Ever since my early childhood, I’ve had a strong sense of what “justice” and “injustice” were, even if I didn’t always have the words to explain it to others. A lot of it was learned through stories, books and television, but it didn’t take long to begin experiencing the concepts in visceral ways that would change me forever.
Generally speaking, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of right and wrong from the very beginning. If I was acting selfish or acting on impulses of anger or greed, I probably always knew. I’d occasionally get a talking to in kindergarten, but I was mostly reasonably behaved. One day, something happened that shook me in ways I had never experienced before. Something “unfair” that I would never forget.
Another young guy named “Mike”, for reasons I will never know, told our teacher that I had “pinched him” as he arrived at school, as he came through the gate to the playground. I did not see him arrive that day. I was likely inside the classroom before he arrived and wasn’t even aware of his presence at school until that moment. The teacher spoke to me about it, and no matter what I said, I was told about how wrong it was of me to pinch people, and probably about how I shouldn’t tell “fibs”. I think I was punished by way of sitting out some playtime, but I can’t remember the details.
Before that point, I had never experienced an array of emotions so confusing. In retrospect, I was experiencing injustice of a kind. Someone had fabricated a lie about me doing something I couldn’t have done, and they were taken at their word without the burden of proof. There was nothing I could do about it. Nobody came to my defence, and unlike the stories I had seen and read, no comedy of errors or video tape revealed the truth.
Our teacher thought it was a big enough deal to let my parents know about it, and write about it in a report card. I received another talking to at home. This time it was the words of a 5-year-old against that of an older teacher.
As I progressed through elementary school and highschool, this sort of thing happened over and over again. I never understood if it was just something most people experience, or if there was something about me in particular that made it easy to pin things on, but it never did me any favours.
It happened over and over again, and the stakes got higher, both in terms of punishment and the emotions involved.
One time, sometime around 4th grade (I don’t actually recall which year), a bunch of us had taken to destroying a bunch of dilapidated snowmen and structures that had been falling apart for a few days. I remember joining a girl named “Jen” in kicking a boulder of snow as hard as we could, we were trying to break it apart. She was kicking aggressively when suddenly, a chunk of snow hit her in the face. She grabbed her face, paused for a few seconds, and turned to a nearby teacher. She proceeded to tell them that I had made a “snowball with a rock in it” and threw it at her face. As far as I knew, there wasn’t even rocks near by. I was brought before the principal and vice principal, and after a bunch of “he said/she said”, tears and being interrogated, I was told I was being suspended and my parents were coming to get me. I had been wronged again. Same confusing emotions, but I had come to expect them at this point. In this case, it was my word against that of two administrative school staff and a girl I went to school with.
There were definitely times I did things that were frowned upon and probably earned fair punishment. I also had a couple misunderstood-but-challenging conditions and behavioural tendencies that were difficult for my teachers to contend with from time to time, but they were most certainly exasperated by these kinds of incidents.
There was a point at which my parents and teachers had agreed to enrol me in a program hosted by a local youth mental health organization, designed to teach struggling children social skills & how to manage their emotions. For awhile, I had loved it. I got to miss school one day a week to hang out with other people, eat snacks and do creative things while they walked us through the basics of understanding our emotions and how to refrain from things like punching someone in the mouth when they made us feel angry.
Later in the program, there was a lot more private discussion where the workers would have conversations with us apart from our peers. In one of these private sessions, we got talking about things that bothered me or made me angry. I mentioned repeated instances of being blamed for things I did not do and how it frustrated me. The woman talking to me asked me to name an example, and I had told the kindergarten pinching story. It had been years, but it was still a vivid example for me. She asked me if I did it, if I pinched the boy. I told her that I did not, and reiterated the story in short form. “Did you do it?” she asked. I said no. We had this back and forth for a couple minutes that felt like an eternity, before she finally said “We’re not leaving this room until you tell the truth.”
I’m not sure if I remembered any of the anger management skills they had been trying to teach us, but all I did was angrily and silently stare for several minutes, while feeling completely betrayed and beaten up. Eventually I broke and said “Fine, I did it!” which was met with “Now you’re just telling us what you want us to hear, aren’t you?”
I don’t know what kind of mind games they thought they were playing or why they were convinced that I was lying to them about this experience at that moment, but it went on long enough that I began lying just to get out of there, and went out of my way to reassure them that I was finally confessing to the horrible act of “pinching” someone in 1989.
There are many things I could say about what all of this probably meant for my wellbeing, and I could tell stories for days about times when I faced consequences for things I was falsely accused of, from childhood through to recent experiences as an adult. After decades of reflection and experiencing these things though, I’m finally seeing a silver lining. I’m not saying I’m glad these things happened, I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone. It does, however, help me to see the world more objectively.
I had a pretty good life and enjoyed a lot of privileges that many people never had. A safe home, two parents, food to eat, plenty of entertainment, health, education… and the troubles I experienced were so mundane and trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they taught me things and shaped me for better or worse. Everywhere in the world is full of examples of people being treated unfairly, whether they or their people are targets of repeated oppression, or are unfairly accused of things they played no role in. Lives are destroyed or rife with torment and so much of it could be different if people just listened to others once in awhile and challenged what they think they already know.
I’m not naive enough to think I can fix the world. I do want to listen more though. A lot of things could have gone easier for me in my youth had more people listened to me, and now I see entire groups of people being thrown under the bus all because people are unwilling to listen or try to understand situations from a different perspective.
It would have meant the world to me as a child if even one person told me they believed me when I said I didn’t pinch my classmate. I can’t imagine what sort of transformative things could happen if we listened to people who have experienced oppression and injustice their whole lives instead of looking for reasons not to trust them all the time.
Header photo: blurry still from a camcorder, my grandfather visiting from the south, taping me coming out of the “pinching gate” at Hanna Memorial Public School in Sarnia
Copyright 2013 A.W. Young