Rebecca K Reilly remembers growing up in Waitākere City, back when it still existed.
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Original illustration by Lena Lam.
The further you travel away from the place you’re from, the more diluted and amorphous it becomes. I have let an Albanian taxi driver believe I was English, I have awkwardly told an American woman at a Girl Guides event in Mexico that New Zealand is not part of Europe. I have been from the sheep place, the place where someone’s parents went on a caravan trip, the Lord of the Rings place and, for two years in the mid 2000s, the Flight of the Conchords place. When I moved to Wellington, I was from the city it’s still socially acceptable to make fun of, where everyone has boats and went to King’s and the only thing to do is go up the Sky Tower. Last year, suddenly, I became a resident of the walled-off virus zone, which was not a good place to be from at all, something I realised most acutely when my friend nervously told the elderly couple working in the Oamaru Four Square that we were all from Dunedin. To myself, I am not from any of these blurs of ideas of places, not really, but somewhere very specific that doesn’t even exist anymore. I am from the former Waitākere City (1989 – 2010).
Being a child in West Auckland in the 90s and early 00s was a real pick’n’mix of delights and horrors. Our representation was in the form of Ewen Gilmour at the Comedy Gala and Piha Rescue, a show about how only some of us are good at swimming. We only had one mayor for eighteen years, Bob Harvey, who wore Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts and who everyone had met somehow. It was a treat to make a phone order at the combination KFC and Pizza Hut on Lincoln Road, but a bigger treat to see the mermaid sculpted out of butter at Valentines. Everyone kept towels on the windowsills to soak up the morning condensation. There was an annual event called Elvis in the Park that regularly made the front cover of the Western Leader. Beatrice Faumuina could often be seen driving around in a car with her face on the side. People were always getting attacked by loose dogs and P houses were always exploding, which annoyed the adults because it backed up the traffic.
Recently I was thinking about whether my mum would have gotten me vaccinated straight away if the pandemic came 20 years earlier, or if she’d have waited to see more research, and then I remembered all the mornings I spent on the school playground staring up at the planes spraying for painted apple moth. We were so sticky. I felt sorry for the girls with stay-at-home mums who got dropped off at 10, after the spraying was over, flicking their hair and saying their sister has asthma. The same ones who got their MMR jab at the doctor’s instead of in the school hall followed by a Mr Bean video. They missed out. It was all honestly iconic.
I rarely left the West, aside from a school holiday pilgrimage to Borders or a trip to the Shore for the beaches where you don’t have to fight for your life against the surf. One time I insisted on being taken to Ōtara Market after seeing it on What Now? and I once got my hand stuck in the automatic door at Greenlane McDonalds. I also got electrocuted at MOTAT. And my gran was a clown every year in the Queen Street Santa Parade. These were my experiences of the rest of Auckland. We had everything we needed in the West – a wave pool (West Wave), a mall (West City) and many Burger Kings with free refills and roast shops where Croatian men would sell paper bags of deep fried potatoes. Then, in 2004, when I was 12 or 13, I found out there was one thing that was not available in Waitākere City where I had lived all my life: a good high school education.
Of course, as a woman of the world living in a post-modern post-viral tomorrow, I don’t think that there are good and bad schools. There are schools in different communities with access to different resources and funding, of different sizes with different focuses and styles of teaching. But in the view of the parents of pre-teens in West Auckland in 2004, there were only good schools in Auckland City that would get you into university and bad schools in Waitākere City where everyone was selling drugs and getting pregnant. Some of them went so far as to not even have uniforms. As we know, teenagers who wear their own clothes to school are also all drug dealing fertility gods.
So I would be sent to the city, to a school that was somehow both single sex and co-ed, in that the school was co-ed but the junior classes were single sex except for Year 10 options. This was seen as the best of both worlds, as there were a lot of reports in the media at the time that teenage girls love acting stupid to impress boys, but if they never saw boys at all they would end up socially stunted. We had not heard of other sexualities or genders or of young women being capable of independent thought at that time. My mum took my Year 8 report to the school enrolment evening, which showed that I was a Māori student who exceeded expectations in all subjects except PE and wood technology, and the associate principal winked and said not to worry about the out-of-zone ballot. He went on to be in the news for alleged workplace bullying at another school.
To get to the new school, I had to catch the train, thus joining the legions of Auckland commuter children, with a different coloured ten-trip punchcards representing how far they were being sent each day for their better education. If you were lucky, the conductors wouldn’t click the ticket properly and you could push the cardboard back in and get a free trip. If you were even luckier, the train would be so crowded that the conductors couldn’t even get around to clicking tickets in the first place, and would remain jammed in the doorway until the next stop. The trains were often overcrowded because this was when there was still only one track west of New Lynn, and they turned up whenever in whatever direction, sometimes with only one carriage. This was hilarious to the commuter children, when the train turned up half an hour late with one carriage stuffed with people. It meant you got to wait for the next one, sauntering into school sometimes well after form class, not having to sign in late at the student centre because maybe a hundred students would be on the same train. You had to walk at the right pace to show up in the middle of the late group: walking too fast gave you narc energy and walking too slow would get you into trouble.
The train gave a special camaraderie to the students from the West. Not the ones from Titirangi, who were fancy and had their own bus service but couldn’t do Free Txt Weekends because their houses had no mobile reception. We had our own train-related slang: are you training it, how many clicks you got, what a three-stage guy. This now seems incredibly lame but at the same time most of the slang from that era was just homophobic slurs, so take what you can get. There were many dramatic incidents that only we knew about, like the day the overcrowded train randomly stopped and all the doors opened and everyone had to grip the ceiling or walls to not fall out and when someone jumped on the station roof and a mysterious disgruntled voice came over the loudspeakers and said, “Get down, Spiderman.” It was funny to have someone from Central come over after school and hear them awkwardly ask the conductor how much to G-Town. Which was good, because school itself was often not that funny at all.
We heard a lot in assemblies about the school’s reputation. The school’s reputation was very important and couldn’t be tarnished by students being seen in public listening to iPods or with non-uniform shoes on. What if a parent of a Year 8 student who’s thinking about where to send their child next year, drives past you with your socks down? And what if that child would have been the star player on our first fifteen? We would side-eye each other. Who cares about the first 15 and which bizarre parent is deciding which school to send their child to based on sock height?
The school cared about the first 15, a lot. We had two fields we weren’t allowed to walk on because they were just for rugby, and sometimes football. Everyone wanted to walk on those fields so badly, to touch the special soft grass that was much more green than regular grass. Apparently a Year 13 had once driven over the barrier and did donuts on them for a prank. We did PE on the bottom fields where the girls’ cricket team played and the grass was rough and yellow in summer and a quagmire in winter. The school banned out-of-school trips and activities right before Polyfest, citing them as distraction, but everyone said the first fifteen were still going to Les Mills in class time. The school was in the news for poaching boys from other schools for the teams. The prefects were tasked with catching students wagging assembly and going to the mall for a popcorn chicken snack box. The school had a reputation to maintain.
The other thing we would hear about in assemblies was academia. Academia was very important, and always spoken about in the noun form only. Academia, credits, NCEA certification. The magic number to remember, 15. Fifteen credits to pass a subject. That should be your priority, the dean of senior boys would tell us. It’s not all about sports, it’s also about getting those credits. He would say this at a lectern in front of a wall where names in gold paint stretched all the way from ceiling to floor under the title National Sporting Honours, and on the other side, a few names under National Academic Honours that really tapered off by the 1970s. To get your name on the wall, you had to represent the country in sports or do something with academia but no one really knew what. Maybe be the national chess champion, we thought.
Most of the responsibility for maintaining the school’s reputation in academia was on those of us in first stream. In my year there were five streams for girls and 10 for boys, which made all the first stream boys tell us that logically, if you thought about it, we were twice as stupid as them. In primary and intermediate, I had been in extension classes where we had debates based on the Six Thinking Hats of Edward de Bono and learned how to make an image a link on a website, which was difficult because the only time I’d really ever used a computer was playing Age of Empires at my uncle’s house.
At high school the extension was just doing everything really fast. Doing Year 11 assessments in Year 9, doing two years of maths in one year, resitting things all the time to try and bump up to an Excellence. I don’t know if this helped anyone on an intellectual level, but it certainly bred an unhinged level of competitiveness that mainly came out during PE, where girls routinely sprained their wrists in dodgeball or near drowned each other in waterpolo just doing the absolute most. We were strongly discouraged from doing any ‘non-academic’ subjects by the deans, and we discouraged each other by calling anything that wasn’t physics or calculus a bum subject. Getting three Excellences doesn’t count if it was in a bum subject, like geography or chemistry. You wouldn’t talk about doing a BA after you finished school, that was a whole bum degree.
I was so jaded by the time I was in Year 13. I would go to the library after school to study with the others but I couldn’t get any books out because I only had a Waitākere City Libraries card and I only did bum subjects like German and art history anyway. No one from out West caught the train anymore because they all had a friend who could drive but only had room for one passenger. We couldn’t do theatresports any more because the teacher who unlocked the room for us moved to India, where he said the students would be a lot more well behaved than us. I had become extremely suspicious of the school administration when the headmaster gave a victory speech the Monday after the 2008 general election. I thought I was a bad and stupid person because I wasn’t taking stats scholarship and I didn’t like cool stuff like LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and I was the only person in Level 3 drama who’d never done a sex act at the movies, aside from Tim who was weird and called his pyjamas his “sleeping uniform”.
I would walk home the two kilometres from the train station by myself, wishing every house I walked past was mine so I didn’t have to walk anymore, while men yelled slut at me out of their cars, even though it didn’t even make sense because I was wearing an ankle-length school skirt and I wasn’t even cool enough to have done a blowjob at The Spongebob Movie like everyone else had. I hadn’t even seen Spongebob because it took me so long to get home from school all the cartoons were over and it was time for Deal or No Deal. The only solution to all my problems that I could see, was to move away from the West and begin a new life as a person who lived in Central and caught the purple Metro buses. Which I did.
I don’t know which officially happened first, that I left Waitākere or that it was absorbed into the Supercity. They both happened fairly simultaneously in 2010. Some elements of the city dissolved and some I left behind and it’s hard to say which is which. I moved to Mt Albert and got a new set of rubbish bins. We had to vote in a new Supercity mayor who didn’t wear cargo shorts like Bob Harvey but, you know, did other stuff. I never got an Auckland City library card because you could get books out of any library and they made new cards you could tag on any bus or train with. I made new friends from the Shore who had previously yearned to be Central people, who had been embarrassed on the bus only having a Birkenhead card and asking how much to “Glynn”. They had never been on a train where the doors flew open and everyone had to try not to fall out, but they’d been stuck on the wrong side of the bridge with no money so we understood each other. I stopped thinking I was bad and stupid because not one person I’ve met in the 13 years since I finished school has ever said that art history is a bum subject or asked me to stand and applaud a rugby team.
The West is different now, it has apartments and two train tracks and cafes that aren’t corrugated-iron themed. When I go there it doesn’t really feel like a place that I know. My favourite fruit shop burned down and the Valentines is now Gangnam Korean BBQ. If I wanted to show someone where I grew up, I would have to say to imagine that this Christian rock venue is a library where I read an unnamed New Zealand book about a talking horse that I hate until this day, and that this vaccination centre is The Warehouse where I bought my first tape (a ‘Give Me One Reason’ Tracy Chapman cassingle when I was five). The West City movies is exactly the same for some reason. It would not take much imagination to picture where I saw White Chicks.
I like to think that I can help the city live on, in every time I explain to someone that in Waitākere you can’t buy alcohol at the supermarket, but sometimes the Trusts gives everyone a free torch or survival blanket instead, and in the disappointment I feel when I give an interview and have to tell my friend from Massey that it’s not for the Western Leader. And I know that no matter what happens and how far away I go and how gentrified the Glen Eden shops gets, I am from Waitākere City and to some of us that means something, even if the something is a combination KFC and Pizza Hut that isn’t there any more.