I visited a school this week. It is a very new school that I had not previously visited. The school spaces are beautiful, still shiny and new. While waiting for my host, I took in the views, and a slight envy welled up in me for such a wonderful learning space. I love my home school, but I wouldn’t turn down an upgrade. Just as my host approached me with a warm hello, I had to ask for his patience as I was in the middle of thumb-typing into my phone. It would have looked like I was sending a text, but I was actually recording a sentiment that appeared on a poster, mounted high on the wall of this beautiful, open learning space. The poster read “Absurd times call for absurd amounts of love.” I wanted to remember this phrase because I wasn’t sure if I was inspired by its simplicity, or struck by its naivety, and I knew I would be coming back to these words before the week was done. When I did return to these words, I discovered that they belong to New York Times bestselling author and award-winning director Brad Montague.
I’m okay with keeping the focus simple. Some years ago, I attempted to communicate to my staff that we needed to keep our efforts focused on our one goal; as part of my slide presentation, I included a quick flash of the KFC logo. This puzzled many of our group, and rightfully so; I was trying to be clever, but came across as obtuse. I was trying to communicate that, unlike a restaurant menu which serves a diverse array of cuisine, KFC focuses only on chicken. There can be so many distractions in education; we can leap-frog from one initiative to another, chasing the flavour of the week, month, or year. Teams can feel pressure to expand school plans, creating a menu that serves something for every taste, but which in the end offers little of quality. A singular message isn’t a problem for me, but in this case maybe I was disappointed by the language.
While recent weeks have been unimaginable, I’m not sure we can simply call them absurd. Yes, they have been shocking, unbelievable, and unimaginable – all synonyms. But to call our recent times absurd fails to capture the depth of pain and the far-reaching impact of these events.
The phrase fails to capture our collective struggle to understand what moves a man (a boy really, barely out of school) to don a tactical vest and turn his vehicle into a weapon of terrorism, to understand how this much hate festered undetected in someone reported to be a ‘nice guy’. It is hard to comprehend how a life spanning a mere twenty years could harvest and condense enough hate to take lives and carve a wide swath of pain and devastation for a nation. And in this nation, children with mothers and sisters who wear the hijab now ask if they will be safe. How will leaders and educators answer their questions?
I have two inboxes, one belonging to my home district. This inbox is quiet, for the most part, but every once in a while it chimes with a delivery. On June 8th, it chimed with a notification for district staff which came from the North American Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response (NACTATR). My home district has been working with their Executive Director Kevin Cameron for many years. Principals and Vice-Principals in our district each received this notice as a resource, and a reminder of many more things, not the least of which is to reinforce that we are in an Extended Critical Period for increased threats.
The message reminded us that in the field of threat assessment, persons can “engage in a serious act of violence towards a target, or type of target, [they] feel justified in attacking”, meaning random acts of violence are not so random. A 1993 Boston study named extreme crusaders of hate crime as ‘mission offenders’, steeped in their justifications for violence against innocents. During the seclusion of the pandemic, those who hate have saturated themselves in the “justification for violence offered up by online searches and online communities of likeminded individuals.” This message highlighted that while the pandemic created a temporary and artificial pause by keeping those who hate at a distance from their potential targets, there is now the chance of greater proximity as the weather warms.
This NACTATR resource shares guidance at a time when it is difficult to know what to do, encouraging us to:
- Identify those in need and seek them out to offer support in areas where we can actually assist. Standing with a community is emotional support.
- Reach out to other groups who have been targeted by hate in the past; current tragedy may rekindle trauma.
- Stay the course and be there “when the cameras are gone”.
- Strategically increase our connection with individual(s) of concern: “the more an individual can identify with the victims of violence and learn compassion it will lower their risk if they receive compassion also.”
Dr. Marleen Wong, who is a senior advisor at NACTATR, shares guidance in this resource for engaging in conversations with our children. She encourages us to be honest and listen without judgement. She appeals for us to share our belief that love is stronger than hate, and to help our children “move toward constructive actions that fight every kind of bigotry and prejudice.” It seems that Dr. Wong may agree with Brad Montague, that the times call upon us to bring forth an abundance of love, such as that generated by the more than 10,000 people who gathered in support in London, Ontario. But Dr. Wong’s words, calling for action, also bring to mind words of author Ibram X. Kendi. In his book How to be an Anti-Racist, Kendi writes, “…there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’. It is ‘anti-racist’.” He offers his readers a definition of an Anti-Racist: “One who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an anti-racist idea.”
Each month has its important celebrations and observations. June is National Indigenous History Month and Pride Month in Canada. Several of the days on the calendar note special observances such as World Oceans Day, and June is also the season of grad. There is much to focus upon, and much to learn. However, the recent weeks have reinforced that beneath it all is job one, a singular focus: as educators — as people — we must act to build a society in which our children will never have to ask if the people they love will be at risk from violence because of the way they look.