Scotty Stevenson's Address at the Association of Boys' Schools of New Zealand Conference

By Scotty Stevenson | Posted: Friday May 20, 2016

I remember the competition most. I came to Auckland Grammar School in 1993 as a sixth former, having been schooled my entire life in Ruakaka, south of Whangarei - Ruakaka Primary School first, and then Bream Bay College.

I took school certificate history by correspondence as the school didn’t offer a course. I am afraid that a school that does not offer history as a course should be resigned to history.  

I had come to the school as a boarder at Tibb’s House. I was 15 years old. Competition was everywhere.

One competed for places among one’s peers, which for me was tough because let’s face it, when you enter a boarding environment three years after the boys your age started, you are immediately handicapped by virtue of being rather late to the party. I found those early weeks and months incredibly challenging. In fact, I found that my early experience of Tibbs House gave me an incredible insight into Lord of the Flies which, handily enough, was the novel I most studied in sixth form English.

Competition was everywhere.

Classrooms were competitive environments. Streaming was unheard of where I had come from - classes were named after teachers, rather than letters of the alphabet. It took me a while to grasp the concept that every boy my age was ranked on academic ability. Every boy, ranked! The entire school! That was both a thrilling and frightening prospect for me. We talked of the Grammar slide in hushed tones. We had prep two hours a night, to ensure we did not take that slide. Forced mental labour.

Competition was everywhere.

Everyone tried out for sports teams. I remember trialing for the first XV, because that’s just what every open grade kid did. I rucked Paul Thompson. Paul Thompson, who was the size of a prefab, and the captain of the first XV. He chased me around the bottom field for the next ten minutes, caught me, and ensured I never rucked him again, never spoke to him ever, and never made eye contact for the rest of the year.

Our children are in the same class at primary school now. His boy is as big as a prefab.

I found my place in the pecking order, in the 2C team. The first game we played was against De La Salle. At halftime we heard two kids calling for their Daddy. We thought they were talking to the referee. They ran into the arms of the De La Salle number eight. And they call Northland the teenage pregnancy capital of the country, I thought.

The next year I was in the 2B team, and of course the most competitive game of the year was against our own 2A side. We lost. I was sent off.

As vicious as that game was, it had nothing on the 1994 Staff v Prefects match, a match that Monty Python could not have scripted better. Peter Rutherford mistook my head for the ball, and I don’t remember much else. I came to in a hospital. I have worn glasses ever since.

Competition was everywhere.

It was in the interval and lunch time games, in the gauntlet one was forced to run through one’s fellow boarders when one had found enough loose change to buy a pie from the tuck shop. The chances of savouring that savoury in isolation were slim to none. It was in the pranks played in the dorms, in the rorts and the frauds and the fights which were part of everyday boarding life.

Competition was a wonderful motivational tool, and it was tough. Some of us thrived under examination pressure, others thrived on the sports field. Some of us did enough to get through, others excelled.

And then, there were those that did none of those things. What of them?

Not everyone thrives or survives in this kind of competitive landscape. Not every child avoids the Grammar Slide or whatever the equivalent may be at other boys’ schools around the country. Not every boy gets to be an honours student. Some boys still come to school hungry. Some boys go home from school and get a beating from their drunk father. Some boys don’t have a father.

Some boys can’t tell you about Aristophanes, and The Wasps and The Frogs, or about Homer’s Odyssey. They don’t respond to Mr. Kirby’s impassioned recitals as he reclines across the front row of desks in the top floor of the great hall, and foams at the mouth about Augustus!

Some boys don’t believe Max Thompson’s biological assertion that mosses will take over the planet. They don’t understand his passion for Messrs. Watson and Crick.

Some boys will never grasp the power of The Crucible, though they live in an age of online witch hunts, digital surveillance, and instant judgment. They know not of the poet Keats, and they will not marvel at the description of Cortes, as he first laid eyes on the Pacific. Thank you Mr McKenzie.

Some boys will not keep pace with Mr Speedy’s chemistry lessons, will have trouble understanding moles and molecular structures. They will more than likely blow up the lab.

Others cannot figure out the laws of supply and demand, and still others will not be able to fathom the relationship of New Zealand’s modern society to the New Zealand wars, the Treaty and the issues of sovereignty or Tino Rangatiratanga…

Competition, for it to be truly effective in education requires other things. It requires compassion, it requires choice and it requires the power of critical thought. It also requires that schools teach kids to follow their dreams.

As Pualo Cuelho wrote:

“Why don’t people’s hearts tell them to continue to follow their dreams?” the boy asked the alchemist.

“Because that’s what makes the heart suffer most,” the alchemist replied. “And hearts don’t like to suffer.”

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

Add compassion and choice and the power of critical thinking to competition and you can help any boy follow his dreams, for dreams are not ranked on academic ability, and the dreams of those that fall through the cracks are no less important than the dreams of those whose names are inscribed on honours boards.

Remember this, so that you can teach all the Classical Studies you like:

If only to remind our boys today that civilisations rise and fall, that no force is irresistible, and that power is a weapon one cannot wield forever.

Teach them biology, if only so that when they watch their father dying of cancer they can understand that cells are formed and cells die, and that death is a natural part of life.

Teach them chemistry, if only so that they will understand the miraculous chemical reactions caused by the best kinds of human contact - love, caring, the emotional bonds of friendship, romance and family.

Teach them economics - not so they can understand money, but so they can understand value.

Teach them history, if only so that they will not be doomed to repeat the mistakes of my generation, and yours, and the generations that precede us all. So that they can understand how to shape a new world, one that is better than what they currently have. So that they will understand that protest and activism and political organisation are the engines of equity and equality, the fibre in the diet of a healthy democracy.

Teach them that none of this is a like button on a facebook page, or an instagram of their dinner. Teach them well because we are in debt to them.

As the saying goes:

We have not inherited this earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.

Competition is a wonderful thing, a natural thing. Life is competitive, and it does not get easier. But if we think of boys’ schooling only in terms of rankings, we will teach them none of the things that prepare them for the real competition in life, and we will not have given them every chance to make a difference.

And that should be the goal. To take these boys and to shape young men. Young men who want to make a difference and who want to be extraordinary. Young men who follow their dreams, and for whom every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.