(Photo by Amy Toensing/Getty Images)

There’s a host of reasons why many kids don’t enjoy school — and an especially high proportion of them, so it seems, are Māori and Pasifika. Kim Mcbreen has a whakapapa that’s Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā — and so, you could assume, she may not have relished her schooldays in Northland 40 years ago. But, for her, as she recalls here, school wasn’t at all unpleasant.


Watching my kid go through kura, the pressure to excel seems to start really early. Sports competitions, competitive kapa haka, manu kōrero — and the adults taking it super seriously. I can’t help wondering what it’s like for the kids.

My primary schooling was mostly in the early ‘80s — and it was good fun. For me, anyway.

I loved learning, whether it was reading, writing maths or anything like that. They were all my idea of a good time.

I’m not a natural athlete, but hākinakina was still fun, and I happily signed up for sports I couldn’t play. It seemed like joining in was more important than winning. Horahora Primary school in Whangārei was low-decile, although it wasn’t called that then, but it was a great school. Most of the kids were Māori, but I don’t remember learning any Māori language or culture.

The school had a Dutch unit for the ten or so kids of the Marsden Point expansion workers brought in from the Netherlands. Those kids were taught in Dutch and learned Dutch culture and waiata so they could slip into their lives back home when the work in Whangārei was done.

We joined them occasionally, learning simple waiata. “Storm op Zee” is the one I remember. We did lots of singing in our own classes too, and we must have learned at least a couple of waiata Māori, but I don’t remember any.

Kapa haka wasn’t an option at any of my primary schools — and there weren’t any bilingual or Māori-medium units. But I didn’t know that we were missing out. It wasn’t until intermediate that we could sign up for the Māori Club.

I didn’t join, although at the time I wished I had. It was just that it was too new to me and outside my comfort zone. It seemed, though, like all the Māori kids were part of it — and it was awesome.

Raumanga Intermediate had a bit of a reputation. My Pākehā dad tried to beat the school zoning system and get us into a whiter school by making up an address for us on another street. That didn’t work though. I don’t remember what he told me and my brother, but we 100 percent knew that it was about race.

There was some glue-sniffing and occasional violence at Raumanga, but I’m sure that happened everywhere. What stood out, though, was the school spirit. It was massive.

It was all about the clubs and the badges. Clubs were cool, and Māori Club was the coolest of them all. Badges were rewards for participating or achieving — and they were cool, too. We sewed them on to our sleeves, starting at the top and adding more badges down our arm.

Some kids had so many badges they were in two rows. I was in awe of them. There were so many clubs, and anyone could join any of them.

The most popular were always choir, the annual production, and Māori Club. I don’t remember try-outs for any of them. You might have to prove yourself to get a big role, but anyone who signed up for a club was in.

Māori Club kids were the stars of the school, even more than the school production (although there was lots of crossover between production, choir and Māori Club). It united Māori kids across the school. It didn’t matter what class you were in. Or that’s how it seemed from the outside.

Looking back now, I can see it wasn’t just about learning kapa haka. It was about pride and belonging — and making sure that Māori kids had connection and support at school when, everywhere else, racism was out and proud, and tikanga Pākehā was dominant.

Maybe the reason I think Māori Club was the coolest is because it was the one I wasn’t in. I never got to watch the choir or the production, but I could watch Māori Club. I loved it — the beat of feet and poi, the harmonies, the pride — and, if it was a full dress rehearsal when the lights went out and the black light came on, the poi glowed, and eyes, teeth and feathers shone. It was magic.

Māori Club performances were always an event, whether they had their flash uniforms and light show, or they were just practising in daylight in school uniforms. And they always looked like they were having the best time.

I know they worked hard, probably harder than we did for the school production, and certainly more than choir. But those clubs were about fun and kotahitanga, thanks to the teachers.

Mr Hickling is the only name I remember. He supported all those clubs, cruising around with his guitar, cracking us up, always encouraging us to sing louder — like he thought kids feeling good and having fun with music was important.

So we turned up for all the practices, learned our parts, sang for the love it, and felt part of something special. No one yelled at us or made us compete with each other for motivation. What would we learn from being treated like that? We belonged, and we tried harder because of it.

At some point, a new teacher took over the choir. She said we’d been more like a music club. She made it serious like she said a proper choir should be, about excellence of performance, not the joy of singing. I immediately lost that joy, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

I feel really lucky that I had some years at school where it was mostly about being kids — and that we had support to join in and do whatever we were doing for fun.

I don’t remember feeling pressure to compete or excel, so I felt free to try stuff, and learn and grow. When I was part of a sports team or some performance, I got to feel pride and ownership in our performance because we all chose to be there and be awesome. It was okay to try. And even a nerdy weirdo like me belonged.

I hope that experience isn’t as unusual as it feels.


Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town. 

© E-Tangata, 2022

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