The Clipboard - 12 May 2023

“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.” - Stephen Jay Gould, Author.

My heart and thoughts are with the whānau of Karnin Ahorangi Petera, the young man that lost his life at Abbey Falls. The grief is unimaginable. My son, Mitchell, taught in the English faculty at Whangārei Boys High School for three years. His experience there helped shape him into the teacher he is today. They are great people and it is a great community.

I was attending a family gathering in Hamilton when I received a similar call. I got an urgent text from our community police officer to phone him. He let me know that five of my boys from Massey High School had been involved in a terrible accident at Cascade Falls in West Auckland, a popular swimming hole. Two of them had been killed in a flash flood. As I hung up the phone I felt a mixture of shock, disbelief and pain.

My own whānau wouldn't let me drive back to Auckland so my son drove. I needed to get to the homes of my boys.

The Ministry of Education has a crisis team who contacted me as we were driving. I let my Board, SLT and school counsellors know and they all rallied and were superb. I emailed the staff. We had a special staff briefing that Monday and set out the plan ahead. Any media would be directed straight to me. We set up a large classroom for students to go to that needed to grieve. We had counsellors from other schools support us. I wrote to our community.

I visited all the homes of all the boys involved with our school counsellor. I emailed our staff everyday to let them know what was happening.

To be allowed to grieve with the parents of both boys was something I will never forget. Sosiveta, "Sosi" Turagaiviu and Mitch Woolley were tremendous boys and great mates. Mitch had just left school and started as an apprentice in a marine shop and had decided to use his pay to shout his twin brother Denver, Sosi, Nathan and Jason a morning of paint balling. They would then go for a swim at the Falls in the afternoon.

Five boys, from different backgrounds in every way, united in aroha for each other.

Sosi was buried in his school uniform. Six boys were to carry Sosi's coffin into the service, and Nathan and Jason were among the pallbearers. They were in tears. I went back to see how the boys were doing. One of the boys said, "I want to do it but I can't do it, Sir. When I pick up the coffin Sosi will be in it and I don't want to feel the weight!" I gave him a hug and said, "That's the weight of love. When you carry the coffin in, you are carrying all the happy times you had with Sosi, and all the ups and downs. All the memories that you have are in there with Sosi. That's why it's heavy, because there is lots of love in there. It's the weight of love." I was so proud of the boys as they entered the funeral home. Beautiful singing rang out and then a tremendous haka, led by old boys.

Mitch's funeral was also full of love and warmth. The ‘Star Wars’ theme was played as the coffin entered and tears were interspersed with lots of laughter and aroha. Denver, Mitch's twin, spoke and it was one of those times that I was privileged to witness true strength of character.

Leading a school community through tragedy and through crisis is part of a principal's job. We are built for these times. Many of my colleagues have been through this. Karen Gilbert-Smith, the Principal at Whangārei Boys, is walking this journey now and she has all my aroha and understanding.

The only thing I can think of today is to give your own children a hug. No matter how big they are or how old they are, give them a cuddle. I need to hug my kids more even though they are 36, 34 and 33. They will say, "Oh Dad, why are you hugging me?" I am so lucky to be able to say, "Because you are here and I love you."

Receive the light and pass it on.

Glen Denham