Jonathan Koea - An Old Boy Reflects
I was a pupil at Francis Douglas Memorial College between 1977 and 1981. In my memory my time there was undistinguished and, I think, unremarkable for those there with me. However I see it as a crucial time in my life and one in which I saw and made decisions that set me on my current path. Over a year ago Martin Dravitski, Mr Dravitski in the 1970s, emailed me to ask for a contribution to the FDMC web site. A year of procrastination has followed. The difficulty in being asked to fulfill such a task lies in the expectations. The implication is that, either, one has reached an advanced age and has something of use to say based on extensive life experience, or one is defined as being successful which is, at best, a vague notion. With advancing age – I will be 45 in 14 days well past the halfway point in my three score and ten- the ground covered contracts, the lessons learned quietly become common sense, and little seems to have changed from December 1981 when I rode my bike out of the College gates for the final time. However a quick look at the FDMC website dispels this notion. Evidently the school is only known for its two alumni who became All Blacks, John Mitchell and Conrad Smith. No bad thing. I am often asked where I went to school. Francis Douglas College usually draws blank looks but the school where John Mitchell began to play rugby draws a knowing gleam. We are what we are and, even after 21 years of world cup under performance, we still measure our progress against the All Blacks.
When I look at my life I have been lucky. I was lucky to attend FDMC. My parents had become concerned with other secondary schools in New Plymouth in the mid 1970s through my mothers job as a teacher and felt that FDMC offered more structure, direction and discipline than others that were available. I remember my interview with Brother Osmond in 1976. It probably should have been stressful but I had no idea what was going on – I got out of intermediate school for a half day. There was no preparation on my part and no sense of occasion. I still do not know why I was accepted but my career is full of distinguished individuals granting me time and privilege that I probably don’t deserve.
I was conscious of attending a school out of the ordinary in 1977. It was small, the years were compressed, and the senior students interested in the juniors. What was remarkable was that I was christened in the Anglican Church and was, and remain a poor church goer. However I enjoyed Catholicism. One of my first memories is a mass in the gymnasium led by Cardinal Delargy. It was my first experience of religion on a grand scale and with grand tradition. I have kept a strong respect for Catholicism with its structure and organization. The religions struggles in the last 25 years not withstanding it remains the only Christian faith with a clear and unbroken lineage back to Christ.
The tenets of Christian faith played a strong role in education. Several times a week we were exposed to Christian Living. I remember little detail of this and certainly don’t remember it as indoctrination. Mostly it seemed to be debate. The question of faith was outlined as a conundrum. A man falls down a cliff but catches hold of a tree growing from the cliff face. He calls on God to save him. God answers and asks him if he has faith. The man answers the affirmative. Well says God – let go of the tree and I will save you. Food for thought for a conservative who was always keen on keeping his options open. Even harder to understand was the notion that a tyrant could enter heaven after sincerely giving a deathbed confession. We debated that one for a whole period. However with advancing years I now believe that most tyrants face their maker believing that they have done the right things for the right reasons and the remainder the right things for the wrong reasons. Most, I suspect, die unrepentant.
The importance of this was that we were required to think outside the 3Rs. It encouraged me to become comfortable or, at least, not excruciating uncomfortable in debating moral dilemmas and in the grey territories where there are no right answers and only a few wrong ones. This proved good training for a career in medicine and cancer surgery.
The Christian theme that ran through the school had other implications. We never had career days but there was much talk of vocations. This was partly directed at encouraging interest in the religious orders but instilled in me early a feeling that a career is a life’s work rather than a mechanism to develop an income stream. Frankly put we spend at least 40 hours a week, 46 weeks of the year, 45 years of working life working. We should enjoy our work, find it fulfilling and something more than a mechanism to earn sufficient income to do what we really want to in our down time. I am often asked why I chose medicine. The answer is simple in that I woke up one day and decided I was going to be a doctor. There was no epiphany or fireworks - it just was. My parents, who were very conservative, were concerned since I had no plan B, it was an extremely competitive process and my marks were not the best. However I never had any doubts – unusual since I am mildly pessimistic by nature- and I gradually developed a clear plan for how to achieve entry to medical school. I was greatly aided in this by two teachers who absorbed this information without judgment and set about helping me to attain the required standard to make the grade. Doc Riddle taught physics and chemistry and Mrs Macdonald taught biology. Both must have seen something I did not see myself and pushed me with extra tuition and exam practice. Another example of people going out on a limb for me.
So, other than a great education Francis Douglas gave me the ability to think about moral and ethical dilemmas – not to get the right answer merely to recognize the issues and start grappling with them- and the desire to pursue a vacation rather than a career. The schools other great lesson was due to my own shyness. I began there in the third form in 1977 and it was not until fifth form that I started going tramping with the school tramping club and played 2nd fifteen rugby in the sixth and seventh form. Prior to this I had played almost no part in school activities. My only excuse was that I was painfully shy but even now I regret the lost opportunity of those two years. As it was I had a ball in my final three years at school and learned gradually to put myself out there. Failure is rarely ever as bad as one thinks it will be and less frequent than others say it will be. My lost time at school has pushed me in the years since into breaking new ground, taking opportunities as they come and not hanging back. Success is the capacity to withstand failure and while failure is not as common an occurrence as some would have us believe, the wholehearted pursuit of any goal involves the risk of non-attainment.
I have delayed writing this contribution for the FDMC website because I worried about having anything relevant to say and the concern that my school career had little to teach. But it taught me about good ethics, the importance of a vocation and just getting on and doing what you want too in spite of what anyone may think. I did get into medical school albeit with the lowest bursary mark in my year. But I did graduate top of my class winning prizes in medicine and surgery. I was able to do that by finally learning how to work in an organized and concerted fashion. It is also a reflection on a number of talented individuals who saw something in me that was worth investing in. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Prof Paul Hill, who helped me struggle through physiology, Dr Mary Bullivant who agreed to supervise a mediocre Masters student, Jim Shaw who taught me the rudiments of general surgery and clinical research, Murray Brennan who showed me the wider world of surgery and Leslie Blumgart who taught me to be a liver surgeon – an area where I have been happily practicing for the last 10 years.
So what have I learned since I left FDMC 27 years ago. Spend your life doing what pleases you. If it makes you truly happy it will probably make others happy too. Some failure is inevitable but the best lessons are learned from failure not success. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to put yourself out there and see what happens.