BC is a big province, and for ten days I have been travelling from its Eastern border, along the Trans-Canada Highway, my final destination a return to Vancouver shores. I have been spending time with our members in the Chapters which dot this route, and the small-town hospitality in these many rural communities has made every kilometre driven more than worthwhile. Mid-point in this series of visits, off the asphalt and down a gravel road, is my father’s home.
I am the eldest of seven children, the youngest being a full dozen years my junior. Apparently, firstborns tend to demonstrate characteristics such as responsibility, creativity, persistence, and initiative, the stuff of leaders. The majority of US presidents have been firstborn sons, and so too were 21 of the first 23 astronauts! With parents separated into two families, I would come from Vancouver to be a big brother in the countryside for only a few weeks each year. The days were long and warm, and usually spent outside. At the risk of sounding like a ‘boomer’, as soon as the cereal bowls were in the sink, we were out the door until dinner. No TV, no screens, no earbuds. Just ourselves and whatever entertainment we could muster. Not quite The Waltons, but close.
One particular summer morning, I led everyone from the house with plans for the beach, bagged lunches packed with our towels and blankets. Dad’s gravel road sits high above the highway. We straddled our bikes – jarring now to recall the three-year-old sitting on my handlebars – and raced downhill on this road to meet the Trans-Canada Highway and its traffic. When all was clear in both directions, we ran with our bikes across the two lanes to the parking lot of a public boat launch. This was one of many days spent playing and swimming on a rocky beach, just me and the five children in my charge.
After a full day in and out of the water, we retraced our steps, trudging with our bikes across the highway and back up the steep hill towards home. The long hill levelled out with Dad’s house still small in the distance. Tired and sweating from the uphill climb, I decided we could take a break in the coolness of the neighbour’s stacked haybales. The bales were neatly piled in the shade of a huge shelter, and must have been stacked five or six bales high and as many bales wide and long. Kids can climb, and it took little effort for our crew to reach the flat top of this giant cube of hay. Once on top, we did not rest much, but played tag and wrestled on the sweet-smelling stack. I would be starting junior high in September, and was almost too old for these games; so, I lay back, leaning on my elbows, watching for the most part. I was in this position, supervising, when my youngest brother Shawn came running my way and then suddenly vanished.
It happened so quickly, leaving me shocked and frozen for a couple beats. Acting on reflex, I jumped to the spot where he should be, and found the crack between the bales into which gravity had pulled him. By this time, the other little heads of my group were beside mine, also looking down into this dark crevice. We were all calling Shawn’s name. I felt huge relief when he called back, not scared and not crying.
I told Shawn to reach up and I would pull him out. Leaning into the hole, I could not feel Shawn’s little hand: he had fallen beyond my reach and was square in the middle of an enormous, tightly-packed, winter supply of hay. I hoped he would not fall any deeper before we could rescue him. We had left our bags and towels on the roadside with our bikes and had nothing at hand to lower into the hole to reach Shawn… well, nothing but each other.
The next youngest to my trapped brother was my six-year-old sister. While tiny, she was taller than my outstretched arm and light enough to hold on to. And, she was more than game to be lowered into the hay bales. I told Shawn to reach as high as he could and feel for our sister’s feet, warning him not to tickle them! Without any delay or second guessing, I grabbed my sister’s hands and started lowering her bare feet into the opening between the bales. My sister was in over her head before we heard Shawn call up that he could feel her toes. In one fluid motion, I pulled my sister out of the crack with Shawn trailing on her heels… literally.
The six of us had a laugh, brushed the hay from out hair, and pedaled for home.
It would be years before my adult self would appreciate the responsibility I carried that day, and all the days in which I assume the role of a caring and judicious parent. And this is perhaps a good thing, for to contemplate deeply the enormous responsibility borne in leadership could paralyze a big brother to inaction. And, while I could not find any science to back it up, I expect many of the Principals and Vice-Principals I met these last weeks may also be the eldest in their families. One quote from a member succinctly summarizes and illustrates the character I see in BC’s school leaders: “Student care issues predominate my work.” I would take it further, and say that Principals and Vice-Principals place the needs and interests of students before the needs and interests of all others, including their own.
My own family is small, and while my daughters are close, they are but two. On a whim one December, I bought and wrapped a DVD box set of The Waltons and placed it under the tree. The stories of this family with seven children became part of our Sunday routine. On Sundays, I would spend several hours at the school to prepare things for the week ahead, yet I would not leave home until after our episode.
One Sunday, as the familiar music was playing over the credits, our girls were retelling their favourite parts to each other and their mom. The eldest son always featured largely in each episode, and this night was no exception. In the exchange of banter while cleaning up the hot chocolate cups and the ice cream bowls, my wife made a confession to the room: she had wanted to marry John-Boy Walton. Standing there in my coat, with my briefcase in one hand and my school keys in the other, I said, “I think you did.”