I have been remembering high school this week, in the wake of the revelations of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s history of racist actions. And not fondly.
As Matthew Barlow noted in The Typescript last week, “racism runs deep” in Canada, a reality that Canadians have historically tended to ignore and deny. Indeed, racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and antisemitism – all forms of bigotry – have been as endemic in my homeland as in my adopted county in all the time that I have been alive; and I have been guilty of some of it. Despite this, the myth persists that acts of bigotry, like wearing brown face at a party, are personal sins and private failings, exceptions to the rule of enlightened society. Yet we can see the shocking truth of Prime Minister Trudeau’s shameful performances in the smiling faces of his companions, captured in the photographic moment: No one spoke up, no one objected at the time. Everyone was complicit in the act.
So, I have been thinking of high school, and the mass complicity of my classmates and teachers. I have been recalling the horror of an incident at Macdonald High School in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec, when I was 14 years old. I was in my first year of high school (which starts in eighth grade in Quebec), wearing my first pair of glasses, and painfully self-conscious. I was also the only Jewish kid in a class overwhelmingly composed of white, mainline Protestants.
I distinctly remember the fear I felt every time the bell would ring out each class period, and I would step into hallways terrorized by bullies. On one occasion, shortly after my 14th birthday, two of the worst of these bullies – call them Jack and Johnny – dragged me into the boys locker room, made me strip down, and then forced me into the showers. I stood in the scalding water, crying and pissing myself, while they laughed and promised me that they were going to finish what Hitler had started.
There is more to the story, of course; although this was the worst incident, it was not an isolated one. Jack and Johnny tormented me all though eighth grade and into ninth. I suffered the frequent calls of “Jewboy!” and sieg heil salutes. They never hid their contempt for me, and Jack, the bigger of the two, never missed an opportunity to promise that he was going to “kick the shit out of your kike ass” when he got the chance. I walked the two miles home in eigth grade, even in the worst weather, rather than take the bus. I was too terrified to allow myself to be exposed in the bus loading area in front of the school.
The threats of violence finally came to an end in ninth grade, when I agreed to write the Jack’s English assignments. I was a good student and had some talent for writing, and this arrangement saved me a lot of anxiety. I remember feeling a flood of relief when Jack said “I guess I’ll let you live, Jewboy.” I don’t remember him in later years; he might have simply moved on to tormenting someone else.
But this abuse was constant – several times a day – and overt for almost two years. It didn’t happen in the shadows; Jack and Johnny would be waiting for me around a corner in the minutes between periods, as hundreds of students streamed by to their next classes. They would jump out and yell “sieg heil!” and “little heeb is going to die!” I know that other people witnessed it – I vividly remember that they were there – even my friends, and even people with whom I am friends today. I know that teachers witnessed the abuse; our beloved Moral and Religion teacher was right there in the corridor as I was dragged screaming into the boys’ locker room.
And there were other incidents, involving other classmates, including friends, that are two numerous to mention. There was the time I was tricked into eating a ham sandwich or when, just before the holidays, I was taunted as “poor Jew doesn’t get Christmas, too.” (By grade 10, I was routinely going out caroling with friends, partly to enjoy their company, and partly to fit in and fly under the radar. This is how assimilation works.)
Oddly, I have mostly fond memories of high school. The incidents of abuse were moments of terror in the school corridors, punctuating four mostly pleasant years. But no one, neither a classmate, nor a teacher, ever stood up for me or spoke out when the abuse happened. I understand now that many, of not most, of my classmates were in Hells of their own. In the last few years, I have learned about abuse, racism, misogyny, and sexual violence of which I must have been at least dimly aware, but never spoke out against. For those of us who were not at the apex of the hierarchy, it was often best not to stand out lest we attract the attention of an abuser. I laughed along at the jokes and admired the swagger of the boys who I later learned were rapists.
And today, I recognize that my bullies were not one-dimensional villains. I can only imagine the abuse that they suffered at home. The worst of them came, I think, from a poor, deeply dysfunctional home. I suspect that he learned his violence and bigotry with mother’s milk.
I have been reflecting on how utterly pervasive, indeed banal, all of the racism, misogyny, and homophobia were, and are. We all inhabited personal hells, and yet we were all, to some extent, complicit in our classmates’ personal hells, with great and small crimes of commission and omission. Most of us were victims, but also perpetrators or, at best, silent witnesses. All of these years later, we must come to terms with this and to find ways to atone. Andwe must always remember this when we rush to judge each other’s personal failings.