Friday was World Suicide Prevention Day. Here Dahlia Malaeulu, a former full-time teacher and mother of two boys, and now co-author of Tama Sāmoa, a new book being launched at the end of this month, reflects on the death of a former student and the challenges faced by Sāmoan and other Pasifika boys.
The row of seats filled up quickly. My thoughts carried me away to a safer, more comfortable place. As a teacher, I’d been invited to major life milestones of former students, like 21st birthdays and graduations. But never this.
We all smiled and acknowledged each other, not really knowing what to say. But we were all here, connected by the one person who had brought us together — my ex-student, Pat.
Social media comments scrolled through my mind as people started to move.
“Gone too soon. Just heartbreaking. I just can’t imagine what the family are going through.”
I joined the waves of people standing up for the family and friends who were physically and spiritually carrying Pat down the aisle of broken hearts.
We sat. We listened.
Stories were told of an evolving Pat. His achievements, his strengths, his potential in music, and his huge heart which was always being given to help and support others.
Then there were the stories that hinted at a sense of darkness, a shadow that seemed to hover around Pat, on and off, over the years. We all got the feeling from the bravest speakers, close family and friends, that Pat’s shadow grew bigger and heavier, until he couldn’t take it anymore.
And, at 19 years old, his shadow consumed him, taking him from this world.
I thought about the shadows we all have. And how we carry all our broken pieces with us, and what this must feel like for our young tamaiti who struggle to make sense of it all. Burdening their minds and spirits.
I remembered sensing this type of energy in my previous life as a full-time intermediate school teacher.
There was Iosefa, who used to talk to me about the pressure he felt from his parents to be the best role model for his younger siblings — the need for him to be the best with school and sports while struggling mentally to keep up with the demands of his Sāmoan world.
I remembered a Tuvaluan student, Tala, who was mocked and teased for his broken English, one time telling me that New Zealand makes him hate his Tuvalu culture.
And Henry, who felt he was always used for his size for sport, and that no one realised he had brains and liked computers more than the sportsfield.
Then there was the time Pita, the jokester with the potential to excel in anything he put his mind to, admitted to me that it was better to be the clown than to be clever because that’s what people and the world ”want us Islanders to be, Miss”.
And Benji who ran away from his mother’s abusive boyfriend, and sent me a message via his girlfriend, who visited my class to tell me: “Benji said to tell you he is sorry. He just didn’t know what else to do.”
But it was Pat who was in front of me.
I remembered Pat being a happy-go-lucky student, who was always trying to figure out who he was and where he fitted. But he wasn’t the only one. All of my students had been facing this phase of adolescence that was meant to just pass. And for some it does, and they figure out their place and where they belong.
But, just as I did growing up, many of our tamaiti are chopping and changing themselves in search of belonging and peace. Collecting and carrying all their broken pieces along the way.
Feeling empty, I sat and listened.
Near the end of the service, a leader of a boys’ community group spoke. He talked about the shadows which follow our boys and grow stronger through silence. He talked too about the need for a cultural and societal shift that normalises boys discussing their issues, with no judgment, which could save our tamaiti and our whānau from days like this.
We all sat through the uncomfortable but surreal reality he spoke of. But we still listened.
Bodies stood and I sensed everyone’s shadows growing as we watched on from the sidelines. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I looked at Pat’s parents and at his older sister who I had also taught. The distraught yet brave faces that reflected their grief-stricken spirits are something I will never forget.
I went home in a delayed state of shock and started crying to my husband. He sat and listened.
A few days passed before we discussed our experiences of past students — my husband recalling students he had mentored and coached. We both concluded that, at the heart of so many challenges, is our tamaiti’s need for acceptance and belonging.
We also talked about our own two boys, picking a path of life journeys they could end up on, and wishing that the world will be able to accept and support them fully as who they are and what they are.
And hoping, too, that, at every step, they keep walking towards and smashing through the Pacific Islander stereotypes and man-or-mouse mentalities they’ll face along the road to finding themselves.
From personal experiences, we also prayed that they learned to embrace real talanoa to help them open up, manage, and cope with these challenges.
The next day, we wrote.
We’d already started working on a new book called Tama Sāmoa, about the many challenges our boys face as Pasifika growing up in Aotearoa today. But it was Pat and his passing that highlighted the dire consequences of all the broken pieces our boys carry with them, and how we all have a part to play in saving our boys from their shadows.
I’m a big believer that our tamaiti are our greatest teachers, and so we created a space in the book for Sāmoan educators and eight boys — students aged 11 to 21 — to share their stories and experiences. Their stories have helped to shine a light on the close connections between culture and identity and wellbeing for us all.
As one student author writes, in relation to not knowing his Sāmoan language: “Don’t. Let. Me. Drown.”
Another student asks teachers to “Help us to understand. Don’t just leave us hanging and then blame us.”
The messages our Pasifika tamaiti receive from the world are very clear across these stories, and they include the stereotypes and racism they experience as teenagers growing up in New Zealand.
“Big + Strong + Sport = All that matters,” writes one boy.
For another, the message he gets is: “Don’t rise up. Stay down, tama Sāmoa.”
They also reflect on the impact of living with dual identities. One student writes:
“I realised I didn’t belong anywhere. And it was one of the loneliest feelings I ever had.”
Another remembers that, as he grew up, he had no choice but to “let my tongue be colonised. No matter how much it wanted to march to the beat, to the rhythm, of my ancestors’ drum.”
But what I have always found as a teacher, is that when we sit and listen and try to understand our tamaiti, whether they realise it or not, they also have the answers for us.
“If you’re a son or a student and you need help or support, the best way to get it is for all of us to start talking.”
It’s been six months since Pat’s funeral, and Tama Sāmoa, the book, is finished, ready to be released to the world at the end of this month to coincide with our national mental health awareness week (September 21–27).
Along this journey, I’ve learned that we need to have more than hope for all our boys.
We all have a part to play in the lives of our tamaiti and we must continue the conversation to shine a light on the darkness that hides in all our shadows, helping our tamaiti to better manage the internal challenges and struggles that they will inevitably face as boys — as tama Sāmoa and tama Pasifika.
For the sake of all our tamaiti, let’s help to model and create a new boy code based on talanoa — real talk and understanding that better supports our boys in finding acceptance as who they truly are, away from the darkness of their shadows.
So they can take their place in their own light, where they belong.
*For you, Paddy, and the lessons you continue to teach us from above.
(This piece has been published with the permission and support of Pat’s parents.)
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