December 3, 2021 Message to Members
“Late, not absent.”
This week, the BCPVPA hosted the first webinar in the Leading for Equity Series. Unfortunately, I was on the road during this webinar, which limited my participation to listening intently. While there was so much rich information and critical exchange, a simple two-word name for a clerical process absolutely captured my attention and evoked in me powerful emotions, long dormant but clearly just below the surface. One of our BCPVPA colleagues briefly spoke to the transformative impact upon students when a ‘Late Slip’ becomes a ‘Welcome Slip.’
Unheralded, memories from grade four flooded my thinking, and I gave myself over to them.
Grade four was a tough year. In this school year, my parents made the separation of their lives together permanent and bound by a judge. Right or wrong, my mother shared with me details of the process and the outcomes, believing open and honest sharing to be fundamental in a trusting relationship. As a result, while only nine years of age, I became versed in the mechanics of divorce. To further unsettle the year, we moved.
I was already a skilled nomad, as we had frequently moved. I took pride in the fact that my room was the first unpacked, with pictures and shelves up on the walls within a day. In the past, each move had put us in a larger apartment suite, or one with more attractive rent and amenities. The new home was usually within blocks of the old one, and I was able to remain in the same school. Except in grade four.
The house we moved into was miles away in East Vancouver, and my new school would be Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary. Looking up from the steps which led to the front doors of this imposing, grey building, I felt small and overwhelmed. So much was different, and every face and voice new to me. It didn't help that we had arrived in the spring, when everyone else already knew the drill. It only helped me to stand out, more visibly apart. There was, however, one routine that remained familiar to me in this transplanted home, and that was getting ready for school.
With a single, working parent raising both my sister and me, mornings could be rushed, and we often ran late. In grade three, I usually visited the office at least once a week, sent by my teacher Miss Rash to correct the register. I’d walk up to the office counter and say to the secretary seated there that I was “Late, not absent.” Eventually, the secretary began to finish my sentence. Sometimes she did so with a sigh but always a smile. Arriving late in grade four was a more bruising experience for me, and it seemed to happen with greater frequency – at least that was the perception of a boy more fragile at nine than he was at eight. And as hard as it was to join his class late, he always turned the knob and walked through the door… until he didn’t.
That May morning was clear and dry in East Van, and marked rush by a failed alarm clock and an early appointment for my sister; mom wasn’t heading to work today. I left the house to walk the few blocks to school, already knowing I’d arrive well after the bell had rung. Knowing this, I had pestered my mom to let me come along this morning. But school was too important, and I would have to be late, not absent. The school grounds were empty when I arrived, with everyone already inside. I climbed the enormous front steps and entered the main doors. The hallway was empty, too. I made my way up the wide inside steps, leading to the second floor. I could hear teachers and students through the closed doors that each stared with an opaque window that distorted the movement inside. I approached my classroom door and put my hand on the doorknob. I didn’t turn it. Looking into the filmy glass, I could see shadows of students moving about the room. I wanted to be inside. But I was late, and unable to stand in that open doorway and articulate why.
I retreated down each set of steps and across the playground. Back at my house, my mom and sister hadn’t yet left, waiting on a friend who would drive. Unable to face her either, I hid beneath our own front steps. When they finally drove off, I used my key and returned to my room to plan. It was brilliant: I would join my class at recess when they are all outside playing on the grounds. I could slip in among them undetected; and at the bell, I could blend in with the surge returning to class, finally to be noticed once I was safely in my desk. My anxiety and flight had led me to hatch a good plan.
Soon it was June, a time of Playland gift tickets from the Gizeh Temple Shriners and yet another move, a return to the old neighbourhood I was missing. Grade five was going to be a good year.
Lost in my thinking as I drove, I heard Ashraf Nouman suggest that in the work of equity, we must “begin by decolonizing our hearts and minds.” I walk in this world as one most privileged, and I did so even as a child. I saw my own culture in the faces of all the adults in my world, and despite this I hid in shame beneath a front porch. With this frame, perhaps we can understand why marginalized and racialized children may not be at their desks; they are absent, not late.
There are many lenses we can use to recognize inequity, and many ways to challenge it. While the shift from a Late Slip to a Welcome Slip may seem small, it is a step down a road where we change practices which currently 'other' both children and their families. The label of judgement is replaced by a declaration of reception. Rather than a penance, it is an embrace, saying "We are glad you are here!” And isn't that something we all need when we arrive?