Intermediate school, the four years before one goes to college, was a formidable time of growth for me. Even though the bus ride to Wilton was no longer than twenty minutes (and was five minutes if we didn’t have to stop along the way), the journey created a clear demarcation from my life in Karori and my new life. No longer was home just down the road. No longer would we have girls at school. And no longer was I only surrounded by kids from my neighbourhood.

Marist Wilton, Cardinal McKeefry, was one of the last Marist brother schools in Wellington and was as close to a typical Catholic school as one might expect in the late 1970’s/early 80’s. Religious studies, maths, and English combined with rugby, cricket, and some thorny self-identity topics to create a truly holistic learning experience. It was a significant stage of life and some great lessons have remained with me to this today.

Lesson 1: One day you’re the top dog, the next, you are bottom

Going from St Teresa’s to Marist Wilton was an exciting experience in growing up. I was a senior at St Teresa’s (all at the age of eight!). All the seniors had younger kids to look out for, and there was no bigger fish in the pond that concerned us. That all changed when we went to Cardinal McKeefry. All of sudden we were the runts of the litter and the tiny men of Lilliput.

The older kids were great, and I can’t remember a single time they acted with intimidation. However, realising that there were stages to life, and invariably, when you pass through a step you will again find yourself at the bottom before embarking on the climb up, was a necessary life experience.

Self-development is very much about this journey upward, and it is never linear. One is only as good as one’s last accomplishment and you need to start the process all over again, post each achievement. Understanding this growth pattern at an early stage in life establishes grit and the recognition that one is at the base of what they aspire to if aspiring is part of their life course.

Lesson 2: If you block time and offer the right rewards, you can achieve

In Standard Three (my first year at Marist Wilton), our original teacher was diagnosed with cancer, and we had a substitute for the year, Mr MacDonald. To say Mr MacDonald had a unique style of teaching is an understatement. Mr MacDonald loved sport and felt it crucial to a child’s development as anything we would learn in the classroom.

In light of his commitment to a rounded education, Mr MacDonald made a deal with the class. If we crammed our studies into the first part of the day, he would make the second part of the day for sports. We had to finish our studies, but if we did, he guaranteed the reward. Given every one of the students, at least to my knowledge, had a sporting background of some sort, this was not an offer that requiring much consideration.

That term was one of my most memorable. When the fields were still wet at the beginning of the semester, we played rugby matches and bullrush all afternoon. As summer came, we would have test matches spread over a week. We had a tennis and patter tennis tournament, with Mr MacDonald creating a ladder so we could see who was at the top of the class.

It is hard to say quite what the lesson was other than that was my best term of school – ever! I don’t feel that my schooling suffered, and the undeniable result was that we learnt the notion of consistency. So long as we worked hard, the sport was guaranteed. We also learnt to keep a secret, as no one told their parents of Mr MacDonald’s unique approach to education for fear their parents might not be as progressive!

Lesson 3: The sorting years

These years were not easy. Being at an all-boys school meant it was natural there would be sorting that played out as various boys jostled for the top position, be it in sports, education, or merely one’s place in the pecking order. While I was naturally proficient at sport, I was not gifted. The gifted kids stood out, and no matter how hard I trained, this was a time when I realised there is a difference between good and talented.

If there was regret, it was that a teacher did not take me aside and help me see that these years of growth and sorting would play out until my late teens. A child could learn to contextualise the trials they experienced as a growth opportunity, rather than defining one’s place. Such a self-imposed response was unnecessarily harsh, but at ten you don’t have the wisdom of foresight. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and I could have done with that advice at that age.

Lesson 4: People believe what they want to believe

In Form Two (my final year at Marist Wilton), we had a teacher unlike any before. Mr Drew was committed to education and was committed to cultivating young minds. At the time, most of us, myself included, were not ready for his teaching style. He would set us 1,000-word essays on ‘Who are you’ and ‘Why do you believe what you choose to believe’. These were questions that we had never asked of ourselves before. Trying to answer such questions also resulted in puzzled looks from my parents who would often respond with, “Eat your spuds”.

However, through Mr Drew, I developed a love for philosophy, more profound thought, and debate. Up until this point, I had never thought of myself as an academic. I was certainly no math whizz, which became apparent when I went to college (high school). I had mild dyslexia, which affected my reading. While my logic and storytelling were of a high standard, my handwriting was and remains atrocious.

But Mr Drew saw in me something others had not. He identified my ability to articulate an argument well, think deeply about a topic, and challenge conventional thought. When we went to the showing of the Shroud of Turin, a guest speaker argued that Catholics would believe what they want to think, and this explained their faith in the shroud as an image of Christ. I challenged his logic, making clear that everyone looks for evidence to confirm their beliefs – not a bad retort for a twelve-year-old, yet to study psychology and the confirmation bias.

Mr Drew broadened my mind in a life-changing way. He made me believe that academia, not just sport, was my calling. He made me realise that working hard, given my intellect, would be my ticket to a productive, enjoyable life. He set me a course that shaped me from that year forward.

Lesson 5: You are only as good as your weak points; strengths do not make for well-rounded individuals

I sometimes wonder how skills would operate with a commitment to a strength-based approach that is often encouraged by positive psychologists. At Marist Wilton, Mr Drew highlighted my learning difficulties and forced me not to hide from them. While I don’t think that the teachers were firm enough to point out where I needed to improve, identifying weaknesses meant I understood, for the first time, that there was an issue to address.

I remember distinctly realising that I needed to work on all areas of my education, math, English, science, and art if I was going to be a well-rounded student. The goals for each subject varied, as did my development needs. However, holistic development was the key, and I could not rely on excelling in one area while others languished.

While the lesson seems obvious in hindsight, the reality is that no one ever explained this to me. Instead, the report cards, with pages of feedback which Mr Drew wrote, made clear that I was only as good as the areas I needed to develop. I have never been a fan of strength-based approaches, and it is only in reflecting my time in Form Two that the base for this dislike becomes clear. People need to have strengths and address their weaknesses. Businesses require holistic, well-developed human beings to lead organisations; not one-trick ponies.

Marist Wilton set me up for the formidable college years. Religious education gave way to the pursuit of academic and sporting excellence, a hard choice to make for deeply religious parents. I owe so much to those four years at Marist Wilton, and five points do not do this time in my life justice. I remain in touch with friends from that time, and when home, I drive by the school and remember some of the most challenging and growth-inducing times in my life.