While the Covid-19 outbreak captures the majority of public attention in New Zealand, high school students turn their minds to the Christchurch terror attacks one year prior
“Wear bright colours”, organisers said beforehand. “And don’t wear any red”.
No one attending Cambridge High School’s commemorative mufti day fundraiser on March 13 at the small but growing New Zealand secondary school, marking almost one year since the Christchurch terror attacks, did wear red.
Cambridge High School’s Head Girl, speaking to me for a report in our local paper said: “I think as a school, we responded very respectfully [to the attacks.]” You could see that same respect, just as strong, at the March 13 mufti day, said the Head Girl. In a mark of that respect towards the Muslim community – where red is considered inappropriate – not one of Cambridge High School’s 1700 students donned a red garment.
What New Zealand schools around the country did don that day en masse, though, was bright colours. The goal was both to keep up the moral of New Zealanders on the anniversary of its most fatal terror attack, and to raise money for St. John, our national first responders. “When so many of us felt helpless, wearing colour was a simple gesture to encourage individuals, community groups and businesses during a dark chapter for New Zealanders,” read the website of the “Colour Your Day” initiative, which coordinated the school mufti days across NZ.
Students, on hearing of the coming mufti day, thought back to a similar event held during March last year. Cambridge High School, in collaboration with a nation of school students, held a spirits-lifting mufti day just weeks after news of the tragedy broke. “New Zealand will not forget”, a country of Kiwi kids chimed back then.
One year on, New Zealand students have not forgotten.
“Go into almost any school and see how they do a haka, how they sing waiata, how the kids, all sorts of kids, stand together to do those things … that sense of identity and community, cultures coming together, is what’s normal for them now,” read a short opinion piece by NZ Herald writer Simon Wilson on the one year anniversary of the attacks. As the Covid-19 epidemic shakes up norms across the world, Kiwi students’ minds were on another kind of world-shaking event – the Christchurch Terror attacks.
The attacks, which killed 50 and injured dozens at two Christchurch Mosques, left a lasting mark on NZ’s psyche. “A year on, I believe New Zealand and its people have fundamentally changed” as a result of the attacks said NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, reflecting on the day last week.
Kiwi students have made clear that they intend very much on remembering the events of March 15. “It’s about keeping that harrowing day in our memories,” Cambridge High’s Head Boy told me, speaking about the mufti day efforts.
And mufti days have not been the only way students took to highlighting one year since the terror attacks. In James Cook High School in South Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, students grouped to sing a ‘waiata’ or Maori song in a “message of shared grief and hope”. Principal Grant McMillian told RNZ that the collective singing expressed how the student community felt in the wake of the terror attacks. It “reminds the students who know it and go back to it again, what the future could be and should be” he told RNZ.
“Colour your day”, the initiative behind the school mufti days, is headed by a former Christchurch High School Head Boy: Okirano Tilaia. Tilaia spearheaded the youth response to the attacks last year, and received a leadership award as a result. “For me, it’s been a state of really empowering the next generation,” he told1News.
The impact of the terror attacks on Cambridge High School students – and teens around the country – was “massive”, Cambridge High’s Head Girl told me. Around the country, the attacks spurned on an outpouring of sympathies within communities, online and off. Not long after the attacks, hundreds of high school students performed a haka during a vigil near Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. At my school, students shared a simple cartoon. “This is your home and you should have been safe here” it read.
In a way, the attacks galvanised a generation of New Zealanders against far-right politics. As students opted to wear hijabs in a show of solidarity with New Zealand’s Muslim community at Cambridge High’s mufti day last year, far-right Australian Senator Fraser Anning blamed Muslim immigration for the violence. Shortly after, he was egged by an Australian teen soon to become christened into the Kiwi internet hall of fame as “egg boy”. More seriously, he summed up Kiwi teenagers’ feelings at the time; a host of student memes praised the egg boy and his condemnation of anti-immigrant politics.
Back at Cambridge High, students say they intend to make the remembrance mufti days a tradition.
“It’s a very worthwhile cause,” said the Head Boy. “I think it’s something that as a nation, we could’ve said: it’s a terrible event, … we’ll move on, but instead we’ve decided to keep this as something we’ll keep on remembering.”
Featured image via Kristina Hoeppner