from the Archives
December 5, 2011
Last Wednesday, the basketball team went up to play a game against Peel Central, and when our guys — who weren’t even wearing their spiffy first dress, blue-crested blazers — walked into the gym, one of the Peel students yelled, “Here comes Hogwarts!” It was a good line, and it sparked my thinking about the challenges we all face when we are outsiders. This morning, I’d like to offer 4 examples.
Example 1. Years ago, I was an outsider when I was awakened in the middle of the night in an Irish youth hostel, by a bunch of rambunctious Australians who were telling American jokes. I was slobberknockered that such a category of humor actually existed. The jokes, like the Australians themselves, were humorous and thought provoking, and that night those fun-loving gents from “down under” taught me something about perspective and about what it’s like to be the outsider.
A quick aside: I hadn’t heard an American joke because I’d always lived in the USA. You may not have heard a Canadian joke because of where you’ve lived, so in the spirit of public service, let me violate the first rule of public speaking –-“Never insult the audience” -– by telling you a Canadian joke. It’s not really all that insulting, and it was told to me by a Canadian, so it has “Canuck cred”:
“How do you get a bunch of rowdy Canadian college football players out of a swimming pool at 2 in the morning? You go down to the pool and say, ‘Please get out of the pool’.”
Ok. I didn’t say it was funny. But it suggests something of the understated and almost deferential politeness that is an endearing part of Canadian culture. (The second rule of public speaking is this: “If you do insult the audience, make up for it as quickly as possible.”)
Example 2. I was an outsider here at UCC a few years ago, when I asked Mr. Thuringer to replace those thrones with less ostentatious chairs at the front of Laidlaw Hall. (I had thought that more modest furniture might create a more democratic ambiance.) Afterwards, though, a student asked me to reconsider. He said the thrones had come to us from Queens Park, and he saw them as a symbolic link to our past. The student was an insider. He was right. I was the outsider. I was wrong. The thrones are back.
Example 3. One day last week I was running late, and without giving it much thought, I grabbed a tie as I left the house. Later that day, an Old Boy approached me and made a comment about the fact that I was wearing an Old Boys’ tie. When I thanked him for what I had thought was a compliment, he politely pressed the matter. “You are wearing an Old Boys’ tie, but you see, you are not an Old Boy, so if another Old Boy saw it, he might tell you to take that tie off.” (What a wonderfully Canadian way of saying, “Change your tie.”) Again, he was the insider. He was right. I was the outsider. I was wrong. I changed my tie.
Which brings me to my 4th, final and most important example : Last week a colleague reminded me that today, December 6th, is the 22nd anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, a horrible, horrible event perpetrated by a violent and violently ill man who separated the men from the women at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal, before killing 14 of the women.
When I arrived in Canada 8 years ago, I was the outsider who did not appreciate the significance of Montreal Massacre. While it was a God-awful nightmare, wasn’t it at some level, just another example of the ghastly consequences of untreated mental illness? Why did so many see something more, something darker and more pervasive? Did what happened on that cold December night say something unsettling about our culture? Does what happened in 1989 in Montreal say something about us today in Toronto?
A friend tried to explain the significance of all of this by pointing out that, during the assassination attempt on Ronald Regan in 1981, James Brady, one of the president’s assistants, was shot and nearly killed. While the shooter was later ruled insane, the event put a spotlight, not on mental illness, but on the dangers of handguns. That single incident was the catalyst for” The Brady Bill,” a much needed legislative attempt to limit access to dangerous weapons in America.
In a similar vein, the Montreal Massacre has raised important questions, not about mental illness, but about how women are treated. Again, because I am an outsider, I recently asked a couple of Canadian women to help me understand what all of this means.
One said, “It was so appalling for so many reason. Part of it was that it took place in Montreal, an amazingly tolerant and progressive city. It also took place at a school, a place that should be safe above all else. And it happened at an engineering school, a place where women were flourishing in an academic area that had until recently been the exclusive domain of men.”
Another said, “It made me feel, for the first time in my life, that I was vulnerable, and that I have had to accept, since that day, the biological nature of my vulnerability. The killer overpowered women with his knife when he couldn’t shoot any more. I feel this every day of my life. When I run in the dark early in the morning, when I need to find a way home from a night out and can’t decide whether I feel safer on the subway or in a cab. Before December 6, 1989, I hadn’t accepted this. His targeting of women, his ability to kill them, brought home this fear.”
She continued, “Every day women are victims because of this vulnerability, and that the problem of violence against women is almost impossible to stop as a woman. The conversation about this is so hard to have without making it seem like it is men against women and vice versa, when of course, it is not about that.”
If nothing else, December 6 is an opportunity for those of us in a boys’ school to ask ourselves how we see and treat women. A few years ago, former NFL star Joe Ehrmann said that one of our great cultural flaws is that, during adolescence, boys have a tendency to objectify girls.
Most of you have friends who are girls, and I’m not just talking about the girls you take to dances or meet with at parties. How you treat all of those young women says a lot about who you are. While Toronto is a big city, there is a small social circle that you will be a part of, many for the rest of your lives. There is a chance that your future spouse may be a friend right now, or the friend or date of one of your classmates. How would you want her to be treated? How would you want your sister or cousin or anyone you care about—how would you want them to be treated?
If there is an advantage to being an outsider, it’s that it can give you a sense of distance, and that distances alters perspective. As someone outside of adolescence, I can tell you that there is a common theme to all of our social sins: it’s about our failure to recognize the humanity of “the other.” The other may be the other gender or race or orientation or nationality. It almost doesn’t matter.
Except that on the terrible night December 6, 1989 gender did matter, and with this in mind, can I ask you to stand for a moment of silence to remember the 14 women who died 22 years ago today.