A month or so ago, I was driving to school. Just as I was about to turn into our school gate, a group of students in different local school uniforms ran across the road in front of the car. They were being chased by a man who proceeded to hit them with a stick to get them into a mini-van.
Should I report this incident? Who would I report it too? As a cultural outsider, is it my place to report it? What if he was hitting students from our school? What does that matter? What does the law say? Would reporting it make it worse for the students? Maybe the driver considers this appropriate? Who am I to tell him otherwise?
In the 30 seconds that I had asked myself these questions and decided to stop and turn around, the mini-van had driven off. I had no idea what I was going to say to the driver if I had of caught up with him but as the day wore on I become more and more agitated with myself.
I spoke with colleagues at school who said this sort of thing was commonplace. They did say that corporal punishment was now illegal in Lesotho schools but a report prepared in January 2017 by the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children suggests that this law is vague at best and does not prohibit the use of corporal punishment in homes or alternative care settings. It is probable that the driver was not breaking the law.
While it may have been that the driver was not breaking the law and I had no direct influence over the driver to stop this from happening again, I was very disappointed in myself in not addressing the issue with him. I believe that adults should not harm children and should actively protect them from physical and psychological harm. I had recently been involved in the development of child protection initiatives that I thought had solidified my resolve to use my position as an educator to actively protect children. And here I am as the principal of an international school and letting this go? I could not reconcile this with my beliefs.
I did catch up with the driver two weeks later and it was a philosophy session with some 9, 10 and 11 year-old students that crystallized my thinking prior to this meeting. We were reading ‘The If Odyssey’ and were addressing this question:
‘Is it right to do something just because we have always done it?’
Corporal punishment was on my mind throughout the session although this issue was not raised. Unsurprisingly, students unanimously agreed that just doing something for a long time does not always make it right. To support their arguments they drew inspiration from women being allowed to vote and slavery being abolished. When asked how these things happened after centuries of women having no right to vote and people owning other people, the students said that people realized this was wrong. The students said that listening to what abolitionists and suffragists (they did not use these terms) believed changed most people’s minds. The students added that sometimes you need to argue and fight to change other people’s minds but that is OK if you are arguing and fighting to help people.
I did not want a fight but I did want the driver to change his mind about hitting children. So I resolved to simply tell him what I believe.
I saw the driver again on a Friday morning outside our school. He was in his mini-van with children milling around. He was joking around with them which made we wonder if I had misinterpreted what I saw two weeks ago but I decided to press on. I introduced myself and said that I thought I saw him hitting some of these children as they got in his mini-van two weeks ago. He didn’t really say anything so I just said that as a parent and as a teacher, I believe that adults should protect and not hit or hurt children. I told him that he has a very important job, asked him to look after these children and left it at that. It must have taken all of 30 seconds. I wasn’t angry but I wasn’t smiling. I have seen him a couple of times since then and always wave to him. I believe that this driver is a good and reasonable man with positive intentions. I hope that sharing my beliefs instigates in him a crisis of conscience similar to those that have developed my own beliefs.
While I hope that I have made a positive difference in sharing my beliefs, I know that this might not have been enough in the instance. Nonetheless, I share this story to make the point that I would not have approached the driver if I had not been clear as to what I believed. My beliefs made me accountable to myself and compelled me to move toward a problem that, in all honesty, I might have otherwise avoided. I could not let it go.