My son Henry was brutally attacked at King George Public School in 2014.
After switching schools the following year, he never saw the students who did this again. Three weeks ago, that changed.
My son is a happy, easy-going kid who, at 14, stands almost 6 foot already. He is polite, dutiful and artistic. He makes his teachers laugh in the hall. He is independent and chooses wisely who he associates with. Henry has an IEP to mitigate an expressive language delay that affects his schooling, and he has navigated his own course with courage and dignity.
Henry rarely cries.
I wouldn’t describe this as him being ‘manly’ but rather a testament to the consistent maintenance of his own inner balance. Henry is action-oriented. He expresses feeling through respect and compassion toward others. When his closest friend passed away that same school year he was attacked, it wasn’t until a week after we said goodbye and Baamaa Pi (we will see you again), that when something reminded him of her and he wept openly at school. The staff members were graciously responsive and set up visits from a counsellor for him that very day.
My son had support and was doing well in almost all respects at King George. This was so important to us that he was registered to return there when we moved out of catchment the following year. On his first day however, Henry became paralyzed at the mere sight of the building. He took one step toward a new year and became frozen in his tracks.
Fast-forward three years: his second day of high school. I got a call during third period. It was Henry, and he who said he was sick. With only an hour left, of the day I told him to go to class, get on the bus, and reminded him that we’d see each other shortly.
Henry did not come home on the bus.
I called the school and was told that he was absent in the last period. I drove around searching for him, afraid he missed the bus and got lost on the way home, or that something worse had happened. He wasn’t sick when I dropped him off in the morning- what if something was really wrong?
An hour after expected, I saw Henry walking up our street with a friend. The two boys were laughing and smiling — a great relief, but not enough to instantly calm my nerves instantly.
I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t go to class or take the bus home; we agreed that he would do both. This is high school, though; it’s his choice to skip classes and to leave when he wants now. At home, we debriefed as we always do. I need him to be able to talk to me.
Henry — the confident young man I watched laughing with a friend while skipping classes only moments before, suddenly and unexpectedly broke down. He explained through tears that he didn’t want to go to fourth period because he recognized two of the boys who attacked him in his third period class. It never crossed his mind or mine that he might ever see them again.
“They recognized me,” he said.
Henry doesn’t remember their names, but clearly he remembers their faces. Three years later, the details are foggy in my recollection, also. I only remember what the boys did to my son’s face. It hurt to see the cuts and bruises. Three of them railed on him with punches and kicks while he was down and none of his peers stepped in to stop it. Not a week later that year, one of the boys brought a switchblade to school. They were in Grade five.
My son can’t say it, but what he experienced was clearly more than just a fight. Those boys took away a sense of safety that comes with expectation that other people are not allowed to violate us had been taken away from him. I know what it’s like to live with the memory of what another persons face looks like while they dehumanize you. My son seems to remember this also. It is not an easy thing to live with, and an even harder thing to confront physically.
‘Boys will be boys,’ some will say and, ‘It’s normal for kids to fight.’ There is a difference between fights and assaults, teasing and persistent bullying, the things kids can forget easily and those they can’t. Do we know what these differences are? Do our children? One of these truths does not exclude the other:
My boy is a boy and it’s not okay to violate people, regardless of gender.
Our actions have consequences, and the things we do can affect people for years to come. I hope that Henry’s story will prompt discussion and that this year will be remembered by all students because of the good minds and good actions that step up to make great schools.