Becky Manawatu is an award-winning writer whose first book Auē won the prestigious fiction prize at the 2020 Ockham book awards. But, in this piece, she remembers the mana-damaging impact of being labelled “average” after one school test. (This is an abridged version of a speech given at Christchurch’s WORD festival.)
The ability to be brave is given by mana, I think.
That born-with mana we all get. For me, the mana that came with being born to an Irish mother and a Pākehā-Māori father.
The mana that came with being born a moko of a Ngāi Tahu man, Richard Wixon. My koro, who I never got to meet, was even awarded a medal for bravery in World War II. Though he survived that war, he still died young.
The mana of being born the moko of a Pākehā woman, Doreen Wixon, who would lose her husband far too soon, but go on to live completely independent, even driving until age 90.
The mana of being born the moko of an Irish man, Cyril Duggan, who would survive losing sons and some of his precious grandchildren.
Born the moko of Elsa Dawn, who I never met. She was my Granny, and I’ve heard stories of how she raised seven children, including my mother, in difficult times.
I have a beautiful picture of my two great-grandparents, both Ngāi Tahu, John Wixon and Elizabeth Te Au. When I look at their beautiful faces, I feel filled with mana.
There is also mana we are given. My sisters, Tami and Nicole, spoon-fed me mana from birth. Being almost 10 years older than me, they carried me around on their hips, and made me feel utterly protected, safe and happy.
As I grew, they talked to me about the whakapapa of me and my brother. No one ever messed with us because of them, and it made me increasingly bold. Brave.
From my mum, who encouraged me to write and my dad who took me to sea with him often as a kid when he was skipper of a boat. Gave me one of my first jobs, cooking for crew on scampi trips.
My children, well, it’s watching them grow into the beautiful kind humans they are that makes me feel mana.
My husband slaps mana on me like its T-sauce and I am two scoops of Tony’s Chips.
There is the mana that comes from the group, shared as a community. In te ao Māori, a good example would be at the marae.
As we lived far from our marae growing up, and my dad had not connected to it, I had to think about how I could best understand this mana.
Not sure if I have the comparison right, but I decided Waimangaroa primary school was one place I was part of collective mana.
To encapsulate the school, I’ll share this: through the cold months, parents were asked to donate homemade soup. Us kids could order it by the cup for about 50 cents and have a slice of toast at 10 cents a pop.
I looked forward to soup season. Most of us would sit together in a classroom at our desks, bunched into islands, and we’d eat. There is something about a group of kids eating the same thing, together.
Soup aside, I can tell you, I gained mana for feeling smart there.
How quickly it was swiped from me, stepping on to the next rung on the ladder of our education system.
The night before I was to go to the local high school for a school streaming test, I checked my pencil case to make sure I had everything I needed.
Remember feeling it was important to get a good night’s sleep, setting the alarm earlier than usual to eat some Weet-Bix, have a shower, and go through the contents of the pencil case once more. Maybe do some of those figure-eight things with my thumb.
Remember a deep certainty I’d do well at the test which would label us. And we all knew the labels used by our peers. We would be either brainy, average, or dumb.
Remember arriving at the hall at Buller High, hardly ever having been there before.
Remember looking at the desks set apart from each other, separate islands. Made my stomach freeze. Probably made me crave hot soup.
Remember sitting up in my seat, pretty sure I’d do okay. Had a little kōrero with myself about how I should go slow, take my time on each answer.
Did not pay attention to the ticking clock.
A wave of anxiety cut through me when an adult in the room said just five minutes left.
I’m not entirely sure but my recollection is I was just over halfway through.
When time was called, I hadn’t completed it, and knew deep down I hadn’t done as well as I expected.
Had not factored time into the thing — so focused on being careful. Forgot, also: be fast.
Like it’s a race.
Had me a big fat cry when I learned my label. Learned my brain function was henceforth — or at least until proved otherwise — to be classed as average.
Embarrassed to say I did not show up first day at Buller High with the intention to prove anyone wrong.
I was not brave.
With diminished mana, I dosed up on other things more suited to “average brain function”.
Those things included dopamine hits via attention from boys, drinking, smoking and not attending the institution where my brain function had been labelled as average, as frequently as was required. AKA: truancy.
Can’t say these things wouldn’t have happened anyway. Just know it happened more easily.
I wanted to be swept from the system in a current of “negative choices”. Because, well, stuff them, and that label, and the absolute reckless way they manhandle mana.
It’s not breaking news that streaming in schools is damaging. There’s already much research to back that up.
The research also says it’s racist.
A study of 70,000 Māori learners said Māori were disproportionately represented in low-ability classes. Interviews with Māori students showed streaming had a negative impact on their lives.
Streaming remains a practice.
Some schools, and I believe Buller High School is one, have done away with it. Others haven’t.
And that’s enough to piss me off.
It’s an example of how poorly mana can be handled by structures built to help.
I believed that test was another stroke propelling me forward in the waka to become my ancestors’ wildest dreams.
It didn’t sit well with me to, instead, feel mana stripped away and a label slapped on my brain.
It was straight-up rude to be honest. That mishandling, misunderstanding, minimising of mana.
I left high school with little more than School Certificate, some marks scraped together in sixth and seventh form, and a signed yearbook.
In the yearbook, one of my old mates, Joel Wright, had written that he reckoned he would read my novel one day. (Chur Joely!)
Better than a ministry endorsement, I thought, this tautoko in the form of a few words from one of my mates.
Imagine the increased and beautiful braveness more and more rangatahi might walk into the world with, on their whenua with, if mana was handled with manaakitanga, not harmful, colonising practices.
Toi tu te kupu, toi tu te mana, toi tu te whenua.
This is an edited version of a speech for the WORD Christchurch festival, which ran from October 28 to November 1, 2020.
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