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Biggest Impressions

I attended my first day of school in 1972 at Mater Dei Primary School in Toowoomba QLD.
I don't really remember much about those days but I do have strong scent-filled memories and emotions from that time. I bet if you asked a grown-up to write down what they think makes an impression on a first grader and then compared that list with the child's some years down the track, it would be surprising.

My first and lasting impression of school was shopping for the uniform.

My mother took me to Hanna's Department store (est. 1956), you know the traditional old fashioned two story wooden buildings that carried everything you could imagine. My mother held my hand as we climbed the large dark wooden staircase. I felt so small. Until then it was probably the largest staircase I had ever climbed, to me it was enormous. Back in those days, stores were genteel establishments of hushed, carpeted places, no music on loudspeakers and an assistant at every elbow. Coming in from the harsh glare of a Queensland summer day, the store was dimmer and cooler. It smelt of wood and carpet and fabrics. Stores don't smell that way anymore. 

Once in the school wear department a lady conferred with my mother and I numbly submitted to a bewildering number of garments to try on. Firstly there was the summer uniform, a sturdy cotton dress of a typical patterned plaid but I particularly remember the smart blue "bow" that had a button on the back and attached to the wide collar. I tried on straw hats to get the right fit and cotton socks, singlets and bloomers were also added to the pile. 
Then came the winter uniform, a very French little number now that I look back at the photos. A bit "Madeleine" nes pas? A warm brushed blue cotton shirt with a heavy grey, belted and buttoned woollen pinafore, a blue and grey striped tie, long grey woollen socks and chic of chic, a grey woollen beret. The grey woollen cardigan a serviceable transitional piece. I can't remember but I suspect the school shoes were black and I walked funny for the first few days trying to prevent those nasty crease marks appearing across the top of the toe. Do you remember that first time trying on school shoes and the grown-ups bidding you walk up and down, all the while feeling extremely self conscious and not walking at all normally even though you tried very hard. And what a silly question to ask a child over and over "can you feel your toes?" 

And then.....the raincoat! A bright yellow shiny vinyl raincoat with big plastic buttons. The smell!
The nothing I had ever smelt before, sort of cosy and special and most definitely new smelling. It was the most glamorous thing to come into my world that day.

I feel I must explain something to you about the enormity of this shopping trip.
I was a very quiet and shy little girl of very good manners and like all children of that time we only spoke when spoken to. I was also the eldest of five children and I was six years old. I was loved but there was no spotlight for any one child in such a busy and large family.
So here I find myself, suddenly in the gloom of a hushed department store after ascending the most imposing staircase I had ever seen in my life and standing this way and that in a parade of clothes. In a family like ours the budget was modest, my mother making all my clothes and new things were a special treat. There were literally piles of clothes on the counter all waiting to be wrapped in brown paper off the roll on the counter and then tied with string. I was the centre of attention like I had never been before in my life making me want to hide, AND I was to have my own special coat for going out in the rain, what a thought!

Of course this was just the beginning because next came the school port and new books and coloured pencils, the new lunch box and handkerchiefs, the drink flask and....
really....can you understand now why the first day AT school was a bit of a non-event compared to this?
The experience was quite overwhelming and so full of different smells. It is the smells that I remember most. I remember opening my port and no matter what was inside that day, it ALWAYS smelt of bananas and shaved pencils.
I suspect my parents think my first day of school was rather momentous but for me it was more the lead up that was impressionable.
Is this how it was for you? 
Was it the something quite apart from the actual first day that you remember? 


  1. What wonderful memories Tanya in such a beautifully written post. One memory that I have of my first day at school was the 'feeling of smugness that I felt towards a number of children who were crying 'buckets of tears' whereas I was so excited to be a school!

  2. What a sweet little thing you were, Tanya (and you still are!)
    What is it about that ubiquitous smell of bananas and pencil shavings? I remember it too - the same smell!
    My first day of school would have been in 1957 when I was 5, but I'd already got used to the idea of school, because my mother had been the kinder teacher for a few years and I went along with her. This was at Tarraleah - the school had about 120 children in it's heyday. High school was boarding at New Norfolk High - I remember the grey bloomers and maroon felt beret!

  3. I don't remember exactly the first day ... I do remember teachers...Miss Press, Mr Potter, Mrs Sainsbury, Mrs Jacsher...(i have actually seen her a couple of time here in Launnie...she did remember me!!!) mention a couple...because of my very disjointed and dysfunctional family life i looked for role models..these were a few who impacted on my took me down memory lane there girl!!!!

  4. What a little sweetie! You have stirred a few memories for me Tanya. Inspired a few more blog posts. This was a lovely read. Thank you.

  5. A great post again. You should really write a book, they are so interesting:))
    I don't remember much before the day, but to my embarrassment , I do remember being so excited, I didn't wait to dress. I ran to school in my nightie.. AAAHHH How embarrassing is that...LOl

  6. What a lovely post! I don't remember my first day at school and we didn't have a uniform.
    I started school when I was five, and at six we moved house and school, and I do remember my first day there. I was taken to the classroom while the other children were still playing outside before the bell went. The teacher had dropped a box of crayons on the floor and she asked me to pick them up. I was mortified later when lots of crayons were found that I'd missed.

  7. I have cousins who lived in Grafton and always referred to their school 'port' as well. I could never figure out why they called it that. I'm guessing it comes from the French "portmanteau"?

  8. Tanya this is the loveliest post ever! How did I miss it? So well written and you were so sweet. I remember a similar shopping spree but it was for high school. A big deal back then going to a private school and getting kitted up for your uniform. There was a special department in Boans (Perth's original department store - a treasure trove and sadly no longer in existence) where the ladies measured you up - dress well below knees and an old fashioned sorts tunic with matching bloomers (and this was in 1978, not the 50's!)
    You should've seen our Winter hat - a velvet bottle green banker's hat (pretty quickly squashed out of shape!)
    Thanks for making me think about these things again.

    p.s. do you remember going to The Dolls Hospital when you were a little girl? There was one in the toy department of Boans and it was set up just like a proper hospital. It was a real treat to go there and to eat jelly from the cafeteria x


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