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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 10 - Practical Calamities

Gayle Woodward, continuing her story of growing up in New Zealand, has fond memories of singing in a primary schools' choir - and memories of a different kind of her attempt to learn to swim.

Another arts-based activity which I enjoyed when in my final year of primary school was the primary school’s massed choir concert at the Concert Chamber in the city. It was to be my one and only experience of singing in a choir and it whetted my appetite for more. I really thought that I would not be chosen to sing and was highly embarrassed by the auditions, especially having to sing out loud in front of all the other budding singers.

However I was told that I had an alto voice and would be included. Many weeks of rehearsals followed, inducing boredom and yawns among the choristers. We did not like the songs we were cajoled to learn off by heart. Soon we were bussed to the city for massed rehearsals and that was much more lively and interesting. The conductor was a real musician and he encouraged us to look like we were enjoying the singing.

I was. It remains one of the most fondly remembered activities of my childhood as the actual concert the next night went like clockwork and sounded marvellous to us on the stage and made our mothers in the audience cry.

Practical lessons at school were a different kind of story. I would much rather have been at my desk, where I enjoyed all the lessons, than to be at sewing, swimming or cooking classes. A senior lady teacher taught sewing in one’s own classroom if one had a male classroom teacher.

Our first attempt at hand sewing was a sacking oven cloth, which had the edges turned over and hand sewn and patterns of coloured embroidery, made by pulling various threads to make patterns. I found it to be so difficult. I was ‘all thumbs’ and got the thread into a knot, lost the thread out of the needle eye and could not rethread it. I spent so much of lesson time trying to fix mistakes that in the end I was far behind the rest of the class. I took my work home even though this was forbidden so that Mum could fix my disaster.

The next item, the next year in Form 2 was an apron. I chose delightful material and imagined how good this apron would look but sadly it was way beyond my skill level. The finished item was 80% my mother’s work. I am sure that the teacher knew this because it was so beautifully sewn in the end, but she never said anything to me. She probably was lost to find a way to help me overcome my ineptitude.

Swimming lessons were at the Parnell Baths. We were bussed there and asked to divide up into those who could swim 20 yards and those who couldn’t. The group who couldn’t included me because I hated to have my face under water. There were only five of us.

We were told to jump in at the shallow end of the main pool. I always did as I was told and dutifully jumped to find that the water depth was way over my head, even at this end, as it was a diving pool. I surfaced, to my surprise, spluttering and coughing about three feet from the side of the pool. I floundered, waving my arms around fitfully, all the time wading my legs to try to keep my chin out of the water. I clung to the side and would not move again except to inch myself along to some steps.

In the babies’ pool, alone, I finally learnt arm movements and could manage to put my face into the water, but never could master the breathing. I thought it was a totally foreign environment for me to be in and was shocked to find that everybody else managed to get certificates for swimming 50 or 100 yards while I came away empty-handed. It was the first time I had failed to excel at anything and my confidence took a dive.

Cooking classes were another calamity. Children from Form 2 were bussed to a very ancient technical school in Ponsonby. The cooking room where all the girls were taught stunk of gas. We were highly regulated, having had to provide our own white starched apron and headband cap. One’s name was required to be embroidered onto the cap.

We sat around the room on wooden stools and copied cooking lore into our exercise books. We would then, in small groups, cook the recipe of the day. I had no confidence to attempt this new skill having sadly failed in the sewing attempt. I let others do most of the work in case I tried and failed. I did like cutting pictures out of magazines to illustrate my cooking book, though.

Sports were never really important in my life, but because everybody had to have a go, I found that with my skinny frame and long legs, I was relatively good at athletics and basketball, the precursor of netball. I could run fast over a short distance and did well at high jump. I never won the 50 yards dash at primary school because one girl, Judith Tripp, always beat me into second place. No matter how much extra effort I put on in the finals, she always prevailed.

However, I did get selected for the Eastern Zone Primary School Athletic Sports on frequent occasions, usually for high jump and the Glendowie junior or senior girls’ relay team. We did think that it was unfair to let the brown-skinned, athletic and strong girls of Glen Innes, Tamaki and Glen Taylor enter these sports. They were rough and too good for us.

I decided that club athletics might be a good idea. Held on the green common by the beach at St Heliers on a weekday evening in summer, I was urged to enter the high jump. Here I came up against people my own age from many other schools who were far more proficient in the scissors kind of jumping we had to do.

One evening a woman supervising the practice told me, “You’ve got such long legs you should be able to do better than that!” Well! I was indignant and never went back. Little did she know that if I couldn’t excel at the task in hand, I would rather not try.


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