For on this, the first day of school, the little one was about to receive a special welcome. She wore a pretty new cotton dress, and slung her not-new back pack over her shoulders in readiness.
The whanau was gathered around her. Whanau is a Maori word for family, picked up by Pakeha ( New Zealanders of European descent) when describing a warm and nurturing family unity. And that’s what we were: Chinese granny, Pakeha granny (me), father, and mother with the new babe in her arms, and the little one in our midst.
The Steiner School is robust on caring, and this means creating ceremonies of transition. While the philosophy began in Germany, there is a strong Maori influence in this school. Together with the other families, we waited. The children from the kindergarten were shepherded into a circle by their three teachers. Then we women—mothers, aunties, and grandmothers—were called to follow the little flock, and the men asked to walk in behind. We walked a few steps towards the beautiful school hall.
Then we waited again. A dignified Maori woman wearing a korowai, a cloak woven from the muka, the fine fibre inside the flax plant, waited in the doorway. Then the moment came that we were waiting for: the beginning of the powhiri, the ritual of welcome.
A ringing chant known as a karanga resounded across the space between us, and we slowly stepped forward, beckoned by the smiling woman, across the threshold and into the hall with its high stepped seating, like a steep amphitheatre. It was full of pupils and teachers; in fact the whole school was waiting for us.
It was at this point that my tears welled up as if they would never stop.
The cluster of young children was shepherded some more, on to mats on the floor. There they sat with their kindergarten teachers, to whom they would soon be saying goodbye. Every now and then a little girl crept into the embrace of her teacher, cuddled up for a while, then bravely made space for another to do the same.
Meanwhile one of the Maori teachers began his oratory, welcoming the children in, speaking of the transition that they were soon to make, to Class One in the main school. He referred to the kindergarten as a kohunga, a learning nest, and that’s just how it seemed as I watched those clusters of little children on the mats.
All the teachers then gathered around him to sing a waiata (song), and a Maori man on our side, representing the visitors, gave another speech. They went on a long time, these men, all in Maori, for they were brothers showing their skills to each other as well as to us.
And then came the moment that brought more tears. A candle was lit on a special table, an invocation was spoken, and through this wooden archway, threaded with flowers, the little ones were led, one by one. Each, when her/his name was called, was met by a senior student who gave them a posy of flowers, took their hand, and brought them through to their new teacher, Mr. Wigley (yes!), who is an award-winning musician and writer of children’s songs.
The children now sat on benches with Mr Wigley, who then led them away through a doorway, off to their class room.
Meanwhile the three kindergarten teachers sat on the empty mats.
It was shortly after that when new tears began to flow, and not just from me. The seven years of magical childhood are almost over and a new phase is beginning. I felt as if the Pied Piper had appeared and led the children away into a mountain, where they would never be seen again.
A ritual of welcome can also be a ritual of loss, depending on where you stand.