A PILLAR OF HER COMMUNITY
By Marie E. Potter

In the 1950’s the New Zealand government initiated a multicultural migration scheme which offered financial support to post World War 11 emigrants, who were seeking new opportunities and a better life in a British colony called New Zealand. Significantly this scheme assisted in boosting, enriching and growing the New Zealand population, as well as its work force and associated skills.
The affects of this new population growth was particularly evident in our community where the neighbourhood initially consisted of 50 New Zealand families.
Gradually our village became a multicultural environment made up of Italian, British, Dutch, Greek and Polish migrant families, each bringing their own rich culture. Many of these new cultures and traditions, were unknown to our village and significantly unknown to my mother, who held the position of sole charge infant mistress at the local primary school, teaching children aged from five to ten years of age. Interestingly in this role she was seen by all, as a pillar of her community. I vividly remember as a young girl with a very enquiring mind, being excited about the new families and children in our small village. However, I was confused that in my home environment, discussion about the new migrants and any cultural changes did not occur, because my father in his role as ‘head of the house’ had strong opinions on what he considered were ‘foreigners’. This biased attitude and opinion was not held by my mother, who was a broad minded professional woman.
In this context, she was challenged and touched by the inability of many migrant children (including their mothers), to speak or understand the English language. As a result of my mother’s compassionate nature, she warmly embraced and welcomed them all to her school. As an educated woman, she may have had comprehensive geographic and historic knowledge about different countries, but on a personal level these social changes were a totally new experience for her. She soon recognised that the new migrants were also socially challenged as the majority knew very little about the New Zealand way of life. My mother also recognised that some of the migrant mothers seemed overwhelmed and understandably frightened at the enormous social and cultural change they faced in this new land. This same fear was also evident in the class room as the migrant pupils experienced a new educational and social environment.
As one of my mother’s pupils I witnessed firsthand the difficult, but fascinating communication between her and the new pupils, often only consisting of emotional responses and gesticulations. I remember a little Dutch girl sitting all morning at the front of the class clinging to my mother’s skirt and calling her Mama. It was quite evident that this dear little girl was quite terrified. The apprehensive migrant women also turned to my mother for support, as they too saw her as a pillar of their new community. My mother stood out in our village for not just being the only woman who worked, but for being a female headmistress at a time when this role was traditionally held by a male.
At this time it was still customary in N.Z. social history for women to stay at home being devoted wives, mothers and playing a role in maintaining a vital friendly and supportive neighbourhood, thus keeping alive the values and traditions established by their female ancestors. As a mature adult, I now admire my mother for her professionalism, strong principles and values as a working woman, wife, mother and village resident.
As a neighbourly resident, my mother also carried on this cultural tradition. She voluntarily spent time outside of school hours, with the female migrants and their daughters. She shared stories about the early N.Z. settler women who had come from the other side of the world, to a new land and supposedly better life. She spoke about the challenging roles these women faced in establishing a new life, establishing new communities, setting social standards and uniting the colonists. My mother emphasised how the early settler women had relied solely on the cultural skills they brought, their personal possessions and self belief to embrace change. My mother also spoke of the invisible bond and camaraderie between Kiwi women.
She acted as an intermediary, encouraging and supporting the migrant women to collectively accept the beliefs and ideologies that each nationality brought. She believed in the worth of women and felt strongly about the self - empowerment gained through education and knowledge. My mother taught many migrants how to master the English language, to cook local foods and share different recipes and as a result the women found common interests and shared needs that bonded them as new neighbours and significantly as women. They gradually adapted to their new lives and most accepted the New Zealand or ‘Kiwi way’ of doing things. They realised that with the right attitude they too could adjust and cope with displacement, cultural and social change. Significantly they took comfort from being accepted as part of a Kiwi community.As the years passed, an evolving hybridisation of traditions and cultures not only enriched our neighbourhood but New Zealand society in general. My mother remained a much loved pillar of her community for many decades, teaching the children, of many of the children, whom she had assisted in adapting to a new life in New Zealand so many years ago.