I went back to my old school on Friday. The school where I started teaching in 2007. In 2009 I was the dean of a new bunch of Year 9 students and we made a time capsule. We wrote letters to ourselves about our dreams of ourselves in 2013, and we put them in a big plastic box and stuffed the box up in the ceiling space of the student service centre. I got an email a couple of weeks ago asking me to come back over the hill and open that box it being 2013, and all those Year 9 students now being Year 13 students.
I left that school in 2011. I was burnt out and exhausted and not so good in the head or heart as a result. I started off in 2009 with those kids wanting to save the ones that needed saving, and wanting to not get in the way of the ones that just needed to flourish and thrive. I was naive about the world. I found that out straight away, and then over a long time.
All the way back to my old school I felt nervous. A friend at school lent me their car and I drove up the motorway to Petone wondering what I would say. What do you say? I like to prepare for speeches. Not to write speeches out line by line, but to make a list of bullet points and have a beginning, a middle and an end. Something about this speech wouldn’t come to me. The night before I went back through my blog and looked at some of the posts I had written back in 2009 and 2010 when I was the dean. I didn’t really need to reread those posts, because I remember all of those stories very well. There was a lot of pain in those stories. The pain of a naive idealist confronting a reality he had never seen before. In 2009 I began my education again.
In 2009 I began to learn about poverty and dysfunction and the importance of love. There were a crew of students who were pretty much always in my office for the two and a half years I was their dean. It was a group that was more male than female, and far more brown than white. You might think I am being melodramatic when I say this, but they haunt me. I think about them a lot. All I feel like for them is a failure, and they were there to greet me on Friday when I went out to open the time capsule.
The ceremony was in the old gym. The man who was their dean now, a wonderful man who they were so lucky to have (and who they were plenty smart enough to appreciate), met me and my old co-dean and shook our hands and took us into the gym where the 100 or so students were sitting. As we came in they started clapping and cheering, and I felt a bit embarrassed, but it was quite beautiful really and I was moved. There were a line of chairs at the front facing them and there, in the middle at the front, sitting on a desk, was the crappy plastic box we sealed up in 2009.
Sitting at the front looking back at the audience was a disorientating experience. I was looking at people I knew well who had changed enormously in what seemed like a short time. Small boys who were now far taller, and bigger than me, some of them with beards, and the girls looking like young women. There was a lot of warmth in that room. It was going to be my turn to speak very soon, and I still wasn’t sure what to say and then I saw them. The ones who weren’t there. They were the two rows of chairs that no one had put out. They were sitting in the spaces between their friends.
So I ended up saying thank you and sorry in a few different ways in my speech. I said thanks for inviting me back, thanks for teaching me while I was there, thanks for teaching me so much. And I told them about the time I went to a beginning of the year pep talk for teachers, probably in 2010, and how the speaker had asked the audience if they wanted to be mirrors of the bad things in their community or lighthouses of the good stuff, and how much I had felt my heart call out that I wanted to be the lighthouse, and how much I had wanted to be that for them. And then I said sorry by saying all the names of the students I couldn’t see in the room.
I said the names. Names like Heteraka, Henare, Waitoa, Rangi, Peke, Taiapa, and Mataa. You can’t help but notice something about those names. Something they all have in common. It tells me almost everything I need to know about hardship in New Zealand and whose communities it impacts the most.
But here’s the other thing those names have in common: each one of them had tremendous potential and gifts. Two of them I thought could have been head students. A few of them, at one point or another, had the whole school laughing with them and loving them in really positive, transformative ways. Others were quieter, or genuine outsiders, but all of them – when you sat down and talked – were worthwhile people who I am glad I met.
And that I failed.
It’s not all on me of course. I don’t need to hit myself with a stick that big. One thing I did learn is that the life of one of my ghosts was complicated. That they came with lots of hurts, with families that were hurt, with love that was difficult and uneven, and without the tools – often – to succeed at school. They had the raw material in spades – the charisma and the brains – but not the tools that are acquired through the day in day out graft of schooling both in and out of the classroom (books at home, a computer, the quiet space and respect for education that lets kids carry on learning after 3pm, or in the holidays).
Some in education want to increase teacher accountability to solve all of those problems. There is no doubt that teachers are key in a good education and a little increased accountability is good, but fundamentally it seems flawed. Since the mid 1980s we have been creating a society of increased competition and inequality. It doesn’t seem fair to demand that teachers reduce a widening gap when society is being engineered in the opposite direction.
After the speeches we opened the time capsule and handed out the letters. I went and talked with the students. I caught up with a girl who I had always had a soft spot for and had taught for a couple of years. I asked her about her letter,
“I wanted to be a hairdresser and an air hostess,” she thought this was hilarious now.
“What are you going to do next year?”
“I’m going to train to be a nurse.” I was very proud of her when I heard her say that. Although I do remember her clashing with her Science teacher a lot when she was in Year 10. I asked her about her old Science teacher.
“He asked me the other day to come and talk to his Year 10 class,” she was smiling. “He wanted me to talk about how I was a brat in Year 10 and how great I am now.”
I guess that’s progress. Maybe mostly for her, and not so much for him.
One boy came to tell me about the engineering course he was going to do, and to make fun of my bald spot. Another boy about the week of work experience he has just finished. I felt proud of them too. There was a kind of uneasiness about them as they told me about their plans, as if I would think the courses they were going to do weren’t good enough. They may not have noticed but the world needs engineers, and nurses, and builders far more than it needs marketing graduates. Of course I was proud of them.
There were so many stories to share. I told them I had been there at Tu Tangata and seen how great they were. I asked a girl if she was still singing, and how proud I had been of another when she made the end of year speech for our year group in 2010. There were just too many of them, and too many stories. I love this job. The young have so much in them, and so much before them, and I always feel lucky to stand off on the sidelines and be allowed to watch it happen, to watch it begin for them. Some see the young and despair, but I see an ever renewing promise.
The gym emptied slowly. I shook hands with as many of them as I could as they left. Some of the boys started stacking the chairs, and one of them came over. He was one of the boys who sometimes got into trouble and was mates with some of the boys who were always in trouble and who weren’t there anymore. I asked him about one of them; one of the ones I thought could have been head boy one day, one of the ones who was often in my office hot in a rage, or joking around.
“He’s got a job.”
“And a kid.”
“Yeah.” The boy looked at me – guarded – challenging me to say something bad.
But I just said, “wow.” I mean, what do you say when an 18-year-old is a dad?
I drove back to my new school, and took a last class. The term ended at 3.30pm and at 4.30pm I was down at the pub with my colleagues talking about our plans for the holidays. Some of them are going to a course in Hamilton about technology in schools. About I-pads. About tablets. About collaborative, digital education and the future of pedagogy. About, essentially, widening the inequality gaps in our education sector by pandering to the anxiety of those at that top that they are falling behind in a global technology race.
After I walked out of the old gym, and before I got in my friend’s car I walked through the school where I was a dean and found it mostly the same. I went up the corridor in the student service centre where the deans’ offices were and I could see them hanging about. The ghosts. I looked in through the window in the door of my old office, and he was sitting there. The boy with the kid. He was 13 and 14 then. Handsome, and funny. He was going to be a league star or in the army. He was telling me why a teacher was a dick. He was telling me why his folks didn’t care. He was with the woman who took him on and got him going right. He was doing the breakfast programme and working out and looking up to mentors. He was wagging. He was struggling in Maths. In English.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what went wrong, and how I let you down. I hope you’re doing ok. The main thing I would tell you if I saw you would be to love that kid of yours. Love will help that kid more than almost anything else.