Religious Colander-isation

Imagine in 20 years time looking back over your class photos, picking out mates, people you didn’t know and then the guy with the colander on his head. I’d love to have a time machine to see where this story from todays NZ Herald goes.

Briefly, a student has claimed his school breached his human rights by not allowing him to wear his religious headwear (a colander) for school photos, he is a Pastafarian – I’ll let you chew on that for a minute. Pastafarianism is a thing – a legitimate religion; therefore, he is entitled to follow his chosen faith. Now to be fair, the school probably didn’t know what to make of it when he showed up with his shiny colander and possibly needed to slow things down and ask more questions. Because on the surface, a kid turning up to school with a kitchen utensil on his head, does not fit the common understanding of religious headwear. I think the school could be forgiven for thinking he was taking the piss.

This brings me to another point. I am curious about Pastafarianism and it’s ‘mocking approach’ of religion. While I have never personally subscribed to any form of religion, I am wondering about the intention of ‘ridicule by infiltration’ or as I like to put it ‘colander-isation’ (like colonisation but punnier). This has the effect of drawing attention to the claims of religious beliefs as laughable and so are not to be taken seriously or be respected. I don’t know if that is their intention but it seems like it is a probable effect of their approach. For example the name of their church, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, was unlikely chosen in order to invoke a sense of reverence.

On a more practical note I’m thinking if Pastafarians want to play sport they might need to consider a softer version of their headwear. May I suggest they check out silicone colanders. It might also be important for retailers to ensure they mark items Pastafarian approved. If enough Pastafarians emerge then they could apply to create a special character school? It might be first with its own school lunches, and rituals to honour the Flying Spaghetti Monster, good luck hiring cleaners.

Regarding this young man’s future, some have suggested he will possibly regret this stand and it will harm his reputation. I’m not so sure as there have been plenty of instances of ‘rule challengers’ who have gone on to very successful careers. It reminds me of this clip from Zeitgeist Moving Forward. Jacque Fresco has never been scared to challenge the system and has started a global movement (The Venus Project) because of his ability to challenge ideas.

While I respect his right to practice his chosen religion I’m unclear as to whether the violation of his rights is worthy of a complaint to The Human Rights Commission. I’d like to see him approach the Board Of Trustees and request a uniform review and perhaps consult with other religious groups who have worked through these tricky issues. If he as committed as he says he is he needs to submit a proposal like everyone else.

Finally Religious persecution is a thing he might need to get used to. If he is a devout Pastafarian his faith should get him through the tough times. He simply needs to return to the sauce of his beliefs and feast on the goodness it brings.


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.

Image difference

The longer I work in a secondary school, the more I realise how much the public image of a school matters. I’m really fascinated at how diversity fits with a schools image. Many schools report they ‘value diversity’ or ‘celebrate diversity’. More often than not they mean cultural diversity, actually I would say almost exclusively (thanks to the New Zealand Curriculum statement) diversity really just means ethnicity. But this is where things get interesting and a little perplexing.

Alongside this schools are charged with supporting young people to develop a strong sense of their identity. Again this seems on the surface to be just fine, except when other forms of diversity start to ‘contaminate’ the pristine, clean cultural definitions. This is the most popular image used in school advertising across the county, a picture of smiling faces of various ethnicities. For simplification, the rhetoric goes something like this:

  • We love diversity – so you need to all wear a uniform, and wear the correct one for your assigned sex, oh and no other outward signs of individuality like piercings or hair colour, style, length…but we want you to be yourself.
  • We celebrate diversity – but not pride week, no you can’t have an LGBTQ+ group – people might object and that would make the school look bad. But we will do pink shirt day because being anti-bullying looks good for our image.
  • We value diversity – but let’s make sure students with unique needs are siloed off so they don’t disrupt the learning of others.
  • We are inclusive of diversity – but our common room isn’t accessible.
  • We encourage diversity – so long as you’re not failing NCEA and making our stats look bad.
  • We welcome diversity – but we are a single sex school so you have to have the right body parts to attend.
  • We embrace diversity – so long as you manage your anger, fear, sadness and frustration and behave the same as everyone else.
  • We recognise diversity – but if you are bullied for being transgender this might not be the school for you, you’re asking for special treatment and it’s just too hard for us to adapt to the 21st Century, bathrooms have always been this way, actually we’d prefer not to know you exist at all.
  • We support diversity – only if you behave in ways that keep everyone comfortable, so don’t be too gay…
  • Basically – we accept diversity – so long as you’re not different.

None of this is ever blatant, it is a quiet dismissive attitude, an omission in policy, an intentional avoidance, an awkward silence, or a flustered defensiveness. Because schools are now brands with an image to uphold (sounds a bit like political parties). Diversity is messy and complex and while education is locked into the neo-liberal politics of advanced capitalism, a schools image will often be prioritised at the expense of a fuller definition and recognition of diversity.

Joining the dots

I’ve been following the NZ herald series on suicide, not closely, working as a school counsellor gives me some insight to the phenomenon but I am always cautious about my own understanding, even with close to 15yrs experience. But the Herald series is a bit like throwing out a series of dots from which people can join to form a picture. Here is where I’m a little unsure just which dots are standing out, how they are being joined and what picture/s are emerging. It’s tragic, compelling, emotive and unfortunately political. The dots could be seen as key ideas, some backed by research, others personal experiences, experts like (Sir) Peter Gluckman are mixed in with Mike King. Much like a join the dots activity I did as a kid, if there are just a few dots they have to be joined carefully and in the correct order to get the picture, more dots gives more detail. Sometimes you didn’t need to see the numbers to join them correctly – but at other times connecting the 2 with 8 really threw things off and you got a duck instead of a bunny. And this is where I think some of the discussion on suicide has gone – into duckbunny land.

I’ve read Gluckman’s report, it’s worth reading but how many people will actually bother to pick up his dots? He suggests the key work needs to be done much earlier than secondary schools, but also that adolescents is a vulnerable period regardless. There is a link between communities that have a low sense of worth, less hope for a future. I am saddened at the risk for Maori and other communities such as LGBTQI+ youth, this is where I think schools continue to ignore the dots and avoid responsibility for creating safe, genuinely inclusive (including bi-cultural values) environments. When principals deny queer young people safe places to meet (i.e. not allowing students to form gay-straight alliances), be valued members of the community– they increase risk. When schools fail to provide trained, qualified counsellors because pastoral care is not seen as valued – risk increases.

You see a couple of dots that people keep ignoring or leaving off the page, is the spike in suicide with the rolling out of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ when secondary schools could opt to not have counsellors in favour of the rather vague idea of ‘providing adequate guidance’ – and there are so many weird, vague interpretations of this. Key also is the gradual rising of the school leaving age, with university entrance now requiring completing level 3 (7th form for old school people). So if a young person is able to consent to their own medical treatment at 16, surely we should be enabling them to access mental health support as well, and schools that do not employ trained counsellors deny young people a potential lifeline.

Because every day, I talk to young people who have lost hope, who feel adults they have turned to have freaked out, got angry, dismissed, not believed them or blamed them for what is going on. They have thought about suicide, might be ready to die, but they somehow managed to get to my office. They aren’t making this shit up, they are survivors of bullying, sexual abuse, rape, family violence, they are from all cultures, they are LGBTQI+ and they had a free resource available, a fence at the top of the cliff – a trained, qualified, professionally affiliated counsellor.

It’s election year though, so I say this to all politicians – Stop ignoring these dots because they do not fit your convenient picture. Make a commitment to resourcing schools and agencies at the coal face of this work. Stop political point scoring around education, especially with vulnerable populations. No more dots are needed, just draw the lines FFS.

Choice Uniform

Ok, its been a while since I blogged and I am probably going to piss people off or take the warm fuzzy glow off something that most people are seeing as a move in the right direction when it comes to enabling flexibility of gender expression in schools. My Facebook feed went crazy a few days ago with the story of the Dunedin intermediate school that was eliminating gendered uniforms. This move is seen as revolutionary, some sort of highland fling needs doing as kilts and skirts blend boys and girls in a new gender neutral utopia that allows students to freely express themselves.

I want to be excited ‘yay’. I want to be optimistic ‘maybe other schools will do it now’, I want to be supportive ‘it’s important’. Right, now that I’ve got that out of the way – time to get realistic and bit more critical for the sake of actual change. So stop reading now if you want the warm fuzzy version.

Has this school actually done anything earth shattering? No. They are talking about adding long pants as an option and culottes, which are about as functional as stubbies. If guys choose to wear a kilt…it’s a kilt, not a skirt…duh. This is the same as wearing any other form of cultural dress. Get guys in culottes and then I’ll be impressed.

There is no such thing as gender neutral – because neutral is masculinised – pants or shorts. So what we are talking about is not feminising or enabling feminine expression. KILTS ARE NOT SKIRTS!

It is an intermediate – these are still ‘kids’ – show me a high school – or better a single sex school that does this and I will be convinced, more so if it’s a boys school.

If people think students now have ‘freedom’ to choose – think again, the gender norms still apply and when boys can grow their hair long, girls can cut theirs short and not shave their legs and it be ok – THAT is the other uniform rule that has to be broken. When a girl can wear short hair and not be asked if she is a boy or a girl that will be the sign of change.

Finally – a truly radical move from schools in New Zealand these days is to NOT have a uniform. I went through primary and intermediate without a uniform, I think I am ok as a result. Show me a school that moves from uniform to no uniform and that will be radical and ground breaking

Uniforms perpetuate the idea of gender, regardless of flexibility – there is still an absent but implicit assumption that there are feminine and masculine uniforms.But good on ya Dunedin North Intermediate for listening to students, that is worth celebrating. but wait until you guys get a good southerly up those kilts and I reckon there will be a quick run at the uniform shop for pants. And no modern uniform should have culottes they are worse than gender neutral they are gender dysfunctional.


I’m out

Suicide is a sensitive topic and the media has bravely gone there with gusto over the last few weeks. I understand why, NZ leads the OECD – our stats are nothing to be proud of. People are desperate to know why, to work on prevention, to fix this epidemic, to grow resilience, to start conversations that make space for people to express their feelings.

All important steps. All these things need to happen, and schools do need better resourcing. Which is why it still baffles me that trained, qualified counsellors are not a requirement in our schools. That there is no mandatory requirement or ratio. There are recommendations and guidelines but given the seriousness of the need the government and MOE need to rethink their ‘hands off’ approach to mental health and well-being in schools.

You see it all comes down to section 77 of the Education Act which states.

“the principal of a State school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that … students get good guidance and counselling”

It does not say how this will be delivered or provided. And many schools under financial constraints deem non-teaching staff too costly. So while some schools have trained counsellors, they might be split between multiple roles.  Many schools have no trained counsellors. I’d like to see the government take the lead for once instead of hiding behind notions of self-governance. Young people deserve better than ‘good guidance and counselling’. But I’m still not satisfied.

As someone working on the front line I have a privileged access to what pushes young people to the edge and to consider the option of being ‘out’ of existence. While I addressed many of these in a previous blog I want to mention something of the chronic despair I am noticing – regardless of individual circumstances such as bullying, abuse, struggles with identity, connection, emotional distress. I think it speaks to a generation who are very aware of social, political, environmental and economic circumstances.

Some young people are looking at a world in crisis and going WTF? They cannot just find their way in the world as they go – they are expected to have it all sorted out by the time they are 15-16, to make all the right choices at the right times. They are saturated with the problems of the world and told they are the hope for the future. FFS society is holding a gun to their heads and telling them to enjoy the thrill! Some young people recognise how sick the system is that perpetuates the cycle – the monetary system, the neo-liberal capitalist drive to consume at all costs. The systems of fear and division and they are like ‘I’m out’. Suicide is not just about individuals – it is about creating the conditions on which staying alive is worth it!

To me this is the greatest challenge facing society – to look at suicide as more than an individual choice, but a about a systemic failure to create a world worth being in, a world where young people say ‘I’m in’.

Time out! What century is it?

A couple of days ago I blogged about Mental Health Awareness week and schools. I vowed to stop reading the Herald online on account of the atrocious grammar, like someone had their cat walk on their keyboard and randomly cut and paste things half the time, but I risk it now and again. The article I read had my head in a spin, a surge of adrenaline as the fury rose in my body indicated I should not read on, but I did.

This time the grammar held up, it was the content. Children being locked in a small, dark time out room for behaviour management, put into isolation. Now that had me burning for a start, then to find out some of those put into that space were on the Autistic spectrum just turned my anger into a form of transcendent hysteria. To finish me off the dismissive minimising language and rhetoric claiming it was not illegal just ‘outmoded’ and the Ministry of Educations response was about as strong as Donald Trumps credibility as a feminist.

Honestly I have absolutely no hesitation is stating this is nothing but abuse disguised as behaviour management. There is nothing about this practice that is about reducing distress, learning, care or compassion. It speaks to the gross lack of training, understanding and resourcing of education for complex needs. I’m sure some of those teachers thought there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, that is what worries me. There are students who will have challenges regulating emotions and behaviour because of abusive backgrounds or unique neurocognitive functioning, that’s called diversity. Being locked in dark spaces as punishment to experience more distress, fear and isolation is barbaric and totally deplorable. The MOE needed to say that, rather than its ‘monitoring the situation’. WTF is that? We’ll, pay someone, to interview some people to hire a consultant to write a report…

Meanwhile what about that room? I say, it needs to be turned into the only thing it is good for at this point, given its size is fish tank and Lego room. Students might happily go there to find some peace and quiet away from the crazy chaotic over stimulating real world. They might even paint a ‘do not disturb’ sign. I need that room now.