Toronto sure looks different now than it did in the early 1980s when I lived in the suburb of Scarborough. Today, it’s hard to walk down the street in any neighbourhood other than the Bridlepath – where, let’s be honest, no one walks unless it’s to the door of a Bentley – without seeing people of various ethnicities. It might be hard to believe, but I remember a time when the opening of a new Chinese restaurant was a big deal in Scarborough because now you didn’t have to travel to Chinatown in downtown Toronto to get some food from the homeland.
My brother and I were two of maybe a dozen East Asians at the school. To be honest, I can only name four others (all from the same family), but there were probably a few more. Even the one guy from our class born in Jamaica was white. At that Scarborough Catholic school, the Hotel California of 1980s educational institutions, if you weren’t white, you stood out like a sore thumb.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy going to school; I had a couple of great friends and I liked running around and the schoolyard at recess, playing basketball, baseball, or whatever was the flavour of the day. Oh, if only Bernard didn’t go to the same school.
Bernard discovered me quite early on during my six years there. My earliest recollection of him dates back to grade two, although it’s entirely possible he had already found me the previous year. Bernard was the worst bully I’ve ever known. Looking back, Bernard was clearly taking all of his anger about himself and projecting it on to easy victims, but at the time, none of that mattered to me. He was shorter than most of his classmates. By all accounts at the time, he was not doing very well academically, to say the least. He was unremarkable academically. And he channelled all of that towards me.
Bernard loved to taunt me. His favourite thing to do was to pull back the corners of his eyes and call out to me across the schoolyard. “Chink!” Call that out in public today and you might have dozens of faces turn to you, but at that time, it was pretty obvious he was talking to me. It was always about my physical appearance, never about anything else. It was always about my eyes being different than everyone else’s eyes.
Those run-ins with Bernard – and there were hundreds, if not thousands, during the six years I spent at the school – have clearly shaped me. I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to race relations, although I have given myself permission to make fun of East Asians. I definitely don’t put up with racism and bullying in my classrooms, and enjoy having frank and sometimes uncomfortable conversations on these topics with my students. And it’s likely that some of the anger and resentment I carried into adulthood stemmed from those times I had to deal with Bernard’s physical and emotional bullying.
At the end of the day, though, I have to forgive Bernard. It is obvious in retrospect that he hadn’t thought things through carefully when it came to the bullying. Or, he didn’t own a mirror.
The funny thing is, Bernard was South Asian himself.
I’ve been taking Marshall out every day for a walk in the stroller. I usually stop in at a local cafe and get a coffee, but he stays in the stroller for that quick transaction. Then, I’ve been taking him to the neighbourhood toy store where he is always enthusiastically greeted by our friend Erin. She rushes over to tickle his feet and as long as he’s awake, she usually scoops him up for some cuddles. At this point, I tend to step back and consider my options. At first, my instinct was to go and browse in the corner of the shop to deal with the anxiety of Marshall being in plain view. With warmer weather finally here in Toronto, and Marshall’s tendency to sweat like Patrick Ewing in a double-overtime playoff game, he’s usually in a short-sleeved, legless onesie (I’m sure it has a specific name, but it eludes me at the moment – a halfsie? quartersie?). His fused fingers and webbed toes are clearly on display. Without a hat on, his head and face look different than a typical three-month-old.
Recently, however, I have forced myself to stay in sight, taking ownership of him when someone inquires about him. I hold my breath and wait for people to say something about his differences, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s the clientele, but people have either not noticed, which is possible I suppose with a quick glance, they are too polite to say anything, or they don’t care. A few weekends ago at a wedding, a fellow attendee at the table clearly noticed and did a quick double take, but that was it.
Bridget found an article online a few months ago written by the mother of a child with differences. In it, she asks that people who notice her child is different come forward and ask questions. It’s more awkward for the child to notice parents hushing up their children or acting embarrassed when there is pointing. Personally, just reading about someone being approached with questions makes me queasy, but I think I understand the thinking. As tough as it is for me to face this publicly, one day, Marshall is going to start to notice the stares.
I’d like to think that as a society and as educators, we’ve progressed quite a bit since the early-80s, but I don’t think that’s actually true. I think that teachers are much more aware of bullying today, identify it as a problem quickly, and there is much more dialogue. I do not, however, think there is much less bullying as a result. Maybe it’s just something kids go through in trying to establish a playground hierarchy. I see it all the time. It’s much more subtle today than the open fisticuffs we engaged in routinely, but the subtlety almost makes it crueler. I would much prefer Bernard’s invitations to fight over any cyber-bullying that happens today. At least in the old days, we got some exercise out of it. I kid, of course.
When I was seven years-old, I got really sick one day at school. The teacher took me to the office and had me call home, where only my grandmother was available to pick me up. I called, but when she answered, I wouldn’t talk. I was ashamed that I spoke Chinese, especially given that in that environment, my lunches with white rice in them were considered weird and exotic. Somehow, my wonderful grandmother figured out what was going on from my silence and the muffled admonishments from the teacher and principal in the background. She picked me up, and I went home, my face hot with shame that I would deny my heritage when in fact I wanted to be so proud of it.
As I’ve said before, I really do love Marshall’s beautifully fat face. Bridget hates it, but I love to cuddle him and call him my little Rob Ford. I like to feel the sweaty fat folds on his forearms and yes, I am still enjoying the brushing and picking of his cradle cap. And yet, I feel the same shame I felt thirty some odd years ago when I don’t show him off the same way I proudly paraded Quinn around the neighbourhood when he was the same age. I don’t fold back the cover of the stroller when I buy my daily coffee; instead, I quickly pay and head back out onto the sidewalk, always breathing a small sigh of relief.
I would guess that Bernard teased me each day because, despite the possible absence of a mirror at home, he knew that he himself looked vastly different than 95% of the school population in that 1980s Scarborough Catholic school. His skin was dark, and in that sea of white, he would always be the first person noticed in his class photo. Maybe I was his daily therapy, his only outlet for the fears and frustration of not having someone else there he could relate to and share his love of whatever his version of my white rice lunches might have been. Or maybe he was just an asshole. I don’t know.
Marshall is going to have his share of Bernards, no doubt. Until then, Bridget and I are going to have to build his self-confidence and his sense of self-worth so that his Bernard’s taunts roll off him harmlessly. I hope he embraces his difference and somehow, in some way, loves himself so that he doesn’t feel ashamed of who he is, because he had no choice in the matter.