Like many other New Zealanders of my age, I was weaned on innumerable cinema and television versions of American high school experiences; films such as Grease, Fame, Mean Girls, Donnie Darko, and TV programmes such as Freaks and Geeks, Happy Days, Beverly Hills 90210 and Room 222. There is also a long-established sub-genre in the school reunion movie, with films like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Peggy Sue Got Married, Grosse Point Blank and Class Reunion spinning tales of rekindled lusts, long delayed revenge enacted, and various levels of disappointment.
With this in mind, and a level of trepidation, I set off for the jubilee celebrations of Hawera High School on Labour Weekend in October. Given that it was a very New Zealand observation of a hundred years of schooling and Hawera remains a small town, there were no visible signs of lust nor grudges. Instead there were sporting events, group photos and bus tours—probably reflecting the fact that most attendees were of an advanced age. A major disappointment, for me, was that my first big crush (a pretty girl called Fern) was not in attendance, so there was no opportunity to re-kindle, nor even kindle, old lusts.
Those who had been schooled in the 1960s comprised the largest group. I snuck into this decade, after a little research of old school lists led to a hasty editing of my lanyard details. These lanyards proved invaluable as it was impossible to identify old school mates by their appearance; instead it involved furtive glances at names and dates, which was a little awkward at times as they were usually stationed at chest level.
People did share potted biographies and memories but it also reminded me about the narrow circles we moved in during my 1960s school days, when it was Hawera Technical High School and classes were streamed. I was in the ‘academic’ stream and we did not really mix with those in the ‘trades’ streams. People also remembered the most extraordinary things; I had a conversation with a chap who had worked as a motor mechanic and he recalled, some 60 years on, the brand of oil my father insisted was the right choice for our old Citroen car. I also discovered, in the 1964 School Magazine, an earnest essay about popular music I had written; perhaps a foreshadowing of one of my later interests.
In the end, I attended only one day of a two-and-a-half day event. Perhaps my heart really wasn’t in it as I still have very mixed feelings about my school days. I remember several good teachers but there were also things I hated; the excessive use of physical punishment and the fortnightly school cadets. I think I was a quietly rebellious student, in a time of conformity, unquestioned authority and a colonial mentality. It was not a pleasant surprise, for example, to re-encounter the 1960s school song-book; full of songs such as ‘The Eton Boating Song’ and ‘Land of Home and Glory’. Such songs made me cringe at the time, so it was a relief, later in the day, to hear the School Jubilee Choir break into Maori waiata and ‘Blowing in the Wind’ as the celebratory cake was cut.
My weekend in Hawera reminded me that schooling in New Zealand has changed and although I did receive a good start at Hawera High, students these days have it so much better.