Arti wears armour furnished by love
Arti is a toughened kid. She comes from a broken home - as we used to say. She got into serious strife at school a year or so back for punching a boy, and recently threw a drink over another.
She has a slightly queasy fascination with the Parker-Hulme murder but, that aside, I won't hear a word against Arti because she is my niece. This is not blindness.
When they lived in Nelson she went to Stoke School and loved it. My sister Alison had been a sole parent since her marriage disintegrated when Arti was not much more than a toddler. Our mum lived close by to help out.
High rents and little prospect of work for a librarian drove Alison south to Timaru, where she had lived previously. On the DPB, she found the cost of a flat there no more palatable, so settled in Temuka, some 20km out of town. My mother followed them down because she was needed. Mums do that.
Ali found part-time work preparing food for a school canteen. This meant early starts and she used to drop Arti off at her Nana's until school-time. After breakfast, the pair of them would sit doing the crossword and competing to see who could score best in other word puzzles in the newspaper. It would become a lucrative tussle.
Alison found her calling as an in-home supporter for babies and parents.
When Wheel of Fortune started on TV, each show featured a phrase, song or movie title puzzle for viewers, who were given a few letter clues. Thanks largely to Nana, Arti had the literary skills - assisted by the rapid-fire thumb of a 13-year-old to text the answer in fast.
Bear in mind that many of the puzzles related to pop culture before she was born, yet she won a prize, then another, and another.
Here's the list: A Nokia cellphone, two sets of headphones, two irons, a foot-spa, hair-straighteners and, she adds wistfully, "oh so nearly, a cordless vacuum cleaner".
News spread of this local kid who was cleaning up on Wheel of Fortune. She applied to go on the show as a contestant but was rejected as too young. (If the producers had been a bit sharper they could have created a sensation.)
With a taste for winning, Arti entered other competitions in magazines, papers and on radio. Result: seven CDs, five DVDs (including a boxed set), hair gel, books, magazines, stickers, posters, a Big Day Out ticket for Auckland (quickly sold on Trade Me), $50 voucher from Paper Plus, a T-shirt and a Subway voucher.
From school she collected truckloads of pens, plus more books, pizza vouchers and a Vertical Limits climbing wall voucher - most of them won in spelling bees. She also pocketed about $400 in cash.
In her mid-teens it all started to go a bit wobbly, as teens will do. Mother-daughter relations were strained at times.
Arti thumped a classmate because he made a disgusting remark about her friend. You can't condone violence so the school and Alison came down hard. The upside was a street "rep" that you don't mess with Arti. (Full name Artemis, after the Greek goddess and fearsome hunter.)
She doesn't dress like the other kids, she doesn't act like other kids - and you'd be an idiot to have her on about it.
Her beloved Nana died suddenly, which meant a dollop of grief thrown into the simmering pot. Alison considered sending Arti up to me for a few finishing years at Nelson College for Girls.
Then Ali found the breast cancer. It could easily have spun Arti right out. Instead, over the year of hospital trips, revolting chemo and slow recuperation (on-going) for her mum, this edgy kid became a fine young woman, shouldering the household chores, staying with good neighbours while Ali was down in Dunedin for radiotherapy, and knuckling down to her schoolwork amid a storm of stress. Oh, she had her meltdowns, and who wouldn't?
On one of my visits, she poured the drink over a schoolmate who turned up late one night half-cut and wanting her to go partying. Not Arti's scene.
Her PowerPoint presentation to the class recently on Heavenly Creatures floored students and staff. Last Tuesday Arti was named Dux of the school. Her mum bawled. If I'd been there they'd still be mopping out the assembly hall.
Sensibly, at Opihi College they give out cash with the Dux award - ringfenced for study. Arti will combine that with a scholarship won earlier, to bankroll her first year at Otago University.
"Dunedin . . . the party town," I taunted when she told me her choice. "Not my scene," she shot back, ending the discussion.
She makes her own path, my niece, and through some rocky terrain. She wears armour furnished by love.
This is our personal saga. Variations of it are being played out in thousands of families in hundreds of schools nationwide this month. It gives you hope for the future.