What Will Matter?

A friend from my barbershop chorus was talking with me the other day, and I was intrigued by his relentlessly-cheerful tone.  Not that I’m a negative sort, glumly sitting at my keyboard day after day, or on my smartphone, doom-scrolling through the social media universe.  Far from it, in fact.

doomscrolling

But even I couldn’t match my friend’s upbeat manner.  When I commented on that, he told me about some of the good things he was able to enjoy during this time of Covid-quarantine, as the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months—things like family, reading, golfing, and (of course) singing, even virtually.

In the conversation, he referred to a passage he took inspiration from, penned by one Michael Josephson, a member of the Rotary club in Los Angeles, CA, which offers an upbeat message for any of us.  I liked it so much, I’m including it here in its entirety.

What Will Matter

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten. will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin colour will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built, not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered,  by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Michael Josephson

choices

The passage makes a lot of sense to me, and the final line is perfect.  Not simple to do, not by any means, but a worthy objective to pursue.

And in the end, that is what will matter.

It’s Complicated!

As a former educator, I am frequently asked my opinion on the great send-the-children-back-to-school-in-the-fall debate.  Will it be safe?  Is it wise?  And the inevitable question: What would you do if they were your kids?

My short answer?  It’s complicated!

I lived the first twenty-two years of my life preparing, as it happened, for a career in education, and I’ve spent the most recent twenty-two years in happy retirement.  The intervening thirty-two years had me working as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, HR superintendent, and finally school district superintendent (director of education) in two jurisdictions.  Those jobs were sometimes more challenging than I might have wished, often more difficult than I could have imagined, yet, thankfully, always rewarding.

During my working years, the security and health of everyone I was responsible for—pupils, teachers, and business operations staff—were of paramount concern to me.  Everyone was entitled to a safe learning environment: one free of harassment in whatever guise; one free of assault or intimidation in any form; one clean and in good repair; one equipped with up-to-date learning materials and curricula; an environment welcoming and open to all.

I don’t say those objectives were always fully met, but any shortcomings were never due to lack of effort and good intent.

Today’s students and education workers learn and teach in an environment similar in many ways to that which I inhabited, the many advances in technology notwithstanding.  But there is one major difference they face just now, a threat the likes of which we have never encountered before to this degree.  The COVID-19 virus is a stealthy, merciless, oft-fatal disease that stalks us all, old or young, especially if we congregate in significant numbers in indoor spaces.

A prime example of such spaces:  schools!

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And so, the great question:  Should we be sending kids back to school this fall?  And I do have a longer answer.

During the final years of my career, the provincial government removed from locally-elected school trustees the power to levy taxes for educational purposes.  This left school districts totally reliant on government grants to pay for the costs associated with the provision of an education appropriate to their local communities—communities often poorly understood by the government decision-makers.  As a result, those grants frequently proved insufficient to the needs, and continue to be inadequate to this day.

Whether the school district was located in a large urban environment, or in a remote, northern rural area, the special needs associated with their discrete makeup were only partially accommodated when funds were allocated.  In the years since I left the profession, although the actual dollar amount of those grants has increased, it has not matched the concomitant cost-of-living growth.

Hence, I believe it is not safe to send kids back to school this fall—nor all those who will accompany them back—without a significant expenditure of money to ensure their health and safety.  And it is the government’s responsibility to do this.

Many school districts across the province already have a staggering backlog of capital repairs that are needed to aging buildings, undertakings they cannot afford with current funding.  Believe it or not, there are still schools burdened with asbestos and lead plumbing, not because people don’t understand the need to replace them, but because they haven’t the funds.  There are schools with leaking roofs, aging wiring, saggy floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and windows that won’t open.

Absent COVID-19, everyone would have been going back into those buildings this fall to cope as best they could with such conditions.  It’s inconceivable to me that they would be allowed back without massive measures to safeguard them against the relentless virus preying on the land.

Scientists and medical professionals know better than I how money might best be spent.  Here is a partial list only, gleaned from my reading of many of their posts—

  • developing ongoing channels of communication with provincial and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response, including contact tracing in the event of a positive case,
  • making decisions that take into account the level of local community transmission,
  • deep-cleaning and disinfecting school buildings daily, especially water and sanitation facilities,
  • increasing airflow and ventilation in schools,
  • promoting best hand-washing and hygiene practices for everyone, and providing hygiene supplies,
  • providing children with information about how to protect themselves, in ways that are developmentally appropriate,
  • implementing multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, cloth face-coverings, and hand hygiene,
  • holding school in shifts to ensure smaller class sizes,
  • staggering mealtimes and breaks at school,
  • re-purposing unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces for classroom use,
  • moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors,
  • integrating SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities,
  • limiting or cancelling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible,
  • developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,
  • supporting the mental health of students and staff, and combating any stigma against people who have been sick, and
  • educating parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the need to engage and encourage everyone in the school and community to practice preventive behaviours.  That is the most crucial action to support schools’ safe reopening, and to help them stay open.  Until transmission rates in local communities are reduced to an acceptable level, it will be unsafe to send anyone back.

Most of the experts I’ve read believe children should be going back to school, not just for the sake of our economy, but for their own emotional welfare.  But only if it is safe for them to do so.

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So, how much will all these measures cost?  I confess I have no idea; I am too long departed from the scene.  I have read different estimates from government sources, unions, teacher associations, and parent advocacy groups.  Perhaps a consensus is possible.

But whatever the amount, it is not too much if it ensures the safety and well-being of all who head back to school in September, because there is one thing that has not changed since I last was there—the education of our children is not an expense; it is an investment in the future of our country.

And that fact is not complicated at all!

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

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Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

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*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

track2

That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Hall of Infamy

In times of distress and uncertainty, many of us turn to respected leaders from days of yore to find solace or encouragement from their words.  A number of their declarations deservedly occupy a place in the hall of fame for inspiring messages.

But I have often wondered if there might be a hall of infamy for utterances that do just the opposite: reveal hateful philosophies that denigrate and belittle the spirit of humankind.  Goodness knows, there is no shortage of despicable characters from our history to whom we might turn for such messages.

We might think, for example, of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Al Capone, Mao Zedong, Lenin, even Caligula.  All men, they made many dystopian claims during their respective reigns of terror.

A small sampling of these follows—

What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.

To read too many books is harmful.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

Make the lie big [and] simple.  Keep saying it…eventually people will believe it.

The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Politics is saying you are going to do one thing while intending to do another.

Vote early and vote often.

Death is the solution to all problems.  No man, no problem.

One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.

It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.

Religion is the opiate of the masses.

I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

despots

Any search on the internet will turn up dozens and dozens of such statements by these men and others.  And it’s interesting to note that those who said these things might have actually believed them.  Even if we find their sentiments monstrous, they could have been telling the truth as they saw it.

Or, conversely, they might have been deliberately making such utterances, knowing they were false, to further their own ends.

But what of today?  Are there statements like these being made in our own time, perhaps believed by the person uttering them, even if misanthropic and obviously false?

Let us consider this next sample in the context of the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet—

Looks like the story was an exaggeration…Fake News…

It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control.

One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.

We’re doing a great job with it.  Just stay calm.  It will go away.

I felt it was a pandemic before it was called a pandemic.

If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.

I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute…is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

We’ve taken the most aggressive actions…the most aggressive by any country.

Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases.

Now we have tested almost 40m people. By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.

Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.

We’re on our way to a tremendous victory. It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen big.

How likely is it, do you suppose, that the person who made these statements truly believed them at the time they were uttered?  Could anyone in a major global-leadership position be that deluded?  That ignorant of science?

Or perhaps he knew what he was saying was false, but did it anyway to advance his own agenda.  Could that be so?

Each of us must make of it what we will.

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The bigger problem, of course, is that the person who has spoken these words is the democratically-elected leader of more than 330 million people—just a tad more than four percent of the planet’s population—whose nation is presently being overwhelmed by almost twenty-five percent of Covid-19 infections in the world.

More tragically, at the time of writing, the number of deaths is almost one-quarter of the worldwide total.  One-quarter!

All this from a country ranked first in the world in 2020 in GDP (gross domestic product)—presumably the best-equipped nation to deal with such a crisis—yet only the fifty-eighth safest nation in the world in the face of the pandemic.

So bad is the situation that four of the fifty states of the union occupy spots in the list of top-five world nations for Covid-19 infections.

When future generations seek an explanation for all of this, they may well focus on leadership—or its absence—at the very highest level.  And they may study carefully the statements made by the man at the pinnacle, some of which were listed above, to ascertain how effectively he grasped the dire situation, owned it, and set about to vanquish it.

If so, they may have to look no further than this remarkable statement from that very man—

I don’t take responsibility at all!

For the Hall of Infamy, I nominate…

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Almost As One

you and I for years

becoming almost as one,

but with two faces

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

our togetherness,

heretofore by choice, rudely

thrust upon us now

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as we, quarantined

by rampant pandemic, must

find ourselves anew

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

delving more deeply

into our relationship,

finding new connects

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learning more about

what makes us who we are now,

as both you and me

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

trusting all that’s passed,

moving forward in good faith,

hands clasped as always

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Canada Day, Eh?

If there is such a thing as a typical Canadian on this first-of-July day in 2020, he or she might apologize for passing along this greeting—

“Sorry to butt in, but Happy Canada Day, eh?”

This great country of ours was formally proclaimed on 1 July 1867, one-hundred-and-fifty-three years ago.  An amalgam originally of mainly Indigenous peoples, French and British colonizers, and British loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies to the south, we have grown to include ten provinces and three territories, stretching from sea to sea to sea.  And we are home to more than thirty million people, including a veritable mosaic of ethnicity, creed, and native tongues.

We are Canada—the true north, strong and free.

As we celebrate this anniversary, even during the terrible Covid pandemic, there are so many reasons to be grateful for what we have.  And as we take stock of the shortcomings, injustices, and pitfalls our nation has encountered in the drive to ensure equity and prosperity for all our citizens, there is reason to believe that we can and shall do better going forward.

To help you enjoy this Canada Day, you might enjoy listening to this stirring performance of our national anthem, O Canada.  Performed by a virtual choir of 300+ men and women, ranging in age from nine to 80—all under the direction of Jordan Travis, the founder of InstaChoir—it will stir you and renew your faith in what our country stands for—

www.youtube.com/JordanTravis or www.facebook.com/InstaChoirwithJT

Happy Canada Day, eh?

Flag of Canada.

A Graduation

Our grandson, David, one of five grandchildren we are blessed to have—the only boy among four girls, his two sisters and two cousins—has graduated high school.  Because of the pandemic currently assailing the world, he, like so many others, was deprived of the formal commencement he would otherwise have enjoyed.

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And so—undeterred by the Covid-constraints, but mindful of the necessary precautions—fifteen of us gathered recently for a by-invitation-only, less-formal ceremony to honour his achievement.  Three generations of family attended—four grandparents, two parents, two pairs of aunts and uncles, and his sisters and cousins.

Oh, and one rambunctious dog!

For Nana and me, he is the second of our grandchildren to graduate, his older cousin having done so last year.  But for his paternal grandparents, he is the first.  It was a joyous celebration, properly socially-distanced, held outdoors on the grounds of their expansive home on a glorious, sunlit afternoon.  The dress was summer-casual, no caps and gowns to be seen, but the sense of occasion was as high as it would have been in the most somber, traditional commencement exercise.

Our families have always prized education and lifelong learning, a value that has, to our immense satisfaction, been assimilated by the youngest among us.

education

Almost everyone took the opportunity to address the graduate, commending him for his achievement.  But it was I who was granted the honour of delivering the more formal remarks, a task I gladly embraced.  Given the relaxed setting, I wanted to find a suitable mix of lightness and seriousness, of witticism and import, something that might be enjoyed at the time and remembered long after.

And of course, I did not want to ramble on too long, knowing that once the dog lost interest, so, too, might the rest of my audience.

 I began by welcoming the graduate to an exclusive club—

If we trace a straight line to you from Granddad and Grandma, from Nana and me, through your parents, you are the seventh member to join this exclusive club of high school graduates.

There are other high school grads here today, of course, but none of them runs down that same line of succession as you.  There are no secret handshakes for this club, no secret passwords, no class ring; but there is one mandatory ritual to which you must adhere, now that you are a member—namely, whenever one of the older members wants a hug, you must stand and deliver.

A few chuckles greeted this opening, along with a smile and nod from our grandson.  Hugs have always been popular in our extended family.

After describing and commending him for his scholastic achievements, graduating with high honours, I spoke about his parents—

I want to mention two people who have reason to be prouder than any of us today—your Dad and your Mum.  You’re drawing from a pretty amazing genetic pool, as I’m sure you know, and you are blessed to have them as parents.  

If I had a magic wand, and if I could wave it over all the children in the world, my wish would be that every one of them could have a father like your Dad and a mother like your Mum.

I dared not look at either of them at this point, for fear of choking up myself, and I managed to continue—

Long before Granddad, Grandma, Nana, and I were grandparents, we were parents.  And so, we have a pretty good understanding of how your Dad and Mum feel about you because we have had the same feelings for our own children.  For as long as your parents live, you will be their pride and joy because, just as you are blessed, so, too, are you a blessing to them—and to all of us in your extended family.

I went on to spend a few moments talking about that extended family, because I believe it is important for this young man to appreciate his heritage—

David, you bear a very proud name—Whittington.  And you carry in equal measure the names of three other proud families—Wigglesworth, Eaton, Burt.  You are the sole, male iteration of these four families going forward.  For the rest of your life, you will carry all of us within you.

Another reason for including that was to recognize the contributions made by all four families to the person he has become.  His four grandparents do not delude ourselves into believing we deserve the credit; that goes rightly to his parents and to the young man himself.  But the nurturing of extended family does count for something, after all.

I concluded my remarks by telling the graduate what we, his family members, expect of him as he steps into the next phase of his life—

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With that in mind, I have two thoughts to leave you with, and I hope I can speak for all four families.  First, we expect you—we expect you—to conduct yourself always with honour—honouring our families, honouring your parents and your sisters, and honouring yourself. 

To paraphrase the poet, Gibran, we do not seek to make you like us, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. But if past is prologue, we are confident you will forever justify our faith in you.

Fusce honorem omnium!  Choose honour above all!

By this time, my eyes were more than moist and my throat was closing up with emotion, but I managed to choke out my final words—

Second, perhaps most importantly, we want you to know this, to remember this—wherever you go, whatever paths you choose to follow, whatever you do with your life, if ever there comes a time when you need help or support:  All of us, w’ve got your back. We’ve got your back!

We love you, David!  Congratulations!

A ripple of applause and an echoing chorus of congratulations washed over us as we touched elbows—no hug, unfortunately, during this pandemic period.  The noise woke the dog—who, apparently, had been less-than-inspired by my address—and his rollicking antics quickly dissolved the formality of the moment into the shambolic ambiance that is more typical of our family gatherings.

And he got all the hugs!

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It has been almost sixty years since my own high school graduation, and I confess I have no memory of the commencement ceremony I must have attended.  But I harbour the hope that our grandson will long remember his, not for my speech, but for the love his family has for him, the love that brought us all together to honour him.

Carpe diem!

Another Father’s Day

Two years ago, I published this post to mark the onset of another Father’s Day.  The sentiments expressed are even more true today, so I re-post it, slightly adapted, in hope that all of us who are fathers will enjoy it.

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

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At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-eight years I’ve been father to two wonderful daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

Dad, Tara, Megan 2

As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

Tara and Megan 3

As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Father’s Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

father and daughters

The Laggard

Near the end of the first semester of my second year in grade eleven, during which time I was seventeen, discouraged, and not faring particularly well, my parents came home from an interview with my history teacher, in just his second year of teaching at the time.

“He told us you’re no ball of fire,” my mother said.

“He said you’re something of a laggard,” my father said.

A laggard!

There’s no question I was floundering in his class.  But rather than explaining for my parents what I was doing wrong, suggesting how I might do better, or proposing how he might more effectively help me, he resorted to affixing me with a label.

Laggard!

I was angry with that teacher for a long time.  And I was stung by the disappointment in my parents’ eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Seventeen years later, at the age of thirty-four, I was a first-year principal in the same school district.  At a principals’ association meeting during the winter semester, I was with a number of colleagues in the men’s room, washing up after our business meeting.  As we stood at the urinals and wash-basins, one of our number told an off-colour joke, the details of which I forget.  But it involved people of colour, and was not flattering to them.  Several people laughed heartily.

As the laughter abated, and before someone else could tell another joke, one veteran principal—small in stature, fiery by nature—angrily tore a wad of paper towel from the dispenser.

“I’m sorry!” he snapped as he slammed the paper into the wastebasket.  “I make it a practice never to laugh at racist jokes!”

In the ensuing, abashed silence, I stared at myself in the mirror over the sink—glad I had not been one of those who’d laughed, somewhat ashamed I had not spoken up as my colleague had.

Pausing at the door, the man added, “I’m not saying all of you are racist.  But somebody told that joke, and a lot of you laughed!”

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I approached him near the bar a few moments later, introduced myself, and thanked him.

“For what?” he said, looking up at me, his eyes a piercing blue.

“For what you said in the men’s room,” I answered.  “I wish I’d had the courage to say that.”

“Did you laugh at the joke, son?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, that’s good,” he said.  “Can I buy you a beer?”

We stood off to one side, no one else apparently eager to engage with him just then.  And in his short, sharp manner of speaking, he proceeded to help me learn some valuable lessons.

“It never makes things better when you accuse people of being racists,” he said.  “Never helps!  Doesn’t help to accuse them of being misogynists, either, or xenophobes.  Accusations only lead to denials.”

I nodded and sipped.

“Labels are easy to deny,” he continued.  “Labelling never works!  But you know what’s harder to deny?”

“What?” I asked.

“When you describe people’s behaviour to them.  When you tell them what you’ve seen them doing.  They’ll recognize it.  And telling them what you’ve heard them saying.  They’ll remember their own words.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to realize what they’re doing or saying is inappropriate.”

“Like referencing the laughter in the men’s room,” I said.

“Exactly!”

I waited, hoping for more.

“It’s the same thing I encourage my teachers to do,” he said.  “Don’t label your students! Describe their strengths and needs, describe their accomplishments and shortcomings.  Describe for them the things they need to do in order to succeedBy doing that, you’ll know better how to help each of them take the next step.  Labelling kids never helps.  Labelling anybody never helps!”

We were called to dinner about then, and went off to our respective tables.  I encountered him many more times over the years, of course, but I never forgot the things he said on that first occasion.  He was the first man I ever knew who didn’t just profess to be anti-racist; he demonstrated his true colours through his actions and words.  And he did it fearlessly.  To use a common phrase, he walked the talk.

I’ve been thinking about him over these past couple of weeks of racial turmoil, here in Canada and especially south of the border, wondering what advice he’d have for me.  As I watch TV and read news accounts online, I’m struck by the ferocity of the back-and-forth arguments and name-calling between those accusing others of racism and those others denying it.

Racist!  Terrorist!  Fascist!  Leftist!  Boogaloo!  Antifa! 

I search, often in vain, for factual descriptions of what is actually happening—what people are doing, how people are behaving—so that I might determine for myself how they could take a next step toward reconciliation.

And I applaud those who propose concrete steps toward that end, most of which will require a good deal of time and hard work to achieve.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the ultimate measure of people is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.

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My principal colleague was one such person.  He believed that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.  He believed that good teachers tell; average teachers explain; superior teachers demonstrate; and great teachers inspire.

He certainly inspired me.

Accusations and labelling never work.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

A coda:  At the age of forty-nine, thirty-two years after that history teacher labelled me a laggard, I met him again.  He was retiring from the classroom, and I—by then CEO of the school district for which he now worked—was presiding at a ceremony to honour our retiring employees.  I shook hands with every one of them, most of whom did not know me personally, of course.  But that teacher remembered.

“I guess I was wrong about you,” he had the temerity to say, more sheepish than apologetic.

Being only human, I had to stifle that long-ago, seventeen-year-old boy within me, who wanted to reply, “Thirty-five years and still a classroom teacher, eh?  Who’s the laggard now?”  Vengeful.

Instead, I said, “Thirty-five years as a classroom teacher!  You’ve certainly affected a lot of kids over all that time.”  Serene.

“For better or worse,” he said, smiling at his own wit.

“Indeed!” I said, and moved on.

The Benighted States of America

As a boy and young man, I was fascinated by tales of derring-do and feats of glory by heroes, both real and fictional.  Among the earliest of these were the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; to this day, I can name my favourites without a fact-check—Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, Sir Bedivere, Sir Tristan, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad.

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Arthur and his knights, according to Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory—one of many writers who wrote of their exploits—swore to uphold a code of chivalry, which included:

– never to assault or murder,

– never to commit treason, and

– to provide succor to those in need.

I was too young, of course, to understand the clashes that arose between Arthur and Sir Lancelot, and later between Arthur and his son, Sir Mordred, which stemmed from their illicit love for the faithless Queen Guinevere.  Those led ultimately to the death of Arthur and the end of his glorious reign, and I mourned their failed quest.

A lasting effect of this Arthurian fascination was a propensity as I grew older to favour the underdog in any conflict, to root for those attempting seemingly-impossible pursuits—the Don Quixotes of the world, engaged in Sisyphean tasks to which they would not surrender.  I was an incurable romantic.

So it was unsurprising, I suppose, that a major focus for me in university would be Russian and American history—to wit, the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, and especially the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865.  In both cases, I found myself on the side of the lost causes—the Czarist regime and the Confederacy—despite knowing the outcome for both.  And like my younger self, who didn’t understand the Arthurian contradictions until much later, it took a long time for me to realize the root causes and lasting implications of those cataclysmic events.

The Civil War, in particular, captivated me.  I read as many as I could of the chroniclers of the period—Bruce Catton, Allan Nevins, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Douglas Southall Freeman, Henry Steele Commager.  I favoured the gallant Confederate commanders—Lee, Jackson, Stuart—seeing them as descendants of the Arthurian knights of old.  I was taken by their tales of heroism, their masterful military maneuverings, and dismayed as the tide turned inexorably against them.

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Even still, the names of the battlefields (hallowed grounds for both sides) strike a chord—Manassas, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and of course, Gettysburg.

As I sit here now, however, I have long since come to view things differently.  The young man I was had absolutely no concept of the evils of slavery, the forced subjugation of an entire race of people; the unfettered privilege of landed, white, male gentry, determined to maintain their autocratic position; the venality of elected politicians (again, all male and white) who put their personal interests and the fate of their political party ahead of their vision of a nation of freedom for all.

That young man, the beneficiary of white privilege, had no idea what being white and privileged meant, either for him, or for those to whom it was denied.

But as I said, I have come to view things differently.  And following the killing of yet another unarmed black person in the poor Benighted States of America, it is impossible not to cry, “Enough!”

In a post on this blog a few years ago, On Being White, I wrote:

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage. 

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization.

White supremacists believe the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

In another post, Of the People, I wrote (quoting Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat):

 [Such] false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.

And to that I added:

Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion.  We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie…

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I realize now that, because that young man I was did not understand the roots from which sprouted those underdog causes he once supported, he accepted at face-value their false opinions.  It was only as I began over time to see them through the eyes of those who were suppressed that I realized their falsity.

Although I decry violence and vandalism, I endorse the legitimate protests of a people who (to excerpt a song from Les Misérables) declare they will not be slaves again.  It has almost always been so, that the downtrodden and oppressed will eventually rise up and seize what they have not been granted, their freedom.

In one of those previous posts, I also wrote:

…[sometimes] we decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the [society] we prefer.  And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with. 

When those others are entrenched in their high positions, they are never eager to surrender their privilege.  But a righteous cause cannot forever be stifled, and many of the American people are deciding in front of our eyes, not to refrain from acting, but to take action to bring about change, despite the decades-long reluctance of those in power to do so.

It will be interesting, indeed, to see what emerges from this latest round of justifiable insurrection against the white bastion of entrenched power and privilege.

History is watching.