Twenty years ago I graduated from Whitireia Polytech with a Certificate in Journalism. I scraped through with a minimum pass and a faint congratulatory smile from the head of the Journalism School, Geoff Baylis. He was a legend in his day, as a former editor of The Dominion who had been briefly famous for taking on the prime minister, Robert Muldoon, and winning.
But Geoff didn’t like me much. He thought I used too many adjectives and couldn’t filter opinion from fact. These were the days when shorthand and typing were still core subjects and, unfortunately, I was crap at those too.
Geoff was old school. He rammed home the basic skills of reporting, demanded we tune our radios to National Radio, and insisted on a balanced reading diet of two newspapers per day.
I’m sure I was lucky to have Geoff as a teacher. I just didn’t know it at the time. I used to groan when he handed back my assignments. In red pen, he’d scrawl “opinion” and “we only need the facts!” all over my pages.
The final nail in the coffin of my journalism training came at the end of a week-long internship at a suburban paper, the Kapi Mana News. I was asked to write a story about Jim and Edith, a lovely elderly couple who were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.
“If it’s any good, it’ll go on the front page,” the editor said, handing me the car keys and a dictaphone. Like the diligent journalist I wanted to be, I knocked on Jim and Edith’s door, smiled politely, and took down the facts. Their names. Dates of birth. Occupations. Number of children. Place of residence. Then I stood them side by side on the porch and took their photograph.
Poor Jim and Edith. It wasn’t so much an interview as an interrogation. The story ran on page 5 and at the end of my internship the editor made no moves to bring me on to the permanent team.
By the time I graduated in 1996, I was convinced I’d never be a writer.
The trouble is I didn’t stop writing. I took off to South America on my O.E. and as I passed through villages and towns and bustling fruit markets, I wrote it all down in my journal. Kind of like Bruce Chatwin, only without any literary skill.
The substance, though, was there. I wrote about women breastfeeding babies under cardboard boxes in the pelting rain. I wrote about hungry street kids, shooed away like flies from the tables of cafe dwellers trying to sip their coffees and read their newspapers in peace. I wrote about whole communities living under bridges on the fringes of the city.
My experiences overseas made me want to do something worthwhile and to make a difference in the world. I knew that would require a tertiary education, so, in 2001, I moved back to New Zealand and enrolled in university.
I say “enrolled in university” like it was inevitable. But it wasn’t. I was terrified. No one in my family had even stayed in school past fifth form, let alone talked about something called UE.
Classrooms were places where everything I didn’t know and didn’t understand was magnified. I felt trapped, small and stupid. That’s why, when I first saw a lecture theatre, I thought I was going to be sick. A lecture theatre is just an enormous, grandstand-style classroom, so that, no matter where you sit, everyone can see who doesn’t belong.
At a recent debate about New Zealand society, I heard the poet, Courtney Sina Meredith, describe first generation uni students from Pasifika and Māori families as pioneers, carving a pathway through a foreign and sometimes hostile land.
She was right. But it turns out the land is not unconquerable. After a while, I discovered that university has a culture and language you can learn, just like any other. Not only learn, but master. I went from being an average student to a really annoying student, querying, questioning and challenging everything I read or heard. I think I even put up my hand and asked a question in a lecture theatre, once.
I might have stayed at university forever but we had three kids in a row and there were bills to pay. I got a job and we moved overseas again. As the years blurred by, I churned out stories and picture books for kids. Sinister adaptations of fairy tales and comics with maniacal stick figures and angry speech bubbles. None of it was publishable, but boy, those stories made our kids laugh some nights.
Then, last year, I enrolled in a total immersion reo Māori course. I was finally ready to put down my pen and focus. But immersing myself in te reo and tikanga Māori only made me want to write more. I wrote about how learning Māori was hard, but more rewarding than anything else I’d ever done. I wrote about belonging, and why sometimes I found it easier to fit in overseas than I did in my own country. I wrote about family, and about reconnecting with my dad through the reo.
But this time, my stories started getting published. This was a shock for a few reasons. One is that I just didn’t think my story mattered. I grew up with a foot in two worlds, never feeling as though I really belonged in either. I used to think this made me unqualified to have an opinion on anything. But I realised recently that I’m part of a third group — a bicultural subset of New Zealanders. We have our own unique stories that are valid in their own right.
It surprised me when people responded to my articles by sharing similar experiences. In a Pākehā worldview, my family background is best described as “dysfunctional”. Trying to explain that I have two dads is something I dread — not because I’m ashamed, but because it just gets confusing.
But in a Māori worldview, whānau is just whānau — for better or for worse. Almost all Māori families are complicated. This isn’t something to apologise for or try to hide. In fact, when I sit and listen to mihimihi I realise that these “complicated” backgrounds reveal the richness of our connections.
I remember a mate standing up and telling his whakapapa. Just when I thought he was done, he took a deep breath and said: “And then Grandpa jumped the fence … ”
The other reason it’s a shock to see my articles in print is because, even now, even after 20 years with pen in hand, I still doubt I’m any good.
Because all my life my teachers told me I was average. I have a sixth form school report that still haunts me whenever I think about applying for a job or putting myself forward for a role: “Nadine is a student of average academic ability who excels naturally at sports.”
Not long ago, I talked about this with my brother. He hated school even more than I did, and quit before he was 15. He later went to polytech and completed the entire maths syllabus, from Standard 1 through to seventh form, in one year. His favourite subject was calculus. Equations would sometimes take two hours to complete and, if he got it wrong, he’d go back and start again. He used to stay up till 3am some days. Doing maths. For fun.
I asked him why he didn’t realise he was smart at school. He said: “No one ever told me I was.” This is a guy who’s gone on to teach himself robotics in his own garage.
It’s sad when kids have to leave school to discover their talent and overcome self-doubt. The beliefs teachers have about students can have a powerful influence over what students believe about themselves.
This was my experience, but you don’t have to look far to find the evidence to back it up. Māori kids consistently fare worse than others in education. Are we really to believe that’s because they lack ability?
There’s hope, though. All these years I kept writing not because I thought I was any good, but because I like telling stories. I like it when people connect with something I’ve written. I like it when something I write makes my kids roll with laughter. Most of all, I love the way complicated and painful things can be made simple and beautiful with language.
Looking back now, I wish that’s what my teachers had told me. That we are defined not by our ability but by what excites us. Not by what comes easily to us, but by the things that we have to work hard at.
Instead of telling me I was average, I wish my teachers had told me that ability is nowhere near as important as what we believe we can do — and that I could be anything I wanted. Even, it turns out, a writer.
This article was originally published in E-Tangata on April 6, 2017.