A great teacher remembered

Last updated 09:30 22/11/2012
Mr Halliburton and class

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: Mr Halliburton and the class of '53.

My 1953 class photograph with Mr Halliburton.

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It's 2011 and I'm walking to a cafe with my granddaughter Hannah and her uncle.

"Hannah's new teacher is called Zoe,'' I say. "I don't know her other name.''

''She doesn't have another name,'' Hannah corrects me. ''Her name is just Zoe.''

Is that so? Well, anyway, Zoe is firm, kind and a wonderful year 1 teacher. I sat in on a lesson and was impressed. I felt nervous at first - was it the novelty of seeing my first grandchild at school? Kindy's one thing but somehow school brings back the memories ...

My own first year - I wouldn't dream of calling my teacher anything but Miss Hawkes. It doesn't occur to me that she has a first name.

Then there's Miss Mooney in Standard 1. She takes us for sewing and one day I realise I've forgotten to take my apron yet again. I'm so terrified I run all the way home and stay there the rest of the day.

I think it's form 1 (standard 5) and 1953, when I'm in trouble over another 'needlework' matter.

We girls have made dolls in sewing class and mine has long pigtails. I'm pleased with my work and have her on my desk, even though the lesson is arithmetic. Paul, who sits nearby, leans across and pulls those pigtails.

I secretly fancy Paul, though I'd never tell him so. I'm so thrilled by the fact that he's noticed me - or at least my doll - that I laugh out loud. And of course I get the strap. 'Hold out your hand ...'

My form 1 teacher is Mr Halliburton, so is it him who wields the strap? If so, I bear no resentment and he remains my all-time favourite teacher.

This is in New Plymouth where I live with my parents. That year, Mum tells me there was a still-born baby boy when I was four. Now I have an invisible seven-year-old brother.

I'm a dreamy 11-year-old, emerging reluctantly from childhood. I read my Enid Blyton books, decorate my bike with coloured streamers for the school gala day, play hopscotch, skipping, hide and go seek at playtime, climb the macrocarpas, explore the gully.

And for the first time I'm really keen to go to school.

Mr Halliburton treats us as though we're proper human beings and, in turn, we respect him. He is strict but fair, and we want to do our best. I will never shine in needlework but I love 'written expression'.

''You write good stories, Pat,'' he says one day, ''I'd like to see you do more writing as you get older.''

''A very good report indeed,' is his verdict at the end of 1953. ''I shall be interested to follow Pat's future progress.''

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But it's half a century before I catch up with him again. We move from Taranaki when I'm 12 and the years go by, as they do.

Early in 2004, for some reason I start thinking about him again. I discover that he's still alive and still living in New Plymouth. I decide to write to him - just to say how much I'd appreciated him as a teacher.

He writes back and invites me to visit. It never occurred to me that he might have a family ... or a first name.

Bob and Ruth Halliburton live in an old, high-ceilinged villa close to Pukekura Park. They are in their eighties, bright, alert and welcoming. They seem delighted to see me.

Ruth prepares afternoon tea and we settle down to talk. I still feel a bit silly - after 50 years I can hardly expect him to remember me in particular. My Form 1 class photo shows 41 of us, and he must have taught many more over the years.

And it's not as if my 'future progress' turned out to be anything much. I'm hardly a success story. But they are both such intelligent, lively company that the afternoon speeds by and I'm really glad I came. I've brought my camera and take a couple of photos of them.

I'm staying with a cousin in Westown, and Mr Halliburton - I can't think of him as Bob - offers to run me back in the car, but I assure them I can easily walk. I say goodbye with lots of good wishes and promises to meet up again.

That's early in August. By the end of September, my old teacher is dead. Quite suddenly, while in the barber's chair.

My cousin sends me an obituary from the local paper. I see that when he left primary school teaching he became head of the English department at New Plymouth Boys' High, a position he held for 21 years. 'Fair-minded English master remembered' is the heading.

''He was a terrific man, nobody misbehaved for him,'' is one quote from a former pupil. ''Bob was one of the favourite teachers.''

So I wasn't the only one who thought he was great!

And then I'm surprised to get a letter from his daughter. She encloses the order of service - his photo is cropped from one that I took myself. She tells me how much my visit meant to her parents.

It's not often I get things right, but I'm so pleased I decided to contact my favourite teacher, and had a chance to thank him while he was still around.

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