Jenny-May Coffin is not the type to shy away from a challenge. The sports/news presenter for TVNZ and former Silver Fern has faced up to numerous tough tasks in her life – not only as a representative netballer but also in her careers as a police officer and then as a broadcaster. But she reckons the latest challenge she has taken on is proving to be the most difficult she has ever tackled.
Jenny-May has taken a year off full-time work to learn Maori and admits she's struggling with picking up the language. "It really is the hardest thing I have ever done. Netball, policing, broadcasting... they've all had their tough bits but they don't really compare with this."
Jenny-May (38) is no slouch when it comes to the classroom – she spent four years at the University of Waikato studying teaching and sports and leisure, although she didn't graduate because she took a job in radio. "But this is different – a lot of things have come pretty easily for me but this definitely hasn't. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not stupid because I feel that way sometimes."
However the complexities of another language are not the main reason it's overwhelming says Jenny-May, who reveals she was embarrassed that she couldn't speak te reo. "I want this so badly. It's so important to me to be able to speak and understand the language of my ancestors. It's about so much more than words – it's part of you. It's about customs, about culture, about family. That's why I'm finding it so hard – it matters so much.
"Playing sport, being in the police and on TV… that's what I do, it is not who I am. They're just a job, a game. This is who I am. I feel like a big part of me has been missing for a long time and this is what it was. I've felt for ages that it's not right and I had to do something about it."
The youngest of six children, Jenny-May grew up in the small King Country town of Piopio. She learned Maori at school until she was 15 but was never keen on becoming fluent. "All I was interested in was sports and getting out of Piopio and going to the big smoke. I had opportunities to learn but I didn't care. I could kick myself now," says Jenny-May.
Her dad Waka, who speaks Maori fluently, says there was no point in him and his wife Patricia badgering her to learn the language. "It wouldn't have worked with her – she's stubborn," he laughs. "We just had to wait until she was ready and wanted to do it herself."
Waka, a school bus driver, says he's proud of his daughter. "She's very focused. It has given me great joy that she is doing this."
It's also strengthened their father-daughter bond. Waka travels up to Auckland to spend time with Jenny-May every few weeks, so they can converse as much as possible in Maori. "It really does make a difference – I notice that when I go back to class after having time with my dad that I've improved," says Jenny-May.
She's doing an immersion course at Te Wananga Takiura and has thrown herself into her studies. Post-its with Maori words written on them cover her home and language charts are pinned on the walls. "When I decide I want to do something I go all out," grins Jenny-May.
"While it is hard, it is the most satisfying thing I have done. "Now I realise that I used to walk around with my head down around Maori people because I was so ashamed that I didn't know my own language. After six months I'm not going to profess to being anything but a beginner, but I do feel that it is making a difference. Now I can walk around with my head up and my shoulders back."
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