It was a stormy kind of day as I drove to a colleague’s funeral out South. My habitual rat run to the Manukau cemetery took me through Papatoetoe and especially along a typical and modest suburban street called Birdswood Ave.
I got into this habit because in 1970 a class of girls and boys, my form class at papatoetoe high School, had been invited by the Mayor of Papatoetoe to plant kowhai trees along both sides of the street as a public service marking another Arbour Day. They were excited to about the same extent as I was apprehensive – this class was a group of students who had sets of experiences in school that were less than encouraging. As happens in schools this class had collected around them all of the descriptions of students with issues – some accurate , some pretty offensive, some downright ignorant and all mostly derogatory and negative.
But scratch the surface and they were suburban kids growing up with uncertainties, with suspicions and still to settle into school – they were in the Fourth Form after all!
Arbour Day went well, surprising some of the staff, pleasing both the the Mayor and me the students left the scene of their civic contribution as a street that would be enhanced by two rows of Kowhai Trees.
Each time I drove along that street those trees which over fifty years had generally grown to significant size with the best of them reaching the powerlines and of substantial girth, gave me great pleasure. They reminded me of the different students and the differences they each brought to school even though they were, like those trees, sharing a genus. Just as the trees had grown into different shapes in their idiosyncratic way, so too would those students have turned out differently and, like the trees, mostly well-formed and successful in ways that brought pleasure to people.
But entering the street last Saturday I saw ahead of me signs of disturbance – fire engines, some police cars and people milling around. A small tornado had ripped of the roofs of about ten houses and damaged quite a number of the largest Kowhai trees in the street. The worst were snapped at the base as if made of balsa and many others stripped of branches and foliage. Quite a scene of some angry forces in the face of which they had no defence. This event went unnoticed by the media who could find better tornadoes in better streets that weekend.
Was this a playing out of the pathetic fallacy? It seemed appropriate that human emotion should be attributed to what had happened as selected trees, each planted by a young person, was damaged to varying extents which ranged from those left mostly unscathed through to complete destruction, snapped in two, ripped out of the ground.
So too would this class, now in their sixties, have grown in different ways, met certain forces and fates. Education is about planting seeds and saplings but some times the results are at the mercy of forces that are beyond the reach of our endeavours.
I shall continue to drive down to the airport and the cemetery along that street. I shall continue to think of that class in 1970, and I shall keep an eye on the next generation of trees as they grow in Birdswood Ave.