School Reports

By David

A couple of months ago I shifted house. Inevitably that activity means I get to pack stuff that should have been thrown out years ago; my school reports for example. But before discussing the content of these works of art I must tell you that academically my high school years were a struggle. Oh, I passed the required national exams, but only just. School Certificate was close. To pass required 200 marks out of 400. I scored 212. I was credited with a pass in the University Entrance exam by beating the Head Master’s daughter’s boyfriend by one place in the internal exams. Everyone knew he was going to be accredited. Success in these exams really was a case of playing the man not the ball.

I think my academic struggles may have been caused by an unhealthy interest in sport. My main focus was swimming. Although I did all my training in the Hangaroa River I did win Wellington and Auckland Championships and competed with no success in the New Zealand Nationals. However, from a river it was probably as good as one could expect. Turning in the mud on either side of the Hangaroa River was not the best preparation for the flash tiled walls of Dunedin’s new Moana Pool. Outside of swimming I won a Hawkes Bay Secondary School Cross Country Championship and a provincial pole vault title. Every lunchtime and study period was spent swimming, running or lifting weights. Naturally, the physical education section of my school reports reflected my obsession – “Keen hard worker always well turned out” and “Always works well; keen on his training for swimming. Good effort” and “A good keen boy with above average all round ability.”

Sadly, the academic portions of the same reports were not as commendable. Some were very bad mannered; verging on rude. Take my Science teacher. He was a strict military type who ran the school’s compulsory army cadet program. I never took part in his wretched marching drills. Being quite an experienced hunter I was one of three boys on the school’s shooting team. While my mates were marching and standing to attention on the school’s back field I was target shooting at the town’s rifle range. I did wonder if the teacher’s comments on my science education reflected his frustration that I had skipped out of his private army. Anyway this is the sort of thing he said, “Very weak. Intensive study essential” and “Only fair must learn to concentrate in class”.

French was taught by a Welshman who had only recently arrived in New Zealand. Clearly he viewed Wright as his first antipodean failure. I desperately wanted to be good at French. However, the comments on my reports suggest I wanted to be even better at swimming. “A more serious attitude required” and “Weak” and “David must work harder”. I am sad that on my many trips to swimming events in France and Monte Carlo my high school instructor was not on hand to witness my, “Bonjour une miche de pain s’il vous plaît“ at the local bakery or my constant question of, “Où se trouve un bon restaurant“ from the ever helpful Christine in the office of the Canet aquatic centre. I’m sure my swimmers were impressed. But then they never knew about the flaws in my French education.

English was probably my best subject. I was taught by a character whose occasional irreverent and disrespectful remarks appealed to someone like me. Sadly, he would probably be fired today for the stuff he said. For some reason during a discussion on T.S.Eliot’s, The Waste Land, he told the class that the best place to have sex at Victoria University in Wellington was in an old graveyard in the centre of the campus. Evidently lovemaking there combined the forces of life, birth, death, ending and beginning in a peerless climax of emotion. A few years later I used to eat my lunch in the Victoria University cemetery and did wonder which graves had been witness to my old teacher’s physical and profound endeavours. He did cane me once when a paper dart intended for Morris Meha went off course and hit my English teacher in the chest. However, his comments on my reports reflected my greater interest in the subject he taught. For example, “Satisfactory progress” and “Fair progress for a moderate effort” and “Fair. Spelling very poor” and “Oral work good. Written only fair”.

And then there was history; taught by a young guy who clearly saw himself as an intellectual giant. In my final high school report he dismissed my academic prospects with this wonderful piece of prose, “A pleasant boy but an unsatisfactory student. David’s attitude to work (including his habitual lateness for lessons and with essays and his consistent failure to equip them, when they do arrive, with the fundamental scholarly apparatus) does not inspire confidence in his capacity to cope adequately with Stage1 (university) work in this subject”. He was wrong. I did cope quite well with Stage1 in this subject and Stage2 and Stage3 as well. Oh, and post graduate study in a closely related field. Perhaps he knew that writing some people off like that only steels their resolve to succeed.

And finally the Head Master’s Report summary. He never liked me. A fact that was not surprising. He was into music and the arts. I was a sport’s nut. His daughter applied for an AFS Scholarship to study in the United States and was rejected. I applied for the same thing and spent a year in Thorpe, Wisconsin, playing American football, chatting up cheerleaders, drinking root beer and eating hamburgers. The Principal’s displeasure was clear in his remarks on my reports. “Limited effort and poorly developed working habits” and “David must keep his sights on his future academic career” and “The situation calls for urgent effort” and “Results are still very marginal”.

You may be wondering what my parents made of this flood of bad news. I was lucky. They seemed quite relaxed; philosophical in a way that gave me confidence that when it was time for proper study, at a University, things would come right. And they did.