How my high school Principal's racism gave me a second chance

“You’re just a f*cking racist bitch!

This is what I yelled at my school principal in week three of my starting high school. I got in trouble, pretty serious trouble. I assaulted someone, in my school uniform, in a public place.

My calling the Principal racist is probably what made her decide that day I would be suspended. I went home for a couple of days to think about what I had done and when I came back, I wouldn’t apologise for it. Nope. Why should I apologise when I had caused her no harm, but she had made broad sweeping generalisations simply based on the colour of my skin?

I was suspended indefinitely for not apologising and the decision about my future at the school would be determined by the Board of Trustees in ten days’ time.

For the most part, I was a pleasant, well-behaved and motivated student who simply had a lapse in better judgement that day. No one (except the principal) wanted me gone.

One of the Board of Trustees at the time was a Samoan woman. She advocated for me from a Board position. And did her best to connect me in with older Samoan students at the school to help guide me through that time.

A friend had died two days beforehand. I was 12. He was 13. That same day my friend died was the first time I had ever seen my dad angry with me. That I remember anyway. I remember fretting over him being angry. He never knew about me getting in trouble that following week.

There is never any excuse. I did the wrong thing. I knew it the moment my fist made contact with my fellow student’s face.

All of these events leading to and following that awful Monday morning could have changed the course of my life, but they didn’t and I starting thinking that my racist high school principal had a hand in keeping my life ‘on track’, so to speak.

The Principal at the time could have decided that it was a Police matter. Though by the time I yelled those words at her, the situation likely became more about her protecting her reputation and the reputation of the school and less about what I had done to someone who I was quite buddy-buddy with the previous year.

If the police had of been called, I may of been charged and likely expelled. I might have gone to Youth Court, or at the very least there would have been a Family Group Conference and the bad smell of CYFS would have followed me around forever.

I could have ended up in an alternative education programme and perhaps eventually dropped out of school. I could have got in more trouble as years went on, transitioning from Youth Court to District Court, limiting my employment and education opportunities. And because I’m Samoan and Māori, the odds were against me given that 83% of young people under 20 in prison right now have had some form of state intervention in their earlier years. And Māori are disproportionately represented in our prison population. That could have been me.

I was also fortunate enough I had the support of my family, an advocate on the Board and good relationships with my teachers. And from memory - none of them treated me any different after the fact. I was still a good kid who (mostly) worked hard.

Right throughout our lives the consequences of our actions could create a parallel world where our outcomes could be so different. Many of us would have committed low-level crimes in our youth, but most of us have the luxury to forget those past-wrongdoings simply because we were not caught, or because we lacked the colour of skin or socio-economic background that could have criminalised us.

A U.S. Website We are all criminals shares some harrowing stories of crimes people have committed but which have never caught up with them. These are stories we like to put down to “boys will be boys” and “they were just kids then”. However, they paint an alternative picture of what life might have become had these people been caught. For people who commit similar offences but who do get caught - this kind of alternative life is a reality.

My life could have changed track for that one stupid, but serious, mistake I made more than 20 years ago. Fortunately, I can sit here and reflect and write these words, from a safe place with a good income and a roof over my head. But imagine, how different could it have been if my high school Principal had made a different choice and called the police?