He was my light house, when I was a child and school was tough. Rural New Zealand was not the place for bright, imaginative kids. These were the days of rote learning and corporal punishment.
In my memoir, I devoted a whole chapter to the best teacher I would ever have. I wrote:
‘Mr Okeroa was short and stocky, with black curly hair, a wide smile that made his nostrils flare even more broadly, and a throaty chuckle.’
‘He was a storehouse of goodness, a feast and a variety concert all in one. Creative energy poured out of him like the brass band parade that spilled down Rata Street to Jubilee Park to celebrate Inglewood’s Greatest Show on Earth, or the circus that came to town . . . Being with him was like tumbling inside rich chords rather than riding on single notes, for he encouraged us to express ourselves in every possible way and in media we never dreamed existed. . . he brought joy into the classroom.’
He taught us puppet-making, singing, poetry-writing, Maori stick games, and poi dances. We painted rafter patterns on long strips of paper which he hung around the class-room. Every day was packed with creativity.
One day he took us on a school trip around the mountain, and that’s when we saw Cape Egmont and the lighthouse in the area where he grew up. Later I discovered that he had temporarily taken on driving the school bus, in addition to teaching, and that he paid for the petrol himself so that we could have the trip.
Memoir writing has a way of opening the gates of memory. Through writing ‘Touching Snow’, I realised fully, just how much I owed to this special teacher. I wondered if he was still alive, and—what a miracle—I found him again, and we enjoyed six years of special visits, letters, and heart connection.
This morning he died, aged 82. Haere Ra, Jim. I will never forget you, and the light you shed.