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Harold The Giraffe Made Me Terrified of Drugs

WORDS | Liam Hansen (he/they)

Behind the iconic mammal that preached healthy living to a generation

Primary school in the mid to late 2000s was... a lot. It involved plenty of Jump Jam, avoiding swimming sports and playing SumDog with Taio Cruz’s ‘Dynamite’ in the background (or its superior Minecraft parody version). These, alongside my time with Harold, are the only memories from primary school that I haven’t actually repressed. I spent hours shoeless in a cramped little caravan with the rest of my classmates, looking up at artificial stars, learning about the human body and becoming mesmerised by a giraffe who was definitely not a puppet.

At times I think back on the Healthy Harold programme and wonder if it was all a fever dream. It was a creative take on health education for sure. Featuring casual skeletons, skinned figures of human bodies and Harold occasionally bursting into song with an undeniably killer baritone. It also gave kids a different environment to learn in - one with crazy new technology, like a projector and a big ol’ screen in a van. Maybe the uniqueness of the classes, both in content and design, is why they’ve stuck around in my mind so much. I learned about how the heart wasn’t actually heart-shaped, that you shouldn’t be a dick, and that you should never call Harold a puppet or else you’ll be shunned and exiled. All this led up to the conversations around drugs and alcohol during years seven and eight, which are permanently etched into my mind. Laminated photos of grey lungs, car crashes and intoxicated teenagers decorated the walls. The latter was used to show what employers could find when they searched your name online. Nothing is more terrifying to an eleven-year old than their future job prospects being foiled! Unless you’re my friend, who was terrified of Harold and promptly became an alcoholic to spite him.

The programme seems to have had some sort of an effect on me, as I continue to be subconsciously strict on myself about drinking in safe environments and avoiding drugs stronger than Nuromol. Admittedly, this is probably due to me being a neurotic weasel who’s scared of dying, but that fear had to have come from somewhere. Thankfully, it seems I’m not alone; a super scientific study (a poll and question box on the Debate Instagram story) showed that a majority of respondents became scared of drug use after their lessons (56% is still the majority, shh). It also revealed that Harold apparently once started emitting steam in someone's class, which either means that a robotic FNAF-like version of Harold exists, or that motherfucker needs to practise what he preaches.

But it’s been a while, and times are changing. The children educated by Harold are growing up and understanding drugs better, and the conversation in Aotearoa has been shifting towards harm reduction. This prompted me to speak to Life Education Trust, the folks behind the Healthy Harold programme. I wanted to learn how they operate as educators and as a business, how they approach their substance education and their impact over the last 35 years.

After waiting outside a mobile classroom and listening to the kids inside laugh and cheer, I was welcomed in and transported back to my youth. It was actually a bougier version of it. Gone were the black felt walls, massive whiteboard and slightly sticky carpet I remember. The revamped minivan was orange and purple, decorated with various posters and worksheets, a brand new screen and a miraculously clean and fluffy floor considering it had just been put through a day's worth of smelly kid feet. Of course, all of it was lit up by the starry ceiling, which hasn’t changed a bit. I was speaking to Sylvia Parke, an inconveniently named educator from Ireland, and Natasha Brooking, who was a few weeks into her training at Life Education. Almost immediately our conversation jumped to the little yellow guy behind the curtain - perhaps sitting cross-legged on the caravan floor brought the excitement back out in me.

“The kids don’t come to see us, all they want to see is Harold,” Sylvia laughed. “Except for the little year ones who have no idea who he is - some of them can be a little bit scared of him at the beginning.”

There are techniques to make him a bit less frightening: consistent movement and expressiveness are key, especially in the age of masked up education making emotions a bit harder to understand. As kids get older, however, most warm up to him and see him as an integral part of their childhood. Natasha told a story of how she asked a group of year eight students who had been seeing Harold since they were five and watched as every hand in the van shot up. She decided to bring the giraffe out one last time, having him tell some jokes to the class and reminisce.

“I didn’t think they would go for it”, she said, “but I said ‘Hey, if you’d love to just come up and say goodbye to Harold, give him a scratch behind the ear or a little pat, feel free’ and the whole class lined up! Of course, they know he’s not real, but they all said goodbye and left really happy. For me, it was like ‘Wow, this is really what it’s about’.”

A giraffe mascot's ability to have tweens let go of their cringe culture mindset and let themselves be kids again is something to be marvelled at. I did end up getting slightly too curious and asked if I could take a look at him. I have now seen Harold the Giraffe's lifeless body, and no, I did not take any pictures (I’m saving you all the heartbreak).

The programme seems to have had some sort of an effect on me, as I continue to be subconsciously strict on myself about drinking in safe environments and avoiding drugs stronger than Nuromol.

After my visit to the mobile caravan, I spoke to Lance Hutchison, the chairperson of Auckland Central operations who’s been around since the beginning. He explained how Life Education Trust ran, and its philosophy: “The human body is magnificent, we must respect and care for everyone, and you are unique and special. ” However, not every school runs the same way. Sylvia pointed out that different regions have different topics. “For example, some schools want a really strong focus on substance education, while others focus elsewhere”. I wondered if there would be any equity issues surrounding this, to which Lance explained, “We now have a fund for schools that can’t afford us - we’ll come in for free for the first year”. He also made it clear that they're essentially a charity that runs like a business, with rigorous fundraising efforts and support from various organisations - yet they refuse funding from the government. This is to keep their neutrality across the board, as accepting cash from one government could result in the next year's being cut if there’s a change of power. There’s also minimised political influence, with all of their issues sticking to their own core principles and examinations of what’s needed. In recent years, it’s been mental health support and vaping education.

“It doesn't matter whether it’s illegal or legal, the impact is still the same. The concern is that the adolescent brain is still developing, which is why we tell kids to delay.” Life Education's CEO, John O'Connell, really emphasised this over the phone - and the same sentiment was echoed by Lance, Sylvia and Natasha. We were chatting about substance education in the Harold caravans and beyond. Unsurprisingly, the approach felt a lot more nuanced than when I was a kid. These courses absolutely aim to disclose the risk of drug harm, but there was still an understanding that recreational drug use wasn’t inherently terrible. John reflects on how drug education has changed over the years: “Ultimately, we want kids to make an informed decision. Back in my day, we didn't have any education on what happened to your body after five drinks, so we want to make sure kids are making the safe choice when they’re in those situations”.

So, why did it feel like I was being told drugs and alcohol were evil when I was a kid? Several people I spoke to came away from eight years in the Life Education Caravan and felt like they were being taught through the lens of prohibition. Our Instagram responses also revealed some issues Debate readers had with their own teaching. One user recollected being told marijuana would make them hallucinate (it doesn't). Perhaps it was due to how each educator approached their teaching, as well as what our primary school decided to focus on. John reiterated, “We don’t go into the school saying we’re going to teach X, Y, and Z. We always work with the school and try to meet their own needs”.

However, Life Education is not against change. “We’re right up to vaping now when it used to be smoking. People drink less now, so there’s less alcohol education demand, but there’s far more around mental health, resilience and managing stress.” When I asked about the vaping programme and how that was being designed, he said it was all happening as more information was being brought up and discovered by scientists. Their development team in Wellington is focused on thorough research, working with public health bodies and creating a programme that allows for proper minimisation of drug harm. The same goes for their ongoing substance education, as well as the building of mental health programmes; after years of kids going in and out of isolation, children are struggling with more anxiety and loneliness. John says, “We have a direct feedback system from schools, so we often pick up on these issues before public health”. This allows them to implement changes early and begin their education as these issues begin to peak.

Whether you came out of the Harold caravan feeling empowered or terrified, you cannot deny the impact it and Life Education Trust as a whole have made over the past thirty-five years. They champion their impact proudly: According to their 2021 annual report, 96% of teachers agreed that they provided children with the information needed to make positive decisions. 97% agreed that their educators delivered lessons that met the needs of their class. Nonetheless, there are absolutely still issues and work that needs to be done. John highlighted how they’re working on implementing more te reo Māori into their classrooms and more culturally responsive teaching in general. They're also working on diversity within their own company and recognise how the face of it needs to change alongside the rest of Aotearoa.

In retrospect, I think that my own substance education could’ve been handled better. It would’ve been great if there was more focus on safe recreational drug usage, having more nuance between ‘This is what will happen if you use drugs’ and ‘This is what will happen if you stay sober’. There are so many different variables to recreational drug use, and it’s very possible to provide education on safe drug usage, drug checking and risks without encouraging it. As Sylvia said, “If you tell a group of kids to not press the big red button, they are going to press the big red button.” But everyone I spoke to at Life Education Trust seemed very confident that they were adequately evolving and adapting when new information was released, and I hope we can continue to see that in their results. Health and drug education can be weird and scary. But if a big ol’ giraffe can guide us through the safety and risks, we can hopefully move toward a healthier and happier society.


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