Old girls inspire students of today
Panels telling the stories of 36 old girls were unveiled at the Hinetu Taonga Celebration at Gisborne Girls’ High School last Friday. Many of those graduates, who have achieved success in fields from sport and business to academia, were on hand to share in this special celebration. Reporter Kim Parkinson was also there . . .
Proudly displayed in the school hall are 36 framed portraits of students from as far back as 1955, when Gisborne Girls’ High School first opened.
Dame Areta Koopu, a student from 1956-1958, spoke at the event launching them, as did former principal Karen Johansen. They described a school which was physically quite unchanged, but has moved with the times in terms of culture.
The stories of this group of GGHS old girls will continue to provide inspiration to students for years to come.
Principal Jan Kumar said it was important for the students to have role models who would inspire them to broaden their horizons.
“It is great for our students to see that students from our kura can make it in all sorts of ways, all over the world and in our home town,” she said.
Teacher Laurie Harrison got the idea after looking at the panels in the Emerald Hotel that celebrate various Gisborne identities over the last century.
“I then took a history trip to Wellington and saw the manifestation of my ideas when we visited Wellington Girls’ College. They had all the old girls there — Katherine Mansfield, Annabelle Langbein — proudly displayed in the entry area,” he said.
After months of hard work — firstly choosing the students, with input from the principal and staff, then asking for permission to tell their stories — the framed panels were created featuring a photograph and condensed profile. Art teacher Justine Ward spent many hours designing them and sourcing the photographs. Then there was the task of editing the stories, which Laurie did with the help of head of English Stephen Webb and Morehu Nikora, who assisted with te reo Maori.
People recognised at the hinetu ceremony included many who still reside in Gisborne and are well known in the community — people such as Nedine Thatcher Swann, Ying Foon, Bronwyn Kay, Meredith Akuhata-Brown, Kiwi Campbell, Karen Johansen, Hekia Parata, Glennis Phillip-Barbara and Liz Alder. Other well known recipients include entertainer Jackie Clarke, fashion designer Ingrid Starnes and professor Raechel Laing.
Mrs Kumar acknowledged another group of hinetu, staff members — 12 current teachers are past pupils.
“It really adds to the whanaungatanga (kinship/connection) in our kura,” she said.
The first speaker at the event was Dame Areta Koopu who spoke of her humble beginnings in the East Coast, growing up on a farm at Whangara.
“In my primary school years I was very much a little girl who had been colonised,” she said.
She moved between two worlds — her English-influenced school and her Maori home.
A member of the New Zealand Maori Council from 1987 to 1992, Dame Koopu was national president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League from 1993 to 1996, and a Human Rights Commissioner from 1996 to 2001.
She spoke of women learning to do the jobs men did during World War 2, and of the time afterwards when New Zealand was recovering from the war and women needed to be capable and adaptable.
It was a time when women were expected to hold a spanner in one hand and a dishcloth in the other, or a stethoscope in one hand and a baby in the other, she said.
The most important woman in her life was her mother, who had worked as a ward maid at the hospital to support her children when she became a widow.
“There were no benefits back then — no such thing as a widow’s benefit.”
She was called a rebel in the fifth form when she told her principal she wanted to learn te reo Maori at school.
“We thought it would be a good idea if we learnt te reo Maori instead of French, and I approached the principal about that. But for her saving grace, I must say, as the principal she did follow it through. We were the first group that took Maori in high school in Gisborne by correspondence.
“My education here was quite exciting — but we had grown up not knowing we were different, apart from when there was a powhiri or we went to the Maori club.”
Among her greatest achievements was seeing the establishment of the Maori language nests for children, kohanga reo.
The next speaker was Karen Johansen, who was a student at the school, then a teacher, and was principal from 1996-2008.
She described a very different Gisborne Girls’ High School when she attended, where there were four curriculum streams — professional, commercial, general and home. She was in the professional stream; those who aspired to go to university. And out of 30 students, she was one of only two Maori.
Most girls left school at the end of Form 5 (Year 11) and in the seventh form (Year 13) there were only seven in the class.
There was no kapa haka, no New Zealand history taught — only that of the mother country, England.
“There was no acknowledgement of the cultural context of half of the school population.
“We were the products of the official policy of assimilation.”
Ms Johansen went to Victoria University on a scholarship and after graduating she went travelling — through South America, then hitch-hiked across Europe and worked in London for a time.
After returning home to Gisborne she bumped into the then principal Ms Duff on the main street who asked her what she was doing with her life and career, and suggested she come and see her on Monday morning.
“So on Monday at 9am I presented myself at Ms Duff’s office where I learned that she had appointed me to the teaching staff of GGHS.
“It was the last thing I thought I would do. But I loved teaching and I am eternally grateful.”
Ms Duff sadly passed away soon after she retired in 1973 and in her will she had bequeathed her academic gown to Karen.
“I was astonished and moved and frightened.
“She was a wise woman and maybe she knew I would be principal of her school one day.
“She had faith in me and that was powerful. I did eventually become principal and I was proud of our school community as a modern learning centre, and I thought of myself as the head learner.”
Ms Johansen recounted a story about an encounter she had at the 50th anniversary celebration.
“A woman approached me and announced that she was a millionaire having made her money in coal in Australia, and had plans to make a large donation to the school. But she had changed her mind.
“She said she didn’t recognise this as her school with all this ‘Maori stuff’ so we could kiss goodbye to that money.
“My stomach lurched but it was a lurch of excitement.
“I told her that I was very glad to hear that 50 years on she was unable to recognise GGHS in 2006 as her school.
“I told the staff the next day that this was good news and we were to be energised by this. Wouldn’t we have been horrified if she had recognised the school she had attended 50 years before.
“I hope this story is remembered.”
Karen Johansen went on to gift the academic gown she had received from Ms Duff to Mrs Kumar when she became principal in 2015. It now has pride of place in the foyer of the school hall and is considered a precious taonga with many stories attached to it.
The Hinetu Taonga event featured waiata and musical items, and the school prefects presented each of the old girls with a copy of their panels.
Ms Johansen summed up the significance of the Hinetu Taonga Celebration perfectly.
“The taonga around you, these stories of the hinetu who have gone before you, are journeying stories of many dreams realised.
“You come here with your dreams and your teachers work with you to prepare you to turn those dreams into reality.
“Stand at the stern of the waka and feel the spray of the future biting at your face.”