I once dressed up as Batman for Hallowe’en. The costume my mother made by hand was amazing! In another year, she made me a Robin costume. It, too, was perfect. At least, that is how my memory conjures the suits, capes, and masks. After all, this was more than fifty years ago. To a child in primary school, each costume was just like the ones on TV. And this only served to make me more oppositional and more stubborn as my mom struggled to bundle me up. In both cases, I donned these costumes on the last day of October in Edmonton, which meant they were invisible beneath my parka, scarf, toque, and mitts. How was anyone going to know who I was for Hallowe’en?!
The prospect of all that candy was too powerful for me to stand by my principles. With tears and sniffles, I let my mom walk me and my pillowcase around the block to challenge the neighbours with an unenthusiastic “Trick or treat,” my superhero identity safeguarded by freezing temperatures.
Although I dressed up at Hallowe’en for many more years, I drifted away from the caped crusader theme before mom could try her hand at a Superman suit. The capes were cool, but I became distracted first by ghosts and skeletons — wrecking more than one white sheet — and then by wigs, headbands, and tie-dye. As an eight-year-old, I understood very little of the 70’s counterculture, which is probably a good thing. I just thought the fringe vests were cool.
After a couple more years, my imagination once again was captured by a masked crusader. Sadly, mom couldn’t assemble this one for me – I probably wouldn’t have worn the tights anyway. I think my tween self was drawn to this sarcastic teenaged hero. He wasn’t a rich philanthropist, nor was he from another planet. He was just a kid, swinging from webs, saving the day. He was a friendly hero for the neighbourhood, and he rocked.
A lifetime later, when my daughter started watching Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man on heavy repeat, I was more than happy to watch it over and over with her. We played the soundtrack on road trips, and we found her the best Hallowe’en costume, with web-shooting gloves! My little girl loved the web-head through the first two sequels, the next two reboots, and the succession of actors. Ask her today, and she will tell you Spider-Man is still her favourite hero. And although hotly debated amongst fans, for my Emily, Tobey Maguire will always be the best Spider-Man. He is my favourite, too. And a particular Maguire scene has come to mind many times in recent days.
Pressed tightly against the front of a runaway train, speeding along elevated tracks and headed for catastrophe, Peter Parker desperately fights to save the passengers from a terrible fate. As the train careens along the tracks, picking up speed, Spider-Man spins his webs onto the structures each side of the tracks, anchoring himself to both. Stretched and pulled in two directions, we watch his straining muscles tear his suit as the forces threaten to pull him apart. He has no cape. He is unmasked, his true self revealed and on display.
The parallels are too obvious to miss, even without having seen the film: passengers are in motion, going about their daily lives. Suddenly, their world is precarious, and they are in jeopardy. Out front, leading and trying to slow the train, are people. Just people. They are neither rich nor alien. A little bug bit them, drawing them into this role. They aren’t behind masks. Everyone can see their faces and the emotions written there. Pressures come from the left, and pressures come from the right. They do all they can to stop this runaway train, trying to keep the neighbourhood together.
The last two weeks have afforded me opportunities to connect with our members and hear more directly their stories of this year’s start-up. Some of our school leaders will read this comparison to the Marvel comic book hero and see hyperbole, and they will be right. Others will read this and see a fitting metaphor for their work life; they, too, will be right. The experiences of our Principals and Vice-Principals have been diverse, somewhat dependent upon geography. There have certainly been challenges, pressures, and successes in every district; however, the proportion of each varies widely from one location to another. And while also in disproportionate measure, a common theme has emerged across regions: that of communities divided with school leaders in the middle.
A particular story brings the divide into sharp focus. Upon the introduction of mandatory masks for all students, a Principal shared with me that four families decided to make alternative plans for school. Two families objected to wearing masks, and two families objected to exemptions which allowed students not to wear masks. And there was everyone else… on the train… in the middle.
The potential of further mandates being considered by Boards of Education reinforces the imagery of Peter Parker, holding the two sides together from the front of the train. And, there are many supporting players in our schools and our districts; I’ve been encouraged to see them, to recognize them, as they take up positions in front of this train. There are no heroes among them. No masks, capes, or superpowers. Just good, caring people, working very hard to navigate forward.
Regardless of a large or small gulf between camps in each community, the pinch-point in the centre is our school leaders. To extend the metaphor – or hyperbole, if you prefer – Spider-Man does bring the train safely to a stop, but not before part of it jumps the tracks and damage is done. Despite the rough ride and the fear, the passengers emerge, grateful. Those at the front of the train have done whatever was needed to keep the people safe, as always. Ragged and spent, they carry on. It is this picture of Principals and Vice-Principals which I strive to bring into sharp focus for leaders in our sector as I continue to advocate for the support our members need to bridge that divide. For there will be other trains, and many of our school leaders are low on reserves. They need to feel shoulders alongside, prepared to lean into the challenge of keeping our communities together.
On an occasion that invites us to step into costume, I hope yours is comfortable, like a t-shirt and sweatpants, with pockets full of peanut butter cups. After all, that is what superheroes wear on the weekend.