Hemi set off for his first class. The environment at his school was completely different to Guy’s though, half the size, co-ed, less rigid, friendlier. This was a small-town high school in a farming community. Dannevirke High didn’t enjoy the good reputation of Palmy Boys. This was the school people thought wasn’t good enough, so any farmers out there with enough money sent their kids away to school. How many of those kids would have had a better life without the weight of expectation being placed upon them by sending them away to a better education without the first thought placed on whether it was any good for them in the long run? Hemi wasn’t thinking about this though. He was following the girl from his tutor group to his first class. She was saying g’day to all her mates in the corridor, laughing and smiling. She knew plenty of kids because most from the local primary schools in town had ended up here. This wasn’t scary for them, just more of the same in a different part of town, with different uniforms. The town kids had worn uniforms to primary school as well. Hemi went to a desk as far from anyone else as he could get, but the seats all filled up. Half the kids knew each other; Hemi didn’t know anyone. He didn’t try to get to know the girl from his tutor group. She’d done her job getting him here, he could try and be invisible now.
Hemi had to do the same basic subjects as Guy, like every high school in New Zealand: English, maths, science, social studies, geography and history with two key differences. Hemi was good at manual stuff, like woodwork. He was also pretty good at drawing; he liked drawing tattooed Maori faces the most, illustrating and designing Maori carvings. His parents had no idea he was good at either of those things. Guy knew he was good at making stuff out of wood, like gaffs or wooden guns to play war with, but Guy also didn’t know Hemi could draw. Hemi kept that to himself, he had taught himself, it came naturally. Hemi was an average student; shy, he’d never volunteer an answer to anything, he had to be asked. If he was asked a question by a teacher, the answer was always either correct, or ‘I dunno’. Hemi absorbed the information he needed to, enough to get by but no more. He didn’t push himself. He wasn’t dumb at all, he had simply never had any encouragement to do or try anything; he just followed commands, or instructions. Hemi was used to being told what to do in an environment where there was no point in questioning or arguing, because that would be met with a hiding off his mum or dad. He had no reason to think the teachers wouldn’t also give him a hiding if he didn’t do what he was told, so he just did what he was told.
Hemi’s teachers were not much better than Guy’s, but they were more laid back, had more time and they knew, or knew of the kids at the school from their former schools, their big brothers or sisters, and simply because the school was small enough that you got noticed and the teachers talked among themselves in the staffroom. While this little high school wasn’t as historic and nationally respected as the big high schools of the cities, the kids who went here had a better time of it in general terms. Their education might have lost a bit in standards, or reputation, but gained significantly in the general lack of traumatic experiences by the students. That’s what Guy was going to find out next year.
Hemi spent his first week going from class to class, hiding in plain sight. He managed to avoid the stink sheila on the bus, using a combination of skill and luck. His mother would ask about his day at school for the first couple of days when she got home from her job at the freezing works. His dad didn’t, he gave Hemi his list of jobs when he got home and then sat on the veranda to have a smoke and a beer while he waited for his tea to get cooked by the Mrs.
Hemi’s jobs were things like giving the farm dogs a run, then feeding them. Depending on the season, he might have to feed some lambs or calves, he might have to cut some wood, shift some sheep, move an electric fence, put some petrol in the motorbike, milk the cow, feed the horses. There were always heaps of things to do. Guy used to have some of these jobs too. Hemi wondered who was doing them now.
‘Kai’s ready, get in the house, boy, come and get your kai before it gets cold’.
The second week at high school was when Hemi found his place. He had signed up for Maoritanga class. This was a class where Maori culture was taught; the language, the way of life, the history, the way of the tangata whenua, the Maori people. Hemi was already a Maori of course, but his parents never talked about Maori stuff, they didn’t speak Maori, neither did Hemi. Like everyone, he knew plenty of Maori words, but he didn’t speak or understand Maori. He’d only been to the Marae a couple of times, when people had died. He was little and only remembers having to sit at his nana’s casket. Playing with the other kids, the food, the hangi, the wailing of the old ladies, the old guy waving his stick and speaking Maori, everyone sleeping on the floor, all the farting and snoring. He remembered being taken to meet an old man with a full-face tattoo, Ta moko. He held Hemi’s shoulder and looked at him for a long time. He had one bung eye, the bung eye looked beyond you, like he was watching out for the spirits of his ancestors. He had only half his teeth and they were crooked and yellow. He was very old, or maybe he was simply a very old soul.
He said something to Hemi in Maori, rubbed and patted his young shoulder, pressed his nose in hongi, then left. Hemi’s mates came up and asked him,
‘What did the tohunga say?’
‘I dunno, I don’t speak Maori’.
So, now Hemi was outside the Maoritanga classroom. Pakeha kids at the school were a bit wary of the Maoritanga classroom. The frosted glass window in the door meant you couldn’t see inside. The class was presided over by the fearsome Mrs Aroha Hohepa, a tall, handsome woman with long dark hair held up with a Maori comb. She always wore a shawl. Mrs Hohepa was actually a very kind, generous person, an excellent teacher and a pillar of the school, but she was also, mostly, fearsome. Mrs Aroha Hohepa started to teach Hemi who he was. He was an excellent student.
Hemi also had woodwork as one of his classes, run by a man called Mr Dawber. He had a big moustache and looked a bit like a kiwi version of that Bruce Forsyth on TV. He had big rough hands and always wore walk shorts and long socks, and a short sleeve shirt. No tie, though; most of the male teachers wore ties but not Mr Dawber, because of all the wood working machinery of course. Mr Dawber soon saw that Hemi was a natural at woodwork. He worked quickly and smoothly, soon finishing the manual part of each lesson heaps faster and better than the other boys. No girls went to the woodwork class. They were doing home economics because boys-built things, girls learned how to cook apparently.
Hemi was twiddling his thumbs. Mr Dawber chatted to him in between helping the boys who were still working. He found out that Hemi also liked to carve. So, he was allowed to work on a carving project while the other boys were still struggling with their lesson. Hemi sat there, working on his own tekoteko, a Maori figurine. He started with a block of wood, and carved, a few minutes at a time, for a few weeks while he waited for the others. Hemi lost himself in his work, he couldn’t hear or see anything else. Hemi eventually finished his tekoteko and Mr Dawber came to see. His eyes opened wide, he patted Hemi on the shoulder and congratulated him on his work. Hemi took it to the Maoritanga class to show Mrs Hohepa. Mrs Aroha Hohepa admired the work, ran her hands across the finely chiselled wooden warrior and handed it back to Hemi. She told him in Maori that it was very fine work. Then she took off her glasses and seemed to wipe something from her right eye. Very fine work, Hemi. Ka pai. The tekoteko took pride of place on a shelf at the back of the classroom, watching over the room like a guardian spirit.
The following day, Mrs Hohepa was talking to Mr Dawber in the staffroom. Mr Dawber mentioned the tekoteko of Hemi. Mrs Hohepa smiled and nodded. Very fine work indeed. The following week, Hemi was at woodwork when a strange Maori guy appeared at the workshop door. He had Ta moko on his nose and cheeks, dreadlocks and a huge pounamu tiki around his neck. He spoke to Mr Dawber and they looked at Hemi. Mr Dawber motioned for Hemi to come over. The strange Maori guy introduced himself, he was Whetu Ropata. He ran the native carving workshop in town. ‘Mrs Hohepa has shown me the tekoteko you carved Hemi, you’re very good! You want to carve?’ Hemi nodded. ‘We’d like to help teach you the art of Whakairo, at our workshop.’
‘We’ll organise it with the school and your parents. You’ve got a gift, Hemi, we need to nurture that.’ Hemi sniffed.