I FAILED THE TEST OF LIFE
I often wonder what I could be doing now. Often I imagine myself sitting at a desk, while outside, a number of people wait to be interviewed. Often I see myself walking down the long corridor of a hospital; walking into an operating theatre to save someone's life. How silly I am; a mere freezing worker imagining that he is a famous surgeon! Impossible are those scenes now; but once they were more than dreams; they were pictures that I was determined to paint.
I grew up on a small country farm on the East Coast. My parents were both half-caste Maoris, and they meant much to me as I, the youngest son, meant much to them. I remember once when we were milking our small herd of cows my father said to me: “If ever you go away from us son, you will not be able to stay away for long. The Maori belongs to his land—the pakeha can have the cities”. Later I was to realise that those words were not as sound as they seemed at the time.
When I was five, my folks rather reluctantly sent me to the local primary school—a small school but a school that gave me a good grounding in basic education. Here too. I first developed the view that I would be something in life—something more than a cowhand. Frequently my father kept me at home to milk the cows or dig potatoes but I soon realised that if I was to be anybody at all I would have to attend school regularly. In the sixth standard I never missed one day's schooling and at the end of the year I was granted a scholarship to attend a boarding school.
My parents were never completely in favour of my going away to school—they did not want to hinder me, but I think that they were a little afraid that I would forget them. Before I left I reassured them that this was a groundless fear but still my mother was upset and in Maori declared that the pakeha had robbed her of her youngest son. As the bus rolled through the hills I felt sick. It seemed as if I was leaving home forever.
Although I was happy at college, it was always difficult for me to return after the holidays. At home everything was so free and easy while at school the reverse predominated and my whole life was lived on a timetable. Neither did we get as many social outings at school—that is fewer dances and films—and although I may have thought differently, that disciplined way of life was what I needed. There were no attractions to draw me away from lessons, and consequently I did much extra study in my spare time—time that would have been wasted at home. In addition my masters spent much of their own time helping us individually. They were as keen to get us through our exams as we were to pass them.
I passed my School Certificate exam at the end of my third college year and the following year obtained by University Entrance. I had always wanted to be a medical practitioner and now I was determined that I would be. After my fifth year at college I left to study at Auckland University, full of determination and ideas for the future. My troubles started that year.
Our college headmaster often told the new boys that: “At this School, you build your canoe. When you leave here you launch it on the wild seas of life. If you have made your canoe strong it will float—if not then it will capsize and the timber and time spent in making it will be wasted.” Of course it was our characters that were the canoes and success in life depended on the way that the character had been moulded. But there is something else in that analogy that now rings in my conscience—“the wild seas of life”. Life is a wild sea; a wild sea of independence and self-discipline. I discovered that as I sailed over it.
At varsity, school was something different from what I had been accustomed to. I had expert teachers, first class equipment and much more time to consolidate my lessons—lessons that would decide my future. I knew that to be a successful doctor, I would have to work really hard—harder than ever before and I went to my new school with every intention of working in such a manner.
The first week passed; then the second and the third, and I had missed only one lecture. “Keep it up son”, read a letter from Dad. Keep it up! Could I? I thought I could. I even thought that I could keep it up if I spent half the night out Here was the Queen city of New Zealand waiting to be explored; and here was I, a young explorer fresh from the “backblocks”, waiting eagerly to discover new delights. Gradually the attractions of the city pulled me away from my study and soon I was an active member of the Maori Youth Club, the “Give” Club, the “Start Rugby Club and the Badminton Club. Every night was a night out; a new action song to be learned a new film to be seen; or a new girl friend to be taken out.
For the first time in my life I could do as
pleased. No one said, “Go to this lecture” or “Watch that demonstration”. No master stood over me and demanded last night's homework; nor did any master give up all his spare time to help me pass exams. The “ball was at my own feet” and I have never professed to be an expert soccer player. What a change from college!
I succeeded in telling myself that my main exam was not until the end of our year and that next term would not be leaving it too late to really work hard. Next term? … no; next term was not the answer to my problem. The city had an even stronger hold on me and I felt part of its social life. When I wrote home I no longer boasted about missing few lectures. Instead my letters were descriptions of the training for our next match in football or about the new type of screen in the cinema; seldom about the training for our next exam in chemistry or the new physics professor. Unchecked, I wasted my ability and the government's money; my canoe was rotting rapidly and I was doing nothing about restoring the timber.
Then came the gentle reminder from a fellow student, “Medical Intermediate exam next month,” he calmly told me one night. Examinations! Surely not! Why I had done no study at all. How could I possibly sit this exam? … the first major test of my chosen career. For a month I studied hard, I tried to force myself to think that I would be able to pass with a high enough average to be admitted to Otago, but it was no use. I knew in my own heart that I didn't have any show at all and this knowledge was confirmed when I saw the unfamiliar examination papers. The results? … I was last in a class of sixty.
I was too ashamed to go home for the whole summer vacation and I stayed at the freezing works for most of the holiday. I earned good money at the “works” but when I left all I had to show for it was a collection of gaudy clothes and a sound knowledge of the various prices for the different types of sherry, brandy and beer. I also “prided” myself on having a hand stained with nicotine and a wallet bulging with stale air.
At the commencement of the new varsity term, I returned to my old study with a new determination. The last week of my vacation had been spent at home and my father and uncle (who was a primary school headmaster) urged me to try harder this year, pointing out that if my marks were low again. I could not expect the government to continue my scholarship. It was with this request fresh in my mind that I faced the new year. For a month I was able to concentrate on my work, but the city had even more attractions for me now as, during my term at the freezing works, I had made many new friends in Auckland and they were constantly inviting me to parties, dances and other outings. I couldn't refuse my best friend … could I. Perhaps if I had lived in a city before, I may have been able to settle down more quickly; but I hadn't lived in a city before and I just couldn't settle down at all.
Football season came round and out went schoolwork. It had always been my ambition to play for the senior grade and when my opportunity came I took it and despite my late nights and irregular training I made the team. My parents seemed thrilled but a letter from my father made me reconsider my steps over the past 18 months.
“I knew you'd work hard at everything” he wrote when he heard of my Rugby position, “you are a credit to us both.”
Had I worked hard? At football yes; at everything— … I was afraid to ask myself that question—afraid because I knew that I hadn't tried to work hard at varsity. Was I a credit to my parents? … again I was afraid to face that question but in my own heart I knew that I was not. I was wasting everything I had: ability, opportunity and time.
The letter came two months before the Medical Intermediate exam and somehow it made me find sufficient will power to study seriously. My nights out were rapidly decreased and after a month or so I found that it was not very difficult to give them up after all. I attended the lectures in a better condition—not the old tired condition but a condition of enthusiasm and determination. I worked through a pile of notes furiously even though I couldn't study them all in the detail they deserved. Perhaps I should have realised, however, that it was impossible to do a whole year's work in two months; impossible for even the brightest scholars, let alone me. The exams arrived before I had a working knowledge on half the topics but I sat with hope, determination and sorrow. Sorrow for myself; sorrow for my parents; sorrow for my race.
By the time the exams were over I was tired; tired and sick of the life I had led for so long. I returned home immediately and waited until the results were published. I was very disappointed but not exceptionally surprised when I learnt that I was still in the bottom quarter of the class. My mark was still far too low to gain admittance to Otago and the government cancelled my scholarship on the grounds that I was not suited for the occupation that I had intended for myself.
I had been determined enough at first but I had been a coward when the real battle came. My canoe wasn't strong—it capsized on the Wild Seas of Life—the Seas of Self Control and Independence.
After I had told my father that I would not return to varsity for another year, a smile came over his face; a smile accompanied by tears that trickled down his wrinkled cheek.
“I told you once that you couldn't stay away from your old home for long. Now you see for yourself that the Maori does not belong to the towns; he belongs to his land,” he said.
Thus I began working back on the land—not farming on my own farm or my father's farm (which my elder brother already managed), but just doing odd jobs here and there for anyone. I was married about ten months after I left varsity
and with my wife lived at home; but I could see that it wouldn't last this way. Odd jobs couldn't go on for ever and there was no other employment in these backblocks. I realised that my father was wrong when he had said, “the Maori belongs on his land,” for there was not enough land for all Maoris. Some of them had to go and I knew that I must be one of them. Consequently I returned with my wife and young son to Auckland where I found employment in the freezing works once more.
Since then I have met a number of Maoris, who, like myself, have realised that the Maori lands cannot employ all of the Maoris. Some of them are tradesmen, some teachers, but too many are in “blind alley” occupations. Too many are attracted by unstable high wages and are not secure in the city. Too many are wasting their wages on beer and liquor and they are creating a problem for their race—an urgent problem.
I also see many young Maori lads about the Auckland streets. How many are varsity students? How many are wasting their chances and ability because of the attractions in the city? That too is a problem for our race. We must somehow or another keep our varsity students at their work. We must impress upon them that university means work—not fun; and that for the sake of their race they must work.
My dreams of becoming a doctor are now mere flights of fantasy— once they were a real prospect. I have thrown away my golden opportunity—I cannot regain it; but I can at least help other students to take their opportunities. Perhaps this article will help them. I hope it will.