When James Nokise failed sixth form, he realised it was time to turn things around. If only it was that simple.
Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler or read on.
This story takes place over the millennial summer of 1999-2000.
I get a lot of praise for being a pretty decent writer. But I always maintain I'm not a great comedy writer, even though I have a life that seems to have a lot of ridiculous moments.
In 1999 I was 17 and I'd failed sixth form. It was a year of escalating disasters: I was about 20kg lighter than I am now and was binge drinking quite heavily. This culminated in me waking up on my mate’s front lawn next to a bottle of cheap bourbon. It was Captain Morgan, if I recall. It was cheaper back then. It was the 90s and they hadn't figured things out yet.
I was pretty embarrassed about failing at school. My father was the Principal of the Pacific Theological College and my mother was a senior public servant in the Parliamentary Council Office. So the genes were there, but the effort wasn't. Or at least the effort had been going more on weed than school.
I stumbled into the house towards the kitchen. In one room, a couple of my mates were passed out. In another, a couple of friends were having a great time giving each other handjobs. On the couch, where the young woman I was seeing was meant to be, there was no one. She'd had enough of me, and went to hook up with a senior student the night before.
In this situation, I did what anyone might do, and decided to cook a large bunch of scrambled eggs. As I cooked, I started to think maybe I could be a chef. It's a decent job, and obviously going to uni and doing law wasn't on the cards. Then I realised all I can cook is eggs, and that probably wasn't an option.
I went and stayed at my grandfather’s that night because that's where I went when I needed to chill out. He lived in Newtown. It really hit that I'd screwed everything up and I decided if the universe could give me one more shot at this, I'd go all in.
So on Monday I went in to school and my English teacher, Neville Watson – who is shy about being named, but is worthy of praise for this – took me out of religious studies and said “Look, I know you can write, and I can get you into Bursary.”
He'd talked to the other teachers and I could do English, Maths with Stats, and Biology. Now, I suck at Maths and Science, but it turns out that 40% of the exam was a written essay. I still needed two subjects, so he'd talked to the Principal who'd agreed to let me study History and Art History, which arguably made me the only bro in the Hutt Valley doing Art History.
I still needed two subjects, so he'd talked to the Principal who'd agreed to let me study History and Art History, which arguably made me the only bro in the Hutt Valley doing Art History.
The deal was that I couldn't fail a single test in his class all year, and if I did I was out. I said yes, then went home and told my mum they'd let me into Bursary. She was like “How?”
And was like, “I'm not really sure. To be honest there's a lot of bullshit going down, let’s just go with it." Ay, mum, don't look the gift horse in the mouth - jump on and ride it.
So I had my chance. Now I needed to do something with it. I'd seen what not-trying was like, so I was curious about what would happen if I did try. I had a decent athletic body and some smarts - so what would happen if I applied myself?
My mate Pano was a Wellington region sprinter. He was good at short distance and I was decent at middle distance. So I asked if we could train together. He went “sweet bro, I'll be at your place at 6am. You cook the eggs.”
And he did. He'd show up and every morning before school. We'd do hill runs on the western hills, which is where we lived. And sometimes, when we were cocky, we'd run down to school and then back home. Then get changed and go to class.
I also needed to put on some muscle so I joined a gym and started going every day after class, alternating chest and leg days. I'd time my trips so I could watch Dragon Ball Z while I was there.
“That's right Goku, I'm a Sayan, we get defeated and we get stronger! Go to Super Sayan”.
I also needed a job – especially for the gym – because I was still being raised by a solo mum with a mortgage. I love movies, so I started working at Hoyts Lower Hutt, which I'm informed was the shadiest of all Hoyts cinemas. It started a relationship with waistcoats and bowties that I still have to this day.
And this was all within two weeks. Hey, when I go all in, I go all in. But it was pretty exhausting, and one Friday after the gym I decided to take a shortcut.
Now to get from the valley floor to the Western Hills, you have two options: Go across the bridge they built specifically for travelling between the two. Or cross the motorway. I decided to cross the motorway. I'd done it plenty of times before. It's New Zealand so it's not like we have massive traffic, and if you time your run it's pretty simple. Run hard, volley the barrier.
The thing is, I'd never done it after a gym session before and I didn't realise that my body wasn't up to my mind's plan.
Halfway across the first lane I knew I'd mistimed my run. The problem was I already had oncoming traffic, so I didn't have time to turn because I'd lose too much speed. I decided to volley the barrier and keep going.
As soon as I landed I knew I was going to get hit. The traffic was coming too fast and I was moving too slow. It's scary as hell when that realisation happens. Your life doesn't flash before your eyes - that's bullshit - but everything does slow down. You get very primal. I dove for the edge of the motorway with just everything I had in me. Then the car hit.
I woke up two seconds later on the side of the motorway facing the wrong way. That was the first sign I'd been hit. The second was when I stood up my foot touched the ground and I realised I wasn't wearing a shoe, and blood was coming out of my leg. Those were the only signs as well because no one stopped. Not the person who hit me or people driving after.
My shoe was just lying in the middle of the motorway.
Now I'd never experienced shock before so I didn't really know what was happening, but everything just became about simple steps. A normal brain goes “I've been hit, I should get help.” But I was in shock so I went “Hmmm... can't go anywhere without my shoe”. So I waited till there was no traffic, looked left, looked right, hopped in, picked up my shoe, and hopped back. Then I climbed up onto the bridge.
At this point I genuinely thought I had a conundrum. Do I hop up the hill, call an ambulance or maybe mum, or do I hop down the road to try and find help. I was still bleeding.
Then a car pulled up and a man whose face and name are lost to history asked “Are you OK?”
And I went “I've just been hit by a car on the motorway and I don't know what to do”. So he said “Ok... Why don't I take you to A&E?”
And I went, “Choice”.
At A&E I got lucky because my mates mum was on reception and went, “Why don't you take a seat and I'll get Chris to come down and sit with you – you better call your mum”.
But I was embarrassed now and I didn't want to pull mum away from work, so I'm like “Hey mum... ummm… don't get mad... but I kind of got hit by a car... it's OK, I'm at A&E, I just hit my lower leg... well, I was kinda crossing the motorway”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WERE CROSSING THE MOTORWAY?”
Eventually the Doctor saw me with a needle too big for my foot; like how are you fitting that needle into my foot? It's too big. It physically is longer than my foot.
I had work two days later, so I hobbled in and got away with it by pretending I was affecting a gangsta lean. It hurt but I didn't want to lose my job.
And she began to tell me off!
“What were you thinking?”
“Did you even consider the drivers feelings?”
“How do you think the driver would have felt if they killed you?”
I don't care! I'd be dead! Also, they didn't stop! They're driving along “brrrrmmmmm. [boom] Oh shit... keep going… never tell, never tell!”
Their feelings are not foremost on my mind.
I had work two days later, so I hobbled in and got away with it by pretending I was affecting a gangsta lean. It hurt but I didn't want to lose my job. Also I met a young woman there, who I ended up dating, and who's also important. I won't mention her anymore out of a respect I didn't give her properly when were together.
I kept training and ended up winning the school senior athletics trophy. I went to the Hutt Valley championships and did well in the sprints. I believe my girlfriend’s quote was: “How can someone who moves so slow in life be so fast?”
I made it to the Wellington regionals and there I tore both my quads in the relay. Which was painful and which I also took as a sign that maybe I'd accomplished enough with athletics and should knuckle down on the books.
So I studied and ended up with a B Bursary, which should have been an A. It turns out no one was studying Art History, so I got scaled down from an A to a C+. But I really didn't care. I'd got into uni.
As an epilogue - and a way for tying this all up - in uni my grandfather died, and my “safe place” kind of went with him. But a week later I did an audition for a show called Pulp Comedy and got in. At the shooting I met Jeremy Elwood and Michelle A'Court; two amazing political comedians who would help me find a way to use both politics and comedy to express each other.
Jeremy goes “Your James Nokise?! I've heard of you”.
Which was weird, because I'd hardly gigged. He shouldn't know me.
But he went “My mate's Damian, your physio – you're that idiot who got hit by a car crossing the motorway!”
This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email firstname.lastname@example.org or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.
Illustration: Mathew Worthington
This content is brought to you with funding support from NZ On Air.