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The doorway to mana – drawing lines in the sand

We all have those moments in life we cannot nor should forget. As a teacher I have only cried in front of my students on a handful of occasions. I was teaching in Townsville. I was a Year 9 Business Principles teacher – you know debits and credits, balance sheets, profit and loss statements and all those exciting things. A new boy had arrived into the class. He was big, overweight, of Greek heritage and his name was Michael. More importantly he had not long survived an horrific car accident that had left him with a slight brain injury. The brain injury effected his speech and he slurred his words. In addition to all of this and I’m not sure if it was the brain injury or just Michael, but he was very ‘young’ for Year 9 and tended to play with the younger Year 8 boys at break time: they seemed to truly accept him.

It was a tough class with some difficult students in it. Each day I would stand in front of the class and say, “Now, this asset account is increasing from this transaction, do we make a debit or a credit entry?” Invariably Michael, who always sat at the front would shoot up his hand. Now with the answer being either debit or credit you have a 50% chance of being right. Sadly, Michael was only about 20% successful even on a good day. The thugs of the class loved this. Michael slurring his answer, myself patiently pointing out why his answer was not right or congratulating him when he got it right. Often I would pose the question and wait, with only Michael’s hand raised – waited for someone else to put up their hand: but no, the power of the thugs was overwhelming and they were enjoying their sport of watching Michael’s humiliation and laughing ‘at him’.

One day it got to me. After I had patiently pointed out to Michael why we should debit this account and not credit it – I asked him would he go down to the school oval and see if the second field was empty in readiness for my next class. After Michael had enthusiastically set off on his errand I put down my chalk and waited for silence. I then, with tears whelming up in my eyes asked them, “Do you know what it is like to be laughed at every day, just because you are you?” After all my teenage years as a stutterer in a boarding school – I knew.

After a few seconds of silence I blasted them. “How dare you! How dare you crucify a young man each and every day just to satisfy some immature need to gloat?” I raised my voice. They were left in absolutely no doubt what I thought of the situation. I concluded by informing the class that if this bullying did not stop immediately there would be consequences. I was ‘drawing a line in the sand’ – respect, a person’s innate dignity, the cowardice of the bully to hide among silence and more. Michael returned from the oval none the wiser to what had gone on.

Many years later I met a man in his thirties who had been in that class. I had forgotten his name. He came up to me and simply said, “Brother, you probably don’t remember me but I was in your Year 9 BP class at Ignatius Park. I will never forget the day you blasted us for the way we treated Michael. We knew what we were doing was wrong. Thank you for teaching me respect – it was probably the best lesson I was ever taught in all my years at school!”

In this blog I have recalled driving a mini-bus to a debating night at another inner city school. In the back of the bus a small group of students – Year 10 or 11 – were telling lewd stories and jokes, all quite sexist and demeaning of women. When we pulled into the carpark of the school I did not release the automatic door opener. I turned the engine off and from the driver’s seat turned to face the young men. Once again, I found myself blasting them for their behaviour, their lack of respect for women, their crudity and most of all, their lack of respect for themselves. When I finished there was a deafening silence. I open the door and walked off to watch the debating. Once again, many years later, I met some of those young men. I had forgotten all about it. I had certainly forgotten who was involved in the incident. But at a school reunion a group of the lads recalled, “Remember the time Pricey blasted us in the back of the bus for our filthy jokes and stories?” More importantly they thanked me for what I had done: my drawing a line in the sand was a small part of their journey to learning to respect women and themselves.

Recently I was working in Cairns. On the walls of the room where I was facilitating were three quotations:

“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.” Elie Wiesel and “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it!” Nelson Mandela and “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing!” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

All three quotations point to drawing a line in the sand. That choice to listen to the voice from deep within that says, “This is wrong!” The ‘gut feeling’ that says, “No!” The whisper that tickles “enough” and then becomes a roar when you find the courage to step forward – or put your hand up. I’m no angel. I have never, unlike my sister in law, won the Mother Teresa award (many times) and there have been times when I was the bystander. To my shame at times I did not draw a line in the sand. To my dismay there were times when I let myself and others down. I bleated among the bullying sheep and I turned a blind eye to the pain of others.

But none of us is all good or all bad – we are all pepper and salt, orchids and weeds and a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. But when we find that five second courage to draw a line in the sand – when we embrace freedom in the conviction that the others’ dignity is more important than my comfort we will discover an inner peace that is priceless. We will more and more be able to look at self in the mirror that is life and hold our heads high.

We all have favourite movies and favourite scenes from those movies. The closing scene from ‘Once were Warriors’ has Beth confront her husband Jake. Jake and his hard drinking, hard fighting, violent mates had made life hell for Beth and her children: physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Finally with the revelation that one of Jake’s best ‘mates’ had abused her daughter Beth confronts them in the pub and walks away a free woman. Jake chases after her. Beth turns and faces Jake and does so with courage and with strength. Beth says,

“Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.”

Beth drew a line in the sand and found freedom. Yes, mana – courage, pride, integrity, honesty, authenticity – being real – being your best self – being the one who in defence of things that truly matter – will draw a line in the sand. When we can find the courage to draw those lines in the apparently little things of life – then when the day comes and the bleating crowd need someone to stand up and help them know and claim what is right and true – your whisper will roar!

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