I’m getting pretty sick of seeing my alma mater constantly in the news. Pretty much my entire experience at Auckland Boys Grammar School (AGS) was awful. Starting before I even went there. Some of this is not entirely the schools fault – I was undiagnosed for ADHD and Autism and I also had vision impairment that wasn’t corrected until two years into my high school education, and I had a genius brother who I had to try and live up to.
To attend AGS you have to live in one of the richest areas in Auckland. A lot of the pricing for housing is set so that you may attend this prestigious and self-mastabatory school. It’s the rich boys public school – and it’s made this way through zoning laws. Fees here weren’t “optional” they withheld certain things if you couldn’t pay – and it was quite pricey even in my time for poor families. They are the least progressive school in existence, and their firm belief that theirs is the best way is something that is drilled into you constantly while you are there. The amount of times I heard from teachers and staff how lucky I was to go there was bordering on parody.
Their willingness to change or even critically assess themselves is non-existant and their subject options are the blandest boring academic shit ever… I mean look at these choices…
I’m going to list a few of the major problems I had with AGS. The first is the streaming system, it’s implementation, and the damage it does to young teenagers, and especially neurodiverse kids by constantly pressuring them into exams, and changing their routines when classes are changed due to restreaming.
Once you are accepted to AGS, every student who is attending will take a preliminary test to rank you within their class system which streams students according to their academic ability. I’m pretty sure it’s a standardised IQ test. I remember taking this through the last half of my second year at intermediate. I’m fairly certain this was the first ever “exam” I’d taken in my life. I remember one of my friends didn’t realise that there was double sides to the exam and only had done half.
The outcome of this exam is not discovered until you go through one of the most publicly humiliating experiences in your first assembly. They basically list the students off in alphabetical streamed order (3rd Form or Year 9 when I was there had streams from A-M). This process is incredibly stressful, the longer it takes for your name to be read, the worse off academically they perceive you to do, based on an IQ test.
My brother is a straight up genius, I don’t mean that in like a superficial way, he’s the smartest person I know. He was an A stream student, the best of the best. When I got streamed into my first class I was in G stream. Pretty much middle of the pack. This was a massive blow to my confidence and abilities, although a constant stream of negative feedback from untreated ADHD (remember kids who have ADHD experience on average 20,000 more pieces of negative feedback than regular kids), I expected it. The hard thing for me was going to be going home and explaining that I was in G to my mother.
But there are far more insidious issues with the streaming system, the quality of teaching is markedly different in the A and B streams (as they are basically put a year ahead) and from my view and experiences received all the best Grammar had to offer in terms of getting good results. I was just inside the cut off for having an additional subject in my course load – Latin was compulsory for students ranked G or above when I was there, with French and Japanese as your two options for different subjects. Then you get the standard white bread academic education subjects, in the first year the core subjects were English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Latin (if graded high enough in the entrance test), and an additional language.
The introduction of Te Reo Māori is a great thing to see, as is technology (which was like woodwork or something when I went), those lesser subjects you are not graded on per se but instead given effort grades for your work in their classes.
Everyday you go to that school, your basically constantly working toward another set of exams, the first set of exams in your first year is the most crucial in a lot of ways as you get re-streamed and have an opportunity to correct a bad one off result and to get into the A&B stream before it heavily changes in the second year and starts advancing more quickly than the other streams. The pressure to succeed at all times is brutal.
The way they referred to the class differences at my time was that it was expected that all the “Polys and Māoris would end up in the lower set of classes”, teaching resource and quality of teachers gets worse the lower you go down, they will sprinkle a handful of good teachers throughout the lower streams for some subjects but on average you will receive a lower grade of teaching the lower you go.
This racism was explicitly explained to me by multiple teachers, we we’re reminded we’d be dumb like them if we didn’t work hard and would graduate over the back fence (to Mt Eden Prison) like those Māoris and Polys in lower streams. They are expected to fail, which if you know anything about how teaching works, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Teacher expectation is one of the biggest drivers of student success.
So returning to my first exam period, I was pretty demoralised, I knew I was smart, maybe not as smart as my brother (He never seemed to struggle at all with his homework and just was good at stuff). I worked incredibly hard, I had some teachers who were incredible, and I still retain most of my Latin knowledge from my first term thanks to Mr Kirby who basically figured out a way to cater to most people’s teaching styles, I’ll remember his “latercising” to remember “sum, I am, es, you are… etc” for the rest of my life.
I came in near the top of the School in Latin, and was devastated with my 90+~% result. I struggled and studied harder than I knew I could, I mean I was doing consistent 4-5 hour nights of studying trying to make sure I could get into A or B stream to make my Mum proud. (She’d sacrificed a lot to get us in the zone to go here). I did well in most other subjects except Mathematics (I am pretty sure I have dyslexia for numbers – dyscalculia). Mathematics is especially hard for my brain to do, but I can remember sequences of numbers fine…
After all this effort, I moved up to stream C. C. Fucking C. I was so fucking mad, I felt cheated, I felt like I would always be incredibly dumb. But this compounded heavily when nearly all of my teachers were changed, each with a new way of teaching, and some were absolutely fucking rubbish who just showed up drank liquor under their desks and threw books at my head when I was being disruptive (Shout out to you Mr White).
I didn’t really recover from not making the grade to be honest, I am pretty sure that with medication and proper understanding of ADHD I would have been an A stream student. But trying so hard, and falling just short of being able to progress into a better stream killed my motivation. I didn’t do the massive amounts of study required to just do a good job. Teachers generally hated me, I was disruptive. In some classes I was ok, in others I was bored to tears at how slow the material was taught and what the point of learning stuff like math even was (this fucked me up real bad later in life when I did software engineering – that was a mighty deficit to overcome).
Disruptive students were punished by being generally excluded from the classroom. I was excluded a lot, I missed out on a lot of teaching, I had detention often. Self-depreciation was my main defence mechanism to survive at this school and I relied on it everyday to withstand getting bullied, you become the class clown so that you get a rebel attitude and the meaner kids are less likely to make your life hell.
I think during my time at AGS I drifted started in G moved to C fell back to E then F, then H in my final year where I dropped out to attend University instead. My time management for assignments was near non-existent, unless I was immediately at threat of losing grades I didn’t start until the night before. All nighters were common. This is common with all ADHD kids. Things are either an immediate threat or not a concern.
This too became my exam preparation after years of being told that I would succeed more if I focused more, or that I had such potential. After trying so hard constantly at school only to fall short, I developed a why bother attitude. My Mum was disappointed, and the comments in my report cards directly reflected the fact I had ADHD, but no one knew what it was really – so I constantly was trying my hardest but couldn’t because ADHD doesn’t let you tackle stuff that way untreated. I was burning myself out constantly trying to be just average due to inattention and focus issues.
Now let’s move on to the massive problem no one wants to talk about at AGS that I believe based on everything I’ve seen in the media recently about this stain of patriarchy. Women were lesser, the culture around masculinity and academic success was always to show that we were better than women.
The only interaction you get with girl’s at AGS is if you do a few special extracurricular activities such as Drama. I did this, so I got to hang out with girls a lot. I was a theatre kid, went from being an extra in my first year to cast as a lead in the last year I stayed a full year.
I think I got inoculated against the vast majority of sexism (but still had a lot being honest that took as recently as four-five years ago to finally process out of my system) that occurred generally if you were a sports guy. Those guys are basically bred into being sociopaths embracing the worst of toxic masculinity. Women were conquests, losing your virginity at that school was a badge of honor. Homophobia was built in. The F slur for gay people was the most common insult.
You couldn’t show weakness, and I remember bullying one kid in particular who was lower on the pecking order than me. We were savagely ruthless to this kid. I feel awful looking back, I remember at camp he broke his arm, and we mocked him for being a “pansy” for a full week. He came back the week after camp with a cast having had a broken arm untreated for 5 days. The “Be a Man” thing was super true here and showing any kind of emotion at all would make you a target. Teachers at Camp joined in savaging this kid (except for like that one teacher or parent who came along and was like horrified and looked after them as best they could – I ended up being nicer to him later in the week away from other kids if I could – delicately balancing my need to not be like this with my need to survive).
Status and by that I mean wealth and power were always major dynamics at the school. People knew if you were poor and that made you less than. Status symbols when I went here was the cellphone, and in particular the best status symbol one could have was the indestructible and cool looking Nokia 3310. Texting/calling was expensive as shit back then, like 20 cents per message and like $1 a minute to call or something crazy.
I remember once going round to a very famous NZ celebrities house as I was friends with his son at the time. I went there once and I was hated pretty badly by this guy, they made it perfectly clear that their son shouldn’t associate with someone like me. This happened with all my “richer” friends who quite often lived out of zone but got in through string pulling somehow. My experience with parents was always negative, having ADHD is kryptonite for being someone parents like.
By the time I was 15/16 I finally burned myself out (from my anecdotal evidence this is when most kids with undiagnosed ADHD burnout). I started missing school a lot – I was clinically depressed at this point, due to constant negative feedback and bad self-perception. I missed so much school I nearly had to repeat the year. I still managed to pass all but a few of my exams so this didn’t happen.
This is also around the time that you’ll find a lot of kids at AGS killed themselves. We had a few of those assemblies in my time, and it was often the kids in the highest streamed classes who had immense pressure from sustained engagement. They would start drinking around this time, and interacting with girls at parties and shit. This pressure got to a lot of them… The school didn’t really give a fuck about mental health in the 90s. I sure hope that’s changed now.
So whenever I see the latest dickhead who happens to be principal at this steaming pile of misogyny, toxic masculinity, homophobia, racism which just creates generations of sociopaths. I think back fondly to the day I realised I could walk out those fucking gates never to return. It was truly the school fucking motto – through rough ravines to hallowed heights.