Special times and special memories

Host: Jenny Underwood
Written by Jenny Underwood – Owner, Pine Hills Station.

This week’s blogs are from one of our regular hosts, Jenny Underwood, formerly from “Eversleigh” Station south of Hughenden in north-west Queensland and now of “Pine Hills” Wallumbilla in south-west QLD. Before going to live on Eversleigh, Jenny was the sole teacher at a small school 65km south of Hughenden. Cameron Downs School is only one a few schools left in Queensland that is not based in a town or settlement.  It is right in the middle of a 65 000 acre cattle (and until the ’90s, sheep) property called “Cameron Downs”.

In her blogs this week Jenny gives an outline of the history of the school, as well as some insights into her life in the district as the Principal of the small one teacher school. 

This is the first instalment of a five-part series called “The Bush School”. Visit Jenny’s profile page to find the other instalments.

In the 18 years I was a teacher there are so many memories that will stay with me forever. My career took me to five different schools in Queensland. I taught with some brilliant and dedicated teachers, many of whom are still close friends; I taught so many wonderful children, many of whom have stayed in close contact; I established lasting friendships with their parents as well. I lived in fantastic communities and all of these experiences enriched my life.

The experiences I had at the one-teacher school at Cameron Downs are ones which I had never imagined the day I graduated from Teachers’ College in 1981. I have never regretted one day of my decision to head west.

There are many times of the year that are important to me, not only from an educational perspective, but personally as well.

April 25 has a special meaning to thousands of people throughout Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC Day is a day of remembrance when we remember all those who have served our country in times of war. Commemorative services are held throughout the nation, in big cities, small towns, and isolated communities.

Hughenden was no exception and each year two services – one at dawn and another involving the wider community – were held in the town.The children from my school had never participated in an ANZAC Day service. As our small school, we marched with other groups and took part in the 1994 service for the first time. We laid a wreath. The children met locals whom they had never realised were soldiers in WW2 and Vietnam; one lady had been in the Entertainment Corps during WW2 as a dancer. After the service the local RSL (Returned and Services League) invited the children and parents from the small schools back to their hall for morning tea. It was a tradition that we continued to follow for many years and those days have always remained special to me.

Anzac Day 1994. This was the first year we attended the service as a school.

Anzac Day 1996. The school enrolment was increasing and so was the number of people attending the ceremony. One of the school parents helped the children make this wreath and it became the Cameron Downs State School wreath which was laid by the school each year after that.

Anzac Day 1998. Preschool to Year 6 children in attendance. Some of these children travelled well over 100km to attend the annual ceremony.

Because the school was part of Cameron Downs Station we had a close relationship with the owners of the property. Not only did the Pensini Family “adopt” me as another daughter but they were an integral part of our school. Many of their grandchildren spent time at the school as pupils as well. They were regular visitors at the school and the children loved to have them call in – especially when Joy Pensini brought smoko over! Birthdays are always a special time, especially when you are a child. Joy went to great lengths to make sure that each birthday was one to remember.

8th birthday celebrations for Emily, one of the Pensini’s grandchildren.

The end of the school year not only signalled the start of Christmas holidays but it also meant break-up day. The school didn’t have the facilities in the early days to host the break-up, so one of the families, whose son had attended the school, generously held the barbecue at their property. The whole community was invited to the break-up and it was nothing for people to come from many miles away to attend. Everyone brought a dish (or two) to share, an esky full of refreshments, and their tennis racquets. The celebrations went well into the night. One year there were well over 120 people who came to the break-up concert – not a bad effort for a school with an enrolment of a dozen or so pupils.

The highlight of the evening was the school concert. Over the years the concert grew from just a few poems and songs to a grand show which lasted for well over an hour – we even allowed for an “intermission”. Each year the concert involved a poem or song that included the theme of rain. Our first recital was acting out the poem “Said Hanrahan” – each year we hoped that our wish for rain would come true.

School concert held on the verandah at “Evandale”, about 20km south of the school.

All the children from preschoolers to Year 7 were involved. The programme included songs, poems, and plays.

The children painted the backdrops with the help of a very talented parent. As I had very limited artistic ability Terri was a tremendous asset to our school.

The girls, dressed as pioneer women, performing the poem “The Women of the West” by George Essex Evans. It is an outstanding and moving poem which celebrates the contribution and sacrifices made by women in the early days of Australia. It is one of my favourites.

One year in the middle of the concert the power suddenly failed. The “stage” was plunged into darkness and the kids just stood there wondering what to do next. After a few minutes we realised that the power wasn’t going to return so it seemed the concert was doomed for a premature end. A quick investigation discovered a blown fuse had tripped the powerbox. This was quickly remedied and the show went on!!

In September 1997 the school marked its 30th anniversary with the opening of the new school building which had been completed a couple of months earlier. It was a terrific afternoon and wonderful to see so many former pupils and their families able to return for the celebration.

The school building was officially opened by Marion and Terry O’Brien who were the Patrons of Cameron Downs State School. The O’Brien Family had a long involvement with the school. Along with a handful of other families the O’Briens were the driving force behind having the school established at Cameron Downs in 1967. 7 of their children were on the enrolment register over the years so they certainly kept the school going. Even after the last of their children had left primary school, Mrs O’Brien played a huge role in the school volunteering to give religious instruction and providing pastoral care for the community.

The O’Briens and Shona, the 1997 school captain, cutting the 30th anniversary cake.

Of course, no school function is complete without a concert so, as always, the children performed a number of poems and songs, including “We’ve Done Us Proud” with a few of the lyrics slightly altered to suit our occasion.

Ready to perform!

When I moved out west, I didn’t know what lay ahead of me. My friends often joked that I would most likely find myself a “rich grazier and live happily ever after”. Ha! That was never part of my plan! I loved teaching and the transition from classroom teacher to principal was a natural progression in my chosen career. During my time at the school, I had been offered a number of promotions to move to bigger schools with more staff and students. I was happy with my lot at Cameron Downs; I figured life was pretty good as it was, and declined each offer.

But, as it turned out, contrary to what I had envisaged, I ended up being given an offer that I didn’t refuse. I did find myself a grazier (whether he was a “rich” grazier or not was immaterial), a local boy from down the road, who by coincidence would have it, had spent his primary school years at Cameron Downs.

In September 1997, I married Roger at home on his property “Eversleigh”. My pupils, past and present, were in attendance, as was most of the local district. We didn’t have a concert this time, but we did party well into the hours of the following morning.

Our wedding day at “Eversleigh” September 1997.

Of my six years teaching at Cameron Downs School, this is my most special memory, and achievement, of all.

The wedding cake – a depiction of my new home and the life ahead.