Old stories exhumed: Ted Dawe on schools and bullies, and truth

In Ted Dawe’s new novel Answering to the Caul, traumatised young men obliterate the schools that made ‘ordinary kids into evil bastards’. And as Dawe told the Herald last week, his sensational 2012 novel Into the River had its roots in the sex abuse scandal that’s just blown open at Dilworth School. Here, Dawe writes about truth and fiction and the lines between.

Slippery beast the truth. Very tricky trying to get to the truth of the matter. Ask any insurance investigator. Any lawyer. Any schoolboy.

Recently I was approached by the NZ Herald. One of their junior reporters had made the connection between my 2012 novel Into the River and the events that have been rapidly unfolding at Dilworth School. I was impressed by this young woman and agreed to be interviewed. After all the public scrutiny, the vilification and the hot air expended over this novel, she was the first media person to reference the issues that were truly at the heart of it.

In due course a senior Herald journalist made contact. He wanted to know about my 12 years at the school; what I heard, what I saw and what I thought.

This prompted a wholesale ransacking of my memories: faces flashed into view, old stories were exhumed, memories of incidents resurrected, both enjoyable and painful.

But then there were the other things which had never gone away. The unexplained events which over time festered into their own conspiracy theories. Staff members, or boys, who were “gone by lunchtime”. The things which didn’t add up.

At the end of our discussion, when there seemed no more to say, he asked a final question.

“What did you, personally, do about this?”

There is a long complicated answer to this and a shorter, more simple one.

Here’s the short one.

Dilworth School (Photo: Dean Purcell/NZ Herald)

Within days of arriving at the school I became aware of deeply troubling behaviours and attitudes. After years of teaching in multicultural and ethnically diverse settings, the clearly ingrained racism was like a blow to the head. It wasn’t so much what the boys said or did that shocked me, their desperate attempts to make an impact or provoke an argument. Rather it was the blanket acceptance of this stance by everyone. That this was normal. Acceptable. Not worth talking about.

Attitudes tend to reveal themselves first, they are scattered through conversations, opinions and the way the boys relate to each other. Actions followed. The more targeted indicators; bullying and harassment. This happened on a scale I had never previously encountered.

I was familiar with the many forms of bullying, having been the Year 9 Dean at Aorere College. This usually manifested itself in bloody noses and bruises, personal property being stolen or damaged, and playground feuds that had to be carefully resolved before they escalated into gang wars.

The bullying at Dilworth was different; clandestine rather than overt. The culprits were protected by a cloak of “omerta”.

Physical bullying was sporadic, and in a sense, easy to deal with. The evidence was usually written on the skin of the victim. The serious bullying and intimidation was of a psychological variety. Far more damaging, and difficult to get to the bottom of. Many of the boys, perhaps even most, existed in a climate of fear or anxiety. This was greatly exacerbated by the fact that this is a residential school; the boys only have only one and a half days a week at home to recuperate and to recover. To normalise.

In order to avoid victimhood, the two main strategies were invisibility or personal aggression. As with any group there were a number who were immune to bullying due to their size, their status or the sheer power of their personalities. Being good at sport was, of course, a great advantage.

At the other end of the scale there were boys who were identified as vulnerable from their first day at school. This might have been because of physical characteristics, body issues, lack of physical co-ordination, skin colour, personal attractiveness or any number of major or minor variations from “normality”. Following on the heels of this demarcation was the identification of socially unacceptable traits. Sexuality was at the forefront of most attacks, verbal or physical. High on the list was effeminacy or “gaynesss”. (“Gay” was the go-to adjective for anything defective, as was “Māori”.) But there were also plenty of others: timidity, the inability to bond with a group, homesickness, a high voice, any sign of fear.

Psychological vulnerability once exposed was ruthlessly exploited. Stuttering, crying, nervousness, anxiety would all be picked away at in an attempt to bring about some sort of minor personal crisis. News of any emotional or psychological breakdown was enthusiastically circulated. This could be bedwetting perhaps, running away from school, or maybe a shoplifting spree in Newmarket to impress the others.

There were social inadequacies too, things the boys had brought to the school from home. The wrong way of speaking, the inability to make friends, childishness, the desire to withdraw and be left alone. Other behaviours which revealed a background of poverty, deprivation, damage, abuse or something similarly newsworthy.

Between the ruling group and the victims was a body of “floating voters”. These were the boys in the middle who were able to keep their heads down and lead reasonably normal lives. This was never a permanent state though, any number of slips or accidents could expose them to ridicule or humiliation. How they handled these attacks was the key to their survival.

Once the mantle of victimhood was applied to a boy he became a running target for the others to humiliate whenever the opportunity arose. These attacks could be controlled by teachers within the classroom setting, but elsewhere it was open slather. Walking between classes. Queuing for meals. Hanging out on the playing fields. Resting in the dormitories. The real danger, though, was after lights out. This was when the final vestige of adult authority was packed away for the evening.

Stories were circulated about famous beatings or creative cruelty at the hands of prefects or house leaders. More often, though, this was carried out by boys a couple of years older than they were, singly, or in small groups. The excuse offered, if they were challenged or caught, was that this was what happened to them when they were younger. It was a tradition. These incidents made exciting stories because they contained an action narrative. They were no doubt exaggerated and embellished. They became part of the folklore.

The most widespread bullying took the form of harassment. Boys with perceptible psychological or physical “defects” were given a tag. This was a well-thought-out nickname or descriptor – a clipped shorthand version of their personal failing. A catchy tag brief enough to be rapidly referenced wherever the victim went, but so seemingly innocuous that it could never be reported. The tag was usually one word, often though it was just a noise. Something that could be uttered when passing in the hallways, or to someone in an adjacent row while attending chapel or assembly, or by someone squeezing past their table in the dining room. The personal code word could confidently be yelled out in the playground, or while the boy was being picked up by his mother during the weekend. It could be inscribed on his property or written on his forehead after lights out.

The only way to counter this was by being aggressive and thick-skinned. By showing no weakness. In the longer term it was safer to align oneself to a protective group. The price of membership was to harass the boys which the group had generally identified as “lame” in some way. In many cases this meant further damaging the already damaged.

For boys who lacked the will, stature, connections or charisma to join one of these groups, the other refuge was to establish some sort of relationship with a staff member. There were plenty of these. In my time the school had about 100 staff servicing the needs of 320 boys.

Ted Dawe (Photo: Katherine Knubbs)

I believe that this is where much of the sexual offending that is now before the courts originated. The vulnerability of these boys could be easily exploited.

Being an “outsider” – ie, not a residential staff member – I didn’t witness much of this behaviour but heard about it second-hand through the ceaseless and prolific rumour mill. The need for protection was glimpsed in other places. Playground duty, the constant patrolling of the grounds to ensure a visible teacher presence when students are unsupervised, is part of every teacher’s job. In most schools the teacher wanders, waits, watches all the time. The students are largely oblivious, and usually uninterested. Occasionally someone will run up to ask for something or there will be a need to intervene, but for the most part it’s fairly uneventful.

Playground duty at Dilworth was different. The moment the teacher left the staffroom door there was usually a small group of boys waiting to accompany you on your walk. For the next 30 minutes or so they would stick close to the teacher, desperately trying to engage and maintain a conversation. These small boys knew that at least during this 30-minute stint they were unlikely to be mocked or intimidated. A similar thing tended to occur before and after lessons. A desire to enter the class early, and a reluctance to leave.

The bullying was not confined to boy vs boy bullying. I suppose that this could be seen as the age-old adolescent obsession with “testing the boundaries”, but it went further than this. Some male teachers who were identified as “soft” came in for special attention. They were given names and noises, the desks in their classrooms graffitied and sometimes they were subjected to personalised challenges in the classroom. Women teachers were regularly subjected to low-level sexual or inappropriate comments. These could be about the teacher’s clothes, appearance or personal life. Sometimes, in a bid to win kudos from his peers, a boy would over-step the mark.

I remember a relieving teacher calling me to her classroom. There on the whiteboard was an enormous drawing of spread legs and vagina. She had been greeted by a class full of boys grinning with excitement, almost exploding with pent-up anticipation. The perpetrator on this occasion, (rapidly dobbed in by his mates) was a small Year 9 student who had complained to me a few weeks earlier about the others teasing him. There were plenty of other incidents too: more confronting, more serious. After one sexualised confrontation it was only a concerted effort from the teacher that saw the boy finally removed from the school. He was, after all, a member of the 1st XV.

I believe that most bullying comes from perceived power imbalances. Physical size, psychological robustness, social standing etcetera. The primary imbalance at Dilworth arose from the fact that every boy at the school is the recipient of a $35,000 per annum scholarship. This was highly sought after; there were 10 applicants for every placement. It was this that stands behind the unwillingness to make waves, to withdraw an unhappy or damaged son, to compromise the possibility of an amazing future.

Which all brings me back to the question asked of me. “What did you do about this?”

Without getting into self-justification, my answer is: “Plenty, and not enough.”

I believe that the vast majority of teachers would say the same. At the time you do plenty, initiating change, beginning new activities, trying to model appropriate behaviour, controlling behaviours and activities you see as harmful to others. In hindsight, especially given this current crisis, it appears to have been not enough.

The infamous Into the River and Dawe’s new novel, for adults, Answering to the Caul (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

My most determined attempt to bring this to the public eye was by writing the novel Into the River. It was published nearly 10 years after I left the school. I have neither the skills nor the time – let alone the inclination – to write an exhaustive account of what happened at Dilworth. I don’t believe I could ever know enough to shine any definitive light on this situation.

Lynley Hood strived to do this about Peter Ellis and the Civic Creche case, in her book A City Possessed. It was a brilliant and monumental effort: 588 pages, years of work, the winner of the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction at the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. I am strictly a fiction writer, and as such operate in a different universe.

Bullying, violence and psychological damage continue to play a part in my fiction. My latest novel, Answering to the Caul, references an incident at a Northland primary school where two girls hospitalised a younger boy by repeatedly kicking him in the testicles. Contrary to what one might expect, this wasn’t a community marked by poverty and deprivation but rather a prosperous area and a high decile school. When teachers misread the line between having fun and brutality the schools must take some responsibility. To “recharacterise” this behaviour as “rough play” is just a convenient way to paper over the cracks.

The world of the novel has its own internal truth. It runs parallel to the issue being dealt with, but it keeps well clear of perceived fact. Any literal connections or parallels must be made by the reader. Once the writer becomes too specific the project is sabotaged by its own didacticism. Readers hate being told what to think.

As Into the River became mired down with censorship problems mostly to do with sexual explicitness, drugs and language, I was puzzled by why so few readers saw what the book was really about. Even the professionals – the reviewers – didn’t seem to get it. It wasn’t until an American site, Kirkus Reviews, published this, that I felt that maybe my truth was there for all to see after all, but it was just our society that couldn’t grasp it:

” … readers will either see themselves as Devon in this story or will reconsider their own roles in school’s social structures … an object lesson in how systems of power perpetuate themselves.”

Answering to the Caul, by Ted Dawe (Mangakino University Press, $30), can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland



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