Thursday, November 6, 2014

He maimai aroha… Glynnis Paraha

Over at home this week, people have gathered to farewell Glynnis Paraha. Glynnis was an incredibly vibrant, talented, grounded Māori woman. This is my farewell to her.

Back in 1993 I was a seventh former at a high school in Auckland that had successfully managed to get rid of all Māori students to the point that there were only three of us in my fifth and final year of high school out of a graduating class of almost 90. This feat is almost impressive considering the fact we made up around 20% of the kids back in third form when we'd started five years earlier.

To paint a picture of my high school experience, I'll tell a quick story. That year for my bursary Statistics assignment I had to collect statistics about something - anything - and then analyse them using the methods we'd learned; I decided to interview Māori students at the school in third, fifth and seventh forms and ask them if they wished they could learn te reo as a subject (it wasn't offered) and also if they had desire to go on to tertiary education. In order to do the required 'random sampling' (one of our stats skills) I had to have a list of all the Māori students at the school; this was something the school refused to give me when they heard what I wanted to focus on, so a certain teacher helped get me such a list on the sly. (We slipped into a computer lab at lunchtime - cementing in my mind the possibility of working inside the system in order to make space for other people to critique the system.)

I got the list, I did the random selections, I interviewed the kids, and crunched the numbers. I couldn't tell you what they are, though, because the assignment was confiscated by the school on the basis of the fact I had come by the student list by dodgy means, and I recall a conversation with a deputy principal in a drafty hallway in which there was clarification about the implications of going to the press about my findings. (It hadn't crossed my mind, to go to the press, to be honest. I was 17 and didn't yet realise I had that much power.) In general terms, the findings of my research were not surprising: Māori kids at third form were keen little beans and very enthusiastic about going into tertiary education, at fifth form were generally not (they didn't think they'd finish high school), and at seventh form - well - those of us who had stayed in there that long were all going for the next step. 100% of the Māori kids at the school wished we'd had the opportunity to learn our language. I learned a lot through that assignment: the limits of numbers to tell a story yet the need for numbers to challenge another story; the risks of research that doesn't toe the party line; the potential for someone powerless to threaten a system if only they have the research and support behind them. Also, and I think about this a lot, the deep desire of our tamariki to succeed on their own terms in the world of education and to speak our language.

So, this is the context of 1993 for me.

1993 was also the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand, and there was a high celebration of some kind in the city which a bunch of us seventh form girls were bussed in to enjoy. I don't remember much about the day, not because I have bad memory but because I spent it being exceedingly nervous. I'd been asked by one of my teachers to 'say thank you' to the workshop speaker I was going to be listening to. Yes, you guessed it, a woman called Glynnis Paraha.

I was asked because I was that kind of kid who would be comfortable doing it; but what perhaps the teacher hadn't realised (or maybe she did - I'll probably never know) was that I wasn't that kind of *Māori* kid. No, this isn't a whine about my identity or my tragic life… it's a story in which a 17 year old knows she is Māori (enough to get in trouble for a Stats project!) and knows she needs to say something other than "on behalf of all of us listening today…" but doesn't have the skill to do it. I was panicked because I knew what was expected and I didn't have the ability to step up.

Despite not teaching te reo as a school subject, however, one of the teachers had recently started after school language classes and a local Māori man would come and feed a very hungry group of us once a week in a classroom over by the tuckshop. I asked him, after one of these sessions, if he could help me find the right words to say, and he sat down and wrote me a short kōrero and we talked about an ideal waiata. I practiced hard, knowing on some level that my life depended on it.

The day came to board the busses and head to town to celebrate a century of women being able to vote (I didn't realise at that point that some Māori women had in fact been able to vote before 1893, when voting was on the basis of landowning rather than gender) and I can't remember much of that day because I kept running the unfamiliar yet deeply familial words over and over in my head.

When we gathered into our little workshop clusters where we heard famous women talk about their lives, those of us who sat in a small circle around Glynnis Paraha were in for a treat. I still remember her speaking about her amazing experiences living overseas (Iceland, maybe?) and she said, in a matter of fact way that tipped my world upside down, "when I got home I realised what's the point of speaking someone else's language when I can't even speak my own?" and she talked about university and language and culture and I just sat there, for the first time seeing university as a potentially Māori place, and knowing that Māori can have and do have incredibly global lives. This was life changing, and I have absolutely no doubt that Glynnis could have had absolutely no idea what seeds she was sowing deep that day.

Finally it was time for me to finish things off. How did I do? I know I made mistakes, but what I remember was the warmth and aroha in her face as I stood and spoke. I know how cheesy that sounds, but I also know that only someone who has been treated with aroha during a very vulnerable moment could know what aroha doesn't just feel but look like. When I finished speaking, I started up with 'E hara' and the other girls stood and sang with me. The kaiako and I had decided that was a good waiata for this occasion - he explained (and this was a good lesson I've remembered to this day) that the waiata isn't a chance to show off but a chance to be inclusive, and the best waiata in this context would be one that we could all sing together. I hadn't even started a waiata before, and hadn't had unfamiliar Māori girls stand and sing beside me. Sure, I'd sung with whānau and sure, I'd started the odd waiata during a kapa haka bracket; but this was the real thing. This wasn't a performace.

I stuffed it up at the end. There was a very pregnant pause when I was so flustered I totally forgot that I should finish up by repeating a few words again, and we all stood there in a tight circle, surrounded by acres and acres (so it felt) of seated girls and women having their own little talks, many of whom had stopped to listen to us sing. The other girls started looking around, and I started to click that I should do something, but I panicked and wasn't sure how to proceed. Then a big smile from across the circle, and a thank you form Glynnis, and we moved into hugs and things ended not with a focus on what hadn't happened but on what had. I don't need to spell out what that interaction meant to me, but I wanted to share a story about a remarkable kuia they buried yesterday who, without her own knowledge, provided me with my first opportunity to step into something which would turn out to be my future.

This all happened 21 years ago, but I still have a very strong recollection of that pause, and my horror when I realised that I was the one who'd spoken and so should have spoken again. I am not exaggerating when I say that I think of that pause often. I can still feel it. Sitting here, typing in Sydney, I feel as mortified now as I did then, even though I have transgressed and made mistakes many, many times since I was 17.

But following my memory of the pause is always the smile, and the words, and the hug, and the profound reframing power of aroha.



  1. Glynnis Paraha used to live in my hometown in Iceland <3 I love her <3
    She taught us three songs and dances in Maori! I still know them!
    I would love to learn more about Glynnis, her life and her family! She is missed in Iceland and never forgotten!

  2. Thank you Alice and Sylvia for such warm words about Glynnis.
    She would be happy to know she left such warm memories.
    I once worked as a postman and Glynnis and Michael lived in a beautiful flat on my Parnell walk. I would sometimes drop in for a cup of tea near the end of my delivery. There was music and beauty and I felt a clumsy intruder.