Ambition in even our poorest kids is amazing compared with overseas, says Alan Duff, who returns to the Herald as a weekly columnist.

Over the years, I've been privileged to gain insights from visiting schools on our literacy programme, which is now past its 21st birthday.

Of our 500 schools in New Zealand, only about 30 are intermediate; we aim to greatly increase that number in the next couple of years so we get to "hang on to" them longer - meaning two more years of embedding the idea of reading and equating it to success.

By intermediate, kids are starting to get really interesting and interested.

On my November visit back to New Zealand I was taken aback after asking a group of intermediate kids their ambitions.


"I want to be a mortician," said one.

I told her she was the first to express such an ambition.

The next girl saying, "I want to be an orthodontist," was another first. This is south Auckland, where they shouldn't even know what that profession is.

Orthodontists are expensive and many middle-class families would say way out of their reach. It's a conceptual thing too, requiring a cultural awareness of good dental hygiene, as well the aesthetic side of good dental treatment for growing children.

Remuera, Herne Bay, North Shore-type affordability. But a child in Mangere certain this is her vocational future?

Many children not much exposed to the broader array of possible careers - for example, I've never had one wanting to be a pilot, no aspiring accountants and but a handful in any engineering field - live in a world of limited outlook through no fault of their own. But most have dreams.

Girls express their aspirations more than boys, and more girls ask questions.

Often the kids ask what I would have liked to be if I wasn't a writer and involved with our programme. Well, I can't really say a businessman as my financial fall was a rather well publicised failure. Once was a property developer, back to writing. (Though it still hurts.)


So I either fudge my response or go front-on and say that, as a kid, my first desire was to have peace in our household. I wanted us to live like a normal family. I then give a rant about violent drunks being losers and so on. I'm grateful I have a few books and a couple of movies to which to refer.

By the way, most of the older kids on the programme have seen the first movie and we often discuss it, although it is a balancing act of not putting a child at risk of exposing his or her own difficult personal life. But I do have eyes and know all too well how some kids live.

Twenty-plus years ago I was on a trip to America and had a month of travelling all over that fascinating country as a guest of the US State Department. At an intermediate equivalent school in a rough, black Missouri neighbourhood, I could not get any reaction from the classroom of kids, only silence, and bored disinterest.

My every reference to black music and famous black sporting stars drew a complete blank. Afterwards, I asked their teacher what I'd done wrong.

"Nothing, sir," she said.

"These kids see at least one fatal drug overdose, or a murder, every week. They see near daily shootings and drug-dealing is on every corner. Acts of violence are more frequent than the meals they eat."

Even the worst parts of New Zealand don't have a problem in comparison with the poor parts of the US. They have a totally different history and culture to us.

If you YouTube "Maori gangs" you can see gang members expressing a desire for a better life for their children.

It appears there is no such desire to change amongst black and Latino gang members - they come out shooting. Which is why I get a bit tired of hearing how bad life is for the poor in New Zealand. They're less financially poor than suffering poverty of the spirit.

Ask a penniless Asian immigrant and you'll know they see this country as a paradise of opportunities. Drug abuse is a growing problem too.

"If only I could take you all back to France and show your talents off at French schools," I tell a school assembly or a class of seniors after they've sung and done the inevitable resounding haka.

Polynesian and Maori children have natural singing voices and are talented at sport. They're our Kiwi daughters and sons who just need to be steered towards making the right choices. Instead of outsized contribution to our sports teams, let's see some brown-skinned orthodontists and morticians and a lot more joining the educated class.