His last day of school was in 1980. Russell Brown travels back to Burnside High, in Christchurch.
Our date weekend in Christchurch turned out to be a bit of a nostalgia tour. We swore off seeing friends and instead visited, just the pair of us, the scenes of various crimes. We ventured to Lyttelton together for the first time in decades to peer through the windows of the British Hotel, which had once seemed romantic and dangerous. And we went back to school.
I've always fancied that I benefited from the best of a New Zealand liberal education. The suburbs where I mostly grew up, in northwest Christchurch, were young and so were the schools. Burnside High School was unique, an innovation – and at the time I went, the largest school in the country (with a roll around 2500, it's still the largest school outside Auckland). Yet it had occurred to me that although I passed it every time I came in from the airport on Memorial Avenue, I hadn't actually set foot there since the last day of school in 1980.
A couple of days before we left, I called the school to check whether it would be okay for us to have a walk around. Before I knew it, I was talking to Phil Holstein, the principal, who was keen to give us the tour.
So we're sitting in the school's reception on a Friday morning, waiting to see the principal and looking at the walls. I recognise a piece of the past: that painting is, surely, the work of the late Trevor Moffitt, who taught art, essentially to support his painting career, while I was there. I had liked him, and I was mates with his son, a stout young man who could fart on demand.
The principal emerges and welcomes us in. Phil – he's so friendly it seems a bit harsh to refer to him as "Holstein" – has the vibe of a man who feels that this is where he's meant to be. He came to Burnside in 2014 from 19 years at nearby Riccarton High.
Remarkably, he also connected with Allan Hunter, Burnside's most storied principal and the chief author of its culture, in the years before the old man's passing in 2017. Hunter was the principal throughout my time there (we both departed in 1980, he to retirement and me to the Christchurch Star). I remember him as a lanky man with a kindly, old-fashioned air and didn't know at the time that he'd served in the Royal Navy and played first-five for Hawke's Bay.
It was Hunter who established the school's divisional structure, inspired by what he'd seen in schools in Chicago. He also introduced some practices that must have seemed radical at the time. Burnside was one of the first schools to abolish corporal punishment. I'd detested the strap at primary school and came to see my friends who went to the conservative Christchurch Boys' High, where there was still caning, as suffering under a barbaric system. In my last year, Hunter's successor (and then deputy principal) John Godfrey told me that he'd seen the way taking the cane out of teachers' hands had reduced the level of violence everywhere on the grounds. I've never forgotten that conversation.
During my time there, Burnside also employed Robin Duff, the first out gay teacher in a New Zealand school. There couldn't have been much doubt about it: he'd proudly declared his homosexuality as a Values Party candidate in the 1975 and 1978 general elections. It seemed to be understood that boys coming to terms with their sexuality could go and have a talk with Mr Duff – and I really think his presence there changed some lives for the better. The staff also included Jude Rankin, a science teacher with an acerbic wit and a way of putting unruly boys in their place, who became a prominent lesbian activist.
All this makes the school sound what angry folk these days call "woke", but it wasn't really. It was just a school, a big one. We had sports teams and detentions like everyone else. But in retrospect, there was a humanity to the way it worked that wasn't always evident at schools in the 1970s.
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I recall the rest of the teaching staff as a mix of modestly groovy baby-boomers setting out on their careers and older folk at the other end. Some were kind and gifted educators and a few were profoundly unsuited to teaching. My favourite teacher, who I'll do the small kindness of not naming, was later jailed twice for grooming and abusing teenage boys.
Quite a few of us passed through as students. Eleanor Catton, Rob Fyfe, Hayley Westenra, Julia Deans, Cal Wilson, a cluster of journalists, a couple of All Blacks. But the best-known Burnside alumnus is, of course, former Prime Minister John Key. Burnside was accessible to him and many other state-house kids because state houses were pepper-potted through Bryndwyr, the suburb that abuts the school's southern boundary.
He was in the same division as me, a year ahead. We both played hooker in rugby teams and I've worked out that I must have packed down against him in the year that he was in the Second XV and I played for a Burnside club team in the same competition. But I'm damned if I can remember him. When he was elected as an MP, I asked a few old schoolmates and they couldn't either.
It turns out he kept his head down for his first couple of years – an easy thing to do at such a big school. I searched the school yearbooks and he doesn't show up doing anything much until 1977, his fifth-form year, when he switched from a "P" class to the more academic "L" stream. He became a member of the debating club, where he did well enough to be awarded a flash for his "devoted contribution to the club". The club picture depicts a little chap with a cherubic face and the smile that some people would later perceive as overly smug.
But 1979 would be John Key's year. That was the year he shared the Economics prize with Paul Commons (who went into the cement business and later became the chief operating officer of Housing New Zealand during the "meth contamination" debacle). Burnside did well for John Key.
That was also the year I was awarded the sixth-form English prize. The following year, I was first in English and Creative English. In both years, I had poems in the yearbook. One was written about my first experience with cannabis (I don't think I really got very stoned, but I was certainly willing it to be), and there was another short and very emo work called "Heavy" and a rather laboured effort called "Integration by Inspection" (First Prize, Senior Poetry). One chap got a poem published that I recognised at the time as the lyrics from The Brothers Johnson's "Strawberry Letter 23", but I didn't say anything.
In the fourth form, when the big kids had to go and do exams, the editorship of the school's student magazine Sideburn became vacant and I persuaded a mate to help me do it. I can't think how, but I seemed to know what to do. I even went to local businesses and sold ads. If my poetry career mercifully ended when my education did, my first foray into journalism stuck.
My memories of school are relatively fond, I'm sure, because I found it quite easy. Easy enough that I seemed to find ways of messing with it. I was a school councillor in the fifth form and that was a brilliant excuse to bunk off class. I was made a prefect at the beginning of the sixth form and unmade at the end, when I was nabbed swiping name-plates from senior teachers' office doors for a lark.
John Godfrey took me aside in the seventh form to say I'd be getting my prefect's badge back after my good work – and this does amuse me – organising a party in the senior common room, for which I booked a punk rock band. I said thank you and naturally didn't tell him I'd sneaked in some beer.
But there can be no doubt that the biggest thing that happened to me at Burnside was that I met Fiona. We clearly had no idea we'd spend our lives together and in fact I thought she was a bit mouthy. Turned out, I liked that.
Phil is ready to set off on our walking tour of the school. We can't go into some blocks because exams are on, but, he explains, junior students are on end-of-year projects, where they get to work on blue-sky ideas they've come up with themselves. He shows us the long list of projects ("Mission to Mars", is one) and seems delighted by it all.
We begin at the Aurora Centre, a full-scale theatre originally built by an independent trust and later taken over by the school itself. It joins on to M Block, the specialised music facility built in the 1970s. The music department was active then (Dorothy Buchanan ONZM would come in to teach), but, along with the other creative arts, it's central to the school's identity now.
The bones of the school are still the classic H-shaped Nelson Two-Storey blocks. They're crisp, stylish buildings, innovative at the time, but somewhat unsuited to modern pedagogy. The newer blocks, I and J, don't have the same classic lines but are more reflective inside of the way education happens now.
J, the Social Sciences block, offers open, flexible spaces and I block houses a large commercial kitchen used by the hospitality and food technology courses, and a textile class where the end-of-year project involves the transformation of op-shop finds. These didn't exist in my day. Neither did the tourism course or the specialist rugby programme aimed at international students. Burnside is also proud of its computing courses – in 2018, the two Burnside teams placed first and second in the New Zealand Programming Competition. Back in the day, there was only a strange subject that combined computing and navigation.
Phil's rapt with what's he showing us – and by the fact that he's showing us off to the kids. He's immersed in the culture of the school and we've turned up, a part of its history.
We note other physical changes as we stroll around. The old library, squat, square, is now the learning support centre. The whole admin block is new (the old school hall was moved to the far corner of the site and is used as a third gym) and site of the staffroom where teachers once had their cups of tea is now where the library stands.
But I'm actually struck by how little has changed. A Block, the school's first building, is still here, six decades on. More surprisingly, so are the scrappy little changing sheds between the two main gyms – they were a bit rubbish 40 years ago. The nearby technical block was due for replacement when the earthquakes struck – it's still waiting. Repairs to address earthquake damage and weather-tightness issues at the Aurora Centre have taxed the school's capital budget.
It's striking that a big, sophisticated and successful school like Burnside still has to scratch around for money to maintain and upgrade its built environment. Days after our visit, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern juices her Labour Party conference keynote with the announcement of a $400m capital investment in school buildings. Burnside is in the top tier of schools that will receive an extra $400,000.
After tea in the vast staffroom, Phil farewells us and we have one more wander around the school. Wait, stop here, I say outside A Block. This is the room where I first met Fiona, or at least first laid eyes on her, 40 years ago. She grins while I take her picture outside the window. We could hardly have known.