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The day Baxter came to school

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.21, 5 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It was quite a day when James K Baxter visited the school. Back in 1972 there was a much more straight- laced attitude to a wide range of matters and schools were pretty much immune to the changes that were happening in the community.

The curriculum was still then traditional and in the senior school governed exclusively by the examination prescriptions. But a chink in the armour had been exposed by a strange subject called “Liberal Studies”. It was designed to bring “life skills” into the senior school programme and to encourage senior students to engage with the world outside the University Entrance Board Handbook.

A friend of mine had rung up and told me that James K Baxter would be in Auckland asking whether I would like to host him on a visit to the school. Of course I would. Who wouldn’t want this poet and high profile social commentator to be part of a Liberal Studies programme? Baxter was at that stage in his life well out of the mainstream of New Zealand society with his commune life, his identification with and advocacy for the mentally ill, his general “hippy” lifestyle and, of course, the bare feet, the long hair and beard and the raincoat.

Recollection of these events and the memories around them were revived when reading The Double Rainbow[1] by John Newton, an account of the years spent by Baxter in commune life at Jerusalem, a small settlement up the Whanganui River, and the impact of this on the lives of the local communities, both Maori and religious.

Well, the arrangement was that I should pick Baxter up from Carrington Hospital which I duly did. What is now the Unitec polytechnic campus had two institutions on it – Oakley Hospital, a conventional mental institution under the leadership of Dr Savage which was committed to the accepted medicated routes to recovery while Carrington Hospital was set up to allow Fraser McDonald to pioneer a much more community-based approach. Eventually it was this latter model which was to prevail over the old closed institutions (Baxter called them “bins”)   but at that time there was considerable controversy over it.

Baxter came down on the side of the angels and on getting into my car said in the rather mournful tone – “When you have met Savage you have met the devil, when you have met McDonald you have glimpsed Jesus Christ.” This was typical of the aphoristic commentary he was known for; he had mastered the sound bite while others still chewed away on these tough issues.

As a young teacher I felt some sense of responsibility in transporting New Zealand’s greatest poet across Auckland in my Morris 1100 but the chatter was serious and rather one-sided and I had no cause to fear silences. As planned, we arrived at the school and went into the Principal’s office. “Good afternoon Mr Baxter”, handshakes and that rather stilted conversation that marks awkward chit chat.

“Could I take your raincoat?” the Principal offered only to be told “No thanks, it’s part of the uniform.” And later when offered an apple, Baxter put two into his raincoat pocket – “These will come in handy later.” It was a relief when the bell rang and the Sixth and Seventh Forms were assembled and ready for this liberal studies session.

It was a grand time with Baxter in fine form. I recall that he mostly preached the sermon that is reflected in the frontispiece to Newton’s book, a traced outline of a hand on which the five messages are written, one on each finger: 

  • to share one’s goods;
  • to speak the truth, not hiding one’s heart from others;
  • to love one another and show it by the embrace;
  • to take no job where one has to lick the boss’s arse;
  • to learn from the Maori side of the fence.

On the palm of the hand is written: 

When these things are done, the soul
rises to the surface of the friend’s face,
like a fish to the surface of the water,
and the soul is always beautiful.
When Maori and pakeha do these
things together, the double rainbow
begins to shine.

He didn’t read any of his poems, not that is, until the Head of English, always prepared, produced several volumes of his verse and he was away. Beautiful readings of wonderful poems, each followed by comment that was apposite to both the issues of the time and the nature of the audience.

All of this might now seem rather normal but it has to be understood that secondary schools in the early seventies were conservative reflecting the communities around them. Liberal Studies was an opportunity to bring into that setting some of the challenges to thinking about social issues that the conventional curriculum didn’t approach. Students were by and large immersed in the traditional literary cannon while outside the school gates Hair, Bullshit and Jellybeans and the Little Red Schoolbook grabbed their attention. The Holyoake / Marshall government descended into bumbling while the world’s youth increasingly saw direction in Ginsberg and the power of the flower.

I wonder if the students that afternoon as they spent time with Baxter realised just how special it al;l was? Some would have been captivated to have this poet in theor company, many more would have responded to the challenges he was posing. The realisation that he would soon be dead of course has impact only retrospectively.

I was delighted that a student who had been there recently made mention of the day Baxter came to school. The conversation was not so much about Baxter but about how different that experience was from the rest of his school experience.

Senior secondary schooling should be about exposure to ideas and to those whose thinking challenges us to believe that the world might not yet be formed perfectly, that change is possible, that what seems hard now one day will seem simple. If these things are not encouraged in the young then what will young people seek?

Pots of gold rather than a double rainbow?

[1] Newton, John (2009) The Double Rainbow: James K Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, Wellington, Victoria University Press.

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