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Violence: Bullying and Learning

My daughter's experiences in education are quite a bit different from my son's. She is two years younger than my son and although that would place her in high school, she has decided not to participate in public education and is seeking her own path in life. As a parent and one who has dedicated his life to education you can imagine my anxiety about this. However, her story is one that has taught me (and undoubtedly will continue to teach me) a great deal...

In her early elementary school days my daughter, like so many students at this age, loved to learn. It was something quite natural. She had a wide variety of interests both inside and outside of school. One fond memory is that her school choir reached the final auditions for joining the cast of the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." We almost got there, but just missed.

Then, at some point in grade six, her world and her person began to change. Bullying, as it is now formally called, came into her life. For two years she suffered from the malevolence of certain members in her "peer" group including minor physical abuse, but worse, intense mental abuse. I am deeply thankful that she is not one of those statistics... one of those students that have lost their life due to a beating or suicide as we recently saw in Vancouver and in the Maritimes. When I find myself whining and complaining about things in my own life, I always return to her story and realize how small I am.

In the beginning, she refused to make the problem known. Part of this was a desire to deal with it on her own terms, and another part was the mistrust of adults (like myself) who were more geared to getting her back into school than really trying to understand what she was feeling. As the problem continued she began to withdraw herself and became increasingly angry at the world. The meaning she attached to school changed from being a place to learn, to a dangerous place in which teachers and administrators, although helpful in their words, had absolutely no ability to change the situation in any practical way. Of course, the number of sick days she took began to increase - her daily routine consisted of an over-dose of stress and unhappiness. Eventually the sick days turned into extended leaves of absence. Although she would not admit it, my belief is that she became deeply depressed.

Of course as parents you take the usual tack by going to the school and talking with the teachers and administrators in search of a solution. All of these people were fundamentally caring and sincerely desired to help - their concern was obvious on their faces and in the tone of their words. There is absolutely no question in my mind that they wanted to help my daughter. We were not allowed to confront the students that were the cause of the problem within the school setting. The problem was, as I later learned, that the system - not the people - wasn't geared to helping her in any meaningful way. That is to say, the school as a system, in spite of the good intentions and concern of the teachers and administrators, could not guarantee that my daughter would be in a safe environment - one that supported learning, let alone her physical and mental well being. Since my daughter was part of these interviews and meetings, this fact became obvious to her as well.

It is truly an odd experience sitting in a room full of people who desire to help while collectively recognizing that the kind of help needed isn't available.

Of course, we eventually learned the names of those that were the cause of the bullying and contacted their parents. This had no effect as these parents either didn't believe their daughters would be part of such a thing, or they simply didn't care. Since my daughter had also been receiving threatening email I decided to take one to the police to see if anything could be done. While the IP address could be traced, I was told that nothing could be done. With the Young Offenders Act, it seems our youth are allowed to lie, steal and bully - after all, they're young and innocent - right? Worse, many of them know they can get away with it - the kind of "street smarts" I was familiar with in my own school days is significantly more sophisticated and intelligent today. They seem to be deeply aware of their rights, but a powerful minority of them seem have complete disregard for their responsibilities. The exchange with the police took less than five minutes and the officer, again with care and concern in his words, sent me on my way.

Eventually, in grade eight we switched schools hoping that getting away from the malevolence of her youthful oppressors. This, of course, is not a real solution and we all knew it. I think of it more as a desperate attempt to save what was left of my daughter. She did start going back to school and had definitely started trying again, but not for long. Her personal narrative about school itself had changed and her concept of school was now about a place that is largely irrelevant and often dangerous. Of course I took her to a psychologist in hopes of helping her to change her feelings about school. Again, this psychologist was a caring and fundamentally kind person who desired to help - there is no question of this. Unfortunately he was absolutely no intellectual match for my daughter who though incredibly stressed was extremely articulate about the core problem. She had authentic experiences that the formulas of psychotherapy could not penetrate. She knew school wasn't safe, and by this time the entire curriculum (the one that had just been foolishly mangled by Ontario government) had become completely irrelevant to her experiences in life. She could clearly articulate why the school was not a good environment for learning, why there is no support for herself and other students she knew in similar circumstances, and why what was being taught bore no relevance to her own life experiences. She also knew that the adults around her were completely failing to admit or even acknowledge that what she was saying had some truth to it. In other words, she knew they were wrong despite their position in life, and she was right. And she was.

In grade nine, my daughter again decided that enough was enough. She started out well and although she had fallen behind in the curriculum (a falling behind made desperately worse due to the curriculum changes in Ontario) her marks began to return to he old self. However, her high school was also known as "The Pharmacy" - a school in an area where students had money and were able to hold a virtual flea market of illegal drugs. There were under-cover police in her school, surprise locker checks and weapons checks. She decided to quit, although at that time she was under the age of sixteen. Of course, we again went to the school administration, councilors and teachers. And at this point something became readily apparent - it was clear that the school knew about the problems but the only thing they had to offer my daughter was either return to school or pay a visit to the truancy officer. Sometimes the hard line approach works, but to a student that knows more about what's going on in a school than the people that run it their words were all fodder. In fact, at this point, I would guess that any trust my daughter had left for the school system completely evaporated. Worse, there was a fundamental failure to question the nature of the school environment itself and instead it was my daughter that was positioned as the one that had the "problem."

Are we so immature in our entire intellectual "sophistication" that when someone doesn’t fit the mould we think that they must have a problem?

By this time, my daughter had developed a new kind of strength. She would not submit to older people in authority simply because they were older and had a kind of authority. And this included her mother and myself. Moreover, she has a fundamental mistrust of society, and this is probably a healthy thing. She had built a new peer group around herself and her brother remained close to her as he does today. But her bottom line is this - schooling for her is not only irrelevant but also unsafe. I have been in numerous discussions with her trying to leverage all of my experience to help change her attitude. One day, I even dragged her, almost literally, to school. The moment I left, she simply went back home. My problem was obvious - I was wrong and she was right.

Throughout these same few years I was also traveling extensively back and forth to Europe for KPMG and now shamefully admit that I was gone five to six months of the year. Have to earn a living - right? Wrong - I wasn't earning a living I was ignoring it. I can recall being in whatever hotel thinking about my daughter, and the more I thought about her the less important work became. And this was a dangerous pattern of thought since I was responsible for designing and managing a multi-million dollar project. The more I traveled, the more the guilt intensified. I could also begin seeing bullying taking place in the workplace. My immediate superiors were well known for earth-shattering screaming matches in the office in which endless streams of profanity would resonate throughout the maze of cubicles and outer offices. No one would want to go into that space and there was a sense of fear instilled by the "powers that be." There were times I was on the receiving end of this, but mostly (and thankfully) it was something I heard from a distance. Eventually a General Partner put an end to it, but the final nail in the coffin was the suspicion (and I have no way of confirming this and it only comes to me by way of another individual who might know) of fraudulent accounting practices. This is another story altogether.

Today, my daughter is crafting her own path in life. She will not attend school, but she does have plans to get her high school diploma through a high school equivalency diploma - although she is not entirely convinced of this either. Her only reason to do this would be because she knows she cannot attain work without a high school diploma. And here in lies the seemingly infinite stupidity of our social system - that and education somehow prepares people for the workforce. That schooling will somehow improve the quality of people's lives. Maybe in some cases it does and in fact I can look back on my own education and isolate a limited number of experiences that have influenced me deeply, especially an absolutely wonderful professor at York University who was my thesis advisor. This man did literally change my life and I remain indebted to him.

But to elevate this idea into a basic assumption for everyone everywhere in our society is simply is a form of cultural insanity. To say that one must finish twelve years of compulsory education before one is deemed "ready" to enter reasonable paying jobs in the workforce is nonsense. To even aim education as being a means to prepare people for the workforce is to lower if not completely disrespect the purpose of education. Neil Postman brilliantly describes this point in his book, "The End of Education" - and others.

Now of course you might say, well you're the father and you are being highly subjective. And I would completely agree with you and extend my thanks for recognizing that. We all love our own children in ways that defy words. At the same time, my daughter is more than this to me - she is an example of courage and strength. Her angry outbursts were always fundamentally driven by the hope for something better in life even though I failed to recognize that at times back then. Over the last few years she has grown from not being able to articulate the problem very well, to articulating it far beyond what I am capable of. There are many things about both of my children that I can only stand back from and say, "Where did that come from?"

So today, my daughter has decided to craft a life for herself in the full knowledge that she is going "against the flow." She knows that society will not embrace her lack of education even though she is more articulate and intelligent than many that graduate from school. She knows that there are aspects of society that she does not trust and is willing to take personal responsibility for her beliefs. I honestly don't know where she will go or what she will eventually do, and of course like any father I remain concerned, but I do know that she is on her own path and that I will have the honor to continue to learn from her.

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