The silent spectator at the awards….


We are in the  great hall of Auckland Grammar, tip-toeing up the stairs to  the balcony overlooking the  stage and the ground floor.    In the belly of the  domed hall,  some 2,000 students wriggle  in tightly organised rows,  their collective chatter sounding  like some  human beehive.  There’s a teacher  every ten yards apart, monitoring their behaviour amidst the  sense of expectation every  school prize-giving  brings.

And along with expectations  come  the usual suspects in the form of guests: National’s Paul Goldsmith, and local MP ACT’s David Seymour.  Behind them  and the rostrum,  piles of books await award-winners. Polished and  glinting not far from these are cups for  academic and other  achievers.  There’s little  doubt that Grammar is powerhouse of  talent,  an incubator of future leaders.  But, one also senses, it seems  a place of consensual conformity.

Nine o’clock arrives  on time and students hush.  Robed school teachers mount the stage and take their seats. The first of  speeches begins with  the Chairman praising the school,  staff and  headmaster.   The headmaster praises Chairman the Board and  staff,  then gets to  the theme which  seems to matter most to him:  competition.  The very mention of it – and there were many –  seems to rouse Goldsmith,  sitting in the front row.

In  this echo chamber of  values,  lie the school’s  values  (which must be upheld)   and speakers  ranging  from the Headmaster to the  Head Boy make numerous mentions of ‘The Grammar Man’ (who upholds these values)

You  begin to wonder  if at their  prize-givings,  Kings College students are, at this very  moment,  being  urged to be similarly  manly (King’s Men?) .   The  messages are   predictable –   work hard, play hard, succeed –  and  from  academia  to sports, the prize-giving  rewards   some stunning  achievements.

Part way through the  ceremony, some of us abandoned the Spartan wooden benches  in the galleries  for an adjacent classroom where  we  sat rather more comfortably watching the event  on a screen.  Intriguingly, the room’s walls were  covered by emblematic images of  Establishment anti-Christs from the 1950s – James Dean,  Elvis,  Bogart and Marilyn.

It’s  curious how soon a  band of about  ten people  can create a  supportive, loving culture but that’s what happened as we watched.   In the room were  Indians,  Polynesians and Pakehas,  the whole mix of the new Auckland.  Among them was an elderly, burly  Tongan,  who sat expressionless staring at  the screen.

Then what appeared to be  his daughter  bustled into the room with her smiling  son who had just won a  rugby cup.  He remained  straight-faced.  Not long after,  the  boy   won a premier  award celebrating his sporting excellence.  Once more she ushered  him proudly  into the  class which erupted into cheering and clapping at the sight of this second, huge cup.

Through it all the  old man  remained impassive.   His daughter dabbed at  a tear and asked  a woman to take a photo of the  five of them ( including the  two  cups).     Then  she and her  son  hugged the old man  as we –  complete strangers  to each other clapped –  just as they had in the great hall.  And quietly,  we wished  and hoped the best for the silent  spectator in our room.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.