halibut and haddock or, they have tunneled through the depths of the rock to mine black gold. They were a hardy lot, these men of Glace Bay and into their midst, one snow-filled January morning in 1964, I joined their ranks through birth.
A foghorn's gloomy cry heralded my arrival into a town divided, not only by occupation but, also, by religion. I was born at the Glace Bay General Hospital; a Protestant babe born on the Protestant side of town. It was in the protective pocket of Protestantism that I was raised and from which, as a child, I never strayed far.
As I progressed through my childhood, I did so differently than most of my classmates at school; for neither my mother or my father were employed in the Fisheries or the Mines. Both solid, middle-class stock, employed in profesional occupations, neither would be considerd to be hardy, tough individuals. They were generous with their love and their time and, as such, I never wanted for much as a child. My friends, by contrast, were raised by men and women who had salt water in their veins and coal dust in their lungs. They knew that things worth having in life had to be earned through hard work. They were fiercely loyal parents but strict task-masters as well. Consequently, my classmates in elementary school were a tough, hard-working, hard-playing lot. They played fighting games for fun during our recess times, as readily as they played hockey or baseball. Comparitively speaking, I was weak and soft. But, I was smart and I could make my friends laugh with my writing so, even though I was an outsider within my own peer group, I was, somehow, always accepted as being one of them, too. I was very grateful for this because deep down inside, I lived most of my childhood in fear; not of the guys at my school but, of the boys at the other schools.......the Catholic schools, to be exact. For even within the boundaries of my town, Catholics from the Catholic side of town were an exotic, alien lot and, as such, my ignorance of their lives fuelled my paranoia of what might happen should I ever land on the wrong side of the tracks.
It is always one thing to be weak and soft among people you consider to be friends. But, it is another thing entirely to appear soft and weak in the eyes of one's perceived enemy. I grew up in an era where world views were fairly narrow and limited; it was better to be white than black, rich than poor, a man rather than a woman, straight than gay, Protestant than Catholic and, of course, it was better to be strong rather than weak. Those were the sentiments of the times and they influenced the way we viewed the world from our vantage point on the Protestant side of town.
As long as we stayed on our side of town and the Catholics stayed on theirs then, everything was fine. But, that separation was not always possible. The two divides came together at hockey games at the Miner's Forum.....and, there would always be fights. The two divides came together at the local Legion Hall.......and, there would always be fights. I always managed to avoid becoming entangled in these confrontations until one day when it became unavoidable, one day when the antagonistic bitterness between the religions washed up on my school yard and on to me.
Up until the seventh grade, I attended school deep within the Protestant side of town. But, in grade 8, we were all forced to attend a new school in the center of town. This school was known as "a Hub school" because every day, students from all other schools in Glace Bay were bused there to attend classes in Woodworking, Sheet metal work, Drafting or Home Economics. This meant that, although it was my home school, Catholic students were bused into my school several times a week......and, when they arrived, there would always be fights.
I don't normally use a word like "Hate" but, it is fair to say that I hated my year at this school. I hated the anxiety of it all. I hated feeling scared all of the time. I hated feeling weak and small and alone there. I hated not feeling able to be myself anymore. Every day I felt like I was under siege at my very own school. I began looking for ways to stay inside at recess times or, better yet, to stay home from school altogether. Although I had never officially been targeted by any of the Catholic boys, I felt as though I was vulnerable every moment of my school day.
I never knew how vulnerable my position was until one day, during morning recess. I was a 14 year old boy and barely weighed 120 lbs. In the eyes of the Catholic boys who were there for woodworking that day, I was the weak one that would be easy to separate from the herd during their hunt. I would be an easy victim. I didn't even suspect that the hunt was on until the moment that I felt a light bump against the back of my right shoulder. I turned around just in time to see the leg of a Catholic boy returning to the ground after having tried to kick me in the head from behind! I was stunned that violence had appeared in my life so suddenly. My adrenalin kicked into overdrive and my first instinct was to turn to my friends for support. But, they had backed away as the Catholics had first approached. So I turned back to face the Catholic boys and found most of them laughing at me.
"Kick'em again!" shouted one of the boys. The hunt was in full effect.
But, it is funny how life is because this moment ended up changing my life in ways that still resonate in my conduct today. For at that moment, the size of my fear and anxiety was out ranked by my hatred of the laughter being directed at me by those boys. The boy did try to kick me again and, as he did, I reflexively raised by arm and deflected his foot away. He spun around, off-balance. The laughter of the pack stopped. They advanced upon me and, just as they did, a teacher appeared. The boys backed off a step or two, glaring the whole time but, they backed off and I stood my ground. My heart was pounding and, truth be known, I felt like crying but, the end result was, I had stood my ground while they backed away.
In hindsight, I know how lucky I actually was. I could have been seriously injured on the first kick and, undoubtedly, I would have had my head handed to me if that teacher had not shown up when he did. But, things unfolded as they did and I came away with a newfound sense of determination to never be a victim again. When the same Catholic boys returned the following week, there was a grudging respect accorded me for having stood up for myself. They never bothered me again after that day.
Glace Bay has not been my home since 1982. Since leaving my hometown, I have lived in some much larger cities and have come to view the world through other lens besides the black and white lens of stereotypes. I have had the good fortune to meet and become friends with wonderful people from all walks of life and all four corners of the world. My life has been so enriched through these relationships.
Today, when people come into my classroom, one of the things that they always come away saying is how positive and uplifting the atmosphere is. That is not by accident. Since that day in the school yard, when my resolve to resist outweighed my resolve to run, I have infused two incredibly important life lessons into ever aspect of classroom life; to look for the beauty and goodness in all people and to never, ever live in one's life in fear. Ignorance is one of the building blocks of stereotyping and, by extension, fear and hatred of others. When students take the time to meet people from other cultures, religions, racial backgrounds, etc., in an environment built upon mutual respect and tolerance then, the odds of positive attitudes developing improves.
However, being brave is, not necessarily as easy a trick as is being open-minded, in my opinion. Without the courage that comes from deep within the core of our being, it is hard to withstand Life's stormy moments. What I do all of the time, day in and day out, is to attempt to install a belief within each student that they are special and that they have worth. A person who feels valued and has self-worth, is more likely to behave bravely when push, quite literally, comes to shove.
Since that day in the school yard, I have dedicated my life to being the One who helps others stand up for themselves by nurturing their sense of self-worth. I have dedicated myself to being the One who helps people reach out to others and, by doing so, offers invitations to build bridges between cultures and break down the walls we build between others and ourselves. I am the One for my students who helps refine their focus when it comes to looking within themselves and when it comes to looking beyond themselves, too. I am someone who is the One for others.
Are you capable of being the One for somebody in your life? Has somebody ever been the One for you? How do you deal with fear and ignorance in your own life and/or when you see it in the lives of others? As always, I welcome your comments in the box below. Thank you very much for reading this post.