For three months last year I spent time in Ōtāhuhu in South Auckland, driving out there up to four days a week in a borrowed car along the clogged Southern motorway. I went there as writer-in-residence at Ōtāhuhu Intermediate, part of a Book Council programme part-funded by the local Rotary Club.
Although I was born and raised in Auckland, I’d never been to Ōtāhuhu before. To me it was a byword for the back of beyond, somewhere unthinkably remote. Before my first meeting there with Jenny Bickerton, the deputy head, I imagined that most of the pupils there would be Maori. In fact, their single largest group is Tongan.
I grew up in West Auckland, and attended multi-ethnic state schools, but this experience didn’t prepare me for a decile one Intermediate in South Auckland. After my first morning there, I considered calling Catriona Ferguson to tell her I wasn’t up to it, that my teaching experience – mostly at soft universities in the UK and US – wasn’t sufficient to the task. I felt utterly daunted. The teachers at the school had such a greater grasp than I did of the personalities and issues; they knew how to read (and hear) the room. They knew the difference between busy, productive, excited noise and chaos. They knew how to manage the children who were frustrated or alienated by the exercises I was trying out. They knew – and I quickly learned – that sometimes getting a word or sentence out of someone struggling to write was a great result.
During my time there, I visited every class in the school. I worked with talented students, with target students, with students who were keen – whatever their ability – to spend more time writing. I talked to the staff, and at one evening event to parents and carers who wanted to know how to support and encourage children with their writing. I took one small group on a field trip to the local shops, where we worked on exercises, tasted food, and wrote descriptions of security guards and sari shops and people passing by.
At two events, one at another school and one at the National Library, I joined my fellow writers in the programme, reporting on what we were trying to achieve with their students. I’m ashamed to say that I wept in public at the final event, trying to communicate how rewarding and inspiring an experience it had been for me, how much I valued the interaction with the teachers and pupils at my school. ‘My’ school – that’s how I came to think of it. ‘My kids,’ I told other people. ‘You’re part of the family now,’ Jenny said, and this meant more to me than she could have guessed.
The product of this residency was a book of creative work, written by students and edited by Jenny. And there was another product, I suppose, just as substantial, which is the relationship between me and the school; this will continue beyond the confines of the project, as long as they’ll have me, and as long as I can find someone to lend me a car to get there.