It seemed like an innocent enough question. Thirteen of us sixteen-year olds, and three leaders, sitting at “circle time,” and Mike, the village’s school Principal, asked us to share with him our aspirations for four years time. It was interesting to listen. We came from schools all over New Zealand, from Whangarei to Timaru, different backgrounds, different places, different experiences of life --- we’d already found that out.
The girl opposite me said she’d be just finishing her nursing degree and she wanted to get a job at Starship. The boy sitting next to me would be in the middle of a law degree he hoped, and the one on the other side wanted to be a motor mechanic. One of the other girls wasn’t sure where she would be, except that she would be living away from home, because there is no university in Timaru. Another of the boys wanted to do a Gap year in Europe. It was exciting and uplifting --- listening to hopes and intentions, building on our years of schooling, looking forward to the next steps. Mike sat and listened carefully, nodding and encouraging us, offering comments to most.
Then he just gently changed our perception and our lives forever. He pointed to the screen and invited us to watch a clip of his students, a short film made four years ago when they were aged ten and eleven. They were lip-synching The Lazy Song by Bruno Mars, and they were hilarious --- they had the moves, and they were having so much fun. There was life and laughter and energy. We clapped and sang along.
Mike then played it again, but this time he pressed pause on each face, and he told us where each of those students was, and what they were doing. None was old enough to have legally left school, but only two were actually in school. One girl was pregnant, another, only thirteen, was living somewhere with a twenty-nine year old. Two of the boys were in the local gang, one an associate and one already fully patched. One girl was just back in the village from a youth correctional facility. Her friend was on correspondence, but looking after her four younger siblings made that pretty well impractical. One of the other boys had run away from home and disappeared.
We just sat there. Images of our own privilege. Not even realised until now. Not understood. Then, a tentative question: “Mike, how do you stay motivated to do this?” The glimmer of a smile, maybe trying to lighten the atmosphere, a pause, and then: “You have to always have hope. It’s worth every minute for those two who are still in school. Just think of the wonderful things they might do for people in the future.”
And now, months later, knowing what I now know, I’ve been asked to reflect back on that question: “What will you be doing in four years time?” An innocent question. A leading question. Probably the same answer --- but a very different attitude.