My name is Eleni. It’s a name from Samoa, the birthplace of my parents. The vowels are pronounced like those of the native Maori alphabet, but Te Reo wasn’t promoted in New Zealand back in the 1970s. As a consequence, many palagi mispronounced Polynesian names.
The sting of Miss Ellen’s leather strap burned the palm of my hand. Miss Ellen was my primer two teacher at primary school.
“Eeleenee, I’m speaking to you!” she said.
I was being punished for standing up for myself. Sarah Wilkinson had lied. She told our teacher I had ripped her crayon drawing for nothing. I had tried to reveal the truth, but Miss Ellen had already brought out the thick leather strap from the bottom drawer of her desk, and pulled me to the front of the classroom.
So, I shut my mouth, bowed my head, held out my hand like Miss Ellen told me to, and waited. My Samoan upbringing taught me to respect my elders and don’t talk back.
The pain was sharper.
“Did you hear me, Eeeleenee? I said look at me!”
The blue carpet became a watery blur as tears overflowed from my eyes. I was confused. I wasn’t supposed to look elders in the eye when they were talking, especially when reprimanding me. It was a sign of disrespect and defiance. Yet, I was also supposed to obey my elders without question.
My hand burned and started to shake uncontrollably. My silent weeping escalated into hiccupping sobs.
“LOOK AT ME, YOU RUDE GIRL.”
Miss Ellen’s angry words puffed through the fringe of my hair, feeling hot on my forehead.
Finally, I slowly raised my head.
Red blotches spread along Miss Ellen’s cheeks and nose. It reminded me of how my blood soaked into the fabric of my dad’s jersey when I tumbled off my bike and grated the skin on my legs, outside Eden Park. Miss Ellen’s was dynamite ready to explode. Spittle from her barking snarl sprayed my tear-streaked face.
How could she terrify children by forcing them to watch her full-blown wrath and hate?
If I misbehaved in front of my elders, they gave me loud, long lectures that included common Samoan sayings - empty threats, such as “I’ll stomped on your head, you shit eater.” Sometimes, I’d feel the whack of a belt or jandal. But never had I actually witnessed terrifying, shape-shifting rage until Miss Ellen’s strap incident.
Afterwards, Miss Ellen would grip my chin in her thumb and index finger, and pull my face towards hers when speaking to me. I found it excruciatingly uncomfortable undoing the conditioning of my Samoan culture, but I didn’t want to unleash the white dragon with the fiery face again, and so, within a week I was able to make and keep eye contact without needing Miss Ellen’s ‘guidance’.
Then came the day I lost my prescribed glasses at school. My dad was furious! I sat on the floor in front of him, crying as he yelled at me. I didn’t realise I had started staring at him until he stopped in the middle of his rant, his eyes widening in shock.
In Samoan he said, “How dare you disrespect me and look at me like that!”
My birthplace is Aotearoa; it’s reclaiming its nativeness. My roots are Samoan; distance of time between us grows. My elders are less offended when people hold eye contact.
My name – Eleni - is not so hard to pronounce anymore.
First published in 'Landfall', issue 230, in December. 2015