Drinking - Starting a Conversation

Stewart Tagg —

Last week in our Senior Assembly one of our staff-members, Mr Stewart Tagg shared his experiences with alcohol, as an old boy of this school and also as a young man growing up in Dunedin. Mr Tagg shared his stories with our boys and does so with our wider school community because of the belief that we need to start a conversation with our students about drinking and its consequences. Here is the transcript of Mr Tagg's speech.

Boys, I want to talk to you today about drinking and I know already that I’ve lost half of the room.

Research out of our very own Otago University, an institution renowned for the drinking culture of its own students, tells us quite clearly that education in schools is having very little effect on curbing the drinking behaviour of young people. Same with TV ads. Same with warning signs on bottles.

Nothing’s working.

And being that I’m a 45 year old teacher about to tell an auditorium full of young men about the dangers of drinking, I’m very well aware that I’m not about to change the world – but that’s ok.

When it comes to our country’s and our community’s ridiculously high binge-drinking culture it’s better to say something than sit back and say or do nothing.

Young people drink, regardless of warning. And young people drink lots.

I drink.

I have done since I was a young person sitting where you are now. I enjoy having a drink and when I was young drinking was quite simply what you did. For a lot of young people drinking heavily was what you did. Is what you do.

Having a drink, no harm done. Getting pissed, no harm done. Getting shit-faced? No harm done.

And that’s fine – no harm done. Until harm is actually done. Then it’s a problem.

One of the big issues I see regarding our drinking culture is that in many cases it’s NO HARM DONE. It’s hard to take something seriously when it’s everywhere, which is where drinking is. When our parents, our friends all enjoy a drink and getting drunk, there’s no harm done. Your role models do it so where’s the harm?

I want to share with you my journey with alcohol from where you are today to where I am right now. I want to do this to illustrate the harm that’s been done along the way, sometimes to me through my own actions but often to other people too.

A lot of these stories are Dunedin-centric. Some of their details may be recognizable to some in the room and if that causes discomfort then I regret that.

Let’s start with me in year 11 – 5th form, back in the day. One of my class-mates, a guy who was both a school-mate and a team-mate of mine killed a young girl out drink-driving in his parents’ car while they were out of town. Plain and simple ran her down as he drove by. Changed him forever – suffice to say. Destroyed him to a degree. It also destroyed the family of the young girl who got hit and I know that for a fact because many years later as a teacher I sat at the Drive to Survive Expo and listened to that girl’s mother talk vividly of her grief and anger, still raw after more than 25 years of loss. I didn’t know who she was but as soon as she started describing the death of her daughter I understood immediately.

Fast forward to university. I was involved in a car-crash where a friend of mine fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked the car we were driving. My friend had been drinking. No one was hurt but my friend was prosecuted by the police and his parents’ car was wrecked, with no insurance.

Still at university, a rowing friend of mine and an old boy of this school gets drunk while overseas in Rome competing at the University Games. A known non- drinker and a committed athlete, he falls from a bridge and dies.

Still at university, on a drunken night out with friends after rugby, I get into a fight and get beaten unconscious after mouthing off at strangers. I wake up bloody and battered alone in a deserted alley hours later.

Still at university. Playing rugby and hoping to make the Otago Under 21 team for the 2nd year running.

After a night drinking with flat-mates I miss my ride to Sunday practice and get a blasting from my coach before being dropped once the squad is announced. I discovered later that my coach had been told that I was drinking the night before.

Still at university. I lose a job I cherished and valued because on a drunken night out with friends I was inexcusably poorly behaved in front of colleagues and my boss. To this day, I’m still incredibly embarrassed and ashamed by this.

Into my teaching career now and straight off the bat in my first year of teaching. A student I teach in year 12 drink drives and kills a young mother.

Still teaching. A young female colleague of mine gets drunk at a bar after work. A year 13 student from our school takes advantage of her state and tries to slow- dance with her. Nothing eventuates but the rumour- mill at school makes her job untenable and she is forced to resign.

Still teaching. A student I taught year 12 English to, nice kid, leaves a party drunk down at the wharf. Falls into the harbour and drowns.

Still teaching, but living in London now – doing the Great Kiwi OE. Out with friends, I get into a drunken fight. I wake up in hospital with no recollection of the events which put me there. My good mate, Scotty wakes up with me in a similar state. My school in London asks me to stay away for 2 weeks while my face heals – my boss tells me I’d scare the students looking like I do. I don’t get paid for those two weeks.

My good friend Scotty, out drinking with his brother and friends on a terribly rainy night, jumps into a rubbish skip for shelter instead of walking home. Scotty falls asleep and gets crushed to death early that morning by a rubbish truck. His many many friends and his lovely family are devastated, both at his untimely demise and also the utter absurdity and pointlessness of his death too.

I still drink.

Rarely to excess these days, but I still drink.

Throughout my relationship with alcohol, from where you are there sitting in front of me to where I am now standing in front of you I’ve lost students, friends; I’ve lost opportunities, jobs and a I’ve lost a lot of my own dignity and self-respect. I’ve seen families devastated all thanks to alcohol and our inability to see it for what it is and what it can do.

This speech isn’t intended to dissuade you from not drinking. Like I said at the start of this talk, that’s not realistic. More than anything else the message for you sitting here in front of me is that alcohol always takes so much more than it gives. Always.

The relationship that we have with alcohol needs to start becoming a conversation here at Otago Boys’ High School. We are not doing enough to support each other and to show the way, the right way, in dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol is the common denominator in all of the stories I’ve shared with you today. Whichever way you frame your position, alcohol leads to poor choices and puts you in situations which can be harmful and even dangerous.

Good kids here amongst us have had harm done by alcohol and their relationship to it. People sitting here are making poor choices when it comes to alcohol, good people.

We need to start talking about these things more openly and not sweeping them under the carpet.

That’s what mates do. They don’t let their friends take a fall, they look out for their brothers.

There’s much more to be said with regards to alcohol and the harm it does do to good people. Please know boys that our lives are more fragile than we give them credit for, it doesn’t take much for significant harm to be done in the name of having a drink.

A useful website which helps parents address alcohol with their teens is: