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Literature in a decile one school: Paula Morris goes to Otahuhu

An essay by Paula Morris on teaching creative writing in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Auckland – Otahuhu.

Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time in Otahuhu Intermediate School in South Auckland, teaching creative writing as part of a New Zealand Book Council programme. Most of the children there are Pacific Islanders, their parents or grandparents from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati.

Some of the kids are Muslims or Hindus, their families originally from India but more recently residents of Fiji. There’s a scattering of other nationalities: Indians who are actually from India, Thai, two brothers from Afghanistan who are trying to learn English and a strange new country at the same time.

Many children at the school are Māori. Hardly any are Pākehā, and even fewer are Chinese or of Chinese descent, although more than half of Auckland’s population is Pākehā, and Chinese New Zealanders now outnumber Pacific Islanders in the city.

Otahuhu is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Auckland, and the Intermediate is a decile one school. One of my students in Otahuhu, describing her bedroom, drew a picture of a room with one bed. She shares it – the room and the bed – with her two sisters. Some of the kids don’t sleep in a bedroom at all.

The school is a tidy and well-run place that looks almost identical to the primary and intermediate schools I attended back in the 70s in West Auckland, each classroom opening to the fresh air, the same toilets out the back, the same slatted benches outside the windows, the same small-scale drinking fountains, the same green fields and asphalt playgrounds. It’s not the 70s anymore, of course: they have Astro turf and technology. But the school felt utterly familiar to me.

Students during a writing field trip (Image courtesy of the author)

I lived overseas for the best part of thirty years, and Auckland changed, as cities do. Parts of it became much more affluent; parts of it did not. There’s more division in the city, often drawn along ethnic lines. Some people mutter about the increasing numbers of white immigrants from Britain and South Africa clustering on the North Shore, where there are long, broad beaches and other people from Britain and South Africa. Some people complain about the increasing numbers of immigrants from China, especially the ones who have the temerity to afford nice houses and ‘take over’ expensive neighbourhoods and high-decile schools. People used to complain about immigrants in the 70s as well, but that was when immigrants were Pacific Islanders who had the temerity to live in crummy houses and take over low-paying jobs.

I loved going to the school. “Here’s Paula Morris,” students helping at reception would say whenever I arrived. “Hello Paula Morris!” they’d shout to me as I walked to a classroom. They were always ready with helpful advice and comments. Miss, do you need a mirror? Your hair is messy. Miss, do you have a cold? Your nose is blocked. Miss, we looked you up on the Internet. Are you really fifty, Miss? Are you fifty?

They also had questions for me. How do you spell Lamborghini, cappuccino, croissant? How do you spell chocolate mousse, and have you ever eaten one? Have you ever been to LA and visited Starbucks?

On my first visit I took stickers and a marker pen, so I could give students a new name. I’ve done this before on school visits: students become Napoleon, Hercules, Calliope, Geronimo, Cortez, the Empress Maria Theresa. It helps them approach work as play, and to lose their inhibitions so they feel more confident about standing up and reading their work aloud. I hadn’t grasped that I’d be visiting every class in the school, and would have to come up with more than 300 names on the spot. Some kids wore their name badges for days. Some of them looked up information on their alter ego, and wanted to know why I’d chosen the name of a dictator – Tito, Franco, Benito – for them. (There was no reason: I’d just run out of names.)

In late 2015 I asked to take a writing field trip of about a dozen students around their neighbourhood. We gathered in the school reception era for a stern talk about maintaining school values in a public arena. A mother came along to help wrangle the young writers; my husband came along to take photos. He chose his own name: Christiano, as in Ronaldo. I asked them to call me Paula rather than Miss, and for the three hours of our field trip they did.

We walked past small wooden houses, brick home units and old villas with verandahs and tin roofs. Several of the villas were under renovation, because they’re old and potentially picturesque. In Auckland’s seething housing market, gentrification will, at some point, render Otahuhu unaffordable for decile-one families – though even now many of them rent rather than own.

We asked permission of various owners to write descriptions in their shops – the Indian shop that sold vivid saris, stacks of bangles and cooking pots; the tiny Samoan DVD shop that smelled of coconut; the places that sold church clothes or plastic flowers or chop suey. The supermarkets there are not the places I see in every other part of Auckland. I didn’t recognise the names. We visited the biggest laundrette I’ve ever seen in my life, giant machines clanking away. We wrote descriptions of the towering security guard standing outside the post office, which had been robbed the day before.

“He’s Tongan,” one student explained to me.

“How can you tell?”

“Because he’s got gold teeth.”

Their school looked familiar to me, but many things about this Auckland were not. In one shop, the students insisted I eat a stodgy pancake that looked and tasted like a doughnut. They showed me the red fabric and flowered cross that would lie on a Tongan coffin, and the blazer patches for the many different churches of the area. This Auckland has existed my whole life: I grew up in Te Atatu South, attending mixed-ethnicity schools – decile fives, these days – with Polynesian churches in the neighbourhood. From my Māori grandmother I inherited a fondness for plastic flowers, especially a lei or hair ornament. I thought I knew Auckland. But I knew nothing.

A store front in Otahuhu (Image: Supplied)

The first week I taught at Otahuhu, a student drew a picture of his grandmother’s house in Samoa, a place he loves visiting. It looked like a pergola, or some kind of rudimentary bandstand. ‘Is this next to your grandmother’s house?’ I asked him. ‘Is it in her garden?’ I imagined some kind of rickety summer structure, shading deck chairs from the tropical sun. Although I’ve spent decades living overseas, I’ve spent almost no time at all in the Pacific. His grandmother’s house, I thought, would be like the modest bungalows of Otahuhu. Plain houses, plain streets, hot sun.

In August 2015 I visited Samoa for the first time, flying four hours into the balmy night. In the baggage claim area of the small airport a band was playing, welcoming the tourists from Auckland. Since the 2009 tsunami, when close to 200 people died and thousands were made homeless, Samoa has struggled with rebuilding; it needs tourists more than ever. Much of the hotel we were staying in, on the south coast, was destroyed by the tsunami; the owner’s wife drowned. When we emailed in advance to ask what supplies we could bring for the local school, we were told to bring anything – absolutely anything.

The hotel van picked us up from the airport for the forty-minute drive. It was late in the evening, dark. The next day we’d see the beauty of Samoa, the broad sweep of blue ocean breaking on the reef and the lush green hills. But at night we could only glimpse what the headlights picked out. Rain smeared the van’s windscreen. Yellow dogs were smudges at the side of the road. The driver braked for a bloated pig, grey as a ghost, waddling past us into the bush.

We passed a shop or two, shacks with counters that opened to the street. At this time of night their grilles were down but lights illuminated scant shelves of soft drinks and canned goods. Some shops were painted bright blue or green, garish parodies of the scenery. This was Cuba, not Otahuhu. The driver honked whenever we overtook a car, or passed people walking along the road. There were no footpaths. There were no signs. There were no street lights.

Then we saw villages of fale, built with sturdy posts and domed roofs. Unlike the flash one at the University of Auckland, these fale were entirely open, without walls. This is what my student had drawn for me in Otahuhu: not a pergola, not a bandstand, but a fale. On either side of the road we saw fale open to the sweaty night, bright with fluorescent lights. TVs were on. Mosquito nets were up, draped around nests of mattresses. We saw bigger fale where no one slept, places for meetings and ceremonies.

Sunday ofu’s for sale in Otahuhu (Image: Supplied)

The rain was light, so few of the rain sheets and tarpaulins were rolled down. The blue rain sheets reminded me of the ones in New Orleans after Katrina, there to cover roofs or missing walls while houses were rebuilt. But here the walls weren’t missing. They were never there at all.

Homes without walls have few possessions, little furniture. The streets of Otahuhu looked less ordinary now, the houses less plain. Samoans have been migrating to New Zealand in large numbers since the 1950s. During my childhood they were school mates; their parents were bus drivers, fruit packers, factory workers. Many still are. Some are university professors, lawyers, politicians, playwrights, athletes, business owners. They take money and gifts home to the grandparents and the cousins who live in fale; they travel back with gifts and stories. They make Auckland a more diverse and culturally rich city, even if many Aucklanders don’t realise it. Even if someone like me doesn’t understand the picture of a fale, drawn by a child, who knows how lucky he is to have family on a South Pacific island, and how lucky he is to live in Otahuhu.

This year Otahuhu Intermediate has decided to work with a poet rather than a prose writer: I’m trying not to pout. A project I tried out with small groups of young writers there last year has grown into something bigger, supported by the Auckland Diversity Fund. We’re working with keen writers at three South Auckland high schools – Edmund Hillary in Otara, Manurewa, and Otahuhu – to re-write the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, from A Thousand and One Nights, and re-vision it in contemporary Auckland – their street, their friends and family, their food and traditions, their neighbourhood.

This month, at the Auckland Writers Festival, we’ll be reading excerpts from these stories, accompanied by student artwork and the musicians who helped make last year’s Mangere Arts Centre production of Macbeth so intense and compelling. I hope people from the rest of Auckland will come along to hear these new voices and their take on the biggest Polynesian city in the world. We live in the South Pacific. Don’t be like me, and know too little, too late.


1001 Nights…In Auckland will be held on Saturday 20 May, 4:30pm at the Aotea Centre. Entry is free. More info here.

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