July 14, 2015
I was bought up in what is now a very desirable area of the North Shore of Auckland. To me, Devonport and its immediate environs was just a reasonably large playground. Swimming at Narrow Neck or Cheltenham beach, if not in the tidal estuary at the bottom of our section, sailing my small yacht on the harbour, and playing endless games of cricket are my summer memories. Winter was soccer and rugby, both played with enthusiasm and a complete lack of skill on my part. Most people should be able to have memories such as these, but I now know that not all are able to do so.
My father had a small business in Devonport, so when I left school I started an apprenticeship with him. It was around this time that I became aware that not all of my friends and acquaintances had the same safe upbringing as I had. Many times during my school years I had wondered about the bruises and accidents that some of my friends had. When I started work, my circle of friends expanded and I met people with different views of life and experiences that I had never imagined would exist. Mostly they were people who had what is now known as a dysfunctional family. Much of the problem was caused by alcohol, and I am sure that many of the fathers were suffering from stresses and depressions left over from WWII. Of course, at this period of time, these were not recognised as an identifiable and possibly treatable illness. However, abuse, usually physical, was a fact of life for some of these people, and they mostly succeeded in keeping it secret, but there was the occasional comment or slip of the tongue that made me aware of the situation. Did I do anything about it? No. Why not? Well, it really wasn’t my problem was it? I did mention it to my parents at one stage and was told by them that,” yes these things did happen but not in our family”. The classic “if we ignore it, it will go away” process. I believe that many people were and maybe still are using this approach. Preferring to ignore the issue rather than do anything about it.
However, life continues, and I got married and then applied for Secondary Teacher Training. At that time there was a major shortage of Technical Teachers and I won a position in one of the intakes. This was the era of one year full-time specialist teacher training programmes, so at the end of the swinging sixties there I was, standing in front of my first class of around 30 boys. Talk about a steep learning curve. I stumbled from one crisis to another for the first six months and seriously doubted my ability to carry on in the profession. The school I taught at was in the centre of a low social economic area and gangs were a fact of life for many of the students. Training college had not prepared me for these people, and neither had my previous life experiences. A senior teacher at the school, now sadly passed, must have seen something in me and took it upon himself to mentor me. Not only was I mentored by this man, but I was introduced to a way of working with the disadvantaged youth of the area. I can remember working with one of the local Maori wardens and visiting houses in the early hours of the morning looking for children who had, for various reasons, not gone home after school. The process would not work today with the current laws, but it was reasonably successful for us. It was during this period of time that I developed my social justice ideals.
Next period of my life was the 18 years I spent working for a tertiary training centre in Hamilton. I started the section that I worked in, built it up to the second largest of its kind in NZ and looked after two full-time staff. The students we had were a diverse bunch of adolescents. Some were great and some weren’t. These were male students between 16 and 21 years of age, full of testosterone and bullet proof. For many of them, violence and alcohol was a fact of life, it was used to solve personal problems, it was used on and off the football field, and a couple of times, was used in the classroom to solve some imagined or real slight. More than once, I went to the local police station on a Friday morning to check on the well-being of my students. On the other hand, when one of my students was arrested for selling drugs, I found myself on the prosecution team. We won, he lost.
Then, at the beginning of 1990, I changed jobs and went back to teaching in a state school. Life was much quieter there until September 1993, when a young female living not far from the school was murdered, along with her two young children. This was a particularly gruesome murder as all the victims had their throats cut and the perpetrator was the young girl’s partner. At the subsequent trial he was deemed to be insane by the jury and was found not guilty as a result. What made this more horrifying was the fact that the girl was a friend of my daughter, and she had been a guest at our home on several occasions. It was because of this incident that I became a member of Victim Support in Hamilton, and I worked with them for a period of time. During my time with Victim Support I spent a great deal of my time with victims of violence of one form or another, much of it perpetrated by males against females. I was uncomfortable at times in this role – here I am, a male, trying to get the confidence of a female who has been assaulted by a male, often her partner and the father of her children. There were times when I did not do too well, and I felt that I had let people down, but maybe what I did was helpful to them in the big picture. There were also other occasions when people had lost children in motor vehicle accidents and I found these cases difficult for me, for a number of reasons.
Eventually, I won a position in a central King Country school, and moved down there to teach. I did not continue with my Victim Support work whilst I was there, but I did get an inkling of what some people have been unfortunate enough to go through when I had an altercation with one of the male students. He threatened to kill me and, for some reason, the Deputy Principal – a threat that I did not take seriously at the time. I thought that it was just an adolescent young man blowing off steam. However the incident was reported to the Police, and the boy was arrested that night, some one hundred metres from my home. When arrested he was carrying a boning knife and a steel bar. He spent time in the cells and appeared in court where he was sentenced and released into the care of a Youth initiative that specialised in cases like his. Apart from seeing him at the requisite family conference, where he tried to attack me with a chair, I have not seen him since the day at school, but I understand that he is back in the community, now working.
Underlying all of these events has been the aggression that some males are not able to control or direct. I believe that much of what I have witnessed, or been privy to, is evidence of learned behaviour or ingrained behaviour, in that often the perpetrators have witnessed violence being used to solve issues, and they do not understand any other methods. This unfortunately is a method used by a minority of students in school, a problem that teachers are only too aware of. These students are the by-product of the environment they grow up in, and I believe, therein lies the problem.
I now work part-time in a Secondary School in the Counties/Manukau area, I am the Post Primary Teachers Association’s Executive Member for the region, working voluntarily for the teachers of my area and I find life far less stressful than I have in the past.
I believe that White Ribbon has a role to play in reducing the number of incidences such as those I have outlined. We are not experts, but we have knowledge and collectively there is a vast amount of experience that can be channeled. Here is an opportunity for us to take the initiative, be role models, talk about our own experiences, and stand up against this inappropriate behaviour. Men talking to men about their experiences, good and bad, can help. Just having a person who is not judgmental to talk to and unload to may be the catalyst needed to help a man who has an anger management problem, or does not know any other way of solving problems. White Ribbon can assist in this cause.