Carlson’s legacy

The physio room evolved into our sports field. Due to our unusual way of getting about the lush grass was not for us. Instead the polish floors were favoured as we slid, wriggled and rolled our way down field. It was never confirmed what game we were actually playing but the high physio beds were ideal goal post to shoot the ball in.

However we did manage to christen our game with grass stains way back in 1964. Towards the end of that year our sport concoction, blending Rugby, Soccer and perhaps a bit of Greco-Roman wrestlingthrown in, was given official status. One glorious afternoon Bruce Burgess, Bruce Hocking, Grant Alley, David Hannah, Joe Hickey and some chap named Ross Flood ditched their wheelchairs and entered the sports arena. If memory serves us well the arena was a narrow piece of grass patrolled by trees, which acted as the boundary lines. There was even a trophy to play for, generously donated by MacKerras brothers from Papatoetoe. The debate still goes on as to who won that day, but the guys certainly felt like first fifteen heroes, way back when.

Compared to today’s world 179 Gillies Avenue Epsom, the former site of the Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy was a completely different time and space. Computers and motorised wheelchairs were devises belonging to the distant future. During the 1950’s and 60’s pupils made do with manual wheelchairs, basic walking sticks and laboriously communicated via word boards, if you were non verbal.

However the dedicated staff did all they could to help students become as independent as possible. The full range of treatment of physio, occupational therapy and speech therapy fitted around school work, as neatly as possible.

Longstanding physio Mrs Kitty O’Brien was a much loved head of her department. She made the hard exercise of straining muscles fun and something to look forward to. Over the years she trained various work colleagues like Miss Wrightson and Miss Noakes on the correct procedures. Her Irish charm easily overcome staff tiredness and student fatigue. She always was thinking of new ways of doing things. Her innovation included a special Friday session focusing on the foot and toes. Pupils concentrated hard on moving marbles and other such small objects from one piece of the mat to the other

Head OT Miss Merton took under her wing work colleagues like Miss Jenkins from the Philippines who taught the girls to sew which was the done thing in those days. Students of that era will remember vividly doing up dolls buttons. Once the larger size buttons were mastered, the next size down was the target. In the OT department, working with clay was one of the favourite past times. The main purpose of this exercise was to get un-coordinated fingers moving the way they were meant to, but a by-product of these tasks some pretty good clay cups, sources and ash trays were produced. Some of these products were used as Christmas presents for parents. All kinds of weird and wonderful gifts were made by the caring hands of the pupils. One of the ideas which were fancied by many of the young crafts men and women was a tray, which was painstakingly covered in scraps of paper, torn from magazines. These scraps were pasted on to the tray every which way and varnished when the work was completed. The finish product was always eye pleasing and delighted the receiver of the gift.

The speech therapy department was an interesting place, as specialist attempted to unravel lazy tongues and stiff jaws. Miss Lush was a prominent speech therapist of the era who devised many interesting methods to get the tongues wagging in the right direction. Honey on a stick was a completely enjoyable one but one of the most intriguing was the deep sea diver in a jar. For the diver to reach the surface the pupil turned rescuer and sucked him up through some plastic tubing.

However most of the time this particular department vibrated to the sounds of vowels and consonants being expressed loudly and clearly.

Helen Dobbie was one of the many that benefited from such therapies. She was one of Miss Jenkins sewing pupils and one year, as a teenager, she narratated the end of the year Christmas play.

She remembers that experience well as she spent many hours after school practicing with the speech therapists who patiently taught her to speak properly and clearly

Overall though, she doesn’t have happy memories of school, as she had operations galore punctuating her education and treatment.

Playground memories weren’t much better as she was teased by the boys, especially playing wheelchair hockey where they more often than not belted each other before the game even started.

“It’s only a game,” cried Helen in vain.

Of course the teachers were another group that competed for the pupils’ attention. When the children came to the classroom the child was usually fatigued and concentration was low. Still the teachers did their best of a difficult situation and they made the lessons fun. English literature, Social Studies and Geography were popular with the student. The old grey standard four arithmetic books were not among the favourites. Most students dreaded the time they had to open the appropriately coloured book, full of numbers that some took two or three years to conquer. The teachers were a patient lot though. Paulette Leaning whose story is covered elsewhere was a prominent figure in the teaching department and so was Margaret McBean and headmistress Doris Aiken. Miss Aiken ruled the school with great efficiency and was a well respected leader of the school in the early days.

Special needs teacher Margaret McBean arrived at Carlson in 1962. She had been involved in a pilot scheme in Newton teaching pre-school deaf children. She had to adapt to the Carlson way which was very much in the moment. Students were basically taught individually and progress was slow. Students could only concentrate for a couple of hours at a time before fatigue set in. Children got really tired, especially in the afternoon. Physio Kitty O’Brien was always keen on the children moving and everyone including Margaret saw the benefits of this. The movements stretched limbs and relaxed muscles.

Like all of the staff she soon accepted other responsibilities like feeding the children at lunchtime as well as toileting them

Margaret also remembers regular visitors from the professional fields of education and medicine, the robust singing of the students on Friday morning, the soup made by parents on winters day, the logistics of the swimming sessions at the Tepid Baths and the art sessions back at the school, especially the day Bruce Burgess painted a picture of himself which was proportionally correct and very artistic.

She had great respect for the staff finding Paulette Leaning inspirational and determined person.

“Can’t see herself as any different” remarked Doris Aiken on more than one occasion.

As for Doris Aiken herself Margaret remembers her as a very calm person who never became flustered

“She was a good headmistress very wise and never gave up on a problem. She was a calming influence to us all, said Margaret.

By the time Margaret McLean left in 1968 the names of Gayle Russell, June Hickson, Barry Te Hire, Nigel Edge, Barrie & Matt Hutchins, Brian Piper, Leo Gibson, Grant Wickman were forever etched in her memory

When the lunch bell rang Physios, OT’s, Speech therapists and teachers all quite naturally congregated in the staffroom, to talk about their morning’s accomplishments, while the children made their way outside, weather permitting to take advantage of the many child hood attractions that populated the gardens

The playground fuelled the imagination. The attractions included the old rowing boat that was launched a thousand times upon a sea of grass, the old car that remained stationary, but still managed to take the passengers miles searching for the best picnic spots and the jungle gym which was climbed to reach the top, because it was there. Sometimes pupils like Rosemary McKean, Helen Dobie, Bruce Anderson, Nigel Edge, and Susan Preston preferred to play tag on the front terrace occupied by built up garden boxes, nursed by the pupils themselves.

No wonder it was compulsory rest time straight after lunch, where the children’s imagination was fuelled again by the considerably quieter method of great books, read by a member of the staff. A couple of hours later it was departure time where a fleet of taxi’s pulled up who ferried the children homeward bound. A good many of the taxi drivers were regulars like Adrian Clarke and Bob Spelling who made up games to amuse the children both to and from school. Simple games like dividing the passengers into two teams with the purpose of counting taxis or buses. A list was kept and whichever team gathered the greatest number won the prize at the end of the week.

And of course, during the following week, the whole procedure started again.

This is the world Joyce Dye stepped into as young Occupational therapists. A world she wrote about upon her retirement in Waihi. Eventually she produced a booklet entitled “A Sixty Year Student” written for her extended family and the O.T. legacy group who are working on the history of the O.T. school.

Joyce admitted feeling a tad nervous as she “walked through the gateway in the black scoria wall of the former residence in Gillis Avenue Epsom. The weatherboard house had been altered and refurbished to make a pleasant small school.”

She describes the layout which included two class rooms, two rooms set aside for Occupational therapy. The larger room was destined to become space for the physios and there was a small room for the visiting speech therapists. She made mention of the some of the staff. Doris Aiken, the ever efficient headmistress, Kitty O’Brien, the well qualified physio with the Irish charm, and the inspirational Paulette Leaning. She also has memories of the clinical meetings with the schools medical advisor, Dr Ron McCaughey.

She wrote with great detail about the highly specialised Occupational Therapy for Cerebral Palsy. Basically the OT’s were teaching the children fundamental living skills like “learning to dress themselves, or to co-operate with a helper, eating with a minimum of slopping, how to suck and blow, controlling saliva, thus encouraging acceptable behaviour and helping clarity of speech. Other children needed the quietness away from the busy school room to practise relaxing wayward muscles while concentrating on a movement.e.g. completely resting one hand while trying to use a thick crayon in the other. Everything one staff member tried to teach was reinforced by all others. Progress was painfully slow but each accomplishment was welcomed with pride and pleasure.”

Joyce had special memories of the eldest pupil at Carlson school Lynette Hawke who was then fourteen years old. She worked intensely with Lynette.

She described Lynette as a person “Coping with large unwanted awkward movements in arms and legs. Her speech laboured and muffled.”

Lynette fell in love with the electric typewriter the first time she saw it. She saw it as a way to communicate with the world. She couldn’t write as her wrists were strapped to the arms of her wheelchair. This was done because her involuntary movements made it unsafe for her hands to be free.

Joyce put a lot of thought into how Lynette was to master this new technology. Eventually she came up with a chin strap she designed herself.

“The chin strap had a curved pointer whereby she could tap the keys using her head movement. Normally this would have been a forehead strap but I hoped this adaption would also help her to keep her lips closed in the process,” wrote Joyce.

This served Lynette for many years. Finally she had some way to talk to people.

Joyce admits her association with Lynette taught her a lot. It was definitely not a one way educational experience.

She remembers the day she took Lynette to the local Epsom library. Joyce still feels the pain of the reaction of the public.

“I hoped with all my heart that my student did not see the expression on the faces of the passersby, especially the ones who could not smile a greeting as we approached,” she wrote

She left Carlson school in 1959 to do missionary work in Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t until 45 years later that she became re-acquainted with her charges at the Carlson schools 50 th Reunion.

The school had long since moved to its present site in St. Andrews Road.

In her book she describes how she recognised some of her former pupils.

“The tall man in his late fifties wobbled towards me. In his smile and clutching handshake I saw the small boy David (Hannah) making his ungainly way up the ramp from the taxi to the door.”

“Margaret (Thomson), grey sprinkling hair, met me in the garden, as she was propelled in a wheelchair by a friend. She chuckled when I reminded her that she took up the whole width of the corridor with her crutches at school and no one could pass.”

“I heard someone say ‘Hello Ross (Flood)’ I looked at the white-haired, portly man in the wheelchair. Yes, the brown eyes were those of the seven year old boy trying hard to roll and kneel on hands and knees.” She wrote.

Barry Te Hira was a pupil at Carlson school 1965-73 during the transition from Gillies Avenue to its present site in St Andrews Road in Three Kings.

He had a lot of fun at the old school played the usual games like cowboy and Indians, tag, and harpooning Moby Dick in the boat even though it was in dry dock. He has great memories of playing in the bamboo and forming a Batman club where no girls were allowed. One of the special memories was playing Hone Heke at the end of the year function. He was even given the opportunity of chopping the flag down. Ironically as it turns Barry found out years later that he was a descendent of this legendary Maori warrior.

However the memories were not all positive. As part of his school routine a psychologist visited him every month. He took an instant dislike to these visits which made him angry. He took great delight in giving the shrink the wrong answers. One day he was shown a picture of a dog with a kennel some way in the distance. He was then asked to draw a line from the dog to the kennel. Apparently the shrink wanted to know if Barry understood the concept of direction. Barry deliberately drew the line away from the kennel. On parents day the shrink told Barry’s mother that he had a mind of a five year old and his mother came home in tears.

Numbers at the Cerebral palsy school were rapidly increasing and the education board had its eye on the Gillies avenue property for its expansion plans for the Teachers Training College. It was time to move and pretty soon a suitable property was found.

The move was not without its disruptions as Carlson schools committee chairman Neil McCrorie recalls. A special meeting of the Three Kings community was called as they were a bit apprehensive of a school catering for disabled kids. At that meeting the community was won over and the construction of a school began.

Of course the pupils were oblivious to all the fuss as they moved into their new place of learning Barry and his mates thought it was cool. Of course memory is a bit hazy but Barry reckons he be about 12 or 13 years at that stage. He remembers everything slowly coming together Maths, English and History lessons recommence interspersed with physio, OT and speech sessions.

“I remember the physio sessions where I was bent every which way but we all knew it was beneficial to us in the long term”, said Barry.

He also remembers the new headmistress with great fondness.

“Mrs Goffon treated us like people and tried to educate us in the best way possible. She actually showed us that we are capable of more,” he said.

Neil McCrorie admits there were scarce resources at the beginning.

“There was a sandpit, jungle gym and an assortment of playground toys. There was some basic physio and OT equipment and that was it,” he said.

If we fast forward to 2004 and the contrast is stark. It’s Carlson school’s fifty anniversary and everyone is invited to celebrate the occasion. Former pupils and their families can only marvel at the available resources.

Computers are all the rage of course, machinery that ignores disability and encourages learning at your own pace. Pupils are a lot more mobile compared to the bygone days with their flash looking motorized chairs. And there is seventy staff to oversee their needs.

“All our students have individual educational programmes which are developed in partnership with family, teachers and therapists. The goals set for each student reflect the steps needed to be taken for the student to achieve his/her potential,” said current principal Faye Philp.

The therapy rooms are still there with the physios “facilitating each student to reach their maximum physical potential and independence” and the OT’s “assisting students to access the curriculum and to develop functional everyday skills.”

The philosophies are the same but the execution is made much simpler by the invention of such things as the touch monitor.

In addition there is the sensory room --- a high tech stimulatory environment which benefits those students with sensory needs. The room has a height adjustable tactile wall “all the objects that hang from it glow in the dark or make a noise when touched. The wall is used to encourage independent hand eye co-ordination. Some students have moved from working in their standing frames to sitting on a stool with minimal support while reaching for objects.”

In these modern times Carlson has it home base at St Andrews road but it also has two satellite classes at Oranga Primary school and one satellite class at Waikowhai intermediate school.

“The development of our satellite classes has given students another dimension to socialization, friendship and integration academically and on an interpersonal level,” said Faye.

Plans are afoot to further investigate the St Andrews road era with interviews set up with former teachers and pupils in the New Year.