ADVICE FROM OPUNAKE
THE HEAD PREFECTS
The boys' head prefect of Opunake District High School is Albert Wharemate (right), whose photo is also reproduced on the cover. He intends to go into the regular army. Heather Smith, the girls' head prefect, is shown on the left.
Before going to Opunake we were told some of its history. We found Opunake was a place with a warlike and eventful past; around the town there were many old and famous Maori entrenchments. It was there that the Taranaki tribes had fought off the Waikato invaders in various grim battles. It would be hard to find all the places; the battlegrounds were overgrown with a luxuriant crop of weeds. No wonder, either, for nobody would use a plough on places like that. Curious investigators always had to be careful not to fall into the many concealed holes. So much for the past.
Like all places with such a wild past, Opunake does look a little disappointing at first sight. One is accustomed to that, No amount of romance seems to prevent a place nowadays from being grazed by farm animals, and Opunake is covered with flat, luxuriant pasture almost everywhere. Walking through the place, one can see it has long been settled by the pakeha; several generations of settlers have left their mark on Opunake. Although the sea is only a street away, the settlers have concentrated mainly on the land, and turned their backs on the sea.
As in so many places, the most impressive building is the school. The recently opened high school, particularly, has a comfortable, modern look. Opposite the school is the most up-to-date tearoom of the locality, very bright and with plenty of seats; that is where the children come to eat their lunches. It was explained to us that so many of the children come from farms, where everyone is busy, that a place where the children can buy lunches is particularly useful here.
The study of the headmaster, Mr Burton, did not look at all formidable, as the rooms of headmasters do in books; perhaps those books all belong to the past, anyway. The light panelling reflected the bright sunlight falling from the large windows, the low, wide bookshelves did not have that forbidding look. I explained my rather vague mission—I came from Te Ao Hou, and would like to meet some of the children.
Mr Burton was most obliging. If I wanted to meet some of his pupils, he would go and collect some, and I could ask them as many questions as I liked. Such a sudden, close meeting with a crowd of school children would be an
entirely new experience to me. It frightened me thoroughly.
‘Would you like to leave it till after lunch, and think it over?’ asked Mr Burton. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘thinking won't make any difference.’
Mr Burton collected some of his charges. We met in the library. Everybody sat around two large tables that had been placed together.
I started the ball rolling by telling briefly about Te Ao Hou. Nobody had heard of it. Then a round-table discussion began which really excited the headmaster and myself, and which would, I think, have excited anyone who is interested in New Zealand's racial relations. Here were some of the most intelligent children of a country high school of about 170 pupils, all around sixteen years of age, and ready to go into the great big world. Some 15 per cent of the high school enrolment is Maori, and the Maori element was well represented at the discussion. Like most New Zealand schools, this one is quite free from any racial feeling; pakeha and Maori mix freely. The head prefect, Albert Wharemate, is a Maori. The school has a professional, a commercial and a rural course. There is no suggestion whatever of Maori pupils being more numerous or more proficient at one course than at another.
I was struck by the noble and generous spirit of the discussion. I have had lots of talks to adults on the same subjects, and my experience is they tend to be on a less exalted level.
It was now twelve o'clock. Others needed the library. So we moved to a delightful sunny classroom, where the discussion was continued until lunch, at half-past twelve.
‘If Te Ao Hou was to be distributed in schools,’ I asked, ‘what do you think should be in it?’
The answer to that was immediate and unanimous. They all wanted Maori myths and legends. They would also like art, carving, and so forth. Right through the discussion a lead-
ing speaker was Heather Smith, the girls' head prefect. She wants to study political science when she leaves school.
‘To which college will you go?’ I asked.
‘To Victoria College,’ she said, ‘I want to be able to watch Parliament.’
Heather Smith gave me so many useful tips about what should go into Te Ao Hou, that I was on the point of offering her my job. Current news on Maori literature; on interesting films; features on New Zealand history—in short, she said, the things on which Maori culture rests. More feminine interests were shown when she also suggested Maori cooking recipes.
I forget now who asked me for stories on pa life today, and ‘little interesting anecdotes showing sidelights of Maori life.’
It was a great experience.
We had a good deal of discussion on the extent to which Maori culture flourished today. Some suggested that it was all dying, and the language, too. We asked the head prefect, Albert Wharemate, which language seemed to him the most suitable for expressing his deepest and most fundamental utterances, and this boy—whose achievements in the pakeha world so far have certainly left nothing to be desired—answered without hesitation, ‘Maori, definitely.’ Yet the Taranaki community from which he comes contains many successful farmers, and is more modern in outlook than the average.
So this very satisfying discussion ended. As Mr Burton wisely pointed out to me afterwards, if there is a racial problem in New Zealand, it develops mainly after the children leave school. When a child moves into adult society and has to find work, housing and companions, he is exposed to dangers and difficulties not found at school. The most important job now is to see that the Maori child does not lose his sense of security on leaving.
That, Mr Burton thinks, is the root of the problem. At this stage the Maori child has to be helped to find apprenticeships and accommodation. When we left the headmaster in his attractive, spacious school buildings and looked back on the generous, fertile grounds, we realised that the enormous influence which these schools have on the Maori children is mainly due, not to the learning they accumulate there, but to the comfort and security they provide.