It was a long way from home. Things looked different here. The school lay at the edge of a range of bush-covered foothills. Beyond, houses stretched in dense, tidy rows.
I’d never seen kids like them: polite, with cheeky grins all the way around the edges of their respect. I liked them, their dark skins showing off shadows in so many different ways from me and mine. Numbers were off school as a result of an influenza epidemic. More dramatically, so were many of the teachers.
In a weird way, I was the last man standing. Not precisely, but at one level I might as well have been. A white student teacher, from an Otago seaside village. Sent to Taita College from Christchurch Teachers’ College. Taita was one of the government’s housing estates in the Hutt Valley and the teenage kids were the children of factory workers in 1970s Wellington. Many from Maori families from the country, moved to the Hutt for work.
With no one critically breathing over my shoulder with a red pen in hand, I got on with teaching these kids English. And my God, it worked.
I was flu-less. The College asked me to take over the classes of the Head of the English Department. And I did.
For me, I moved from a place where I was just a survivor, struggling to keep my head above water, to a place where I was the one thriving and the oldies, the teachers, had dropped like flies. I enjoyed myself. I was needed. I did what needed to be done. The senior teachers appreciated that I had stepped into the breach, held the fort, and done all those good things young heroes are supposed to do
Taita launched me into getting along with teenage kids for the next forty years.