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Finding hope in my hometown

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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I've just arrived home after a week on the road, visiting twelve primary schools in and near my old hometown.

I grew up in Tokoroa. I think my favorite quote about Tokoroa is this one, from Wikipedia:

Famous for Maori and Pacific Islander Races and a Multicultural melting
pot as all races and creeds attracted by seasonal employment at the
mill.

Indeed.

I don't really think I need to add much to that eloquent testimony to the multicultural nature of my home town. The town is famous for its Races. Not the kind involving horses. 

More recently, unfortunately, my hometown has been more famous for its crime rates. A teacher at one of the primary schools I visited this week was stabbed to death in her own classroom.

Any sense of hope or possibility that existed when I was at school there seems to have gone the way of the shops in the main street, which now lie empty.

So when I was asked to do another round of motivational talks at low-income primary schools for the Duffy Books in Homes charity, I agreed on the condition that I could go home to Tokoroa.

If I was going to spend a week giving children a sense of hope that they too, despite their limited economic resources and ill-reputed hometown, can make a positive difference in the world, then I wanted it to be children in Tokoroa.

The idea is that I visit each school and talk to a full assembly about my work in Afghanistan. The official name of these assemblies are "Role Model Assemblies", but some schools call them "Hero Assembly". I'm often introduced as "Marianne Elliott, our Duffy hero". Those feel like big shoes to fill.

To give you an idea of the kind of heroes that these children might be used to hearing from, take a look at the list of notable residents in that Wikipedia entry. Out of forty seven notable residents, thirty six are athletes. Of those thirty six, twenty two play rugby.

You may also be interested to learn that Brian Tamaki – founder of Destiny Church – was once a resident of Tokoroa. So was Ben Hana – the Wellington identity better known as Blanket Man.

But my point is that when a local 'hero' turns up at a Tokoroa primary school, nine times out of ten they are going to be a sports person. I was not, to put it mildly, what these kids were accustomed to in a Duffy hero.

But at school after school I encountered a deep and engaged curiosity about the lives of children in Afghanistan. Even during the late afternoon assemblies in those final, restless days before the Easter school holidays the children were all engaged and interested.

They had dozens of questions for me. Some of them were questions I'd like to see put to the people who make the decisions that control the lives of so many Afghan children.

"If the soldiers have airplanes to fly in, why do the children have to walk so far to school? Why can't they use the planes?"

"Why did the war start in the first place?"

"How can the children grow if they only have bread to eat?"

"If they cut down all the trees, how will the children have clean air to breathe?"

"If you had a bunker at your office, what about the people in the town who didn't have bunkers? What happened to them when there were rockets?"*

My favorite part of every talk was when I asked the children to tell me what they think every child everywhere needs. Most schools get started with the basics – food, water, shelter – but there wasn't a school where the children didn't move on pretty quickly to the essentials – every child needs to be protected, cared for and loved. 

These children had no problem understanding that children in Afghanistan needed all the same things that they needed themselves.

I wondered whether it was possible that children, so often maligned for their cruelty, could be more compassionate than most adults. Is it possible that children are more able to recognise themselves in the lives, suffering and needs of others.

Maybe it's simply that children are (as child development texts tell us) egotistical, so they instinctively related everything I was saying to themselves and their own lives.

But I was left with the impression that these children might be closer to their original compassionate nature. Their natural empathy hadn't been perverted by notions of blame or racist stereotypes. They didn't get caught up in the 'story' of who was causing the suffering, they simply responded to the fact of it.

Their curiosity and their compassion gave me hope for our beleagured planet. So did the passion and patience of their teachers, but that's another post.

*I feel the need to point out that some of these questions were from the older groups I spoke with, Year 7 and 8 students who were 11 and 12 years old. I wasn't talking to the juniors about rocket attacks and bunkers!

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10 Responses to "Finding hope in my hometown"

  1. Abbie says:

    Well I for think you are a hero, so you are filling those shoes quite well! It’s really amazing to hear children’s responses, they’re always so simple and honest, with none of the crap that adults get caught up in…

  2. a.q.s. says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I think it is important for children to see different heros, especially sheroes like you.

  3. sas says:

    i can’t think of a more fitting hero!
    and for all those kids that want to be an all black there are dozens for whom that was never the dream.
    i wish you had come to my school assembly.
    you will have inspired so many kids.

  4. I think it is wonderful that you are able to do this, I agree with Sas, I wish you had come to my school assembly. Which wouldn’t have been far to go – I spent my primary school years in Putaruru!

  5. I am so happy to hear there is someone like you speaking to our children. I have lived and taught in rural NZ and believe your message of hope that these children could also make a positive difference in our world would have had a huge impact.
    I was also very amused at your breakdown of the Duffy Hero ‘occupation’. The cynical side of me laughs at NZs obsession with rugby and narrow view of a hero. But I force myself to also consider that our rugby players are the generous ones who are the most willing to donate their time and energy.

  6. Tara Bradford says:

    Well you’re definitely one of my HERoes! Am so glad you’re sharing your experiences and wise perspective with young people. xoxox

  7. You are my hero too. Lovely post. Lovely stories. And what great questions from the kids! Sounds like they would do a better job than some of our current television current affairs ‘reporters’…

  8. Helen says:

    Bravo M! You ARE a hero to me too 🙂

  9. leonie says:

    amazing. truly amazing. and a great reminder for me to look at the world with more compassionate eyes myself!
    x

  10. Yvonne says:

    Just read this post Marianne and got all teary when reading that question about the planes taking the children to school….

    Wow….

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