The much-loved flamboyant tree that once stood proudly in the centre of Apii Avatea, its branches spread like a protective umbrella, is no longer there.
No longer will it shelter the students with its shade, and show off a masterpiece of deep red blooms when flowering.
The school isn’t there either – it burned down in 2013.
But Apii Avatea has been succeeded by a new school, Apii Nikao – and today, a younger version of the beautiful flamboyant tree stands next to the school hall.
Having a special attachment to the original tree, the 1982 Form 2 class pupils marvelled at the tree when visiting for their reunion this week.
It’s 37 years later, that 24 students from those classes returned for their first reunion.
The idea came about from a discussion last year with a couple of school friends who continue to live on the island – they were discussing their 50thbirthdays happening this year.
Reunion organiser Jackie Tuara-Newnham says they decided then to plan for all of the year group to come back to reminisce about their school years – and to celebrate all their birthdays together.
“Form 2 year of 1982 for many of us, was our favourite time at school,” she says. “And Apii Avatea no longer exists – a sad fact for us ex-students – so it was relevant that this was the chosen year.”
“The close and very special friendships I made in that year, continue to this day.”
On the first night of the week long activities a special night was held with their former principal and school teachers in attendance.
The principal that year was Lionel Brown, culture teacher Teina Etches, Room 10 teacher was Papatua Papatua, Room 9 teacher Dan Turua. The returned students were pleased to have their teachers back too, attending the reunion.
“Re-establishing lost connections with fellow classmates, the teachers and the school itself is important,” Tuara-Newnham says.
“Also to remember a very important time in our lives, our primary school years, and our final year as primary.
“I recall at the end of that year, the final day was quite emotional, there were many tears because we knew some of us would be separated – either going to different schools or different countries.
“At the time we may not have realised how important those early school years were and not just in terms of our education but also a very important time establishing lifelong friendships.”
“Although over the years many of us have gone our separate ways, lost connections, and have become busy with our lives, as we get older, we realise that re-establishing those very early connections are important.
“This reunion has proven that this was indeed the case for all of us. It’s a special feeling and we will continue to stay in touch.”
Many new unforgettable memories have now been made.
“It has been overwhelming and emotional how we all re-connected, as if it was just yesterday we were at school together,” says Tuara-Newnham.
All the students experienced many wonderful moments catching up with everyone and sharing memories.
Maine Tongia flew in from New Zealand for the special event. She had already been on the island in July for her daughter’s wedding.
In 1982, she was just 12 years old. “I couldn’t not come and miss this occasion, for me seeing all my early childhood classmates was wonderful, I see them as my family… and I never had enemies back then too,” she laughs.
“From the start everything has been so special, we all just re-connected.”
Adrienne Quarter is the baby of the class; all because she insisted going to the same school with her aunt Sisi Upu, who was just a few years older than her.
Having moved back from overseas that year, Quarter was originally enrolled into Apii Avarua. At the time she couldn’t speak Maori, and so begged her mother to allow her to attend Apii Avatea.
As it was, in those days the teachers were flexible and allowed her to be in the same class as Sisi. “I never lost my contacts with everyone back home because I do return often for holidays. Overseas, we keep in touch through social media, it’s easier.”
The highlight for her was the bonfire on the beach night, catching up with everyone and reminiscing.
She also recalls their first ball/disco event at school. “The popular song of our disco was ‘Get Down On It’. And we had it in the daytime after school, back then it was strict, no night time activities.”
Raymond Peyroux has resided in Melbourne for 24 years and felt more than happy he made the effort to turn up.
“We only turn 50 once, I didn’t want to miss out, I’ve missed out on a lot, I didn’t want to miss out more.
“The best thing for me is seeing my classmates doing so well here, it’s fantastic. Makes me wonder what I’m doing over there.”
Violet Waller nee Burt, attended the reunion to, “to rekindle those old relationships, over the years we have lost touch with each other over time. It has been amazing, I wouldn’t change anything, we have all turned out to be pretty amazing.”
Waller left Rarotonga in 1986, she returned for the first time since then in May, for the marriage of her eldest daughter, at that time she had no time for catch ups, being so busy with wedding preparations.
This time around she did, and loved every moment.
Tuara-Newnham says, for those of us who live on Rarotonga but just don’t catch up, they have decided that from now on they will definitely make the effort to catch up properly at least once a year.
The former students took part in various social activities spent a day cleaning a section of a public beach.
They attended Apii Nikao’s special school assembly, when they donated a trophy “Tu Rangatira” for their end of year prize giving.
Tuara conveys a sincere thanks to the principal Miss Kapi, her staff, the Students, parents and teachers for the most overwhelming reception they received.
The school also accepted their requests to commemorate their years as students of Apii Avatea, and planted two tamanu tree seedlings within the grounds that will provide shade for the students and also hopefully provide costume material for cultural performances in the future.