Old school

By David Fisher

John Morris, principal of Auckland Grammar School. Photo / Doug Sherring
John Morris, principal of Auckland Grammar School. Photo / Doug Sherring

The carpet in the office of the Auckland Grammar School head master is monogrammed with the school logo. The office is spacious and wood-lined. It is here that John Morris gives his only interview about the awful mess that followed discovery on the internet of photos of his students at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, bowing, kissing and saluting a swastika.

Before the fire in the corner, he sits down in one of two comfortable armchairs and crosses his legs. This is Grammar, in all its grandness. Established in 1850, it is a national institution. It is a state school, although it often operates in a way that defies much of the convention around state schools. Since its inception, it has consistently been among the best performing secondary schools in the country, both academically and in sport.

Its alumni includes 50 All Blacks, as well as numerous famous academics, scientists and politicians. It enjoys remarkable facilities and the students have superb opportunities — much through the hard work of an academic body that is also highly qualified and exceptionally motivated. When it comes to staff, the status and success of Grammar means it can afford to choose only the best.

In this regard, Auckland Grammar is among the elite — but is also perceived as stemming from the elite. The school zone covers some of New Zealand's wealthiest areas, and the students' parents include some of the country's most influential people. Sometimes events fulfil those perceptions. Earlier this year, the Herald on Sunday witnessed a drunken Grammar student being dragged off to a police van shouting: "You wait until my uncle hears about this!"

Morris has set no rules for the interview, and has few expectations of the media after a year that has seen students pursued by cameras outside the school gates on more than one occasion.

First there came the 1st XV rugby team's brawl with Kelston Boys High School, after which Grammar's students were handed down relatively light bans by an Auckland Rugby Union disciplinary panel that included a Grammar old boy.

Then came stories that parents organised an after-ball party featuring cage dancing. Now it is the swastika photographs, which were taken in March but only sent to media this month. Radio NZ broke the story first, and it led Monday and Tuesday night news bulletins. Talkback was confused: were the boys fascists or fools?

Morris is obviously wounded by the perceptions it created, especially when considered against the school's close relationship with the Jewish community. Central Auckland's Jewish Kadimah College is inside the zone and feeds students from Year 8 into Grammar. Further, Holocaust survivor Bob Narev is a former student whose own sons attended Grammar.

Among the many calls he has had to make on this issue, Morris has been speaking to Narev, who has told the Herald on Sunday how upset he was with the images. Narev wants to come to the school with wife Freda this week so the couple can speak of their experiences during the Second World War.

Morris: "They were boys being silly. Adolescent humour. They know they were immature. They know they made the wrong decisions. Teenagers do that, and that's not to excuse it one iota." The school has had a relationship with the museum for 15 years — and while not excusing the boys' behaviour, Morris says the images show the risks and lack of awareness students have about social networking internet sites like Facebook.

"Everybody has a cellphone and everybody has a camera attached to it. Everybody has social networking sites. This could have happened at any school to be honest." Those sites are blocked on school computers and students are cautioned about their use. "At home, they have got parents. Surely the parents take some responsibility for monitoring and caring for kids?"

The boys visited the museum again this week, escorted by three teachers and surrounded by media cameras as they mounted the steps. They apologised to staff and to veterans, some of the boys in tears as they did so. They volunteered — as their own idea — to act as guides at the museum before leaving to write letters of apology to the New Zealand Jewish Council.

"They didn't realise the ramifications of their action. They are ... like a lot of teenagers these days. They live for today and think for today; they are fairly self-centred and don't think about the impact of actions on other people."

The swastika images have an awful impact. But in context with other images from that school trip to Auckland War Memorial Museum, the impact is lessened. There were nine images in the series, and not all were shown in news coverage. The entire series paints a different picture. Three images show antics before the swastika — bowing to it, kissing it and saluting before it.

The other six images show teenagers being idiots. Suggestive poses with a torpedo, in front of a Thompson sub-machine gun, groping a female mannequin, dropping trousers amid the World War II exhibition for the benefit of the camera. Those who have seen the entire series describe the boys' actions as stupid and thoughtless.

There have been previous complaints to Auckland Grammar about anti-Semitic behaviour at the school, confirms Stephen Goodman, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council. Goodman, who has two sons at Auckland Grammar, was involved in dealing with previous cases and dismisses any suggestion such behaviour is rooted in anti-Semitism — or that it is restricted to Auckland Grammar. "I am aware of some small offences, but that is typical of a number of schools. I received another one the other day about one of the private schools in Auckland."

It is bullying, he says, rather than malicious bigotry. "It's boys being boys and anyone being different is subject to ridicule that the school stamps on." Grammar has always acted decisively and promptly in such cases, Goodman says. Parents are called in, students are punished and also educated by writing reports that dispel whatever ignorance sparked the initial bigotry. He says the photographs at the museum were offensive to all New Zealanders, and particularly to Jewish Kiwis.

But, having seen the entire selection, he also believes they have been interpreted out of context. "Our belief is that it is not anti-Semitic behaviour and it is not necessarily typical of Grammar." The Jewish Council is proactive in dealing with matters it finds offensive, and will seek out the media to put its case. In this case, it did not. The story grew and, says Goodman, the media expected "an adult standard" from teenagers.

As a measure of its concern over the issue, he says the council would not have gone to the media if it had seen the photographs first. The council would have made the school aware of the images and allowed it the handle the situation. "It was not a website that was in the public domain."

Morris' love for the school is palpable. The West Auckland boy of working class parents knows this is not a universal feeling. "It is a school that evokes strong emotions in one or two ways. People either love what we stand for or people hate what we stand for. There is no in-between, it seems to me."

One-time Grammar student Sir Douglas Graham says the school stands for encouraging excellence, and encouraging people to perform to their ability. Graham, who went on to become a National Cabinet minister and Treaty claim negotiator, attended from 1955 to 1959, two years after Sir Edmund Hillary — another old boy — reached the peak of Mt Everest.

He says the Grammar boys knew they followed in the footsteps of giants and many took similar strides in their own fields. "There's a fair bit of envy of the Grammar School and always has been." Graham says. "That has never worried the school. They are quite broad-shouldered enough."

Morris' broad shoulders are feeling the weight. "(Some) people will look at it and say my God, this is an elitist, arrogant school," the headmaster accepts. But it isn't, he says — unless you regard striving for excellence as elitism. "It does evoke strong emotions. A lot of those anti-emotions are from people who have never been here, never looked around the place."

The philosophy of excellence "doesn't go down well with some people." There appears, he says, to be a drive for all state schools to be the same — with which he disagrees. Morris quotes Winston Churchill: "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

He questions whether the criticism is driven by tall poppy syndrome. "I have no idea why people feel that way," he muses. "We do stand up for ourselves and we are a bit stroppy at times. That's because we want to do the best for the kids that are here. And it may not be what a lot of people think is right but for our boys we think it is.

"We don't go along, we don't conform. We don't belong in some ways and that's a bit sad because we are a state school and very proud to be a state school. It has got that history, it's got the tradition, it's got the location, it's got the intellectual capital, it's got strong support from its old boys. Should it be pilloried for that? Because it is. It is pilloried for all those things.

"Are we supposed not to take advantage of that? Are we supposed not to give our boys special education? Are we supposed not to give them the chance to travel or play football for the school? That's unreasonable isn't it?"

While Grammar is a state school, Morris concedes there is "self-selection through the geography and design" of the affluent zone it draws students from. "It doesn't mean they are all bright." But there are others who move into the zone, renting property to gain a place on the role. Recently, some parents have moved into the zone to take advantage of the school's learning support unit, which works with 200 students a week.

Many of those who move into zone are ethnic minorities who place a high value on their children's education, he says. "They're not affluent people. It's certainly not a white middle class school any more. It is a huge multi-cultural school with 60 nationalities."

While the school might have a wide spread of cultures, it also has a low number of Maori and Pacific Island students — each ethnic group represents about 2 per cent of the role. The school does not teach te reo: there is no demand and a lack of teachers, Morris says. And Pacific Island families, who "revere the chance to get their kids into here", are now excluded because of the zone and their lack of wealth. "It is really quite bizarre."

The reaction from the Jewish community this week was measured but filled with dismay, as it has been in the past when it has seemed the Holocaust is being dismissed, denied or otherwise derided. Grammar old boy Bob Narev, and wife Freda, travel to schools to tell of their experiences as children. Among those where they have spoken is Kristin School, north of Auckland, where principal Peter Clague speaks of the deep need to teach the Holocaust to children, and the difficulty in finding the right way to do it.

The Narevs found that way. "Educators spend a lot of time arguing about what to leave in and what to leave out," Clague says. "The Holocaust is too important to leave out of the fixed curriculum." In Wellington, at the only Jewish state integrated school, Moriah School, the primary age children grow up with the history, and are also visited and spoken to by Holocaust survivors. When they start school, they are eased into it with a Dr Seuss story about bullying. Older children draw in the reality.

The children also have a project — they are collecting a button for every Jewish child who died in the Holocaust. They need 1.5 million buttons, which will be used to build a maze sculpture in Wellington and, as of Thursday, have 792,838. The buttons come from schools across New Zealand and around the world. Principal Justine Hitchcock says: "This isn't just a Jewish issue. This is a much bigger, broader issue."

Bob Narev, born in 1935 in the German town of Eschwege, was surrounded by many of those children. At the camp he was in, 10,000 children entered but only 100 survived. Even then, 10,000 is a small number against the 1.5 million killed.

Of the Facebook photographs, he says: "We were very upset by what happened." Freda, who also lost much of her family and spent the war hiding and in terror, agrees: "What I feel is a deep sense of hurt — and the fact that everything has been minimised."

It is clear in speaking with the couple that they carry — as every survivor must — a caution to guard against the chance such awful mass murder should ever be allowed to happen again. Freda considers the boys' motivation: "I wouldn't dismiss anti-Semitism entirely. You don't know who the leader of the pack was, or what the motive was."

"Even if it was just hijinks it hurt an awful lot of people and that's something the boys needs to know." This week, the Narevs will tell them to their faces.

- Herald on Sunday

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