They Are Us
20th March 2019
After five years at Bromsgrove, people still occasionally ask whether I feel homesick for New Zealand. Despite pining for a cuddle with my newborn grandson every now and then, the answer has been a resounding No.
Until now. This past week, I have felt very sick, for my home.
I love the values of this School. I love that they are not just fancy words embossed on a letterhead, but an ethos visible every day in the conduct of our young people. I am beyond proud to serve a School where tolerance and diversity walk hand in hand. We aren’t perfect, but we know what perfect might look like and we strive for it daily. A panoply of 53 nationalities makes Bromsgrove’s culture vibrant and real. Such a rich mix of race, religion, gender and perspective may create a possibility for disputes and misunderstandings, but it also creates the opportunity to resolve them. There is no better environment to teach mutual respect and understanding. I sincerely believe that schools such as ours are an antidote to the tensions and intolerance that plague the world. I don’t care how grandiose that may sound – it is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Unashamedly, but without wishing to sound parochial, I formed those convictions growing up in New Zealand. Like Bromsgrove, it is not perfect, no nation is. However, racial and religious tolerance, humility and quiet confidence, a positive attitude and a generosity of spirit defined us as Kiwis (again, like Bromsgrove).
Which is why, over the past five years, I have harboured a somewhat guilty emotion. On the odd occasion, when I have broken my usual habit of keeping our Senior School Routh Assemblies celebratory and positive and been forced to ask the School to stand in silence and hold in their hearts people killed in atrocities – Paris, Manchester, London, Barcelona – I have thanked God that such tragedy would never befall my place of birth.
Until it did.
Last Friday broke my heart. Not just because 50 innocent people were senselessly killed while engaged in the most peaceful activity imaginable, kneeling in mindful prayer. Killed by an inadequate coward, hiding behind a warped and ignorant ideology, fuelled by other pathetic losers who lurk in soulless anonymity online, and armed with weapons that have no place in civilised society.
Not only did I grieve for those 50 people and the hundreds of others who suffered immediate loss and pain. I also wept for my country. For the affront that this vile act is to everything that we believe about ourselves. I mean no disrespect to the dead when I say that they will not be seen as Muslim victims by most New Zealanders. They will simply be seen as Kiwis. They were us. Worse, in many cases, they were new Kiwis. Refugees and migrants welcomed from places ravaged by war and turmoil, grateful to be in a safe haven at last. A country where not only is ethnic or religious tension rare, but gun crime is pretty much unheard of. Even the Police are unarmed.
I am resolved to follow the NZ Prime Minister’s lead and never utter the name of the person who committed this crime, nor give any more airtime to his motives. I may not share all of Jacinda Ardern’s political views, but I have never been more proud of a country’s leader. Her words and actions have exemplified the very identity that has been attacked; empathy, compassion, courage, and humility. Her immediate, unscripted response echoed a nation’s voice, “You may have chosen us, but we reject you utterly.”
In the days that followed the mosque killings in Christchurch, I felt homesick. Felt the overwhelming desire to get on a plane and return to my homeland and do something (I knew not what). As time has passed, I realise that, actually, the best thing, the only thing, that I can do is to stay here and administer the antidote. Foster tolerance, nurture empathy. Stand against the dark scourge of extremism in all its forms that reaches out to our children online. Above all, grow leaders whose influence for good will spread out from this School to all corners of the world. Even to those distant places I once thought were safe.