A few years ago now a presenter came to the school I was working at and said that schools could either reflect the woes of their community or be a model of how that society should be. He looked at us and said: “Do you want to be a mirror or a lighthouse?” As it happened I was reading Walden at the time and this sentence leapt out at me: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate himself by conscious endeavour.” I wrote this out and pinned it to the wall in my Dean’s office. Next to the post-it note I had on the whiteboard that said: Mirror or Lighthouse?
I am a very idealistic person. This was the surprising conclusion I was forced to reach about myself after believing for years that I was cynical about most things, and completely uninterested in civic matters. I think it took me about fifteen years to realise that I was neither cynical about most things, or uninterested in how the world works.
Those fifteen years began in Japan where I worked for about five years. Japan, we are told, is a homogenous country, but for a New Zealander it was hard not to notice the homeless people. They lived in almost every park in shanty towns of cardboard and tarpaulin, or emerged into the covered shopping arcades after the shops closed at night. It was hard not to notice this in a city that also had the flagship stores of the most desirable and luxurious consumer goods from around the world. It was harder to notice that Japan wasn’t homogenous, but when I was transferred to Fuse in Osaka I discovered that it was a place filled with Korean people. Sometimes third or fourth generation Korean people living in Japan as a legacy of World War Two, at the bottom of the heap, unable to claim full citizenship. The invisibility of this group, and the indifference of the majority to them dismayed me.
There were other moments in those fifteen years that were challenging. A holiday to Vietnam stands out in my mind. It was the first time I saw real poverty. Somehow in Japan it became possible to see the orderly homeless people who never begged or interacted with the mainstream as almost an alternative lifestyle choice. In Vietnam poverty was more confrontational. I remember the faces of poverty more vividly. The little girl who begged for food and made me flee into a bookshop shamed and confused; the man with no legs who sat by the Italian ice cream shop where tourists bought gelato; and the old woman I saw, squatting in the street, in ragged clothes, seemingly friendless, soiling herself while dozens of people passed her by without even noticing. Vietnam shook me. It grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me about, and asked me to explain myself. Who are you, it asked, who are you to be given a life of privilege and ease over any one of these people who were born, like you, and were a child, like you, loved, and happy once, and day-dreamed perhaps about a good life with a family of their own, and food on the table, and the satisfaction of work?
On our way back to New Zealand we took a long detour to Europe. Out of all the great things we did, one moment lodged in my mind with particular force. It came in Rome. We went to see St. Peters. I am not a religious person, but I think I am a spiritually empathetic person, inclined to Francis Assisi. On the roof of St Peters I found a shop, staffed by nuns, selling tourist rubbish. It was something I noticed about many temples in Japan too to be fair. It wasn’t really that they sold this junk, it was that this vast church filled with all its treasure suddenly appeared to me as a statement of indifference about suffering in the world. It was a hugely revealing symbol of misplaced priorities. I think it was Phillip Pullman who said that Jesus and the church had a strange relationship. Without the church to act as a cup Jesus’ message would have been like water poured into sand. True. But such a shame that the cup had to become so ornate that people didn’t notice the water anymore.
Let’s skip over a testing year or so and visit me a few years into my first teaching job. I had started out as a Dean, and listened to that man ask me if I wanted to be a mirror or a lighthouse, and I had pinned Thoreau’s quote to the wall. As a Dean you end up with a core group of students that end up with you because they are always in trouble. You get to know them pretty well and, because they are invariably interesting people, you grow to like them.
Sometimes though, students arrive at school so disoriented by their upbringing that you can’t even get to know them.
My first failure as a Dean came with a 12-year-old Maori girl who lived with an Aunt. Somebody had cared enough to buy her a school uniform and bag full of books. In the month she was with us she went to one class I think. The rest of the time she walked around the school with friends. When you managed to catch up with her she laughed, quite good-naturedly, in response any of your questions. Usually she ran away laughing. We had to exclude her. She was so unprepared for school it was like she was a wolf forced down off the hills and asked to suddenly perform the obedient tricks of a house-trained poodle. About a year later a school way up in Northland contacted us wanting to know her attendance and results. Well, she had no attendance, and she’d be running away so long she had no results.
There were a few like her. Even at 12 they were beyond the help of a school used to dealing with problems and filled with compassionate, hard-working people. Some lasted a bit longer because they could cope with sitting in a classroom for a bit longer, but when any kind of pressure came on they ran, and when we came to try and work with family there was often no one there or they ran too. We managed to get one boy to the Year 9 camp but he stole some lollies and got in trouble and ended up doing a lot of swearing and crying when confronted with his crime. He was tough as nails and a 12-year-old boy. He was sent home. Whatever that was.
The best thing you could achieve – and it was worth achieving - was a long, tempestuous relationship with a student and their family. It slowly dawned on me when I talked to the parents and caregivers of these students that they were suffering too, much more than me, and that what I had to do was be as positive and helpful as possible and encourage people: angry teachers, and despairing parents, and myself, to see the long game. Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I threw my toys. A very wise woman working at that school who was a councillor looked at me when I was sulking about a student and said, very kindly, “I try to remember that they’re just children.” It was true. 13 or 14 or 15 years old. Children.
I could go on and on with this, but let’s move to where I am now. It is a diverse community that is successful. I am not a Dean. Now that the excitement of moving to a fresh environment has died down I can see my classes more clearly, and although the proportion of the ethnic mix is different I see the same issues attaching to the same groups. I notice the preponderance of a certain type of name on the detention lists, I notice the NCEA statistics by ethnicity fall the same way (better, but the same trend), and I notice that the few students who get shifted on to the activity centre tend to be from those same groups.
When people say to me that Maori should get off their arses I tend not to react. You are dealing with two things. You are dealing with the specific and the general. At a school you are dealing with the young. Where the young fail we look to the parents. If the parents let us down we are suddenly dealing not with the specific anymore, but with the general. You are dealing with a generation that did badly at school themselves. How can they advise their child how to do well at something they did badly at, or were done badly by? Suddenly you are dealing with a community. You are dealing with groups of students who fall out of the system and find support in each other. You are dealing with a legacy. History. You look for explanations there. Because you are not racist, and do not believe that skin pigmentation has anything to do with potential.
So far I am yet to meet a young Maori boy or girl who has blamed society, or white people for their problems, or has asked for special treatment. I once snapped at a boy for blaming his behaviour on the death of his father when he was a kid. My father died when I was a kid, I told him, and I don’t blame him for anything. The boy acknowledged my point graciously enough. As most of the troubled kids did when you were honest. They were used to being in trouble so they knew the drill. They knew the people who cared and the ones who didn’t. Sometimes I had meetings with them and the teacher they had offended and as the meeting played out I realised that it was the teacher’s behaviour that had made the situation happen, and that it was the teacher’s vanity that had been wounded. At the end of those meetings you had to ask the student to be the grown up. It was ridiculous.
Of course, it was usually the kid’s fault. I did meet a few boys and girls who spent most of their time falling on their arses but they got back up again. Inside them was waging a terrible battle. The desire to do good without many of the tools, versus the temptation to walk away and join friends. It is hard when you are 13 to see that the kids who seem the most free, who mock adults and run from institutions and their representatives, are in fact the least free, with the fewest options. It is hard when you are 13 and there is too much alcohol around, too much violence, and not enough money, to disentangle all of those things and see them as symptoms of illness and not the natural condition of things.
I think there are two forms of rebellion: destructive and creative. Watching kids take the path of destructive rebellion is awful. Turning away from them is heartless, whether it is turning away from the specific boy sitting in your office fuming at a perceived injustice, or the group at the bottom of a community. As a society I think we need some creative rebellion. Rebellion against some of the norms of our society that adjust us to injustice, and permit us to witness suffering and not feel compassion or responsibility. I believe we should act against injustice and suffering. Not because I am specifically responsible for the situation of another person, but because a truly rich society looks after all of its members.
How we do that is something I’m not sure about yet.