Look at that! 1700 is a round number if ever there was one! Usually for such a significant number I deviate into some true narrative or other. This time I’ve hit a complete blank. I don’t believe in “writer’s block” but I must admit that these last ten or so postings have been like trying to get blood out of a stone. I wanted to get to Story 1700 before Christmas and then have some time off until sometime in the New Year. And so I’ve drawn a blank. Let me think…
Well I’ve thought of something… but I don’t know if I should chat about it or not. Counting up it happened 33 years ago!
The photo incidentally is not of what I am going to talk about – it’s of another group unknown to me, but it gives the general drift.
I dare say those involved have long since moved on. I was teaching Music and English at St John’s High School in Hastings, New Zealand. Hastings had a pretty “varied” population. St John’s High School was a boys-only school and the only High School in the city that would accept students who had been expelled from other schools and couldn’t find another school to attend. That’s how I ended up teaching a class of 24, 14 of whom had a “history”. They were all aged 14. Montzie, for example, had a criminal record since the age of six.
The school didn’t have a great number of resources. My classroom was an old shed set apart from all other classrooms and in the middle of a field. We called the shed “The Shack”. The record player and all the stuff for music were in The Shack. The trouble was: The Shack couldn’t be locked. I told the class that if anything was ever stolen from this shack I’d “have their guts for garters”. (I also had to explain what garters were).
“Don’t worry,” they said, “we’d never steal from you.” We were the only school Music Department in the whole city that hadn’t had all its electronic equipment go missing. And then it happened. One night, the classroom was stripped. The policeman was very nice about it. He took notes and said he’d keep an eye out. That wasn’t good enough for Montzie and friends. Did not the policeman want to know the names of those who took the stuff? Did not the policeman want to know the place in the city where these thieves stored their stolen goods? The policeman was kind of stunned!
With such information it still took six months for the police to act. In the meantime insurance paid for new equipment and when our goods were returned we had two of everything. And Reuben, a master of the “five-finger discount”, would most days bring five or six long-playing records that he’d “got from the shops during lunch break” to replace the records stolen. I explained it was wrong. It was above his comprehension. He was helping out. (And I might add that not even the shops wanted to know because the packaging had been removed).
Many other things happened during the year which can wait another time, except to say I am a master pickpocketer; for they passed on skills you wouldn’t believe. I was never party to their activity, but they were surviving in the only world they knew.
The highlight came when I was selected (because I was pretty good at it) to represent New Zealand at an International Youth Theatre Festival – with theatre performances from Germany, England, India, South Korea, Australia, United States and New Zealand. It was inordinately expensive to get a theatre team to the festival and to survive a week. That is when I started to write little musicals for elementary schools and market them. Within two easy weeks, we had enough money to travel. I suggested we do a performance about New Zealand’s many endangered species. And would you believe? The class wanted to dance it, and from all the five-finger discount stolen records to dance to they chose extracts from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé”. At least I’d taught them something!
It was street-dancing. They did the choreography themselves. It was an outstanding hit! The boys were so well behaved and more charming than I could believe. At the end of the performance the audience didn’t clap; they stood and sang a song they all knew. It was very moving. The newspaper reviews were stunning.
I dare say these kids would be heading for their mid-forties now. Those who aren’t dead are possibly in prison. I know a couple have done murders and some are destroyed by drugs. A teacher can’t keep in touch with everyone.
But they were one of the nicest and most talented group of kids I’ve ever taught. A pity they weren’t dealt much of a hand.
(A Happy Christmas and New Year to all! See you some time in 2020!)