This is an extract from Mrs Battleship, Tim Tipene’s memoir about his primary school years and the teachers who gave him hope, despite a home life wracked by violence and abuse. The book is aimed at children aged 5–10.
I didn’t do well at school. I found school hard and confusing, and I found the work challenging. Yet school was one place where I felt safe. I didn’t feel safe at home.
So 3 o’clock each day, when the last bell rang and school ended, I wanted to stay at school. I did not want to go home. Because I knew that when I went home someone was going to be angry, someone was going to fight, and someone was going to get hurt.
As much as I wanted to stay at school, though, I found the schoolwork hard and I always seemed to be doing the wrong thing. For example, on my first day, having no idea where the toilets were, I peed behind a small blackboard in the classroom.
“Miss, Miss,” a horrified little girl cried, as she pointed me out to the teacher and the rest of the class. The teacher was very upset with me.
Right from the beginning I was put into special classes for reading and for maths. Each morning would start with me sitting on the mat with the other children, and as the day got under way I would look out the classroom window and see a woman walking across the schoolyard. The woman would walk all the way into my classroom and there she would look at me.
“Timothy, come with me please,” she would say.
She would take me across the school and into a little room, and in that little room she tried to help me with my maths and reading, because when it came to my learning I was behind all the other children.
This became the daily routine. Sit with all the other children and then be taken away. I knew this was because I was ‘different’.
Sometimes I even had to go to the staffroom, and in the staffroom I had to work with a speech therapist. Her job was to help me to talk properly. So even in that I couldn’t do as well as the other children. One thing that she helped me with was how to pronounce “th” words correctly.
She would have me sit in front of her.
“Watch my tongue, Timothy,” she would say, pointing at her mouth. “Watch my tongue.”
Then she would say, “This, then, there, that,” and I would have to repeat the words over and over again, making sure that I put my tongue in the right position and pronounced “th” words correctly.
My first school was Hobsonville Primary, but I wasn’t there long because the bus route changed. From then on I attended Whenuapai Primary. We were living in Ferry Parade on Herald Island in West Auckland at the time. Mum’s parents had helped her buy a house there. Back then Herald Island wasn’t the flash place it is today. All the properties had septic tanks and in the winter tanks would often over flow. The Island was a fun place to grow up, though, and there was always lots to do.
At school I wasn’t always doing the right thing. However, I wouldn’t say that I was a naughty child. I was a traumatised child because of the daily abuse and violence in my home.
Because I was being hurt every day I was in a constant state of anxiety and fear, which meant I couldn’t sit still or concentrate. I was constantly on the lookout for danger.
Being always on alert it was hard to focus on subjects like maths when I wasn’t sure that I would still be alive the next day.
It also meant I turned into a scrapper. For me it was about survival and I didn’t care how big or tough the other boys were.
On my first day at Whenuapai Primary School I was circled by a large group of older children and cheered on as I beat up a boy much bigger and older than me. Since others were egging me on I figured I must be doing the right thing. Stephen, my older brother Shaun’s mate, even held my glasses while I got on with the job.
Shaun had tried to stop me fighting, but as I was being beaten at home I wanted to make certain that no one was going to hurt me at school. More than anything I wanted to be left alone and I thought this was the best way to achieve this.
Some of my teachers knew about my life at home and went the extra mile to support me. There was no Ministry for Children in those days, so teachers found other ways to make my life easier.
One of my early teachers was Joan Leonard. Mrs Leonard would give me a kiss and a hug when I arrived at school each morning, and a kiss and a hug in the afternoon before I went home. It became my daily ritual and it helped me get through. Sadly this didn’t last.
I was away from school for a while and when I returned I found that Mrs Leonard had left. She had been replaced by a new teacher. I studied the new teacher all day, wondering if the old arrangement still applied. Would I still get my kiss and hug at the beginning and end of each day? A couple of days passed before I actually picked up the courage to approach her. It was almost 3 o’clock and my classmates and I were in two lines. Boys in one line and girls in the other. We were waiting for the bell to ring for home time. The teacher stood in front, facing us.
It was now or never. I stepped out from the back of the line, walked up to the front, held out my arms and went in for a hug. The teacher stepped away from me as though I had leprosy.
“What are you doing?” she frowned, looking me over.
I didn’t know what to say.
My classmates spoke up for me.
“He wants a hug,” a boy said.
“He always gets a hug,” a girl added.
Their words were echoed by other students as they explained to the teacher that a kiss and hug is what Timothy was always given at the start and end of each day by Mrs Leonard.
“Well, I’m not having that!” the new teacher growled. She glared at me. “Get back into line.”
Believe it or not, this is a happy memory. While the teacher’s reaction was disappointing and sad for me, it is the children’s voices I hear the most. They had spoken up for me and I’ve never forgotten it.
As young children they had understood and accepted that I needed support. That I needed that bit extra. They had never questioned why I needed it, but they knew that I did, and they were more than okay with me getting it.
I am grateful to those children and to Mrs Leonard for the hugs and kisses. They really made a difference.
This extract from Mrs Battleship, by Tim Tipene, is published here with the kind permission of the author and publisher, One Tree House. To read more about Tim’s life, see Tim’s kōrero with Dale Husband, published in this issue of E-Tangata.
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