By Gaye Sutton ©1998.
Moana Huaana was gorgeous, and when we were in Year Eight, at the old Porirua School on the edge of the mudflats where the City now stands, gorgeous was beginning to matter in a new way. Moana had a dark cloud of wavy hair, flashing eyes, and skin like Manuka honey. She was taller than the rest of us. She could hit a home run in softball every time. She knew the words to all the songs and was brilliant at the poi and the stick games everyone played at lunchtime. But Moana was mean, especially to me.
My brother and I were new at that school, and they were not used to new kids. They were all whanau. We were strangers with strange habits. Pakeha kids from the City. Our Portuguese great-grandfather on our father’s side had given my brother black curly hair, dark eyes and olive skin. He looked as if he could have been Maori. He went to school to make friends. He was a clown in the classroom. He was easy to like. When anyone asked if he was Maori, he just raised his eyebrows and smiled.
I took after our mother’s Irish/English ancestors. I had freckles and blue eyes and I went to school to be successful. I loved schoolwork, especially the ‘hands-up-who-knows-the-answer’ part. Being good at schoolwork was my way of being noticed at the trio of schools we had attended, since our mother married our stepfather and had taken us away from our beloved grandparents.
That first day, ‘hands-up-who-knows’ went very well for me. Every time the teacher asked a question my hand was first in the air. I couldn’t believe how often mine was the only hand up. I felt incredible. At first, I threw it into the air in the City School way I was used to. I waved, sighed heavily, sucking my breath in, as if the answer would burst my body unless I was chosen to speak.
However, as the day wore on and there was no competition I began to feel wiser than ever before. I even wondered whether I was the cleverest person in the room. In the interests of modesty, I began putting my hand up quietly and basking in the teacher’s approval.
When Raymond Tawhia hissed, ‘Answer Book,’ from behind me, I blushed with pride. I didn’t know that at that school, pushing yourself forward was the worst thing you could do.
At three o’clock, I floated from the classroom on the tide of my teacher’s admiration and headed for the school gate where the bus was waiting – my triumphal carriage – to bear me home, to recount my success into my mother’s willing ears.
“E Pakeha. Haere. Haere mai,” it was Moana. She was sitting on a bench in a small bay where we ate our lunches.
“Nau mai – come here, come on.” She was smiling and beckoning. Flushed with confidence, and secure in the knowledge that I was a worthy candidate for anyone’s friendship, I went over. She waited until I was right in front of her, then stood and towered over me.
“You tutai [excrement], Pakeha. Whakahihi!” [show-off] she sneered and pushed me. I scrambled to regain my balance but before I could, she pushed me over. I felt the ingratiating smile I was trying to paste on my face turn to a grimace as my knee scraped the concrete. For once I had nothing to say. She hissed as I turned and raced down the path to the school bus, no longer a carriage but a hospital ship waiting to rescue me. The last thing I saw as the bus pulled away was Moana giggling and pointing in my direction.
That was just the beginning with Moana. Whenever she clapped eyes on me, s her high-pitched giggle burst forth and she pointed her long bony finger. She knew I was terrified of her so she stood over me at every opportunity. She excelled in everything at which I was hopeless. I’d never played poi or stick games before and I never got the rhythms. And rhythms certainly mattered at that school.
“E Pakeha, wanna have a go?” She would say, flicking her poi over her shoulder, up and down her body, first one, then two in one hand and then three – each one twirling in its own orbit. Most of my out of class time was spent hiding in the Girls’ Toilet
It was the unwritten rule. If you were offside with Moana, you were offside with the whanau. So no one was helping me learn the rhythms I needed to be accepted. But you’ll never guess? In the classroom, I could never resist doing the very things that made Moana mad. If only she knew how lost I felt inside. It wasn’t that our new life was terrible. It just wasn’t the life I wanted. I ached for my old life and somehow being proficient at schoolwork mattered more than breathing.
An overactive thyroid saved me from life as a ten-thumbed poi prat. I was whisked off to hospital and spent several tedious but safe months at home. By the time I returned to the classroom, Moana had moved on. She had grown curves in places we other girls craved. She didn’t tower over me the way she used to. She ignored me most of the time. Occasionally she would run her fingers down my backbone as she walked past and then shriek with laughter when she failed to encounter a bra strap. Still it was an improvement.
It was almost Summer. The days were warmer and longer. My brother had made friends and every day after school a crowd of them would go down to the beach and walk around the bays gathering pipi, paua and kina. They started letting me go with them, they weren’t in my class so I don’t think they knew I was whakahihi. Anyway, after missing so much school, I didn’t have my hand up so often during ‘hands-up-who-knows’ anymore and maths had moved into nightmare territory.
We’d take our bag of kaimoana back to someone’s house and his or her mother would cook it up for us and make us cocoa. We’d sit round the table laughing and talking.
Everyone in my class was busy. The school production was coming up and kapahaka was in full swing. Kids were rehearsing all the time. The school sports were coming up too and lunchtimes were spent high jumping, long jumping and running round and round the big field.
Always the spectator, I waited for the year to end. My illness had seen me banned from sports of any kind and even kapahaka was out.
Two days before the sports day I had an appointment with Dr Prior, the very kind physician who had diagnosed my illness after a long time. There was no other child in the world recorded as having an overactive thyroid at that time. In his shabby office at Wellington Hospital, Dr Prior smiled warmly as he said, “Okay, you seem pretty fine to me. All restrictions are off.”
My heart stopped. Oh dear, should I be glad or sad, terrified even. In the City pre Porirua School days, I had been very good at sports⎯ a speedy sprinter and long jumper of some merit… but now? Could I still do any of it? Most importantly, could I beat Moana? That was the question.
The day came and dawned bright and blue. There were races for the little kids, lots of laughing and high spirits among the kids in my class as we waited for our races to begin.
At last, “Year 8 Girls, 50 yards Sprint,” we lined up, I was at one end of the line, Moana at the other. I sneaked a look down the line and saw her head turn quickly as she tried to pretend she wasn’t sneaking a look at me.
“On your marks,” my heart was threatening to burst out of my still flat chest. I felt stuck – I’d never be able to move when the gun went off⎯ “Get set…” It took ages…bang! We were off, I shut my eyes and ran for my life, sure that everyone was passing me in fine style. I could hear feet pounding, were they mine or someone else’s? I gritted my teeth and pumped my legs as hard as I could. “Gaye, Gaye, stop! You’ve won!” I couldn’t believe it but there was no time to gloat, it was off to the high jump event.
One event followed another and I would win one, Moana the other, she would creep ahead on the Leader Board our teacher was keeping and then I would overtake her.
After lunch, the whole school was called to assemble outside the classroom building.
“Two people are vying for the position of Best Athlete. Moana and Gaye, come out here.”
We stood, Moana and I, as far apart as the teacher would allow and kept our heads down. My sidelong glance caught hers and slid away.
“Okay, you two. You will run right around the whole field and the winner will be declared the overall winner of the day. Okay?” We both nodded. “Right ho then, let’s see you shake hands like the two champions you are.”
I shuffled forward. Moana shuffled forward. We shook hands as best we could without touching or looking at each other. And then the whole school followed us up to the big field at the back of the school.
It was no time before we were standing together at the Start line as the teacher called. “On Your Marks!”
We knelt in the starting position. I felt terrified. I had to win! My heart was beating so fast I thought I’d die. My ears were so full of the sound of it; I thought I wouldn’t be able to hear the gun go off.
“Get Seeet…” The pause went on and on. My legs felt like lead, I was certain I would never be able to leap to my feet and race off.
Like bullets from that gun we raced down the short side of the field. I couldn’t see her. I must be well in front. Don’t turn your head. Keep going. Keep going. I could hear the chanting.
“Mo-ana, Mo-ana, Mo-ana!” Everyone was on her side. I turned the corner and kept going. But as we got to the bottom of the field she overtook me. No. I gritted my teeth and pumped my legs like never before.
I caught her on the next short leg and then we were neck and neck to the corner. I thought I’d never get ahead of her and the chanting was still going on, ‘Mo-ana, Mo-ana.” They all wanted her to win.
As I got to the corner though, I heard Raymond Tawhiki’s voice,” E Pakeha, Answer Book, go, go, go!”
Suddenly I was in the lead again. I felt like a powerhouse. Down the big side, on and on we went. Me in front, wind in my face and hair and my heart and breath so loud I couldn’t hear if she was still running or how far behind. I wanted to look but…
The Finish line loomed but I was tiring, so tired and I knew I was slowing down. Where was she? There was a flicker at the corner of my eye. It was her. My heart sank. She was running easily… we looked at each other as the finish line raced towards us. She was smiling, not even puffing very much.
Suddenly she put out her hand, “E Pakeha, kotahi eh? Kotahi. Come on. Together. My hand reached out toward her’s. We fell across the line together, laughing.
pakeha – white people
Haere mai – a greeting meaning literally “come here to me”
poi prat – A poi is a ball on a string that is used in dance and a prat is an English word for useless person
pipi, paua and kina – shellfish
kaimoana – food from the sea
kapahaka – dance and song, usually competitive
Notes on the Story
I think of this story as highlighting the differences between the Tangata Whenua (NZ Maori) and Pakeha (NZ European) cultures. The Victorian colonisers who arrived in New Zealand during the 1800s were people seeking to own land, often escaping from the limitations imposed by the English Class system. They came to ‘better’ themselves. The local people were tribal and collective in their thinking. Their beliefs about protecting the ‘Mana’(esteem) of others meant that they didn’t ‘put themselves above’ their fellows. They thought holistically and gave what they could freely with the expectation that their koha (gifts) would be returned in kind as need dictated. What they gave to settlers was received with thanks but without a sense of obligation. Many settlers would have died had it not been for the goodwill of their Maori neighbours.
My first encounter with Maori was at the school described in the story. Because of the stresses of my life I was redeeming my self esteem by competing to win whenever I could. This was a less than respectable attitude in the classroom because showing off knowledge was trampling on the Mana of others.
Although Moana and I were rivals, she could/would not trample on my Mana. I have often wondered what I would have done if the show had been on the other foot. The story always sets the scene for discussions of bullying and colonisation. — Gaye Sutton