I haven’t always questioned things the way I do now.
A memory surfaced the other day.
I think I was around 12 years old, and I went to a Catholic public school in northern Canada. I wasn’t Catholic, my parents didn’t take us to church, nor were they practicing Christians, but my father came from Anglican roots, and my mother from Catholic roots. For whatever reason — and my theory is that Catholic guilt surfaced in both parents — they chose the somewhat more hierarchical and rigid Catholic school system rather than the secular one, and until Grade 10, that’s what I was steeped in.
We had an assembly in my junior high school, which, at the time, encompassed grades 6–9, ages 11–14.
This assembly at my school was out of the ordinary. The teachers were buzzing about the man who was visiting; it was clearly a big deal.
We were all called to the gymnasium, where tables were set up. Food was involved.
At the time, I was a very shy child, quiet, overly responsible, in the way that the eldest of 4 becomes, always attuned to younger siblings and their safety and needs, extrasensory antennae constantly humming.
I also, and I tell this because it’s relevant to the story, grew up around a certain kind of Japanese culture — my parents were black belts in Shotokan Karate and they ran a club in town which they both taught at, so at least 2–4 nights a week were spent training, or, when younger, running around like a maniac on the stage of the gymnasium where they trained and taught, which was also, incidentally, at the Catholic Elementary School, a 5 block walk from our home.
The karate club had many excellent qualities and traditions — we were expected to respect the space we entered by bowing at the entrance and removing outdoor shoes, and we started each class by reciting a Dojo Kun in Japanese and English, a set of guiding principles which were noble and well-intended, a kind of secular prayer for behaviour with integrity — and the club honoured and brought Japanese Senseis (instructors) up to teach regularly, and acknowledged lineage explicitly.
However, some of the qualities were not as excellent — the Japanese martial arts demands of rigid hierarchy, respect required without question for your elders and teachers, and an intolerance for question asking, especially from younger and lower-ranking people (which creates a perfectly ripe situation for abuse: when I was a high school exchange student in Japan, several of my grade 11 classmates were having sexual relationships with my Kendo/phys. ed. teacher with very little consequences for him.)
When the assembly was called we filed into the school gymnasium and milled around as the teachers assigned us to mixed age tables. There were speeches from the principal, and some sort of guest. My memory is foggy. But the next details I do remember, with vivid detail.
We were told that names would be drawn randomly, and that the few names drawn would get the chance to eat at the empty middle tables — I think there were 3 small round tables, unoccupied, and decorated in a lovelier more intentional way. The students that were chosen to eat in the middle would get a special meal. Everyone else would get the modest fare that was cooked. It all smelled good.
That day my name was drawn. I know that I felt very special because of that. And I longed for attention from my peers, at a time when my shyness was crippling, and I was at the beginning stages of a very painful and baffling 3 or so years of being isolated, excluded and ignored — friendless at school — because of those veins of emotional schoolyard bullying that, at the time, staff and administration had no skills or will to identify and deal with.
I longed to feel special and seen and celebrated. I was thrilled to be one of the chosen ones.
Sitting there, though, it also felt very strange. Why were we being separated like this, and why were there special tables and different food?
The guest, a kindly bright sort of man, sat down at my table and started chatting with me. He wanted to know how school was, and how I was, and what I liked to do — again — all inquiries that felt foreign and delicious — to be paid attention to! To be seen! To be found interesting!
After some chatting, he started telling me about how he’d been to an event like this a while back, and he shared that the students that were chosen to be in the middle all got up and decided that it wasn’t right, that they would share their bounty with everyone else.
I felt shame and fear blossom in my stomach. I protested to him that I’d get in trouble, we’d get in trouble, if we did that. And it’s true, I was fearful of those consequences. Always fearful of drawing attention and getting into trouble, while at the same time longing for attention. Trapped in trying to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and ‘get it right’ so I’d be praised and get the good grades.
But also, I was fearful of being further ostracized by my peers, of being ignored or taunted or turned away from, if I tried to mobilize the table and share with everyone.
And, I really really wanted to be special. I wanted to sit in the middle and feel celebrated, rather than feel ignored by my peers at the regular table.
So he told me this story, and I knew which was the better choice, and I didn’t do it. No one else did either. We sat in the middle and ate our special meal, surrounded by students eating the regular fare.
When the memory arose a few days ago, I felt, again, a blossoming of shame. Why didn’t I?!?!
But I also know this. How we raise children as a culture to be obedient and fearful, to feel disconnected from their own power and a sense of an embracing inclusive community impacts whether they will have the strength to do the inclusive, rebellious, right thing.
How can we expect children that we raise in environments that cultivate fear, isolation and a twisted ‘specialness’ (those angry searing nuns, that limited structure of the school system, those fearsome patriarchal Japanese Sensei’s and aspiring karate-kas, those cruel schoolchildren and absent teachers) to tune inwards and find the strength to stand up against imagined, and sometimes real, consequences.
This is not an essay about making excuses for my choice that day.
But, we learn through leaders and communities who lead. We learn through a cultivation of inclusive policies, a cultivation and commitment to community and conflict resolution and a commitment to far more than just surface level consent and blind obedience.
We learn how to be with and treat others by example, and we keep learning these things as adults. But we also, as adults, share these things through our own example.
I believe that it’s imperative that we get ourselves sorted internally, that we cultivate self-knowledge and seek out healing, so that we have the strength to stand up for injustice.
So that we have the strength to voice our thoughts and feelings. So that we have the courage to speak and listen and share and come up with solutions, as groups of people, without doing it by shutting those more vulnerable down.
I look at my daughter, and the choices I’ve made, especially around having her in a Waldorf school for 5 years, and I see the difference. From the ages of 10–14, at her Waldorf school, anytime any sort of emotional bullying started, her teacher drew the children together and addressed it. The administration facilitated regular circle councils for the children in grade 8. Her teacher taught them how to speak up and speak out and remain in relationship and in community.
At her school my daughter learned that the consequences of speaking up and doing the right thing were of healing, of connection, of resolution. Not the opposite.
We all deserve to be taught, led and have those skills cultivated.
And so, I believe some of the deepest work we can do is to do the job of raising ourselves up. To heal these patchy missed pieces. To offer ourselves the kindness, the welcoming, the inclusivity that we may have missed as children, because then we have the capacity to ripple it out. We bring others in, instead of shutting others out.
I may not have been the hero of my middle school assembly, but nowadays I really try to catch any tendencies to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and ‘follow the rules’ and instead question, speak out, yet stay connected as I voice my thoughts.
May we always be able to change direction, learn, grow and lead through fine and shining example, and sometimes through stumbling, humble example too.
May you all, as David Whyte says, “stop what you / are becoming / while you do it” and address the “questions / that can make / or unmake / a life.”
Resources: If you’re searching for ways to cultivate self-knowledge, heal, grow and feel confident standing your ground, you’ll get a lot out of my a transformative 4 month healing course/circle, The Art of Personal Mythmaking. It also includes getting the first draft of your memoir written. I’d love to have you join in!