Magic amongst the kauri

Chris Horne and drama Part 1

I was peering down on Glen Eden Intermediate, Kaurilands, a hidden valley just off Titirangi Road, alive with kauri trees providing name-place integrity, surely one of the most evocative school settings in New Zealand. In spiralling down, I felt as if entering a secret world. This, even though it was my territory, Shadbolt territory, having gone to New Lynn School, and Avondale Intermediate and College, and Titirangi Golf Course being my beloved playground.

I was in the room of Chris Horne, a friend of mine: visionary and idealist, appearance of a 1920s pugilist and the sensitivity of a Pre-Raphaelite poet.

I had travelled up to Auckland to have a Christmas chat with John Faire at Mt Eden Normal Primary (what a career!) who, as a visiting inspector I came across in Putararu (what a teacher!) and, after Chris, Frank Dodd, many moons ago president of NZEI; we had become friends in the early ‘60s at Glenbrae, amongst many other things our fathers being in the ’51 strike.

I was in Chris’s drama room, a place I knew where extraordinary things happened. The room outside unremarkable; inside magic. A curtain made by the children draped a good part of the room and over the ceiling. The artwork depicted the qualities of the ocean: volatile, calm, transparent, opaque, concealing, and revealing. A metaphor for the enigma of drama. Elsewhere there were artefacts from past happenings waiting another turn.

Chris was using the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick which was made into a film and has elements of historical truth about the life of an early French filmmaker and his collection of mechanical wind-up figures.


He was moving through parts of the book, getting the children to think in role.

It was then I realised this needed more than me popping in for a chat, it needed me to be recording the event to share with you the reader. I found a pen and some yellow tabs on Chris’s desk.

There were 16 children clustered in a semi-circle.

Chris discussed with the children two or three relevant pictures from the book and read the text (of which being a graphic novel there was very little), followed by some questioning. It seemed to me that Chris was exploring the space between the poignant pictures and the text.

The first question was about how the clocks in the train station seemed to work.

Then the open questions followed, open not just because of the questions asked but even more importantly by the non-evaluative way the responses were received.

What is time?

The children weren’t fazed in the slightest.

Do clocks make time or tell time?

Drama, amongst other things, I could tell, was being used for profound questions. Questions that encouraged children’s flexibility of thinking, enriched their lives, and made the life of the mind an adventure.

The setting was right, the children’s frame of mind was right. The trust in their teacher complete.

Hugo was an orphan, clock-keeper, and thief.

An idea in the book was that the clocks were Hugo’s conscience.

How could clocks work as Hugo’s conscience?

You will be the clocks.

You will be Hugo’s conscience.

I looked to see how the children were reacting. Unconcerned calmness. All in a day’s work in Mr Horne’s room. And that impediment to depth in drama, of getting and staying in role – self-consciousness – entirely absent.

You are going to work in groups.

If in three or more it must be mixed gender.

What might be the movements of the clock? Be thinking of that.

Also, how would you synchronise them?

What does conscience mean?

The question was asked and the responses openly received.

Chris was careful not to extend questioning so that proceedings stalled, or looked as if he was persisting until the ‘right’ answer was forthcoming, just a nod here and there and he moved on.

Can conscience be trusted?

And so the questions and responses followed.

Move with your groups to a place and work out the synchronisation and how you might verbalise Hugo’s conscience.

When I come round to your group, only move and speak when I’m in front of you, when I pass, come out of role.

After four or five minutes, Chris put himself into the role of Hugo.

He moved around generally, not yet directing himself to any of the groups of children.

He mumbled and grumbled.

So many clocks to check.

So much to do.

What have I done?

Just borrowed some parts to fix up other clocks.

He came to one of the groups.

You dissected their parts, a member charges.

You murdered them.

I’m going to return them, Hugo replies.

They are dead.

What you did was immoral.

I was just trying to do my best

Hugo moved on.

What are you grumbling about? he asks.

We know everything.

They’re just parts. They don’t mind.

You did it without their permission.

They’re inanimate objects.

Inanimate? Why then are we talking?

They were your friends.

Hugo moved to another group.

Just borrowing. Not stealing.

I’ll return them.

Accusingly: What have you done Hugo?

Just doing my job. I look after clocks.

Oiling them. Keeping them on time.

Why oh why did you do that?

Just doing your job.

Where have we heard that before?

And so on to other groups.

The children regrouped for a letting down from role.

There was a sense of quiet satisfaction, of something further to ponder on.

And what trust between all concerned.

If only those in the education bureaucracy could see something like this and allow their consciences to value and admire what they had seen.

Thank-you children of Glen Eden Intermediate – thank-you Chris.

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3 Responses to Magic amongst the kauri

  1. Steve Horne says:

    So very proud of my twin brother. You continue to be an inspiration to me.

  2. Shirley Knuckey says:

    Refreshing and welcome Kelvin. I recall the film Hugo of perhaps 5 years ago. The boy and the railway station clock. You have prompted me to investigate how much that ‘foreign film’ elaborated or otherwise – the book you discuss here.

  3. Briar says:

    Thank you Kelvin for recording and sharing this. I’m loving hearing the magic created through trust, play and meaningful deep questioning. There’s ai much in the pace and spirit of this type of teaching that richly inspires.

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