Poll Dancer by Keith Ng

Teenage Rebel

I actually have a great personal fondness for schoolyard rebellion.

The year, as they say, was 1999. It was the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and it was during this time that I discovered a passion for ideas and politics. As a 7th former at Wellington College, I was skipping school to volunteer for Amnesty International, organising candidate debates and trying to start a human rights group. This, I admit, was pretty damn geeky, but a very different form of geeky than programming in the computer room, which was what I did pre-1999.

It just so happened that Michael Hardie-Boys - an old boy of Wellington College - was the Governor-General at the time, and when Chinese President Jiang Zemin toured New Zealand after APEC, Hardie-Boys invited the whole of Wellington College (which is adjacent to Government House) to perform a haka for Jiang.

It was a big deal for the school, and in particular for our Headmaster Roger Moses. It was a chance to do a favour for an Old Boy (in the most traditional, loaded sense of the word), it was a chance for the school to shine in the media spotlight, and it was a chance to reach potential students from China who would be watching their President tour NZ. Product endorsement from the Chinese President? Ch-ching!

But given my view of the Chinese government at the time, I wasn't so keen. Like many others who protested at the time (including those down in Christchurch who were walled off with buses so that Jiang wouldn't have to see them), I saw APEC as an opportunity to bring human rights to the fore, rather than the opposite.

I had a lot of support from the Powers-that-Be when I was getting Wellington College in the paper by organising a debate between then-Wellington candidates Richard Prebble, Marian Hobbs and Philida Bunkle. But the possibility of "embarrassing the school" in the national/international spotlight proved to be something else entirely.

We got warned off it at various stages, and I got called in to the Headmaster's office quite a few times, but one conversation really stuck with me.

One of my co-conspirators and I were called into the Deputy Headmaster's office in the middle of class (economics, I think) one afternoon, where he and the 7th form dean had a good cop/bad cop routine going. We told them, when asked, that we were going to protest Jiang's arrival at Government House. We were told that we couldn't just go and protest, because it was a school-day. Not that there was much schooling to be done, since the day was going to be spent entertaining Jiang. But ah, the difference was that one was a "school activity" and therefore "school", while the other wasn't and therefore "skipping school".

We got offered a conscious objector option - we could stay supervised in a classroom while the rest of the school did their thing. Being a polite young man, I said "no" as politely as I could.

Then the dean (the bad cop) came up with this gem: "If you don't report to school on [the day], we'll take it as a sign that you're not attending this school, and we'll take your name off the roll accordingly."

Hmmm - public school threatening effective expulsion for political activity? It was the dumbest thing he could have done, but to be fair, he was a PE teacher.

The Deputy Headmaster didn't back him up (probably because he wasn't retarded). I thought I could see a wince flash through his face.

Being the teenage boys that we were, we didn't take kindly to threats, but being the greenhorns that we were, we didn't realise just how much shit we could have gotten them in if we took those threats to higher authorities.

Roger Moses made some attempts to bring us into the establishment. One lunchtime he invited us into his office telling us we're future leaders and showing us a photo of his mother and Muldoon in primary school together. A photo that he curiously kept in his bottom drawer. Smooth.

In the end it was rather anti-climatic. Of all their demands, we agreed only to not wearing our uniforms while protesting, and of all their threats, the only thing that eventuated was that I got put on detention for skipping school.

The Deputy Headmaster looked surprised when he saw me actually turn up for detention. He chuckled, then sent me home. I think we developed a mutual respect after that.

Apparently we got blacklisted at the door as well, as they had received intelligence through their network of spies that we were going to sneak through and protest inside. That was quite a good idea, not that we'd actually thought of it.

For the most part, we got our way.

Just last year, I saw Roger Moses speak at an event outside Parliament, saying how great it was to see students getting involved in democracy, etc. I couldn't help but think what a hypocrite he was, when he thought it was okay to coerce or manipulate students' from political activity because it would ruin the school's image.

Looking back, I think I was driven by the excitement of discovering the possibilities that existed outside of the conformity factory. It's like discovering a secret portal to the real world. I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun if I went to a liberal school where they *let* you do this sort of thing. No sir, the real lesson could only be learned when they didn't want you to know.

The one thing that stuck with me was how flimsy the authority behind that conformity was. It was a coming-of-age moment, realising that their authority was an illusion to keep me in line and that it would just dissolve if I simply refused to acknowledge it. It brought it back, full circle, to the inspiration for my awakening - the guy who stared down a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square.

I didn't get a Unit Standard for it.