It’s not for everyone. In fact, some people can’t handle it. They rebel, take off or drop out. Some people had a terrible experience. But for others, it was the making of them.

I’m talking about boarding schools.

My best mate at Rotorua Intermediate was Marina Johnson and we were truly joined at the hip. Marina told me she had enrolled at St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College. I’d never heard of the place but naturally wanted to go too. I asked my parents. They did the sums, filled in the forms and waited for an answer.

To my absolute horror, my Bestie didn’t get in. But I did.

Next minute, I was packed into the car with my suitcase. The neighbours came out on to the road to say goodbye and lovely Mel Pakinga from across the street discreetly pressed $20 into my palm. As we drove down Wharenui Road, with Dad proudly tooting the horn, it took all my willpower not to scream: “Stop! No, please — there’s been a terrible mistake!”

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. My hard-working parents had spent precious savings on the crisp, pleated grey skirt and smart blue blazer, not to mention fees, for their oldest child.

As we drove towards Hawke’s Bay, I grew nauseous in the realisation I was about to be deposited in some strange school where I didn’t know a single human. Driving up to the big wooden buildings with 180 girls spilling on to the steps, carbon copies in identical uniforms and a clutch of nuns in full drag, my fears were confirmed.

Yes. I was stranded on an alien planet.

I watched Mum and Dad head back down that long driveway, and then turn right into Osier Road before vanishing into the distance. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. All I wanted to do was throw up.

I should have told Dad. It seems he’d felt much the same way when he arrived at Te Aute in 1944.

My father, Nepia, and his older brother, Hitiri — their cousins Willie Maniapoto and Darkie Downs, too — left the tiny village of Te Rangiita on the shores of Lake Taupo for Hawke’s Bay. Their mother, Mamaeroa, was an ex-Hukarere girl. They  followed in the footsteps of their mother’s brother, Hupa, head prefect in 1936. Lt. Hupa Hamiora (B Company) was killed at El Alamein in World War Two.

“It was a big and frightening move for us,” wrote Nepia. “We had never been away from home for more than two or three days.”

The Tauranga-Taupo Native School minutes in November, 1943, noted that Darkie was granted leave to work in the Mananui mill so he could earn money to buy clothes for Te Aute. The Maniapoto brothers went haymaking, chopped and sold firewood, and stalked deer for the hides, to pay for their school fees.

Dad said they found the subjects heavy going. “We took a general and farming course which suited us better,” he said. “The greatest thing I learned was independence — that and discipline.”

Huri, a younger brother, soon joined them. While he was still at Te Aute, he was selected for the Māori All Blacks along with a classmate, Bill Nepia. The principal put a stop to that, although it’s doubtful whether the selectors could’ve got past our grandmother anyway.

Despite Te Aute being just down the road from St Joe’s, we didn’t have much to do with them — probably on account of them being Anglican.

Te Aute was founded in 1854, but it hit a bad patch after decades of “benign neglect from the Church.” That’s the view of Moana Jackson who is known mostly for his sharp legal eye and for trying to keep the Government honest on Treaty issues.

He wasn’t an old boy of Te Aute but was called in to help when the school had a debt of $9.2 million hanging over it and was in real danger of closing.

When any school gets into financial strife, it’s not hard to see how other things start to go haywire. Good teachers leave. Fewer teachers mean fewer subjects. Good whānau with a long history of supporting the kura, start pulling their children out.

Then, because Māori boarding schools have sometimes become a dumping ground for “problem kids”, the chemistry can change. Also, the prefects may be left with far too much responsibility for school discipline. And soon it can be Tom Brown’s School Days with fagging, abuse and humiliation a routine part of the gig — so routine that some people see it as an acceptable tradition.

Then, when there’s less money coming in, the school is left with nothing in the pot for maintenance or upgrading facilities. The inhabitants start to feel more like inmates, reflecting a school that’s tired and jaded, until finally, the whole place reaches a tipping point. And the Minister steps in. Sometimes it takes a crisis to turn things around.

One of the biggest problems for any boarding school is that it’s really two operations. There’s the educational arm of the school (run by a board of trustees and funded by the Government) and there’s also the residence or hostel, which is usually run and funded by the Church. Too often, they are like two distant cousins, not even on speaking terms. And it’s the students and whānau who suffer.

That’s how it was at Hato Paora College in Feilding. Moana Jackson worked alongside the board and principal to help turn that school around. He reckons the greatest legacy of Peter Douglas (board chairman) and Debbie Marshall-Lobb (principal) was to collapse that model, set up better communications between the hostel and school — and ensure that the principal had oversight over both.

After Hato Paora, Moana went into Te Aute about the same time as the Minister of Education appointed Elizabeth Ellis as the Commissioner.

Elizabeth had been working for ERO (Education Review Office) and had a hand in the reviews of Hato Tipene, Queen Victoria, Wesley College, Hato Petera, Hato Paora, Hato Hohepa, Turakina, and Hukarere (on the old site), as well as other integrated church boarding schools around the country.

It didn’t take her long to twig that Māori boarding schools were being seriously short-changed by the Church. All she had to do was compare their facilities, resources and activities with those at flasher boarding schools.

Moana wasn’t impressed by the Church’s performance either and told them they were responsible for the financial mess at Te Aute because they hadn’t delivered on their side of the bargain. Not that the Ministry of Education was blameless because, according to the new board, the ministry still owed the school thousands of dollars.

Anyway, while he focused on helping make the Te Aute hostel “safe and functional”, Elizabeth zeroed in on the school’s governance. And she didn’t muck around. There was a sacking, a change of direction and changes to the curriculum as well. And the hostel and school both came under the control of the new principal.

The new board pushed for getting the finances into surplus, higher academic achievement, an increased roll, and reviving the positive traditions of Te Aute.

It wasn’t rocket science, but it was a huge effort by lots of people over a number of years. Then, with academic results on the up, and with a nice, safe hostel environment, the school attracted new staff. And soon the families were returning and the roll was climbing. A whole new positive cycle had kicked in. And the latest ERO report for Te Aute was positively glowing.

Another school that’s had a thumbs-up from ERO, and above average NCEA pass rates, is my old school, St Joe’s.

I’m not surprised. Georgina Kingi, the principal, runs a tight ship.

St Joseph’s was established in 1867 by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions. It had a special focus on the education of women and children — and, initially, it was a little boarding school with just 20 Māori girls.

The Napier earthquake in 1931 did a bit of damage so it was rebuilt on its present site at Greenmeadows — and the nuns remained as the school’s proprietors well until after I left in the late 1970s.

Our principal in my first year was the formidable Sister Margaret Purdie. I remember a disco with the boys from Hato Paora. Everyone was too nervous to make a move. Sister Margaret killed the music, stood with her hands on her hips and announced, much to our mortification,

Girls. Go. And get. A boy. Now!

We did as we were told.

Then there was Sister Maureen or “Doc” as we called her. She would dish out Disprin for any ailment. She also possessed the annoying habit of rousing us by ringing an old school hand-bell and singing: “Wake up, wake up, and give God the glory, glory.”

If you tried to throw a sickie, Doc would coo, fuss and ask if you wanted breakfast. If you were stupid enough to say yes, she’d practically tip you out of bed.

“You’re not too sick to eat then,” she’d laugh as she whacked you around the leg and sent you on your way.

My favourite nun was Sister Marie but I think she went off me after I informed her that it wasn’t really the body and blood of Christ we received at Holy Communion. Just dry wafer, I said, and an over-sweet red wine. I thought she was going to spontaneously combust.

She went red in the face and stuttered: “You can’t say that. That’s blasphemy.”

But, whatever their shortcomings, the truth is the nuns were feminists. They showed us that girls can do anything.

(Well, most things. Not the glamorous Catholic bits. Mass. Benediction. Confession. The glamour boys from up at the Seminary came in to do that stuff.)

Our nuns would fix the vans and zoom around in them like Batmobiles, shades on and veils flying. There were lay teachers at our school too, but it was our tough and fearless nuns who were firmly in charge. There wasn’t much they couldn’t do. Hell. They could keep nearly 200 Māori girls in line. And when the odd one came back to school pregnant, the nuns didn’t bat an eyelid. They got out their knitting.

Once we had a visit from Ngā Tamatoa. Beautiful men with hair in topknots and svelte women wearing pounamu, they talked about institutional racism. They told us: “All Pākehā are racist, even your nuns.” Yeah. Nah. We couldn’t quite get our heads around that one. After all, our sisters were on a mission. These women weren’t paid but kaupapa-driven. Good-natured. Slightly mysterious. A single door in the school kitchen separated their convent from our world. Every night, they’d slip beyond that door into the twilight zone, a place forbidden to us. I’d like to think they had a sherry and relaxed.

The nuns have come and gone. But Georgina Kingi hasn’t. Thank God for that.

“Miss Kingi” was a pupil at St Joseph’s. Then she taught biology and Māori when I was there. She’s been the principal for decades. She’s the one responsible for the beautiful singing to come out of St Joe’s. Hinewehi Mohi, Whirimako Black and Maisey Rika are St Joe’s old girls. And I had the school choir backing me when we recorded Awe Maria in the school chapel for an album of mine.

In our school days, we all benefited from Miss Kingi yelling at us, often while standing on the steps ready to perform and holding our pleated skirts down.

God, we hated those pleated skirts.

“We called them parachutes because one whiff of wind and up they would go,” laughs Hinewehi.

The pleats are long gone. But some things haven’t changed. Georgina doesn’t have a computer or do email. Cell phones are banned from St Joe’s. Discipline is a biggie. She nips bullying in the bud as soon as it’s spotted. There’s less smoking now than in our day. The focus is on the academic and all students are encouraged to consider university. It’s old school stuff but it works.

“Don’t call us old-fashioned,” she barks. “We are traditional.”

Georgina counts her great staff and board as the key. Then there’s the support from the girls’ families. St Joe’s always had massive buy-in from whānau, even back in my day.

Most parents are looking for reassuring answers to two basic questions. Will our children be safe? Will they get a good education?

Moana Jackson admits he couldn’t answer those questions positively when he first went into Te Aute to help. At that time, he wouldn’t have enrolled his grandchild there. Now his mokopuna is in Year 13 and his year is the first to go through under the new regime. So Moana is entitled to some satisfaction that he’s been able to play a part in the school’s re-awakening and re-direction.

Of course, the school still has its history, but it’s not living off its past. Its vision is to be relevant for these times.

Elizabeth Ellis sees Te Aute as an “important icon” for Māori. She says it’s growing proud Māori men. “They arrive in February as timid, apprehensive, new boys and, by December, they are confident, strong Māori. By the time they leave school, they are able to conduct themselves well on marae and at Māori gatherings, know the traditional performing arts, have immense pride in the history of the college, as well as a devotion and loyalty to the school and to each other that endures for life.”

I loved my years at Hato Hohepa. Lazy Sundays learning to play guitar on the Marion steps, composing a song, practising poi, or writing a letter home. I credit St Joe’s for teaching me how to harmonise, speak in public, debate and be independent. The college gave me friends for life and engendered pride in me as a Māori woman.

And I became part of a club. There’s no secret handshake, but there is a bond. Every time I drive past Bombay, I look wistfully towards the orange rooftops of St Stephen’s. And, in my mind, I can still see the lemon sweaters of the Queen Victoria girls from Parnell.

Despite the positive experience that I had — as did others in our family — at boarding school, it never occurred to me to send my first-born to one. The truth is he was my only child at the time, and I would’ve missed him too much.

But, if you have some spare kids at home, it’s something to think about. There’s a waiting list at St Joseph’s, and a few spots available at Te Aute and Hato Paora for next year. And I certainly wouldn’t write off Turakina or Hato Petera yet. By the time your kohanga kids are ready, you may well be spoilt for choice.

And, of course, as parents, we all want to do the best for them — which reminds me of the school motto at St Joe’s: “I o mahi katoa mahia.”

“Whatever you do, do it well.”

Amen.

 

© e-tangata, 2015

 

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