Taranaki writer Airana Ngarewa’s high school had a lot going for it — Māori staff, a “makeshift marae”, and Māori students excelling in pockets. But it was uncomfortably tolerant of racist rhetoric, he writes.
In the first hour on the first day of high school, I was kicked out of class. It’s a fact I’m almost proud of. Back then, they hit you with a yellow slip and you took that yellow slip to the office and the office sent you to a senior class where you wrote out an apology to your original teacher. A process I would become very familiar with.
On this particular day, I didn’t make it past the front door; I had no clue where the office was. High school might as well have been a maze.
Instead, I sat outside, sunbathing, until the kaiako Māori in the room next door came out to see what was up.
“You been playing up, boy?”
“Nah, not even.”
“So you out here for nothing?”
“Ms asked me my name and I answered her. Straight up.”
“Ko wai tō ingoa?”
As it turned out, Airana to the Pākehā ear sounds very close to “I dunno”, and Ms T, the first day being the first day, came into class with a point to prove, ready to crack the whip the moment any student stepped out of line.
She must have thought I was being funny, trying to get a laugh, and figured her best bet to maintain control of the ravenous lot in front of her — the Year 9 extension class, more nerdy than nightmarish — was to make an example of me.
The whole thing was never really resolved. After an explanation where I was asked to repeat my name until it lost all meaning to me, Ms T sent me back into the mix. If it was all followed by an apology, I could’ve brushed it off. It certainly wasn’t the first time an adult had made a mistake.
But no apology ever came my way. Instead, Ms T doubled down, watching me from that point on until I misstepped, and then pouncing.
And so, if I had ever allowed myself to believe high school was going to be different from every school prior, that illusion had been quickly crushed.
In primary school, I had the hallway named after me. That might as well have been my classroom because I spent so much time out there. During winter, it was the worst, the corridor cold and my go-to outfit bare feet, a Yu-Gi-Oh T-shirt, and the fastest pair of shorts that weren’t in the wash.
Intermediate wasn’t that much better, with my first teacher (who I loved) leaving, and the replacement conspiring to have me expelled until the principal intervened. He’d taught me previously and knew I was more ratbag than rotten egg.
The cultural clashes at high school continued on the first day, with the next conflict occurring between me and my classmates, a crew of know-it-alls asserting out of some secret knowledge that our extension class had a quota. No less than 20 percent had to be Māori, according to them.
They suggested that we didn’t belong with them. Didn’t deserve to be there. Suggested we were different. Lesser.
Regrettably, my first reaction wasn’t to bark back but to look around, to treat their kōrero with caution, trusting that what they said came not from a desire to denigrate but from a more sympathetic impulse. I’d never met these people, didn’t understand how they or this institution of education functioned.
I scanned the room and couldn’t see what they assured me they saw. Every Māori among us I identified immediately as some kind of brainiac. Whether English, maths or art — sport and mātauranga Māori obviously absent — each had a distinct strength, a discrete pool of knowledge only they had access to.
From then on, I saw straight through this type. Their impulse was the opposite of sympathetic — it was an attempt to claim cleverness exclusively as a white trait.
I wouldn’t say the school was racist, as such. There were Māori staff, a makeshift marae on-site, Māori students excelling in pockets. It was, however, uncomfortably tolerant of racist rhetoric. The school was a microcosm of the area.
The town is infamous, after all, for a Christmas parade where a bunch of apparently well-meaning senior folk painted their faces black and played Michael Jackson on a loudspeaker. I say “apparently” because the local theatre remembers the blackface plays of their day in a photo proudly displayed in the women’s bathroom — a terrible history the media missed in their coverage of this faux-pas. It wasn’t the first time this town had crossed such a cultural line.
And then there’s the time the girl who’d become one of our head prefects directed at me the plainest expressions of racism I’d ever heard aloud: “The only reason you’re any good is ‘cause you’re part white.” We were debating the New Zealand Wars and I made a point too close to making sense and she opted for the nuclear option.
I remember pausing, allowing the room to breathe the moment in. I expected gasps or her mates to jump in and shut her down — or, at the very least, a comment from the teacher. Silence was the only reply. She might as well have quoted God of Nations, so unmoved was this class of 30 teenagers and a 30-year-old adult.
Even in the moment, I didn’t blame my peers or the head prefect herself; I recall telling them as much. Over time, I had listened to them talk and I had questioned them and I had come to know that none of these were their own beliefs. They were too superficial, tissue-thin.
They’d heard their mum and dad say this stuff and repeated it. They had inherited their parents’ bigotry like I had inherited the ginger locks of my grandmother. I knew they’d outgrow these beliefs as soon as they outgrew their parents, as soon as they settled into their adolescence and came to criticise their forebears — good, bad and racist — as only a teen can.
The teacher was a different story. He’d lived long enough to know better. And beyond that, he was in a position of great power. Great power over me, anyway. Ignorance in such a role was inexcusable.
Things got more complicated when he later labelled me a Māori extremist. And why did he grant me such a title? Was it for calling stolen land “stolen land” or alleging my peers were prejudiced?
No. I’d claimed the Treaty of Waitangi was the founding document of our country. More a fact than a manifesto. Thereafter, I understood why he never challenged the head prefect’s earlier outburst. He shared a similar opinion.
But so it went, my high school experience a buffet of first world bigotry in all its pernicious variety.
In truth, I was never overwhelmed by it. I was never even surprised. I thought others might be when it was spoken aloud — so many had called New Zealand post-racial — but I certainly wasn’t. Perhaps this stoicism was because the bigotry was only a trickle in my life where it was an ocean in others.
Reflecting on it all now, I wonder if the school really was racist. Who could say for sure? Maybe it’d be safer to say only what the Education Review Office said regarding Māori education there — that it was “in urgent need of improvement”.
Airana Ngārewa (Ngāti Ruanui) was born and raised in Pātea. He is a writer and teacher. He teaches at Spotswood College and is studying a Master of Teaching and Education Leadership with Ako Mātātupu: Teach First. His writing has appeared in Newsroom, the Spinoff, Headland, Mayhem Literary Journal, Turbine, Takehē Magazine, Huia Short Stories, and elsewhere.
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