Fourteen-year-old Quentin sits with folded arms, settling in for a serious chat, rather as if he were a stolid old-timer from the outback of wherever.
‘I want to stab people,’ Quentin says. ‘I don’t know why I bring knives to school. I’ve got a habit of doing it. It’s to protect myself. When I go home in the dark,’ he adds.
‘Well, have you ever been jumped?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, one time. In an alley by a big, dark fella, I don’t know who he was. If my koro finds out about the knife he’ll send me back to the kura and I like it here. I make friends here.’
His face darkens. He has almond-shaped eyes and eyebrows that fly upwards towards the side of his face and unruly black hair that sticks up. It looks like an infusion of powerful dark blood has flooded his face and his eyes become reddened. Perhaps, I thought, I am looking at a volcano.
There is no other sign of rage, yet I wonder if it is there.
With a small shift in his features, he could look like a deity in the Indian religious pantheon with a full red face, bulging eyes, and teeth exposed from grimacing lips. An awe-full vision of the power of rage.
Before this conversation, I had listened to Durrell, Quentin’s classmate, tell me about the interchange that happened earlier that day.
‘He said he was going to stab Hokioi and he flashed his knife around. Then, later on at interval when we were just hanging out, he had his knife out again and said he was going to stab this random kid who was just passing by. Then I said, “what’s up with you, man? That’s stupid,” and I took the knife off him.’
‘What did Quentin do then?’ I had asked.
‘He stomps off in a rage and said to give it back or he’d knock my fukken block off.’
The knife is sitting on my desk. It is definitely a killing knife. It has heft and a hasp. It has a single, sharp blade that locks into place, heavy and meaningful. A dragon is curled round the handle, which is heavily embossed and decorated with two cheap Chinese enamelled pictures. You could stab flesh with that alright. More than you could have with Koro’s screwdriver, which Quentin brought in last week.
Last week, Paul, the community liaison officer, brought Quentin to my office with his school bag. Paul explained that Quentin’s classmates said he was going around saying he was going to stab them. ‘He’s always bringing weapons and stuff to school,’ one of them noted.
So, Paul and I went through the routine. Paul asked Quentin, ‘Is there anything in your bag you don’t want us to find?’
Quentin didn’t say anything, just clutched his bag closer. It turned out it didn’t have much in it, but it did have his koro’s screwdriver.
‘What’s this for?’
Quentin had shrugged, ‘It’s my koro’s.’
‘Is it to stab people with? Like your classmates say? Why do you need a screwdriver at school?’
‘Dunno.’ And then to show himself as willing he repeated, ‘I dunno why I bring it, I just want to.’
‘Wait there.’ I said and we went and fetched our policeman from out at the creek. Constable Arthur, with Paul and I as backup, went sonorous and serious. We read a lecture to Quentin.
‘Don’t bring weapons to school. This is not bloody America,’ Arthur said.
Paul chipped in with, ‘This is very serious, next time it’ll be a stand down and your mum will come in. She’ll be shamed and she’ll be furious eh?’
Arthur said, ‘ I’m a policeman talking to you, I’m wearing my uniform and I can charge you with possession of an illegal weapon. I can take you down the station now and charge you right away. What if you kill someone and end up in jail?’
Usually this has been enough to put them off a repeat performance. Not this time though. After bringing in the knife today, he’s to go home, suspended.
We’ve just had a puzzling conversation and I am left completely in the dark. I don’t understand. ‘He talks about stabbing people all the time,’ his classmates say. Why would you want to stab someone, like some sort of itch that bothers you during the day?
We have chatted together a bit, just passing the time of day, in between going over what happened. And yet, when he leaves the office he turns his suffused red face to me and it’s so dark I can almost see the shadow of the beard he will get when he’s older, haunting his jaw and lower face. I can see something even older hanging about in his eyes. I am certain they contain a critical message.
They accuse me. They accuse me of being another one who somehow let him down so very badly.
Quentin was born from his twelve-year-old mother terribly premature. He was like a little packet of butter and if you could have held him he would have fit in the palms of your hands. He had to fight for his life right from the start. He had died in the womb and was speedily birthed to save him. The fight went on in intensive care for weeks, and weeks later he came home still tiny. The doctors mentioned learning and developmental delays almost as his mum, Serena, was passing out through the hospital doors, as a little present, an afterthought. I knew his mum quite well, and his nan even better. She kept me posted on how Quentin was doing over the weeks in hospital.
Quentin is now as young as a damaged brain constrains you to be, and yet somehow seems as old as his koro and his koro’s koro with strong and sturdy calves, large feet, and a shock of unruly black hair. He has a face from so long ago he would not be out of place in a black and white photograph from the last century. He is a short and a stoutly robust fourteen-year-old. Sometimes he gets his words mixed up.
But yet his words come through clearly when he takes up the tariparau, or the atete for the Cook Islands group. He is expert and holds the drumming group together with an upwards flick of his eyebrows, leading the timing precisely. I can see how he seems to flower when he joins the kapa haka rōpū and assumes a natural authority. I can see how he reaches out effortlessly at these times.
I would like a quality psych assessment for Quentin, to view or to diagnose what is perhaps an ancient rage. Since his mum took him home from hospital, there have been so many years of neglect and sheer dismissal and I have been shocked, whenever his nan and I talked, to realise how little help Serena got for Quentin. I know I will not get a psych assessment. Not one well-qualified shrink will step up and take note.
So who will take Quentin’s hands into their own, clasp them firmly and look into his red suffused black eyes, and try to understand what has shaped his actions? Who will dismantle and render harmless this (as yet unrealised) itch?
Quentin doesn’t understand what you say to him. He appears to listen and then a little way along you realise he hasn’t taken in a single word. It’s as though he hears it all underwater or in the buzz and crackle of an untuned radio. Only one word in three is intelligible, and the rest has faded away.
He speaks Māori to his koro and English to his teachers and friends. But in both languages, he misses the landing and bashes into the wharf.
When Quentin was led away and he turned his face to mine and I saw those speaking eyes, how could I not listen to their message, even though I too could only attend to it incompletely?
Paul and Martha, the school nurse, visited his home and settled down in their turn for a quiet, iconoclastic chat with Quentin’s paternal koro. Paul told me that Koro had asked for his knife back. According to Paul he’d said that the knife meant a lot to him because ‘It was given to me as a gift by this chief, this Hopi chief who came over here for a visit.’ And then Koro explained, ‘I always keep it in that tin over there and the kids know not to touch it. I told Quentin that time and again.’
Martha and Paul found out that Quentin stays over with koro and nan some days and is helpful to them, fetching and carrying, and mowing the lawn. Martha knows that Quentin’s koro and nan are both on dialysis four hours a day, three days a week, and can’t get out much. Quentin is sent from home to help. Koro had said, ‘Quentin’s a good boy, but he doesn’t listen.’
Martha refers Quentin to the mystery tour of the youth mental health services – the one where you pack your bags just in case because you never know where you’ll end up. But what happened was just a phone call from the services. Serena wasn’t too clear on it when she reported back to us.
‘Hello, I’m …’ The voice faded and sank beneath the sea briefly. It re-emerged to say, ‘Is there any history of mental illness in the family?’
‘What? What? Who are you? Who do you want to talk to? Why are you asking me that?’
‘Is Quentin eating and sleeping normally?’
‘Yes.’ replies Mum and, ‘What the fuck?’ Introductions had been lost in translation.
After that conversation, which was obviously a test, I could see it was going to be ‘No mental health services for you, my good man.’
For Quentin, English is the unbearable language. I read these exact words as translated from his STAR reading test. He’d written some answers in Māori. Torana, his teacher aide, translated it word for word. Quentin’s sister, Lara, is quite deaf. She speaks with an impediment but otherwise she’s just fine at our kura. She and Quentin have a very strong bond and I am told they will talk more fluently to each other, holding hands and standing close together looking into each other’s faces. She interprets for him to his teachers sometimes, when they need to talk to him about his behaviour or intentions. When they need him to know what they think.
Paul doesn’t need an interpreter to talk to Quentin. He told us he knew that Quentin cried for hours and hours and never slept a wink over this, shouting into the night, ‘I’m not a naughty boy! I’m not naughty!’
No volcano then. Instead, a sea of anguish.
I need to make sense of it all. I could so easily take another misstep among the millions already taken by the unbearable people. I might end up gluing Quentin’s future to a dead-end wall. The other Kura did that. He was passed on to ‘work with the caretaker’ instead of working with his lessons. We couldn’t get any more sense out of his last kura. They’re not talking to us.
Quentin might want to kill people or indeed he might only want to show off and be ‘da man’ in front of his astonished classmates. He doesn’t always understand his classmates either, and has been known to punch them in the face during their playfights. Paul has checked it out; they’ve had those restoring chats with the boys when Quentin has been in tears, and probably all those times they were talking past each other.
This is a little minnow of a school, not known for big miracles, not known at all, and widely disregarded, but we have the power to make fateful changes and they have powerful consequences. Quentin talks to us from the other side of a plate of glass. On this side there is a listening silence and a void of understanding.
Time moves on and a decision must be made. An action must be taken, among the unquiet thousands that should already have been taken. There was no help for Serena when she passed through the doors of the hospital fourteen years ago, and there has been little help ever since. There will be no response from the youth mental health services and there will be no quality ed. psych. assessment from a benign and twinkling psychiatrist.
‘How many times have we taken a chance on a kid?’ I asked Paul one day. ‘And how many times has it paid off?’
‘I’m not too sure, Boss but it’s been heaps of times I reckon. And they paid off. Mostly.’
Yesterday I went to see Sara teach, as part of her appraisal programme. Her class was full, and the noise was busy, busy, busy. She begins to tell the story of Whātaitai and Ngake. And they go quiet and listen. When she finishes they get up and form lines. They’re going to sing a waiata on the story they just heard. In the front row is Quentin. Sara is slow to get this all organised, and the kids start playing around. Quentin tries out a few kapa haka moves. He dances this way and that. He discovers that his flash new haircut has a rather nice wavy motion every time he jives with the moves. He does it a few times; it’s always a perfect move and then he shows this to the others and they all start to giggle.
Last week at assembly I gave out some prizes. Kids do not love coming up on stage to get their awards but Quentin got up this time and came to get his certificate. As we went to shake hands he grasped my hand firmly, gave me a large grin and then quite deliberately, tickled my palm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susanne Jungersen is writing a series of essays based on her experiences as a secondary school principal. The collection of essays is called School and the entire collection is still a work in progress. Susanne retired from her principal position in mid-2016. She has undertaken the MA in Creative Writing this year.