At the start of each school year, seniors at upper secondary schools get a chance to welcome new freshmen in a hazing ceremony called ‘busun,’ or ‘tollering.’ Although this Icelandic rite of passage has been around for centuries, it has recently come under scrutiny. Last year the Icelandic ombudsman for children (yes, we have one of those) suggested that schools receive students in a more positive and friendly manner than hazing them.
The rituals and traditions vary from school to school, but they generally involve scaring and humiliating the freshmen. I remember being hazed in Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, where seniors banged loudly on windows and doors before shepherding the new flock out to the front yard. There the older students made us perform all sorts of degrading activities such as flailing in the moist grass as if we were beached whales, doing push-ups on top of people of the opposite sex, and eating bananas from other students’ zippers. The ritual culminated with us being thrown into the air, after which seniors had to afford us the same respect as other students.
A Closely Observed Affair
Speaking to the rector of my former school, Yngvi Pétursson, he tells me that the hazing is closely observed by school authorities. Senior students are given thorough instructions as to what they can and can’t do during the day of hazing, and he can’t recall any accidents happening since he joined the school board in ’95. He says the whole affair is enjoyed by seniors and freshmen alike.
Karen Björk Eyþórsdóttir, the president of Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð’s student council, says that freshmen were all beaming with happiness after this year’s hazing. The affair involved telling the freshmen how unimportant they were, and performing a fake sacrifice of a loud-mouthed freshman who spoke out of turn. The students were then made to drink blood-coloured mysa (milk serum) shots, and were smudged with Vaseline and bronzer. At the end of it, the freshmen were covered in so much glitter that they looked like they had just come off the set of Twilight.
Before any hazing can take place in MH, the acts all have to be approved by Karen’s council, which in turn works closely with the rector to ensure that nothing gets out of hand. The hazing ritual, she says, is only one hour out of an entire week that is dedicated to making new students feel welcome to the school. During this week the various clubs hold presentations and offer students a chance to become active in their extracurricular activities.
Not All Fun And Games
Although he has no personal grievances after being hazed at MH this year, Arnaldur Ingi Jónsson questions the power dynamic between senior students and freshmen, believing things to sometimes go too far. “I didn’t mind getting Vaseline and toothpaste in my hair, or drinking the mysa shot, but some people are not okay with those things,” he says. “I’ve heard of cases where students were practically forced to do things they were fundamentally opposed to. I don’t want to abolish hazing, but some parts of it could really be improved.”
Other people are not as forgiving of this phenomenon. When Olga Lísa Garðarsdóttir was appointed the rector of Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands a year ago, she decided to ban hazing outright. She could not justify continuing the practice after witnessing numerous incidents that were only a hairsbreadth away from bearing serious consequences. “It’s humiliating for the freshmen, and also poses serious risks of leaving lasting psychological scars,” she says.
Olga believes that allowing hazing validates a certain kind of bullying. Some of her students were not pleased to miss out on the chance to haze others, but they have not been so motivated as to confront Olga about the issue. The only response she has received has been praise from parents and teachers, as new students are now met in a friendly fashion with a series of concerts, stand-up comedy and free food.
Other schools have followed in FSu’s footsteps and banned hazing rituals, including Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurnesja, and most recently Fjölbrautaskóli Garðabæjar. Only time will tell if this is a trend that will catch on in the other schools of Iceland, or if hazing will remain a part of the curriculum.