The Ottawa Citizen by Amy Johnson 19 October 2011
I was angry reading the front page of Monday’s Citizen. Thinking of the five kids I have at home, and the 500 I’m responsible for at school, I asked myself, “How is A.Y. Jackson, the school community currently grieving the tragic death of Jamie Hubley, different from Opeongo High, in the heart of rural Ottawa Valley, where I work as principal?”
The short answer is, it’s not.
My anger compelled me to broadcast a morning announcement to my school. I knew it would begin the week on a very sombre note, that it would be hard to listen to, that some students would snicker at what I had to say. But I said it anyway.
I asked for the explicit attention of all staff and students. Secretaries and custodians stopped their work to listen while I shared the news of Jamie Hubley’s suicide. I explained that Jamie had written on his blog that he just couldn’t take being called a “fag” anymore. I acknowledged that this tragedy made me deeply sad.
Then I made a commitment and a request. I told my school community that I would do everything in my power to make Opeongo High a safe and friendly place for everyone. And I asked for their help. I pleaded with my 500 teenagers to stop using terms like “fag” and “homo.” I begged them to be kind to one another and to let us know if they needed help. I told them even if they were “joking,” these terms – and many others – cause pain. Sometimes, so much pain that the person on the receiving end feels, like Jamie did, forced to take drastic measures to escape.
When I was done, the school whirred back into its everyday business of teaching and learning. … But there was a difference.
First, the student council president came to me and offered ideas of guest speakers we could invite in to help prevent similar tragedies from happening. Then another student came to tell me that she has struggled for years with mental health issues and would like to talk about it with our school community. On my daily walkabout a staff member approached me with tears in his eyes and thanked me, recounting a story from his past where he, too, had been overwrought with grief over the suicide of a former student. I popped into a science class where a teacher was telling his Grade 10 students that a friend of his committed suicide when he was in Grade 10. I watched empathy cross the students’ faces as they put themselves in their teacher’s shoes. The guidance counsellor came to me to say that a student suicide is his professional worst nightmare; the thing he worries about the most and sometimes loses sleep over.
Teachers and students poured in to my office throughout the day and engaged in the conversation about how we can stop this from happening. Many stopped to read the newspaper article, to talk about it, to cry. I shared personal stories involving my own children who I send to school wearing pink on the International Day of Pink. In Grade 1 my six-yearold son came home crying and asking me why “gay” is a bad word. This story also makes me angry.
Today, after all the reading, the talking and the crying, I will continue to invite the members of my school community to get angry with me. To refuse to do nothing. To not sweep Jamie Hubley’s story under the rug and pretend that the youth of A.Y. Jackson are different than those at Opeongo High or any other school across the province. I will invite all adults to join me in consistently interrupting racist, sexist and homophobic language or behaviour when we see it. I will invite the students to do the same. Many have already told me they are willing to help.
In the very rare moments that are quiet in my office, with the door closed, my anger turns to tears. Tears for Jamie’s family. Tears for my own gay friends, now adults who also hated – but survived – their high-school experience. Tears for all of the gay teenagers everywhere who might be hurting at this very moment. There is much work to be done, in Jamie Hubley’s name, for my five kids at home, my 500 at Opeongo High and many more who we want to stay safe and loved and alive.
Amy Johnson is principal of Opeongo High School.