First Impressions Of School

‘Come out from behind your mother’s dress and let me see you.’ This was the encouraging but scary voice of Sister Xavier.

I retreated further, but edged one eye around the folds of Mum’s skirt just long enough to see the ‘penguin outfit’; a full-length black dress with long sleeves and a cape, and a veil held in place by a stiff white detached yoke-like collar sitting over Sister’s shoulders and extending up her neck… and further… to cover everything other than her face from the eyes down. Nothing else was visible except her hands.

Blood thumped through my veins. I had never been so close to a nun and this image made me want to cancel school altogether. My excitement at the promise of this adventure was already dampened because there were so many people and so much noise… all a little overwhelming for a shy 5yr old.

Sister tried again. ‘A pretty girl like you should be out playing with the other children.’

My bottom lip quivered.

Sister Xavier circumnavigated my mother, her long rosary beads swinging from her waistband in the flurry. She patted me on the head, then left with, ‘You won’t cry when Mummy goes will you?

I stared at her and my gut lurched with the full force of realising I was about to be alone among all those people. This would be the first time I was separated from my whole family at once.

Terrified the tears would spill, I tried desperately to control my… by then… over-active lip. My mother took my shaking hand and led me through the sea of legs and excited children. She deposited me about ten feet from the closed building, kissed me on the forehead and, in her experienced-parent and past-teacher wisdom, made a quick exit.

Silent and still amid the chaotic uproar of giggling kids, crying kids, and chattering mothers lingering too long, I contemplated the myth that going to school was fun.

My fear was halved when I was held in the gaze of a boy sitting alone on the top step. He looked as though he couldn’t wait to rush inside away from everyone else, and I felt much the same. Our moment of connection was interrupted when water began to trickle from where he sat, over one step, then another… and yet another, to form a puddle on the path below. As a matching flow rolled down his cheeks and splashed onto his shirt, he looked past the gathering crowd to the safety of my compassion.

The bell startled me back to the school yard. Sister Xavier seemed to appear from nowhere. Heavy black cloth bounced inches from my eyes and the sound of clapping filled my ears.

‘Over here, children. Come along, it’s time for Mum to leave now. Boys here’, she said pointing to my right. ‘Girls behind Kathryn here’, she continued, patting me on the head for the second time that morning.

My face burned with embarrassment. My ears throbbed with increased heartbeat and sudden crowding from other young bodies. I glanced sideways to see if anyone had noticed and found the warmth of a knowing look from the boy who had sat on the steps and now stood in uncomfortable wet shorts as though nothing had happened.

I didn’t yet know his name, but I knew we would be friends.


Sister Xavier led the way up five cement steps, across the end of the enclosed verandah and into the largest room I had ever seen; except of course, the church.

I gazed in awe at the high ceilings and was hurried along to the first table in the front row. That my feet reached the floor when I sat back in the chair was equally astonishing to me. The small furniture contrasted with the enormous space which seemed almost undisturbed by the shuffling of around two hundred feet and Sister’s rushing from window to window as she released blinds. Strips of morning sunlight filled the room through long hung windows. Sister stretched her lanky body to reach the latches with the hook on the end of what looked like a broom handle, and pulled the top windows down about six inches. I was fascinated.

A lady in a floral dress appeared in the doorway and Sister Xavier hurried her inside. ‘Come along’, she motioned. ‘Come and meet the girls and boys… this is Missy, girls and boys… she’s going to help me teach you… say “Good morning, Missy” now.’

‘Good morning, Missy’, we all mouthed with varying degrees of energy. Hardly any sound passed my lips.

Missy smiled, but Sister Xavier cut off any response she may have had.

‘Now, I’m Sister Xavier and I’ll be teaching you this year.’

Sisters of Mercy at my school four years after my first day of kindergarten.
Sister Xavier is the tall one in the middle of the back row.
(Photograph from: The Catholic Church in Casino 1887-1987, p32)

Then came the rules, delivered to the beat of black shoes on wood and the rattle of beads, as she paced the floor:

  • ‘Line up as soon as the bell rings
  • Stand straight in line, and in body
  • No talking while lined up, or in school
  • No playing on the verandah… unless instructed to do so on wet days
  • At lunchtime, eat your lunch before playing
  • No crossing the lane between this building and the other classes
  • Keep away from the church
  • Say “Good morning, Sister” and “Good morning, Missy” at the beginning of classes, and “Good afternoon, Sister” and “Good afternoon, Missy” before we go home after classes…’

I looked around at intent faces.

‘…and always watch the front’, sister continued with emphasis.

I swung back towards the front and found her glaring at me, and instantly felt fire in my cheeks as I had earlier at line-up.

‘Girls’ ports and boys’ bags will be kept out there’, she went on pointing in the direction of a door which led to the back end of the enclosed verandah. ‘…and that will do for now… oh, except… if you’re good and do everything you should, you might get an early mark. Now we’ll listen to Kindergarten Of The Air… please Missy.’ She motioned towards a radio on a small table against the side wall.

Missy checked the station and I wondered what an early mark was: it must be something we would like if we got it for being good. I decided there and then to sit up straight, never talk, and never turn my head… so that I could find out.

Not talking in class was easy. Judy, the girl who shared my table, hung her head to one side and kept her mouth closed even when Sister told us to sing along if we knew any of the nursery rhymes. I pretended to sing even though I didn’t know the songs, for fear attention might again be drawn to me.

Not turning my head was more difficult. I was bursting to see where my friend from line-up was sitting, and had missed him in my momentary look earlier. Nevertheless, I resisted the temptation and was dutiful all day. So, it seems, was everyone else. In the afternoon, when we had folded our arms and rested our heads in them on the desk, Sister Xavier declared, ‘You have been such good children, you can all have an early mark! Good afternoon, girls and boys.’ She cradled her right ear with her hand in anticipation.

‘Good afternoon, Sister. Good afternoon, Missy’, the class chirped, and still my voice had next to no sound and Judy’s lips remained sealed.

‘Get your bags quietly now children, and we’ll see you for the bell at nine-thirty in the morning.’

Judy and I were last to collect our bags and stroll to the front of the building. We sat on the long bench seat under a tree of full shade and watched each other in silence. I wondered why there was nobody there to meet me and tried to work out what the ‘early mark’ was that Sister Xavier had promised. She didn’t seem to give us anything, certainly nothing that could be called a mark!

c. Kathryn Coughran ~ 26th February 2021

Click Here to find a Writing Exercise to help you explore your First Impressions of School.

I would value your thoughts and feedback in the Comments section on this page.

If you would like to be notified each time I post on my website, please enter your email address under the heading Follow My Blog, on the bottom of the right-hand column on any page. Your email address will not be passed on to any third party.

Mother’s Day Tribute

‘Why white chrysanthemums?’ the girl asks

and I remember asking my mother

the same question

as a child.


‘Because they are the symbol

of Mother’s Day’, I answer

as she answered me.


I feel her presence

as I spread them on the table,

mentally ask her advice

on length of stem

and size of vessel,

see her smile

as I arrange them ~

some for her and my grandmothers

one each for myself     my daughter

and daughter-in-law.


Together     they fill the cream jug

for we are all mothers.


One perfect flower

saved to stand alone

in the privacy of my room

in my favourite sculptured vase ~

a contrast of red glass

and blossoming white


in loving memory

of my mother.

c.  Kathryn Coughran (1993)

An Egg Is An Egg ~ Or Is It?

‘How come we have an Easter Bunny and not an Easter Chicken?’ I asked in innocence when I was four (1955).

‘The bunny’s the boss and brings the chicken along with him to lay the eggs. It’s a special chicken that can lay a lot of eggs in one day… not just one like our chickens’, my mother replied.

I believed her, as I believed everything she told me. She didn’t tell lies, my mother.




Easter Egg Preferences


Easter 1976

Winter pyjamas hang on bodies

tossled hair falls about shoulders.

My children flash white teeth

send stars forth from their eyes

as they stand beside the boxed

Humpty Dumpty eggs

and a basket of smaller

chocolate offerings.




No photograph to remind me

of Easters past:

painting hard-boiled eggs with water colours

helping siblings design one for each of us

or competing with them        to see

who could draw the happiest face

to smile from the egg-cup        and

not wanting to chop off

the top of an egg’s head        and tears

when first told I must.


With dexterity came permission

to drive pin holes

in each end of fresh eggs

and blow the contents away

leaving shells to be painted

for long-lasting decorations.



Our 1950s Easter Bunny

brought two-toned sugar eggs

in pastels and white

joined in the middle

with rock-hard icing        wrinkled

into a pattern around the edge

and a dab to hold a gold paper bunny

flat on top.


Small pieces of broken eggs rattled inside

or     if we were lucky

conversation lollies with messages

were found when we ate the icing

and the egg fell in two        or

when this was too hard for young teeth

and we resorted to smashing the egg

into manageable pieces.


If we were very lucky

one of these sugar scrolls        marked

Forget Me Not        Smile For Me    

or        Love Me Tender

would be heart-shaped.


We savoured these once-a-year treats

making them last all day

sometimes several days

to shorten the 365

between bunny visits.



Chocolate eggs first graced our table

as I stumbled into adolescence.

Confusion reigned each following year:

My parents preferred sugar eggs

said they were the ‘real’ eggs

available only once a year ~

the inference that chocolate

was constantly in abundance

didn’t ring true        in a home

with no money for sweets

on ordinary days.


Sugar eggs remained most years

until I could buy my own

then drifted from the market

and my mind    

replaced by a selection

of chocolate Easter treats.



Mid-1980s        my children

showed me the ‘new’ sugar eggs

and asked for them

‘instead of boring chocolate’.


I didn’t bother explaining

that chocolate eggs

were the real treat ~


I knew they wouldn’t understand.




Easter 2020 is a low-key affair at my place, as it has been for many years. Sugar eggs have come and gone from the market, but chocolate eggs have remained constant. Chocolate Easter Bunnies have even hopped onto the shelves and settled amongst the eggs to tempt little children with big imaginations. These days eggs come in numerous sizes with various fillings, and are available for months prior to Easter instead of just the last week before the bunny drops in, as was the tradition in my childhood.

With age, my desire for Easter eggs has waned and I am happy to share a bowl of tiny – even if, solid – chocolate eggs with my husband.

Easter Treats 2020



I would value your thoughts and feedback in the Comments section on this page.


If you would like to be notified each time I post on my website, please enter your email address under the heading Follow My Blog, on the bottom of the right-hand column on any page. Your email address will not be passed on to any third party and no other information is required. This is a free service to ensure you don’t miss new posts.

Christmas Tree Reflections

I.   Childhood (1950s)

The arrival of the tree

was almost as exciting

as Christmas Day itself.


The long wait

trips to the front door

interspersed with hopeful gazes

at the prepared bucket

on shiny linoleum.


The agonising wait

broken by the flurry

of heavy footsteps

and the thrusting

of a trunk into dirt.


A pungent prickly pine

that made me sneeze

stolen from the river bank

had found a new home

for the last days

of its life.


We watched

as older sisters

dressed it in decorations

we’d made

from silver foil bottle-tops

and cardboard ~

and those exquisite paper lanterns

my mother found on sale years earlier.


Christmas wrapping

covered the bucket

twisted red and green streamers


from lightshade to walls.


The tree

and the wood-panelled room

smiled with colour.


I smiled too:

it was just two days

until Santa’s visit

when we would leave

Christmas cake and drink

to send him on his way.


We’d wake

and ‘look, but not touch’

until Mass and breakfast were over

then presents would be handed

one by one and we’d watch

each treasure unwrapped.


Home-made second-hand

sometimes bargain-purchased


left in Santa’s name

filled our home with joy.


II.   Marriage (1970s)

In the fourth year of my marriage

when our second-born was not yet two


silver leaves on spiked branches

reached out in cold glare

I perched the ‘tree’

on metal tripod ~

soon replaced

by a bucket of dirt

for stability

and in an attempt

to hold on to childhood. 


I added balls and bells

and colourful tinsel

overseen by a gold angel

with glittering skirt

flowing almost to the floor

then sprinkled flashing lights

for effect

and in an attempt

to let go of my childhood.


Grand and sparkling

loaded with presents

for twelve years to come

this Christmas tree echoed

an artificial life:


A façade of all that is good

on the outside

empty     devoid of warmth

and crying out for recognition

on the inside.


III.  New Beginnings (1990s)

The cypress pine

in an earth-filled pot

grows taller

each year.


When too big

to retrieve from its verandah home

for the Festive Season

I’ll find a niche

in the garden

return it to nature.


The purchase of a new

potted evergreen

for future Christmases

will complete the cycle


a sound philosophy



at age six     the tree

is wilting     gasping

from days left without water

and being knocked sideways

by gusty winds

to lie flat on cement


a reflection of myself

tired and reeling

from traumatic events

piled      one on another

and another…


sapping energy

despite steady periods

in between.


It’s time

to cut the dead wood

plant the roots

in nourishing soil


feed and water tendrils

spreading in earth.


It’s time

to expel toxins

allow expansion

and growth


nurture myself     and

take control of my life


to pot

a new cypress     and

tend it with care.


c. Kathryn Coughran ~ 1994



Insidious punishment

dictates the rhythm of life

the struggle to survive

constant poverty.


He studies     starts projects

that might turn into income

but needs money     to

bring them to fruition.


Persistence brings

full-time work     elation

until     staff-cuts send him     

~ and the new suit he could ill-afford ~



The subsistence merry-go-round

swings high and wide…

years pass

short-term jobs come and go

they build their family


life will never be easy


into low-paid work with poor conditions

and long overnight shifts.


The cloud of recompense

still hovers     decades on

begging the questions…


Who pays?     and

For how long?


c. Kathryn Coughran ~ 24th January 2019



Society’s lash

cuts deep

for those who bear the scars

of doing time

at Her Majesty’s pleasure.


No chance     these days

to change the spelling or pronunciation

of a surname     as was the want

of many ancestor convicts

to separate themselves

from the rigors     of their past

when freedom finally came

after years of servitude

in this distant land…


Our young man has responsibilities

must find work…

he shops at Vinnies

covers tattoos with long sleeves

regardless of temperature

prepares a resumé

highlighting his skills

and fronts up to interviews.


‘Why have you been out of work

for so long?’ he is asked.


He tells the truth     and hears

‘We don’t employ criminals’

or     the softer version

‘I can’t risk having you on staff’.


In desperation

he skirts around probing     about

his absence from society  

and even fudges his answers…

but fools nobody

least of all himself.


Long periods of unemployment

lead to gaping holes in his work history

which bring more aggressive questions.


He is willing to work

~ wants to work ~

yet nobody will employ him     and

he continues to carry

the burden     of his misdeeds.


Is this freedom   

or merely release     to a world

riddled with judgement

and inherent restrictions?


  • c. Kathryn Coughran
  • 24th January 2019


Discarded computers

take his interest

at twenty dollars apiece.

He fiddles     fixes

teaches himself

to program      and

operate them.


Long     tedious hours

of frustration

sprinkled with joy.


He formalised his learning


set his sights

on a brighter future.


Four years      after

the error of judgement

which led him to the bench

he invites his family home

for another attempt

at building the dream.


 c.  Kathryn Coughran

First published: 1994

In: Family Matters

(Kathryn Andersen)



He dreads going out

facing the world

all he has longed for

now too much to bear.


She is confused

by his reaction

longs to forget     and resents

the boy’s rejection     of her 

in favour of

his father’s attention.




Her benefit cut

his not yet restored

electricity disconnected

and scarce food

they visit relatives

arrange to pay lump-sum

to landlord     when

new benefits arrive.


Landlord dishonours agreement

overseen by police    

he illegally

removes their belongings

down to soap from shower.


They win legal battle

despite humiliation

at his record     raised

in court


the pressing need

to find new lodgings.




They plan a future

studded with achievement

make promises

they cannot keep.


Unemployment hinders


with unerring power.

The foundations of their dreams


anger     and the demon drink

edge in.


They move house

again     and again


then separately.


c.  Kathryn Coughran


First published: 1994

In: Family Matters

(Kathryn Andersen)



She cries with joy     and loneliness

and for the disappointment and guilt

he will feel when he learns

he missed the birth.


An emotional phone call over

a photo session ensures him an image

of her     their son     and the infant

he cannot hold

to keep him company

until the completion

of his sentence.




Unexplained cancellation

of promised day leave

anticipation     and anxiety

cause final days to drag.




Amid accolades and gifts

they greet each other

with awkward nervousness

when he enters their home

for the first time

and takes his daughter

in his arms:

belated bonding begins.


 c.  Kathryn Coughran


First published: 1994

In: Family Matters

(Kathryn Andersen)

Delightful Interlude

It was a privilege to be with her


see her courage and perseverance

hold her hand and help her scream

to be pushed     pulled     punched

and yelled at

to cry     laugh     and sigh

with her

to breathe through contractions

and pause     in silence.


It was a privilege

to talk her through the appearance

of her baby’s head

like a squashed      wet      tennis ball

then the tiny face     hands     shoulders

and body.


It was a privilege

to witness the first bonding stroke

on sticky red skin

to cut the cord

that had been the child’s lifeline

for months

and to hear     the first splutter

and cry.


It was a privilege to be with her

to share the arrival

of her daughter


to welcome     her own

new granddaughter.


c.  Kathryn Coughran


First published: 1994

In: Family Matters

(Kathryn Andersen)