I’m a refugee. Apparently. I didn’t know I was one until a Sunday newspaper told me.
When our baby was two, our family moved from our cool Grey Lynn apartment to a ramshackle whare on an Auckland west coast beach. Our friends in the city thought we’d lost the plot.
“You going all country on us, mate?”
Drama queens, we thought. We’re only 45 minutes from Ponsonby Road, if you get a clear run.
For the first two years, we’d look up from repairing rotten floorboards and plugging leaks, to savour the unbelievable ocean views. Sure, there was that northwestern motorway, but we didn’t have to be anywhere in particular, at any particular time. We made new friends. We settled in. Even our city-slicker mates started dribbling out to us on a Sunday.
The funny thing about kids is they grow. I asked my neighbours about local kōhanga reo. They had no idea. We ended up at a puna, 30 kilometres away, run by the iconic Ereti Brown (“Nanny Letty”). We hit the peak hour traffic every morning, thinking: It could be worse.
As the Sunday Star-Times reports, Ministry of Education figures released recently suggest that more than 81,000 students are commuting to out-of-zone schools each day, creating what critics call a culture of “brown and white schools”, and rule-breaking as parents try to get their kids into schools they’re not zoned for. They call it “white flight”: parents trucking their kids into high-decile schools. In Auckland, 15 percent of all children don’t go to their local school.
That’s us. The 15 percent. Not the “white flight” bit.
Every day, our (now) seven-year-old makes the 70-kilometre round trip to a suburb close to the one we originally lived in. We carpool with our Te Arawa relatives. It’s a struggle. One day it took me 80 minutes to get to school. Our kids get good marks for attendance, but a fail for punctuality.
According to the Sunday Star-Times editorial, our families are part of the “refugee flood based not in deprivation, but in ignorance”. Not so. We have two perfectly good, well-resourced schools less than 10 kilometres away from us, with excellent ERO reports.
They just don’t work for bilingual whānau.
Three years ago, I set up an appointment with the principal of our lovely local school.
“Our daughter is currently in a total immersion situation,” we said to the principal. “How can your school support her learning?”
“We have excellent English remedial programmes,” he replied.
Come again? Maybe I needed to reframe that question.
“There’s nothing wrong with her English,” I said. “She’s bilingual. How can we help you to support her reo?”
There was a pause.
“Well,” he said. “There isn’t really enough community interest in the Māori language.”
Not true. I’d talked to parents who had lobbied to get the language taught but couldn’t gain traction.
“It’s an official language,” barked The Father.
“It’s the right of all kids, not just Māori, to learn te reo,” said I.
He smiled. We didn’t feel the love.
We had visions of our little warrior princess fresh out of the warm embrace of Nanny Letty, now feeling like the odd one out. Our baby is not going to that school, muttered The Father. So we set up an appointment with the next closest school.
They had bilingual signage and a welcoming principal who fetched us coffee. Things were looking up. I asked him whether a Māori-speaking child would be seen as an asset or a liability.
“An asset!” he replied. “I’d be lying if I said we can support your daughter’s language needs but we would honestly welcome any help with the Māori curriculum you can give us.”
He took us on a guided tour of his little country school. It was festooned with notices about an upcoming “lamb and calf day”. Kids yelled out: “Kia ora, sir!” We loved it. But we didn’t have a lamb or a calf, just one Māori-speaking four-year-old and a sinking feeling.
It was 2013. We lived in the Supercity. Māori is an official language of New Zealand. There are plenty of flash jobs available to Māori speakers.
Yet Māori was not offered in any substantial way at our two local schools. What were our options? We could put all our energy into joining other families to lobby for reo in the first school, or help transform the second school. Either process would take years. It was tempting to work alongside the keen principal but we’d already invested four years speaking only Māori to our kid. We needed backup. And we needed it now.
So we became refugees.
We followed our friends Scotty and Stacey Morrison to Westmere Primary. It had a bilingual unit and a waiting list. My family lives so out of zone that the administration office sent their reply to my (grovelling) letter to Muriwai … in Gisborne.
The Morrisons had the same experience as us. They are the go-to-for-reo people in Auckland for many whānau and had offered their considerable expertise and resources, along with 30 very keen parents, to a local school. But the headmaster “couldn’t muster the interest”.
Eighteen years had passed between enrolments of my two children into primary schools. My eldest went through kōhanga, then kura in Mangere. I just assumed that in 2016, mainstream schools across Auckland would be a lot more sorted with the language. I was wrong.
In the last three years, the principal in the first school has defrosted somewhat, due to the efforts of some parents. The teachers are keen but need someone to implement the Māori curriculum. My mate has had to fend off a suggestion that she, being Māori and passionate, should take up the position.
She’s aghast. It’s not like anyone would expect another parent to manage the English curriculum of a school, just because they’re Pākehā. Meanwhile, her daughter is being encouraged to learn Spanish.
Māori needs to be compulsory in all schools. But first, we need a good, solid plan.
As well as a concerted effort to train up more reo teachers, we need all principals to pass a Warrant of Fitness on reo and culture before they get the top job. When schools are ready, they need resource options tailored for their needs and those of their community.
We need reo programmes, digital and on TV — stuff that will excite and engage toddlers and tweenies. To get a frequency or licence, every single radio and TV station needs a WOF for pronunciation for all presenters and advertisements. And an annual renewal. As Stacey says, it’s about professionalism. I’d call it a Treaty obligation, too.
And while we’re at it, let’s bring in a Māori language music quota, too, and whack up bilingual signage everywhere. Good on MOTAT and Countdown for leading the way on that. And Rotorua for showing other cities how an official language can be normalised in an urban centre.
One of the most poignant moments our family had was when my son was about five, and a waitress at Denny’s spoke to him in Māori. The look of utter surprise and delight on his face makes me teary thinking of it. Last week, I overheard a stranger speaking Māori to his boy as I was strolling through the Redwoods. It was unexpected in a setting outside the school, marae and home, but felt so natural.
Many families are embracing te reo. Our daughter’s teacher and the head of our bilingual unit are fluent speakers and gifted teachers. They are Pākehā.
But those kids of ours keep on growing, so we parents have to keep on plotting, and compromising.
Change will only come about through inspired leadership, in schools and across every sector. We need to normalise te reo Māori. Like most refugees, we don’t want to be part of the flight.
We want to come home.
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