Ticked off

I currently work at Epsom Girls Grammar, a public school with a proud history and one that cannot sit in isolation from our brother school – Auckland Grammar (AGS). After celebrating its centenary last year, EGGS is looking to the future to consider what the next century will ‘look like’ for ‘girls education’ as will AGS for ‘boys’. Perhaps one of the starting points for any educational institution ‘looking to the future’ should be to locate its values and image, particularly ideas of ‘tradition’. By locate I mean what century these are drawn from. Which is why this article about AGS building unisex bathrooms in a bid to be more inclusive of transgender students raised my eyebrows in a way that might have given away my age more than the growing silvering of my hair.

So why the eyebrow raise? AGS has been on a journey toward the rainbow tick. The rainbow tick is a certification process to ensure work places are gender and sexual diversity inclusive. On the surface, this seems ideal and robust, having measurable outcomes sounds like progress. However, I do have some genuine questions for some of the implications of getting diversity ‘ticked off’ as compliance. I am not suggesting bathrooms are a token gesture, but I am a bit cynical about the meaningful impact these will have for becoming more ‘inclusive’. Maybe it raises some pertinent questions about the idea of single sex education.

For a start, why in the 21st century are we holding onto single sex education? The gendered ideas that excluded girls from education then ‘allowed’ them to access seem archaic yet are often still used to justify segregation. I’ve heard it first hand when EGGS staff discuss assumptions about how boys and girls learn differently .

One argument is that parents that want single sex schools and sometimes religious beliefs insist on segregation. I think there will always be a place in the private and special character schools. I wonder if a more accurate statement is one of style and culture. Discipline, hierarchy, power, punishment model and versus relational accountability and mutual respect. Neither is better, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In their polarity form (sometimes mirrored in single sex schools but not always) they are clearly different models of learning. So I think the question of ‘who is peeing where with what plumbing’ becomes irrelevant in an school that defines it’s character on its ways of relating to other human beings. This paves the way for AGS and EGGS to drop their biological criteria for attendance in the future. These schools could then advertise these more openly and allow parents to choose what model of learning and relationships they would prefer their children-young people to be exposed to rather than ‘you have these bits – you go here’ (let’s not even go there for intersex young people…that would blow the sex/gender binary to bits).

When I discuss the idea of attending an ‘all-boys’ school with young trans guys at EGGS there is a lot of face pulling and shoulder shrugging. They seem unsure of the level of support they would feel and their sense is that the gender fluidity present around them would be lost and they would need to comply with a model of masculinity to be accepted. So providing gender neutral facilities does not ‘tick their boxes’ of an inclusive, safe, school. My suggestion for AGS (for what it’s worth) is ensuring you are providing for current trans AGS student needs. The denial of any current trans students is just as problematic for me and I would rather see energy put into ensuring mtf (male to female) trans students needs being addressed, or is that too challenging for notions of maleness and masculinity?

Yes building bathrooms is a step and I want to be hopeful about AGS’s journey toward being more open and accepting of gender and sexual diversity, and I still think EGGS has work to do (uniform especially). My experience tells me one important step for students is to have a support/social group up and running – supported by the principal, student leaders and to have ongoing, genuine consultation happening of the queer AGS/EGGS community – including parents.

Redefining men and masculinity in the 21st Century is potentially the greatest and most challenging building project – the blueprints are all there but if people are determined to keep with the traditional bricks and mortar approach then those bathrooms will be about as inclusive as saying ‘we have ramps so we are inclusive of disabilities’ and I’m not even sure if AGS has ramps.


Spotlight on Mental Health

Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.

I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.

So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.

Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:

  • Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
  • Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
  • Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
  • Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
  • Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
  • Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
  • Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
  • There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
  • The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).

Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.

Hard conversations start in silence

I sat with a young person today as they processed what was probably one of the hardest stories I have heard about sexual assault. The young person had the courage to speak up but they are doubtful the offender will plead guilty and they will have to testify in court, reliving the trauma and distress… justice? And after a week of watching the media salivate over the Stanford University – Brock Turner rape case I can’t help wondering if the very systems constructed in deliver ‘justice’ disable rather than enable change, both on a personal, societal and cultural level.

On a more pragmatic level, how is that alcohol is still getting off scot free? Here is a substance that has enabled so much harm to occur and yet it remains somehow immune to suspicion as a mind altering chemical. I’d like to put alcohol on trial. There is so much evidence against it but it must have a pretty good defence team.

It has managed to maintain its innocence while enabling other substances to be demonised, to the point where any conversation that aligns it with non-legal chemicals is ridiculed. Our culture demands the right to intoxication by alcohol. Nearly every event, celebration, social occasion uses it. With its harmless qualities being promoted, accepted and endorsed and sex being such an awkward encounter – thanks to our collective embarrassment, shame and insistence on outdated gendered notions of entitlement around desire, we’ve got the perfect conditions for what occurred. To be clear though, I don’t think alcohol is the reason for what happened, I’m trying to understand the process of normalisation that seems to occur around its use/abuse. I wonder if we treated alcohol in the same way as any other drug – not separating it out for a start, we might be able to ask different kinds of questions about its effects.

And while it might be in another country I don’t think New Zealand should be doing any ‘tut tutting’, Roast Busters anyone? Here is a random thought – what if we had as many drink-sex adds on TV as drink drive ones? Why not? And why not throw condom use in there while we are going with the ‘hard’ topics. The other really difficult conversation is navigating transitional experiences for young people (anyone up to the age of at least 25 I reckon). Teaching sex-sexuality without a context of mediating desire, vulnerability and other expectations or constraints including heteronormative ones will simply drive the same old assumptions along, rehash them and enable justifications based on gendered entitlements to continue.

I’m not holding my breath for change, because we simply refuse to put ourselves on trial, our own attitudes, beliefs and values. Hard conversations with ourselves.

Playing political football

I remember a time when the idea of sport and politics mixing was about as palatable as the concept of raspberry beer. We were split as a nation over playing rugby against South Africa in the late 1970’s and early 80’s due to the countries apartheid policies. I was old enough to remember the images but not old enough to understand the significance. New Zealand wanted the sanctity of its national sport to be untainted by the social policies of other countries that denied certain citizens their dignity and human rights. But many did see the contradiction and through the conflict and protest the public were forced to confront the possibility that there might being an ‘All Black’ in some parts of the world didn’t get you a free drink at the pub.

Fast forward to 2015 and apartheid as a policy has been dissolved. Our love of rugby is no less diminished and Richie McCaw is gearing up to defend the Webb Ellis Cup. There are even calls for our esteem AB captain to enter politics, with whispers of him becoming the next PM. So much for oil and water not mixing. But I suppose it comes down to branding in the end. Richie is perfect, most people either want to be him or do him…well…it’s true – I think there are plenty of people who suddenly find themselves not believing sexuality is fixed.

But if we are going to go down the path of Kiwi athletes having political potential well then lets throw this around a bit a see what happens. I’ve got a few other contenders for the top job:

Cameron Brown is first on my list. This guy knows how to go the distance. 10x NZ Ironman Champ. I’ve seen him run down his opposition in clinical form. If a political party wanted someone who knows how to come from behind and knows it isn’t over until you cross the line.

Lauren Boyle. One of our most understated athletes. As a swimmer she has to do the hard yards in training and again has to squeeze every ounce of potential out of her body in every event. I also get the feeling the best is yet to come from this amazing athlete.

How about Nathan Fa’avae? Here is a multisport guy who can find his way if dropped into the middle of no-where (maybe one of the minor parties could grab him). He can make do with basics and won’t mind burning the midnight oil and running on empty. Throw him a couple of barley sugars and he’ll be good to go.

Any of our rowers – sure they go backwards but when you are out in front you can keep an eye on the opposition and counter any moves. Mahe would do.

Sticking with the water, how about Lisa Carrington – her races might not last all that long but she knows how to win no matter what the margin. Her shoulders are big enough for an entire political party to cry on and have room to spare.

Speaking of powerful women. Valerie Adams has been at the top of a world class event and taken down the cheats. She’ll deal to any dirty politics. Val can also deal with dead weights and would ‘put’ anyone who doubted her out her inner circle.

William Trubridge – the guy going for the world record for swimming to great depths on a single breath. For a political party on their last gasp he could probably help get them out of a dark hole.

Notable exclusions: anyone from Team NZ – Dean Barker might have been an alternative to Richie but no – sorry Dean that epic fail will probably take some serious work to forget. Too soon for the political winds of change Dean.

A couple more who could fit the bill are any of our top cyclists over the years – tactical bunch riding, hiding and then attacking. Cyclists also know at some point they will crash and it will hurt. Maybe someone like Anton Cooper our Olympic mountain bike champ. He would know how to take the spills and deal with varying terrain and conditions. Even better his last name is ‘Cooper’ so it will tap into the deep unconscious of those who know their beer brewing history and so the intimate psychic link to the celebratory consumption of alcohol will fit like a hand in a sweaty glove.

So there you go, some other pickings and perhaps a bit of a reminder that we are successful at other sports not involving balls. And as we learned this week, it’s not always good to be too pumped. If someone puts the boot in and you come apart at the seams well your career might end in a bang. But if Richie had been PM when that rugby ball exploded I am sure there would have a national press conference, referendum on the use of Adidas as a sponsor and perhaps a piece of legislation to ensure no other balls would be deflated under his watch.

Two little bits of advice, practice your handshakes Richie and stay away from pony tails.

Fiction Friction

We have just ‘celebrated’ ANZAC day, and I did a lot of thinking and reflecting. I had mixed feelings all day, wondering about the meaning we have made, should make, or unmake from history. To challenge anything other than the media produced reverence is cultural blasphemy, as Australian sports presenter Scott McIntyre did and was promptly fired. A part of me understands this from the tightly woven narratives around sport and war. That aside, what frightens me more are the parallels with the themes George Orwell wrote about in 1984.

Orwells 1984 has been studied by many but few like to consider the realities of such a world, let alone that it might already be upon us. Dystopian worlds have become romanticised in teen literature and movies to a point where the harsh edges of power have been reworked into love, adventure and survival themes which are far easier to sell. So I want to take you through some of my favourite quotes because the date will come and go but what will we remember as 1915 and ‘1984’ mark real and imagined horror.

1: ‘Ignorance is strength’ – one of the 3 slogans, but my favourite because it allow for the other two to be made possible by ensuring people believe that ‘war is peace’ and ‘freedom is slavery’.

2: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” – History is a selective lens that focuses attention on certain details while overlooking or blocking out others. It means we continually see a chosen perspective – one that serves particular interests. It is why I am very interested in agnotology as a field of inquiry (funny how it always comes up underlined for spell checking – clearly a word that needs more promoting…unless the ministry of truth get hold of it).

3: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – I see this happening through the media propaganda machine and the use of fear.

4: “So long as they (the Proles) continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance….Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.” – So let me check what is on the news and tv…sport, sport, weather, sport, game shows, reality tv…looking quite accurate George.

5: “Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” – I see flickers of consciousness at times but I also see it being extinguished. Consciousness without action maintains the status quo. Rebelling need not look like public protest, it can be a quiet internal realisation.

6: “Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” – I think we have a form of secular fundamentalism setting in. With forms of cultural doctrine that are unquestionable, and evangelical public figures use fear and suspicion to cast shame on those who do not agree with the prescribed truth. Persecution is swift and exile follows – again, say the wrong thing on twitter and you are a gonner. The thought police will get you.

7: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” – Yes ignorance is bliss after all. The problem at the moment is no-one is quite sure what freedom is. We have set the bar so low, that any meeting of basic needs is now seen as a luxury. If we are outraged and horrified, saddened or affected by event’s – its only until the bachelor comes on, or the rugby starts.

Others have spoken on similar themes and a healthy mature society should be able to ask questions and revisit what we believe to be ‘true’. Being right is not the same as truth. One suggests a single event the other provides for alternative viewpoints and information to be considered.

Lest we forget what we have chosen to remember.

Home Grown

Turning over the garden, turning over thoughts and memories of growing up in a hunter growing family I noticed the accumulation and intersections of meanings unfold. There was also the realisation that there is a purpose for crocs, they are in the garden – socks optional. So while I have been reading and immersing myself in some rich philosophical texts I still feel a need to ground my thinking in familiar activities and metaphors. However it isn’t the growing ideas I want to go with, it is the process of gardening itself, of cultivating, deciding how to plant seeds and the ways this reveals some of the cultural and historical practices of knowledge.

My Dad grew up in the 50’s, hunting and fishing were part of the Man as provider story emerged out of other philosophical discourses about nature (woman) needing to be tamed, dominated, conquered, brought under Mans control. Gardening was a big part of my childhood as was fishing and a bit of hunting and I feel enriched by these experiences. Dad’s garden and style of gardening reflected the values and self sufficiency of an age where industrial production of food was still in it’s infancy. The post–war generation learnt how to take care of themselves, it wasn’t a fashion statement it was born out of a genuine experience of hardship. But my goodness as a kid in the 70’s, it was like a religion with Eion Scarrow being our own green saviour. Yates bibles filled the shelves and anything that got in the way of producing perfect tomatoes, silverbeet, etc was annihilated. Chemical warfare was absolutely legit practice, he was Mr “Spray and walk away”. If things weren’t growing you just put more fertiliser on – more, more, more. Bugs didn’t stand a chance, neither did weeds, neither did birds – nature had no business in nature. Being alongside it and respecting the natural world wasn’t the kind of relationship being modelled at the time (things did change). But we ate well (let’s just side step the chemical bit) – no shortage of greens. And I learned about generosity and sharing. Because there really are only so many grapefruit and tomatoes you can eat juice, freeze, pulp. Looking after your neighbours was part of it and a good way to practice your fishy story telling (probably where I learned the art of hyperbole). People swapped seeds, shared tips and tools and connected over their successes and failures, learning from each other.

Moving through the 80’s – 90’s saw a huge shift economically and as such culturally for the ways we related to food production and what we ‘consumed’ in terms of associating gardening with lifestyle. For me this is where I feel a bit of nostalgic loss for ye old school ‘rip shit and bust’, ‘number 8 wire’, ‘bit of 4 by 2’. DIY grow your own has been reabsorbed as a commodity, a brand. Garden stores are almost like jewellery stores – just going into certain ones gives people a sense of status. Cooking shows dominate our screens, often with ‘fresh home grown’ produce as part of the tag line and ‘looking good’ while doing these activities ensures there are also stylish gumboots to wear. Now it’s not just ‘putting in a garden’ it’s ‘what kind of garden’ with an undertone of assessment of the gardeners ethics or spiritual alignment with the earth – or brand loyalty.

I’m not sure what kind of gardener I am, but I do know the joy and pleasure of eating something you have grown. I don’t mind sharing with the odd snail or white butterfly. I’m unlikely to buy fancy footwear for the garden, isn’t that what old running shoes are for? Dad doesn’t garden so much these days, however the silverbeet self-seeded and is growing wild outside the confines of the neat and tidy cultivated earth, in the hard clay – and it is thriving. Go Nature.

Christmas – Pole-arity is just a little queer

A couple of hundred years ago the world was ‘flat’ – we pretty much sorted that one, but we no longer have a sphere we have in fact a hemisphere or half a sphere; or more specifically, the Northern hemisphere. The world as it is described in all manner of ways is rapidly becoming ‘top heavy’ and those of us in the booty part of the world (I refuse to say ass end…woops I did anyway) are having our identity colonised by all things related to that which is above the waist line – aka the equator.

Christmas is definitely on that list, and there is no need to check it twice. I’m going to use an analogy that some might find a little shocking but I’d rather say it because staying in the closet at this time of the year is rather stuffy and hot. So here goes…dear rest of the world…I need to tell you something about Christmas in New Zealand – it’s summer here. There ‘we have been outed’ Aotearoa and there is no going back in the closet. If you have grown up here and encounter someone from the hemisphere-normative north the conversation about Christmas can be a little like someone coming out to their parents or friends as being gay. People stare wide eyed, and ask the same kinds of awkward curious questions about ‘how do you do it then?’ and ‘do you still sing carols?’ or even better ‘are you sure – it’s not just a phase?’ Actually it does irk me somewhat that we are still trying to ‘fit in’ and be like Europe or North America.

Santa really doesn’t fit our brief for Christmas. We would do better to adopt the Christian nativity here as our cultural symbol, not for religious reasons but the faming agricultural theme – barns, sheep, goats, hay… kiwi as. Just for the record as well – we don’t see the north star either, so there go your astronomical references. We should also be cautious about rampant tree felling. Yes one of our primary industries is logging but we don’t have such a great history with respecting Tane Mahuta. I always feel a little grief stricken seeing hundreds of baby trees cut down before maturity for decoration purposes. So here is a quick flick through some of the ‘obvious’ contrasts:

• The days a long here – children are not easily convinced to go to bed in the broad daylight
• It’s hot, sticky, humid – fires are reserved for bar-b-ques
• Sand – features strongly rather than snow – just don’t throw it at people, they tend to get a bit tetchy
• Sledding and skiing exist – just on water
• Boxing day test – is not a quiz but a game of cricket – those outside of the British Commonwealth think ‘sport but over 4-5 days, possibly with no result…with more jargon than the legal system and the medical profession put together’

• Santa still wears a big red suit – we just roll with it
• Being with family – whatever that looks like
• Eating and drinking too much
• Panic gift buying
• Decorations – excessive use of lights and tinsel … (yup it is just a little bit gay)
• The birth of Jesus is in there somewhere – but like the rest of the capitalist, consumption driven countries – you need to go searching beyond the guy hogging the limelight in red-white.

Do we still need Christmas? I don’t know – I’m aware of how swept along we all seem to be with fulfilling this need to exchange gifts and pleasantries. The strange and convoluted meaning of this time of year is probably well overdue for a make-over. Getting the big guy out of that suit would be a start and perhaps some honesty about some of the origins of what is considered ‘tradition’ would cheer me.

I’d like to think we have moved beyond a ‘flat earth’ society but are we well rounded? It’s a sphere enough question.