My dad lives near Salmon Arm, and that is where my three brothers grew up and went to school. When we were all together, my dad was terrible with names, especially if we were pushing his buttons. If we got him a little elevated, it was typical for him to bark out each of our names in rapid succession until finally landing on the right one. I used to find it funny, until I became a father.
It isn’t uncommon now for me to do the same with my daughters, correcting myself, sputtering out each of their names until I find the right one. The thing is, I usually add a name: that of my sister.
My sister is six years my junior. Growing up, I spent a lot of time watching out for her. Living with a single working parent, my sister was my responsibility in the hours before and after school. And I took my responsibility very seriously. I would wait at home for as long as I could, knowing that she was due to return from school. My strong imagination would take over, and I was tormented by the worst-case scenarios for her delay. I would march towards the school, intent on finding her. And then I’d see her, bending down to the sidewalk, counting the ants or making dandelion bouquets, oblivious to my anxiety. After my lecture, she dutifully dawdled home behind me, unruffled by my demands for her to hustle.
Most of our commutes between school and home were uneventful, with two exceptions. On one occasion, we took an ambulance ride to the hospital after a careless driver failed to notice pedestrians. On another, we encountered Gordon.
Gordon was a boy in my class. He was short like me – but loud, unlike me. We had met up with Gordon before, once in an elevator where he asked loudly, “Is that your sister?” Gordon had a lot of energy, and I expect he owned many action figures. On the school playground, he was a runner and a jumper, striking action poses and measuring out kicks. On this day, he came upon my sister and me outside in the parking lot. He jumped in our path and struck an action pose with a butter knife clenched in his fist.
Now, some clarity: looking backwards in time, I don’t believe Gordon was planning to attack us. He was more likely playing at being a hero, or perhaps a villain. Either way, my ten-year-old self – already not a fan of Gordon’s – was afraid. My alarm was not for myself, but for my sister. I had to protect her. I surprised myself with an action pose of my own: the ‘disarm the thug’ kick. Quite out of character, I kicked the butter knife from Gordon’s hand, sending it spinning, end over end. We all stood there for a moment, a little shocked. Then Gordon collected his utensil and went home, and we turned toward our apartment and did the same.
When you are responsible for someone, that weight comes down hard in the face of unexpected, unpredictable, and unacceptable behaviour. Each morning, families across BC send their children to safe, caring, and orderly schools where they expect that leaders and staff will protect them and keep them from harm. This weight becomes very heavy when a dozen Gordons walk through the hallways of a school, intent on making a statement, on striking a pose, with instruments of conspiracy and intimidation clenched in their fists.
This scene played out in a small number of BC schools last week, with a disturbing impact on our Principals, Vice-Principals, and their communities. Thankfully, there have been no further incidents of bold trespass inside our schools, and generally demonstrators have respected the boundaries of the school grounds. Last week’s invasions were preceded by vocal demonstrations at district buildings in this and other regions of the province, diminishing a critical sense of security and safety for school district employees.
We are now at a crossroad. On one side is the fundamental freedom of thought, opinion, and peaceful assembly, and on the other the fundamental responsibility to preserve the security and safety of students and school employees. In the middle of this intersection stand BC Principals and Vice-Principals, fulfilling their promise to keep those in their schools from harm, holding up stop signs, and re-directing the misguided. The Gordons counter that schools are public buildings; this is true, but schools are not open to the public for informal use, spontaneous gathering, or loitering. It should be a disturbing signal to all that to keep the school environment safe and orderly, and to uphold our responsibility to our communities, we must now lock the doors or entertain provincial orders of protection.
I was asked in recent days if I had ever encountered a similar situation in my years as a Principal. I answered honestly and said, “Yes.” Being the Principal of a high school, I have dealt with student protests both on school premises and inside the school. And, as an educator, I took advantage of these opportunities and made them teachable moments about the dynamic relationship between rights and responsibilities. The teachable moments from such incidents will be complex, and can feel divisive. But the responsibility of a school – and a society – is to teach children and adolescents, and to make space in a safe environment for them to learn what it is to be a responsible citizen.
This week it seems we must teach these lessons to adults whose perception of their own rights trumped their societal responsibilities to our children. They neither recognized nor respected their own obligations at that crossroad. The actions of our members to intercept the misguided and ‘disarm’ them were swift, decisive, and firm. We hope and believe that the actions of districts, government, and society will follow their lead.