An infinite expectation of the dawn

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake… by an infinite expectation of the dawn….  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.

Thoreau, Walden


One of the things you are supposed to wonder about this painting is whether the light on the horizon is growing and is therefore hopeful, or fading and therefore grim. 

I believe that the Thoreau quote at the top of this post about the ability of man to change his life through conscious endeavour is true, but I also often wonder, when I am dealing with some of the students in my year level, if the dawn we are fighting to achieve for those same students might actually be a dusk.  Is the ship on the horizon of those troubled students disappearing forever instead of coming to their rescue?  As hopeful as an “infinite expectation of the dawn” sounds, an actual infinity of expectation could equally sound frustrating and unfulfilling. 


It was a funny old day.  It started with my Year 12 Classics students asking me to explain why the Auckland Grammar boys kissing the Nazi flag was so bad.  For a moment I thought they were having me on, and then I realised that they were genuinely perplexed by the outrage this stupid prank had caused.  From their perspective the students were definitely being dicks, but that was about it.  Well, I did my best to explain in the minute I was given but it was quite hard work.  To be honest I think that we are now encountering a generation of school children who study World War II in the same way they study the battle of Marathon: as a far distant event filled with interesting trivia and quirky facts but somehow drained of emotional immediacy.

For most of the rest of the day I tried to deal with my regulars.  The boys who come up time and again.  The ones not in class, or not doing work, or wearing the wrong clothes or saying the wrong things.  Two of them have been doing a lot of wagging.  I have been trying to call home for three days.  Numbers are disconnected, cellphones cut off, messages are left in mailboxes you feel are never checked.  An Aunty doesn’t want to get involved.  A Dad says he’ll get back to me and doesn’t.  When I am telling the Dad my phone number something about his voice at the other end of the line makes me imagine him looking out the window and staring at the neighbours fence – simply pretending to me over the phone that he is writing the number down.

Excuses.  A girl hasn’t really come to school for months.  Mum gets angry.  “We don’t have money for the bus” (ironically Mum is a bus driver), “She’s sick.  Aren’t kids allowed to be sick anymore?”.  This week she’s supposed to be at an unveiling ceremony for her grandfather’s headstone.  Maybe she is.  A boy hasn’t been back to school since the holidays.  Another angry Mum.  “He’s at school.  I’m sick of this bulls**t”, “He’s not at school because his uniforms at the dry cleaners”.  Can we lend him some uniform? “I don’t want your bloody charity.”

Then there are the kids who are there.  Two boys.  One of them is supposed to be on daily report.  He never comes to pick it up and he never comes to drop it off.  I go and get him to put him in the Time Out room and tell him we need to call Dad.  He’s angry, swearing.  In the Time Out room he flings his bag in the corner and dumps himself in a chair.  Watching his back you can see the tension and heat in him.  The other boy always comes to get his report but almost makes it worse.  He shows up this morning in the wrong uniform, playing an i-pod, with a gang cap on.  “Take it off”, I tell him.  “F**k that.”  “I’d rather you took it off,” I say.

And so it goes.

Can I tell you something?  Out of the five kids I just described none are living with both Mum and Dad and most of them with neither, all of them are Maori, and four of them are boys.  I tell you they are Maori because it bothers me.  It makes a lie of socialist platitudes, and special pogrammes to raise achievement.  I’ll tell you something else: I like all of those kids.  Actually, a couple of them have tremendous potential.  One of them I can imagine taking all of his charisma, and good looks, and quick wit and turning himself into the Head Boy of the school in four years.  This will probably not happen, but even though my dealings with these boys can be confronting and depressing I have come over the last couple of weeks to believe more than ever in the importance of an infinite expectation of the dawn.  Without it I think teaching is impossible.

Let me close with a final example. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a student I had on daily report.  We found that he was getting hit at home everytime he got a bad report.  Agencies were notified and caregivers duly investigated.  It caused me a lot of self-reflection about unintended consequences.  Well… the boy was lying.  I met the caregivers this week and we had a talk.  It was a rather uncomfortable meeting to begin with because in a way this boy had used the school to try and damage the people looking after him.  The meeting though went well in the end.  So we go on.  I need to carry on dealing with this boy as normal, more alert to his lies, but still willing him onward, still believing that we need to get him through this thing called school.

The two main problems are:

  1. I don’t know what I’m doing, and
  2. The problems mostly cannot be solved and are too complex to understand

So far the two things I have learned are:

  1. Kids really don’t want to be bad in 95% of cases but being bad is easier than dealing with point two above, and
  2. If there is just one person in that kid’s family that gives a shit it makes a big difference

If I figure anything else out I’ll let you know.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

7 thoughts on “An infinite expectation of the dawn”

  1. Another great post, JP. I read this quote in a ‘Lost’ review of all places. It seemed appropriate:

    “I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

    Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

    — Vasily Grossman

  2. Indeed.

    I am reading Walden at the moment and, yes, he built a house in the woods and lived in it for two and half years. So far I would say that it’s a very well written book, with many great insights about life and materialism, but it is also a young man’s book. Young men tend to write books that don’t account for wives, children, and the need to earn a daily crust to put food on the table.

    Richard, I promise to apply very stringent standards to entry into Year 11 Music when I am Year 11 Dean.

  3. I agree with the Thoreau quote too. I feel that ‘elevating your life through conscious endeavour’ is really hard. It requires amazing powers of self-belief and a willingness to be different.

    Didn’t Thoreau basically walk into the woods and build a house with an axe? What did his mother think about that? Surely his mates would have said, ‘you’re dreaming just get a real job.’

    I always wonder about people who undertake things like Thoreau. They must have had many moments when they didn’t know whether it was the dawn or dusk but persevered nevertheless.

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