THE GLORIOUSNESS OF TEENAGE GIRLS
Leila Barber was a finalist in the 2020 Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards. Each finalist received a copy of Katherine Mansfield: A ‘Do You Remember’ Life by Gillian Boddy, which includes a short biography of Mansfield and four of her stories. This introduction to Mansfield, her life and writing led Leila to read more of Mansfield’s work and provided inspiration for her valedictory speech as Head Girl of Samuel Marsden Collegiate, which she delivered at prizegiving on 7 December 2020. One of Leila’s teachers shared her speech with us here at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden and we were thrilled to see Leila recognise how Mansfield’s writing continues to be relevant to young women today and to share that so eloquently. We are very grateful to Leila, who has agreed to have her speech published here in full (with some names removed).
We wish Leila and the Samuel Marsden Collegiate Class of 2020 all the very best for their new adventures in 2021 and beyond!
Image: Leila Barber (right), 2020 Head Girl of Samuel Marsden Collegiate, and Tuia Tapuke, Deputy Head Girl, at their final assembly.
Nau mai, haere mai ki tēnei rā whakahirahira. E te whānau o Hamuera Mātene - e mihi ana kia koutou katoa.
This last Saturday, I didn’t get much sleep - but not because I was celebrating the end of my last ever NCEA exams as any sane Year 13 would, instead, I was still writing this speech. And it’s not even that I procrastinated it, but rather that trying to summarise what this night and this school means to my year group and me is difficult. It’s hard to find the right few sentiments or pretty allegories or even stirring social issues to share, and reducing down the culmination of our youth into words feels contrived.
It also didn’t help my speech-writing endeavors that I had fallen into another one of my specific hyperfixations. At least this time it wasn’t on Twilight - although I could most definitely do a full 10-minute speech about how it’s essentially just a super misunderstood art film, but I’ll save that and my Edward Cullen edits for another formal occasion, or like a thesis or something.
But recently, I’d found myself obsessed with Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks from when she was the same age as the girls in green here today. This interest started a couple of months ago when I was gifted a book of her work that included a biography, and I was struck by just how much of a 21st-century teenager she was. I mean, when Mansfield wrote “I do not care at all for men, but London – it is Life”, uh, same! You didn’t have global travel restrictions to ruin your gap year though, Kath. She had other angsty gems like “The old despise everything, the middle aged believe everything, and the young know everything”, as well as “Am I absolutely nobody but merely inordinately vain?”
From 1900 to the end of 1902, Mansfield attended Mary Anne Swainson's Fitzherbert Terrace School, Marsden before it was called Marsden. At the time, it was run by Esther Mary Baber, who had forged a new, more progressive schooling for girls - a legacy that remains today, a legacy that links together the students from a century ago to the girls here today. Katherine Mansfield was one of us, in one way or another. She even played Tweedledee in Alice in Wonderland, but I’m not sure they had MGP scooters in their play like we did.
A teacher reported her to be “a surly sort of girl” and she apparently regarded herself as a misfit - she was, as one teacher helpfully put it the other day, an emo. She eventually became New Zealand’s best-known writer, and her works are seminal modernist pieces, alongside the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. There’s no doubt she aimed for the highest.
But she started just like us. Aside from her regular teenage complaints, she captured something in her personal journals that is rare to see in writing - the gloriousness of teenage girls. The words that I didn’t know I was looking for.
See, there is no Kerouac, no Hemingway to prescribe poetry to our rough edges, our idealistic bravery, or unfolding potential, and that glory is often ignored. But, unsure of the future and restless, Mansfield wrote about standing at the edge of adulthood, a stage in our lives that seems to translate across all time.
“O let me lift it - even ever so slightly. It hangs before me - even, heavy, motionless - this curtain, this which holds the future. Let me just hold a corner up and peep beyond, then maybe I shall be content to let it fall.”
We don’t know what 2021 holds, particularly with the curveballs of 2020 - but there is nothing that we can do but keep moving forward, on whatever path we chose. Most of my year group is going to university next year, which Mansfield appeared to experience: "I am poor - obscure - just eighteen years of age - with a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse.” She’d clearly been to the student flats in Dunedin.
But we can’t move forwards without leaving something behind, whether it’s the school, or the entire country, and this is what she knew. “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you — you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences — like rags and shreds of your very life."
Marsden has made an impact, big or small, on everyone in the class of 2020, and I hope that there is now a part of the class of 2020 at Marsden, even if it was just a few girls figuring out how to do cross country through Instagram.
It’s particularly the small details, the everyday texture of being at this school amongst the most incredible individuals that I will miss the most, that will stay with me. It’s no more dancing stupidly in the common room or staying longer than I originally meant to in the archives, or being offered food tech cupcakes by a year seven. Where we’re escaping to, there’s no more hot chips that randomly appear on the worst days, or Mr K quietly singing as he walks through the halls, or my favourite armchair in the art house, where the sun comes through in the afternoon.
I’m grateful for these moments, but also that Marsden, at its core, didn’t just educate us, but was the constant through the rough years. After all, growing up can be hard. Growing up can be really, really hard - and we’re lucky at this school. There’s so much to be grateful for, and I’d like to thank just a few of the people who keep this school going, and kept it going through a certainly interesting year.
The Board, Principal, Academic and Pastoral Care Directors - thank you for keeping Marsden steady when the ground beneath our feet seemed to shift. To every teacher - you played a part in our growth, whether through huge life lessons or small acts of kindness every day, and many of us will remember your classes or your support for the rest of our lives.
To every single person behind the scenes - those in admin, IT, the caretakers and cleaners, and so many more, we want you to know that we notice and appreciate what you do, whether it’s being called into class just to turn the computer on and off, or patiently unlocking doors at 6pm for a student who left her laptop in a classroom.
Of course, there are more thanks to be made at home. And that’s to our parents and caregivers - not just for paying the school fees, but for being with us on the journey. And maybe for sometimes having to just begrudgingly accept that it’s possible to fail quiiiiite a few externals and it’ll be fine! I mean, I heard they’re curving grades heaps this year, anyway.
E te manawa popore, e taku hoa - Tuia. E mihi nui ki a koe mo tō whanaungatanga, tō aroha, tō manaakitanga hoki. Ka aroha au ki a koe, ki te kore koe ka ngaro ahau. Especially when it comes to those long errand runs where I get onto the wrong motorway. I think, in a lot of ways, you are far more of a leader than I ever could be. I can’t wait to see where you go.
There’s so much to be grateful for, not just in thanks, but in real actions, out there in the real world once we take our blazers off for the last time. We stand on a foundation of privilege, on the land of tangata whenua, and all of us with a world-class education, in a country where we are mostly safe and are able to have this gathering tonight.
However, the biggest thanks I have today is for the class of 2020 - my peers, my co-leaders, my friends. I’m so proud of you, of everything you’ve done, and of the girls you are today.
I’d like to read out a journal entry that Katherine wrote to herself in 1907, when she was the exact age that we are now. I’d like you to pretend that it’s addressed to you, from one young woman to another, just a century or so apart.
“Dearest I hold your two hands & my eyes look full into yours - trustingly, firmly, resolutely, full of supreme calm, hope, and unlimited Belief. You must be a woman now and bear the agony of creating. Prove yourself. Be strong, be kind, be wise, and it is yours. Do not at the last moment lose courage - argue wisely and quietly. Keep your brain perfectly clear. Keep your balance. Think of the Heaven that might be yours, that is before you after this fight. They stand and wait for you with outstretched hands, and with a glad cry you fall into their arms - the Future Years. Good luck my precious one - I love you.”
Image: Head Girl Leila Barber (centre) with Deputy Head Girl Tuia Tapuke (second from left) and the 2020 Samuel Marsden Collegiate student leaders