High School Confidential

If I hear this comment just one more time, I’m going to spit:  “why are you spending your energy on horses when women and children need your support?”  As I recall, the first time I was reproached in writing about this was in a response from Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette; that was about eight or ten years ago.

Why people persist in falling back on this old saw escapes me (except as a way for them to avoid the question by trying to put you on the defensive instead).  You cannot have a care about distressed women and children unless you have, already within you, compassion for the weakest among us, the downtrodden, those without voice.  As the co-founder of a small Women’s Centre at Dawson College in the late 70s, I was already armed with a nature that felt for those unable to fight for themselves.    There’s a quote by James Orbinski, author of An Imperfect Offering:  Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century:  “It’s not a choice in many cases.  You just feel compelled to do everything you possibly can for those who don’t have a choice about their suffering.” [cited in The Montreal Gazette]

I recognize that there are degrees of compassion, and there are limits (I still kill earwigs on sight), but the fundamental impulse to help either grows with time, or diminishes as a self-protective egoism takes over.  When faced with the helplessness of another, what drives our ultimate choice to either help or ignore (or, in extreme cases, make worse)?  Human nature being what it is, it all gets pretty complicated when working with groups because once res publica (the public entity) takes over, the solidarity even with like-minded others gets chipped away at, allowing proclivities to seep in which make one and all lose sight of the goal.  I think it was the great and gifted Glenn Gould who once said:  “Solitude nurtures creativity; collegial fraternity dissipates it.”

Left to your own devices, you might deplore being pigeon-holed yet at the same time declare yourself, not by the causes you hold dear, but by your personal habits and the social roles you fulfill. We all define ourselves by labels:  I’m a non-smoker, secretary, chess champion, mother, etc.  Yet those labels tell what you do, not who you are; yet still, flawed or not, they are ways of distinguishing yourself or separating yourself from others.  But that self-authentication rapidly loses ground once you begin to identify with a group because inevitably the group culture will usurp any uniqueness your self-labelling tried to establish.  It’s borg-like; you get swarmed, subsumed into the “groupness”. You can’t help the helpless if you’re busy fighting off the machinations of internal forces or cliques which subvert your best efforts–and for the silliest reasons.  Whether a group (or grouping) is well-intentioned or not, there seems to be a mirroring of the same qualities found in greedy, hateful groups.  Eventually, antagonism, jealousy, racism, class or language distinctions, childhood experiences, even apparel choices will all rise, one then the other, like a piston thumping up and down, until the cause has been reduced to nothing more than bycatch.  (That may explain why a bunch of crows together is called a “murder of crows”; I’ve always liked that quantitative noun).

In high school, I got along with (or was accepted by) the tokers, the nerds and the mods–something I didn’t realize at the time gave me status.  I was as friendly as a squirrel and always interested in different  lifestyles and points of view, so I just enjoyed my friendships without analysing it as some kind of sociological behaviour.  It was only years later that I bumped in to a former schoolmate, who, with some rancour (as if it all had only happened the day before), told me that my popularity had somehow made her and her quieter group of friends feel left out, invisible and worthless.  I was stunned.  How could I have been so cruel, so thoughtless?  Would I have behaved differently towards her if I hadn’t been constantly thronged by one entourage or another?  I don’t even think I apologized to her.  But she didn’t want an apology; she just wanted me out of her sight.  The person she’d known me as wasn’t a person at all to her, but rather, the embodiment of the unstated exclusionary tactics that had made her high school years hell.  My blitheful ignorance at the time is no excuse.  That encounter happened over 25 years ago.  I have since been in her shoes, on the receiving end of a policy of exclusion which stunned me just as her revelations did all those years ago. But I was luckier than her because it happened to me at a time in my life in which I know who I am (as opposed to what role I was expected to fulfill) and that inner gravitas is impervious to the meanness of exclusion.  As Mary McCarthy wrote in her novel, “The Group”:  ‘who’d a thunk it?’

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