Topic: The Punishment by Dianne Cullen Smith

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Dianne Cullen Smith's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

Memory reminds me that in the mid to late 40s and early 50s of the 20th century, the New Zealand education system was beset by two specific, though unrelated, problems.

Of general concern was a postwar paper shortage, and of particular concern, which this story embodies, was a growing sense of frustration and confusion concerning the shabby handling of the needs of Maori students.

Or, as postcolonial officialdom expressed it, ‘the native problem.’

It became clear during these years that the goal of those in charge of ‘native education’ was to produce ‘brown Pāhekā’, rather than educating Maori for education’s sake. Part of a quote to his people from the late Sir Apirana Ngata (1874-1950), acknowledged by both Maori and Pakeha as one of Maoridom’s most influential leaders and statesmen, tells them “Ko to ringa ki ngā rakau a te Pāhekā.” (Your hands to the tools of the Pakeha to provide physical sustenance.)

So many educators up and down the country misconstrued these words to the point where children were forbidden to speak Maori at school, and were punished for doing so when they were caught. Boys and girls were both strapped. There are many who scoff and say no, this didn’t happen, but the following story highlights the fact that it did happen, and adds weight to the claims of too many from that generation, including entertainer Sir Howard Morrison, that as students they were strapped for speaking their language at school.

My story took place in the new entrant’s classroom at Maungaturoto District High School in 1948. This school served the needs of a small and isolated farming community. It was an ordinary day; kids from the township walked to school, some rode horses, which were then left to graze in a small paddock  beside the Post Office while their riders attended class, and then others from even further away came by bus.

I remember nothing of what happened before, or after, the incident I am going to tell. It was like a bubble had formed within the classroom, encasing just three people within its surreal atmosphere: my Pakeha girl self, a small Maori girl, and a plum-in-her-mouth teacher.

My startle response was as sharp as the voice directed at the other girl.

“You will stand in this corner until you tell me in English that you want to go to the toilet,” the teacher demanded.

I heard a voice whimpering ‘mimi, koa mimi’ and then the tears that streamed down this little girl’s face began to merge with the pool of urine that was forming around her feet.

It must have only taken perhaps 20 or 30 seconds, but the bizarre, slow motion in which it played out was time enough to immerse the small Maori girl in a humiliation that was possibly her first introduction to Pakeha education and society.  In today’s idiom, her brothers might afterwards have told her ‘join the club’ for they, too. had all fallen victim to this same regime, and for the same reason: that they dared to speak their language at school.

Then again, they might have gathered around her to comfort her with the calming cadence of the language that the system was determined to destroy.

I sat very still on my wooden, new entrant-sized chair, and folded my arms across my chest, frantic that I too might give offence and be treated in the same manner.

Many years were to pass before I understood what had happened that day, but I know it shaped my own attitude to school and to teachers. If it scared me so much, what effect did such treatment, which today would be given a very different name, have on a small child who only spoke Maori at home, and whose mother, as I later found out, bequeathed to her children a unique lineage from the whakapapa of the Waitaha people.

 Below is the full quote of Sir Apirana Ngata:

 E tipu, e rea,

Mo ngā ra o tau ao;

Ko to ringa ki ngā rakau a te Pāhekā

Hei ara mo to tinana,

Ko to ngākau ki ngā taonga a o tipuna Māori

Hei tikitiki mo to māhuna,

A, ko to wairua ki to Atua,

Nāna nei ngā mea katoa.


 Grow up and thrive for the days destined to you

Your hands to the tools of the Pakeha to provide physical sustenance

Your heart to the treasures of your ancestors as a diadem for your brow

Your soul to God to whom all things belong.



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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