“They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.” – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I stood at The Cenotaph, together with our Head Girl. I stood to represent our school. And I stood to honour the Canadian men and women who served, and who still serve, to protect freedom and peace around the world. As I listened to the poignant strains of the Last Post and, after the silence, heard Reveille’s promise of eternal life, I thought of the words, “Lest we forget.”
Lest we forget. Lest we fail to remember. Lest we shirk the weight of memory.
Each year we are asked to remember those who died for our country, and in so doing, to learn from times long past – times of immeasurable suffering, of dictators and despots, of violent upheaval, and hatred that pitted humanity against itself. With that remembrance comes reflection, and out of that reflection, new learning can emerge.
Last week in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an apology for the actions of the Canadian government in 1939 when the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying 907 largely Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, was denied entry to Canada, having been turned away from Cuba and the United States. Knowing that many of the passengers ultimately died in concentration camps, it is heart-wrenching to know that our country played a role in their deaths by callously rejecting their collective plea for sanctuary. But reject them we did, and in acknowledging our moral failure and asking for forgiveness, we have committed to learn from the past and to right the wrong.
I appreciated the remarks of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer who said, “This apology should not make us comfortable. On the contrary, it should grab us and shake us. It should be an alarm that jolts us out of our daily routines and demands that we look at our world today through the lens of that experience.” In other words, this apology will ring hollow should we fail to apply the lessons of the past to the reality of our present.
So in the spirit of “grab and shake”, I’m prepared to ask myself what I can do to demonstrate my small, personal commitment to atone on our country’s behalf. I admit to feeling overwhelmed by the plight of the Rohingya, and helpless in the face of forced family separation at the U.S. – Mexico border. I was shocked by the postal bombs that targeted U.S. Democratic politicians and public figures, and sickened beyond belief by the murder of worshippers in a Jewish synagogue. Who could blame me for feeling immobilized by this quagmire of socio-political chaos? Surely people would understand if I ever so gently placed my head in the sand and simply went about my day to day, or crawled back under the covers even if it’s not the weekend.
I may be many things in life – sometimes stubborn, mildly perfectionistic and often directionally challenged – but I am not a hypocrite. And I know, as sure as I’m Head of Trafalgar Castle School, that I have no right standing before 227 girls, encouraging them to find their voice if I’m not prepared to use my own. I don’t get to challenge them to think critically about the world around them if I won’t do the same. And I shouldn’t be telling them that taking action in the fight against inequality is the right thing to do, if I’m not prepared to act alongside them. So head in the sand is not an option, and I’m left compelled to find a way to push through the inertia caused by the enormity of the growing problems we see around us.
When I’m talking to a student who feels overwhelmed by a project or who’s faced with a huge number of commitments, I always tell her to take it one step at a time. Don’t look at the entire project, focus on the first task. Don’t think about everything that’s on your plate for the next month, just prioritize what’s next. Inaction can be overcome by simple task initiation, and even the smallest of steps will build momentum.
Applying this same advice to myself makes the path a little bit clearer. I may not be able to control the increasingly partisan political discourse that’s growing in some parts of our country, but I can encourage open dialogue and healthy debate within our school. I may not be able to prevent every act of discrimination that occurs in our province, but I can model for our girls what it looks like to acknowledge our differences and seek to learn from one another. I can uphold high expectations for politeness in our hallways, respect in our classrooms and civility in our online communications (whether inside or outside the school). And I can ask our teachers to do the same because I know that teaching is not just a job for them, but their life’s work. Every teacher in our school is here because she or he wants to make the lives of our students better, and by extension, our community.
I encourage parents to have this conversation with your daughter. Talk to her, in an age appropriate way, about how she understands what’s going on in the world around her. Ask her if there are things she’d like to make better or a single person she’d like to help. Encourage her to see the connection between the small act of kindness she can impart and the collective good we can do as a society. But most of all, remind her that her voice matters today, tomorrow and far into the future.
Let’s not forget that today’s opportunity to take action was born out of the sacrifice of others. With a bit of “grab and shake”, we can take small but meaningful steps that honour our past and build a more positive future.