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.