BY AROHA WITINITARA

 

As a child, I took to reading like a fish takes to water. To foster my passion, my mother, a young solo parent working a retail job, sought financial assistance to send me to a private primary school.

The enrolment interview was unsuccessful. We were swiftly told that the school operated on a strict first in first served policy, and enrolments for my age were bursting at the seams. It would be impossible for me to get in… but I was welcome to consider the on-campus preschool.

I started preschool there and baffled the teachers with my reading ability. Word of the young girl with spectacular talent made its way back to the headmaster and we received a phone call. A vacancy had miraculously opened up. It was mine for the taking.

So I stayed there until I had to move on to college. Relative to the other decisions a child has to make at the age of 12, choosing a college is a big one. Most of my classmates were moving on to the next branch of the private school and I felt an immense pressure to follow suit. Another part of me longed to escape the pressure and formality that was the norm in such an elite institution. Another school had piqued my interest, and it was the polar opposite. It was only a decile 3 school and was known as ‘the school on the wrong side of town’. In the end, I decided to take the chance.

I will admit that the transition was rocky. My classmates would later admit that they had automatically assumed I would be arrogant and snobbish. I don’t blame them, I was also wary of the preconceived notions I had been fed about them. As time wore on we happily proved the stereotypes wrong.

Sometimes college felt like a different country. I experienced many moments of ‘culture shock’. For example, no longer would a simple ‘hello’ suffice as a greeting. In the schoolyard, the slapping of hands was standard. There was more than one type of hand-slap; sometimes they ended with a hug or a handshake and I could never tell which one it was going to be.

It’s a common belief that low decile schools are overrun by violence, alcohol, and gangs. I certainly found this culture to be more pronounced in college, but this was in no way caused by the school. It was quite the opposite – the school had programmes in place to support at-risk students. The most likely cause in my eyes is poverty outside of school life. Smoking and alcohol were more ready temptations at college. I found it easy to distance myself from them.

The values of my college were rooted deeply in Maori tikanga, a big change from the Christian-based values from primary school. Kapa haka practice was difficult at first, but I came to enjoy the performances. I liked haka because it doesn’t demand perfection. An off-key note isn’t a big deal because you have so many people around you to support you when you stumble. We were never shamed for making a mistake in Kapa haka; you can’t progress without making mistakes. I felt that haka fostered a sense of unity which extended to the wider school environment.

We genuinely celebrated the successes of our classmates. Competition still existed but people knew how to lose gracefully. People didn’t disadvantage others in the pursuit of success. Excellence was celebrated, not just expected and failure was accepted, instead of punished.

Every school has a slightly different environment but that’s not why they exist. We go to school to get an education, and education begins with the teachers. Most of my teachers were great people, but there were some very extreme outliers such as, the teacher who only gave me one resource to prepare for an exam, which was an exemplar of a failed paper.

The rest of my teachers were extremely flexible and accommodating. At first, I found the classes unbearably slow but once I expressed interest, teachers were always willing to prepare the extra work that I needed to feel fulfilled.

Since I was often doing standards that were outside of the class plan I observed that the teachers expressed genuine excitement about the work. I think some of their excitement rubbed off on me.

I spent most of my school life pushing the boundaries of my academic capabilities, but my teachers also understood when in my final year I had to reign in my workload due to illness, and even expressed concern about my health. They were more open and sociable, and it finally struck me that teachers are actually people who have interests outside of school.

Public and private schooling is very different, but I wouldn’t declare either as being better than the other. My grades were definitely better on paper when I was in private schooling but as the buzz around the impending NCEA reform tells us: tests aren’t always an accurate measure of knowledge.

In college, I was given the freedom to deepen my learning; my relaxed schedule gave me time to explore my interests. I used this time to write, which earned me a monthly column in the local newspaper and work experience at another.

Not all the knowledge I gained was conventional. In my year 12 maths class, I sat next to an exchange student from Japan. Often we would both finish our work ahead of the class. Instead of piling more work onto our plates we were allowed to sit and talk to each other. This time formed the foundation of a friendship that is still going strong today. It also gave me the push I needed to start learning Japanese in my spare time. I can’t remember a single one of the mathematical formulas I learned that year but I can fold an origami crane as easily as I can tie my shoelaces.

With freedom comes great responsibility. Many of my classmates used their spare time to watch Youtube videos and be unproductive, a trap I was guilty of falling into at times. Personally, I found the responsibility improved my self-management and taught me useful skills.  Self-motivation was one of the most prominent. When you leave school no one will be on your back to remind you to do things, your sense of self-management will determine if this is for better or for worse.

As time with my teachers wasn’t so readily available, and sometimes ate into after-school hours, I came to cherish their assistance more. I learned how to differentiate between the times when I truly needed help and the times when I just needed to re-read my notes.

I proved to my teachers that I was trustworthy. As a result, I was able to make reasonable tweaks to my assignments. For example, in English I would often stray from the assigned topics, which resulted in some unique assignments such as, “A feminist critique of young adult fantasy novels in the 21st Century”, and an essay on a Japanese comic book about an alien who wanted to blow up the moon – not the traditional English class fare.

There were definitely downsides to my unique programme. As I was often doing different work than my classmates, I often found myself with no one to discuss and bounce ideas off of. It was a lonely existence. Collaborative assignments had to be instantly ruled out.

We’re all guilty of sometimes assuming that if something is more expensive it must be better, that isn’t always true. Different schools are suited to different people. If you’re currently in the process of choosing a college I urge you, don’t write off any school before you’ve given it a chance.

 

This story was submitted for The Common Room, a place for all young people to share their views. Got something to say? Everyone’s welcome – click here to contribute!

 

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