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How surreal it is to sit in a place of safety, and revisit yesterday’s pain. I remember a time when I was a around the age of 12, and I had done something very foolish. My middle school class had gone out on a week - long camping trip to Cape Croker in Wiarton, Ontario. This was a big deal for a kid from Regent Park that had never gone camping before. I have no idea how my mom came up with the money for me to go on that trip. On the second day of arriving at the campsite, different groups of kids went out with teachers to explore the campgrounds. Upon my crew’s return from our excursion, my friends and I noticed that someone had taken food from our tent. We thought that some other campers had come into our tent when we were away and stolen some food. One friend and I went to investigate the theft and we went to confront another group of students, which resulted in our knocking down their tent pegs. Our actions were further exacerbated by the fact that a storm was looming. When we arrived at the other tent, I watched my friend kick up about five pegs that held the tent down. There was only one peg left and sure enough, I kicked it up. The worse part for me was that I was not angry, I was just dumb for being a follower. Nevertheless, that one tent peg made me just as culpable.

Everyone made out okay through the storm, but the next day after the storm, we found out that it was a local dog that had stolen our food. The teachers were angry by our blunder. I remember all the teachers lining up and yelling at my friend and I, one after the other. The vision of five teachers lined up and yelling at two twelve year olds still seems excessive to me today. After berating us, the teachers decided to send us home by placing us on a public bus by ourselves the next morning. Calling my mom to let her know I was coming home early was one of the most difficult phone calls I ever had to make. In that moment, I thought about how hard my mom worked and how she really couldn’t afford for me to go on that trip, but she came up with the money any way. On top of that, I actually felt extremely bad about what I had done, however not one teacher afforded me the opportunity to say I was sorry.

I remember the terrible feeling when one of the teachers dropped us off at the bus depo the next morning and riding home on the bus alone, feeling completely confused about the whole thing. I was aware that I made a mistake in judgement that I could not take back, and that my actions lead to my first camping trip ending abruptly. I also remember feeling bad about the separation from my friends and the rest of the group. However, looking back at the incident I feel that an opportunity for learning was lost, because what I do not remember is ever having a chance to apologize; nor repair the harm that I had caused or restore harmony with my peer group and even with some of my teachers. I remember not feeling comfortable to communicate with some teachers the following school year.

That experience revealed to me that the anger response over injustice and seeking punishment could sometimes be destructive to individuals and communities of people. While punishment can feel like the most appropriate response in the immediate aftermath of a harm, what can be lost is an opportunity for the offending person to take responsibility for the harm they cause.

What I needed was a chance to take responsibility for my actions and explain my side of the story. I needed a safe space that would have afforded me an opportunity to retain my dignity and to remain human. I wanted to apologize for what I had done, but did not have the chance to do so. I also needed an opportunity to consider the impact of what my aggression had done to the other students. The reality about that incident is that all the opportunities I just mentioned were rendered void by the anger that the teachers displayed toward me. Do not get me wrong, I believe I deserved consequence for my actions. However, I also believe that educators and parents have a responsibility to provide logical discipline that leads to learning.

My friend and I did not learn or understand how important an apology was, at least not through that experience. We didn’t learn the importance of an apology because we were taught instead to feel only shame. How much more impactful would that experience have been if we were taught about the need to take ownership of our actions and to learn from them, and to not repeat them? How much greater would the lesson have been that when you are wrong, or when you make a mistake, you can admit it, and take the opportunity to learn and grow?

I think everyone should be afforded a chance to maintain dignity in the face of difficult situations. An apology that allows for genuine accountability seems liberating to me. It seems to provide a chance for closure; both for the offender and for the person harmed. Part of the liberation of genuine accountability in my opinion, lies in the potential power to restore balance and harmony to those affected. The truth is that in my camping story as I remember it, all I felt was a sense of animosity for the teachers in the aftermath of the event because I was sent home early from the trip; and that is where the story ended. The sad reality is what I should have been feeling was a sense of remorse for my poor choice of behaviour. Consequences without accountability, improper communication about harm done and a collective understanding of how to effectively deal with situations means very little and serves no one.

This story is a very interesting recollection for me as I consider what genuine accountability looks like to me today. True accountability involves 1) acknowledging responsibility for one’s actions 2) acknowledging the impact of one’s actions on others 3) expressing genuine remorse 4) taking actions to repair the harm to the degree possible and 5) taking steps to ensure that similar harm will not happen again.

Over the years, I have come to understand that as relational beings, humans will hurt one another. There are certainly experiences where others have hurt me deeply, and as revealed in this story, I too have caused harm to others in a number of ways. Our interconnectedness leads to situations where we harm and cause harm to others. This fact is inevitable and is liberating for me. The reality is that I have held tightly to the pain of this experience that took place almost 40 years ago. How I wish my adult self could go back to that moment and say to each of the teachers, “wait a minute before you dole out punishment. Slow down and breathe. I know you are angry with the boys, but, can you come up with a consequence that holds them accountable, while maintaining your integrity as teachers?” Unfortunately, the linear nature of life does not afford any do overs. We can only reflect and move forward. I wonder how many of those teachers are still living today. I would love to see them. I would simply settle for a coffee and a heartfelt conversation.

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