tradition

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?

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Dying for change

I have just read the funniest thing that wasn’t meant to be so hair-leer-ious. Shelley Bridgeman has declared war on non-conformity. Young people it seems have a simple choice of follow the rules or go to another school. I hear you Sally but there is a flaw with your logic about students being able to ‘choose’ another school, because we still have a ‘one size fits all’ model. There is an obvious solution, build more schools to give students choice that offer a truly MODERN learning ENVIRONMENT. Schools that are actually trying to break out of the 19th century prison model of discipline and punishment and live in a world where how we dress, and look does not reflect a ‘lowering’ of standards, but where the quality of the relationships is reflected in how people talk and interact with each other, to allow for individuality to be expressed in colourful ways and genuinely hold people to account on things that matter. Conformity and obedience to authority are far from ‘quaint values’ surely a good history teacher should be able to give you a lesson on that Mrs Bridgeman – make sure you sit down with your arm crossed and don’t ask any questions.

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’

WHAT IS THE SAME
• 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.

Grater Expectations

Cooking at Christmas comes with its own set of challenges. If you are away from home dealing with a foreign kitchen and finding where things are kept inevitably leads to traffic jams and scenes to rival Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen kind of ironic at this time of year. But there are a couple of unique and possibly peculiarly kiwi conundrums (possibly not…just guessing). Christmas dinner comes in all forms from the casual bar-b-que to the full on traditional roast with all the trimmings perhaps minus the knitted jerseys – depending on how far south you are I suppose. The kitchen is a hive of activity and secret frustrations that I would now like to expose.

It’s common for people to have a couple of drinks with proceedings and in my family this can start reasonably early. Not to minimise the carnage caused by drink driving, there are some hazards to be noted when under the influence and attempting to steer your way through preparing food. There are the obvious ‘don’t drink and fry’ – using sharp implements also probably a bit risky, as is blenders and food processors. I’d hazard a guess that burns might top the A & E around this time of year. There are some little known injuries that will never make the ACC stats, or even warrant a mention in the paper but I think they can be more irritating than a recipe written before the metric system…c’mon what century are we in?

At the top of my list is the grater graze. Typically the knuckles or tips of fingers are sheered off in a valiant effort to ensure the entire carrot is used. This injury is definitely exacerbated by the fact that it will get you no sympathy and you will be expected to keep calm and carrot on. Second on my list is peeling kumara, not the golden ones, the ‘real ones’ purple skins. Yes those skins…do not respond to blunt peelers! What is worse is there are usually heaps to peel and only one peeler, so if someone wants to help they need to use a knife, which actually works better. Kumara are also really knobbly, so completing this task with an implement that wouldn’t cut through butter is nothing short of exasperating. Go for the knife people, anyone who has prepared for a hangi will know this to be true. Third on the list is whipped cream, I don’t know why, but in my family it is the hand beater from about 1950something that is still in the drawer – not upgraded like every other appliance. The handle swivels so every time you crank the thing it twists, so you lose the spinning motion. Also on top of a few drinks, the effort required and co-ordination not to slop stuff everywhere is insanely difficult. Fourth is the lemon juice in the eye – possibly added to the grater cut as well. Say no more. Fifth is a combination – the can-opener caper. Beetroot tins need to be upgraded to tab-pulls like the reduced cream, because quite honestly opening a can of beetroot without spilling it, is a nightmare. But if your opener is like the munted peeler, there is likely to be mutiny. The number of times I have struggled for 10 minutes to get half-way around then given up and tried to pry the lid open, only to either slice my hand or send the contents spilling their glorious crimson juices everywhere does not need stipulating. Other honourable mentions are kebab skewer splinters, onion chopping eyes and garlic crushing wrist sprains, all of which I have suffered at some point.

When it all comes together though and everyone is tucking into their kai – it’s good to know that along with love, it is laced with the odd bit of blood, sweat and tears.

We didn’t start the fire – but the sparks are pretty

Any Billy Joel fan will recognise that line, but don’t be lead astray by that. I’m probably one of thousands with an opinion about fireworks. It’s hard to contribute to a topic already bursting with combustible hot air. People are red faced enough at either end of the spectrum to warrant their own brand of rocket, spinning like Catherine wheels if someone dares to express and alternative.

We seem a country hung up on traditions, claiming them, creating them, changing them but throw in the possibility of legislation stepping in and you had better stand back coz that wick is pretty short. There is a funny sort of categorisation of appropriateness when it comes to socially sanctioned celebrations. Religious holidays always have that edge of ‘but do you know why’ and I understand that as acknowledging that some traditions have particular origins. But generally, we don’t seem to care if easter eggs are sold early or after easter, there is no ‘chocolate police’. On Valentine’s Day the Emergency Department isn’t full of broken hearts needing restarting, or burns from scorned lovers. Christmas and Halloween now bracket Guy Fawkes in New Zealand and our cultural calendar of events with varying degrees of acceptance, so it seems we are stuck with if you can’t beat them join in or start a petition.

I do get the safety aspect around letting off fireworks and I’m not all that fond of loud noises – so I’m not exactly ‘woohoo’ about sky rockets, but I do like a good bonfire. People sometimes think that explaining the origins of celebrations helps give more meaning and value to an experience…like that worked for Halloween yeah right.

If you are out there tonight setting large amounts of cash on fire, enjoy it, be safe. The fire brigade will be run off their feet and they will not want to hear ‘we didn’t start the fire’ as you are ‘burning down the house’…cue Talking Heads or The Prodigy – firestarter.

Ice-Cream – lick it or not, there is more than one flavour

Sometimes I struggle to explain my frustration about how pervasive ideas are that construct and limit the full expression of diversity. The expression of sexuality is right up there and I’ve often wanted to put it out there as a story but unsurprising, if you start talking about it – others ‘freak out’. So here is a little story to illustrate some of the practices that hide in plain sight. It shouldn’t take you long to figure out the metaphor I’ve chosen and before anyone says ‘its not that simple’ I agree entirely. It would be easy to pick holes in this story (its a story!) I simply invite people to look at the tensions of power – not the literal translation. If that doesn’t work for you – go out and get yourself an ice cream and enjoy! …..

Here we go!

Once upon a time there was an ice cream shop. Now, everyone loves ice-cream (at least in this story) it is part of life from early childhood through all stages of life. So there were many shops selling ice-cream for obvious reasons.
However – there was only one flavour IC. But people didn’t mind because they were not aware there was any other possibility for flavour. The one flavour on offer was vanilla. Vanilla was delicious and while a lot of people enjoyed it – others were not so fussed but went along with agreeing it was delicious and indeed the best thing in the world.
Eventually some people got tired of pretending they were into vanilla and dared to explore another flavour – dark and mysterious – it was called chocolate! It was still IC wasn’t it? There were some shop owners who refused to stock this new flavour calling it an abomination. Some quietly did but espoused that Vanilla was still the traditional flavour everyone naturally prefers.
It wasn’t long before stories were developed to explain why some might prefer chocolate, something had happened to them at birth or in early childhood to scare them off vanilla, they were born that way, and therapies developed to help people return to the correct flavour.
Resistance came for those who now identified chocolate as a real and preferred flavour that whilst not as common as Vanilla was no less legit. Many snuck chocolate under vanilla and developed ways to blend in with other IC eaters in public to ensure they could maintain their standing amongst their peers. But they longed just to be able to enjoy their IC openly but know the risks.
Still chocolate persisted in fact it started to appear in all sorts of ways, chocolate chip, chocolate coating, cones, ripple, and as more and more awareness grew around some of these other combinations some people who had spent their life only experiencing Vanilla realised they were curious and attracted to the notion of other flavours. Not all of them sampled but it was in their consciousness.
Many rejected these emerging flavours again as deviations and would punish public displays of chocolate. In fact theories around how you could tell if someone was into chocolate emerged with the some calling for schools to ensure vanilla was definitely the only choice offered and if chocolate was mentioned that this would be trying to force and convert impressionable children to the ‘dark side’. Some countries went as far to make chocolate illegal.
All sorts of panic and social problems were blamed on the arrival of chocolate. There were claims that the presence of chocolate somehow diminished the value of Vanilla, that too many choices was a danger to the very fabric of society. Those who didn’t like any form of IC were left out in the cold completely whilst chocolate became associated with other behaviours. Parents hoped their children would grow up to like Vanilla and would go to extreme lengths to make sure they steered them in this direction as they worried what future they might have and what their friends and family would think of them. Some would ask their children not to eat in public, or at family gatherings.
A strange thing happened later where upon meeting another intelligent species in the universe and offering up IC as an explanation of the ways humans define themselves, the visitors shrugged and said ‘what’s IC’? They were perplexed as the world seemed to be in the throws of catastrophic demise and here this species was making a fuss about IC? They carefully but gently pointed this out but were instead handed an ice cream…

Now to let that melt into your mind and hope some consider not freezing change out.

 

What to do with the ball – kick it or pass it?

It’s that time of year. The detailed planning and preparation has begun. Research into the competition, ruthless conditioning and contingencies accounted for. You might be forgiven for thinking I was talking about the winter sport season of rugby and netball if you’re from Australia or New Zealand. It is school Ball season or Prom if that term is more familiar. A tradition New Zealand schools have tried to drag into the 21st century with mixed results.

I had a ‘small town’ experience of the ball. It was held in the school hall with a few decorations splashed around, mirror ball, local band, and formal dancing expected. I wonder how many ACC claims from that era reflect broken toes and sprained ankles from attempts at waltzing.

New Zealand is currently in the throws of serious ‘cultural angst’ about our young people and how they are growing up. A lot of this centres around sex and alcohol. Throw in an event that is a virtual ‘dress rehearsal’ for adult relationships and hey presto Cinderella is outa that ball dress at midnight, into the party bus carriage and Prince Charming doesn’t care what shoes she is wearing! Her fairy godmother has also organised an after-ball function so the magic can go on.

What is the Ball? Some call it a ‘right of passage’ into adulthood. I agree but it is a certain representation of adulthood that is ‘righted’ so I’m giving that definition the quintessential Kiwi ‘Yeah…Na…’ and providing an alternative – but you might want to take a deep breath first. I will call it what it is, a socially sanctioned, ritualistic normalising of heterosexuality and clear gender identity, wrapped up in large dose of nostalgia and parental voyeurism…and breath.

That doesn’t sound quite so romantic now does it. I’ll be somewhat unapologetic about that because we really need to ask why we are hanging onto the Ball as a significant and important function schools perform. I think we have drifted along for some time with this one hoping it will morph and evolve naturally with the times. Well that has been about as smooth as a first driving lesson…and other ‘firsts’…enough said.

Lets ‘quick step’ through some of the questions I want to pose so we can stop being side tracked by the well worn dialogue around alcohol use and sex which seem to dominate commentaries in this area.
Who is the ball for? I’m going to suggest that although we proclaim the Ball is for young people, I believe parents are just as invested if not more. Recently, when there have been suggestions of phasing it out, a lot of the outcry and desperate pleas to continue have come from adults, especially parents. It could be that the Ball acts like an anchoring experience, an intergenerational touch stone, that allows parents to join with their children at a time when they start to feel pushed out and excluded. They have something to offer and share in the experience whilst taking their own trip down memory lane.

What is the main difference? I’ll tentatively put this out there and hope it makes sense, but I feel there has been a change in sense of ‘intimacy.’ I’m surprising myself mentioning this, but notions of intimacy have all but evaporated like cheap aftershave. It’s perhaps easier to explain by looking at some of the changes that have taken place. I apologise in advance for mixed metaphor’s and cliché’s.

1: What happens before the Ball – or ‘Pre Ball’ This used to be the realm of the ‘Lions Den’ for young men, where they would arrive to pick up their date. The visual and verbal dressing down given ensured the ‘law of the jungle’ was spelt out and the unspoken was ‘don’t you dare even think about doing anything to my precious daughter.’ You could say it’s like ‘walking down the isle’ as poor anxious boy waited for his date to emerge in her dress, a princess in all her splendour, to be greeted and marked with a corsage.
You might be wondering ‘how is that intimate?’ The ‘couple’ is acknowledged as significant and meaningful, the light is shone on ‘them’ and whether you agree or not, it weaves a story of responsibility and expectation around respect. Intimacy develops through carefully crafted situations that allow for specific interactions and Ball/Prom protocols have certainly delivered on this aspect in times gone by.
Taking a date has become more optional, sometimes partners do not even know each other, but simply ‘match up’ through friends because the underlying ‘couple experience’ is still there. I’ve seen this awkward set up and hope we can move on from the pressure to take a date. Groups of young people sometimes choose to go together which seems to at least on the surface to counter the ‘take a member of the opposite sex’ theme. So we are stuck in a kind of ‘limbo’ (not the dance unfortunately) with a tension in expectations. The interpersonal and social location of the ‘couple’ has enabled the outward rituals to be more important than the connections to people. Teens are ‘tied’ and ‘frocked’ up and sent stepping through the social norms to ensure there is some ongoing familiarity providing reassurance that everything is ‘normal.’

2: At the Ball – Learning to formal dance was something many of us went through. Clumsy and embarrassing as it might have been for many, classical ballroom steps and routines guided young people through physical closeness and being in another’s personal space with permission. Young people could safely hold each other and feel how they felt in the comfort of ‘shared discomfort’ and co-ordinated stumbling around in circles. Why is this important? Navigating physical closeness is like learning to drive in a safe environment before taking to the open road or race track. Without this we are effectively bypassing and devaluing a whole spectrum of intimacy. With formal dancing relegated to ‘uncool’ getting physically close to someone is an ‘all or nothing’ experience.

3: After the Ball – the advent of the ‘don’t talk about The After-ball’ generation signals a shift in the relationship schools have with their community. In effect the intimacy associated with being part of a ‘school event’ is countered by the polarity of the ‘After Ball’. For a start, this has become it’s own event, and an expectation. The clandestine planning and secrecy warrants some scrutiny I feel. You know something isn’t quite right when schools are having the Police in to ‘lecture’ students and letters are going home to parents to discourage organising After Ball’s.

What has stayed the same? Gender expectations and the inevitable pressure to fall into line and play the correct part for the ‘parts that you have.’ When people refer to ‘Tradition’ and even ‘traditional couples’ the weight of heteronormativity becomes explicit. I’m heartened however to see schools grapple with this and adjust accordingly.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/21/greenville-high-school-prom_n_4826861.html
But change hasn’t come easy. Some New Zealand schools persisted for a time with requiring ‘declarations of sexual orientation’ if students wanted to bring a same sex partner. Justifications for this range from avoiding gender imbalance to worrying if there was formal dancing then other dates might be poached – oh the horror! Having to ‘out yourself’ by taking a letter home for your parents to sign does nothing to celebrate and embrace diversity. In fact it does the complete opposite. Bi-sexual and intersex students would perhaps have the biggest dilemma. The day someone brings ‘one of each’ gender with androgynous attire will signal an epic shift in genuine acceptance of diversity.

Ultimately I believe ‘dropping the ball’ could help us decide what game we are actually playing and whether the rules really fit for 21st century concepts of identity and diversity. It could be a real game changer.