As an educator for 20+ years, hearing my name in public, in the form of a question, always triggers one thought: I’ll recognize the face but I’ll stumble on the inevitable follow up question, “Do you remember me?”
Let me set the stage. It’s Wednesday evening and I’m in the cereal aisle at Costco. I don’t want to be here but my wife claims that ever since they’ve removed the product tasting tables, I’ve become less hostile while pushing the buggy. In terms of how I look, I’m a walking billboard for public education: my sweatpants are from Van Tech, my sweatshirt from John Oliver and my toque from Burnett (3 schools I’ve worked in, 3 pieces of clothing).
This guy calling me by name could be from anywhere. I turn around. Not only do I recognize the young man, I remember his name: Adam. When he was with me at John Oliver he was, as his English teacher humorously put it, the first man of mania.
“Adam, how could I ever forget you!” He stands in front of me, a big smile on his face and a little blond Cindy-Lou Who look alike nestled in his arms. Adam is a young man of about 27 or 28 but in being a parent myself, one who always sees the four-year-old in his own children, what I see at this very moment is the seventeen-year-old boy from 10 years ago, sitting in my Principal’s Office.
February 16, 2011, 12:35 pm.
I’ve just entered the office following my post bell, lunch is over, get to class walk of the hallways – a conspicuously lively event that has me exhorting students to start moving to class: a “let’s go, 2 minutes to learning” accompanied by the street cred move of placing my arms into the letter L and explaining that L, that’s upper case, capital L, is for Learning.
I stop by a locker where a gaggle of girls has migrated. Boldly and with attitude, I step within their circle, make a teenage angst comment about how ‘no one understands me’, open the locker wide and while looking at the obligatory teenager’s mirror affixed on the inside, lift my hand to my hair, stop, and say “no, that’s about right.” Giggles and awkwardness, “you’re so lame, Mr. Bondi” inspires the placement of one foot in front of the other and the gaggle starts to waddle away.
I turn to the boys across the hall and walk towards this historically apathetic collective. I brush my foot back and forth on the ground in front of them. I tell them that it’s ok now; I’ve removed the invisible circle of salt that has rendered them immobile (they don’t get the slug reference). I take a different tact and tell them that we don’t offer Hallway Aesthetics as an Independent Directed Study course – we offer it supervised, off timetable, after school, with me. Semi-appreciative smirks from a few but for the boys who don’t get it, I just stop and stare– I won’t explain the IDS or for that matter the slug reference: I refuse to dumb down my material!
So, you get the picture: high intensity, high humour and extremely high engagement with students. It’s what my wife likes to refer to as my Johnny High School time of day and it’s one of the things I miss most about being a High School Principal.
February 16, 2011, 1:10 pm. The school office.
There, sitting in one of the chairs, is Adam. I know Adam very well – his mistakes are generally of biblical proportion. The snake that tempts him? Boredom.
Adam is a student with a behaviour designation. He has had numerous issues throughout the year and he frequently comes down to my office for a timeout. I really like Adam; he’s got grit, the kind you only find in the inner city.
I take a few steps towards him: “Adam, welcome.”
He looks up briefly.
“I can’t say that you’re a long-time listener, first time caller but your visits are often the highlight of my afternoons”. I know that he gets it because his teacher tells me that Adam keeps announcing to his English class that he’s a part of “Mr. Bondi’s Afternoon Show”.
Adam follows me into my office. He takes his seat, the one closest to the door. He looks at me and I notice that the knuckles of his clenched right hand are alarmingly white – not a good sign.
As he sits with me in my room, sullen and ill-humoured, I sit quietly across the table from him – all he needs right now is a safe space and the belief that right here, right now, he has an adult in his corner.
“Well Adam. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbles. “I was just typing”
“Yah but I have a note here from Mr. Jones that says you damaged a computer. Do you want to tell me about it?”
Adam looks up for the first time.
“It wasn’t the computer. It was the keyboard.”
“What did you do?”
“I took off a piece.”
“Well, maybe we can fix it.” Staring at his clenched fist, at this point dangerously devoid of any blood flow, I ask, “Are you holding the piece right now?”
I ask him if he will let me have the key . . . maybe we can fix the keyboard together.
He opens his hand and gives it to me.
I look at the key, one of a hundred and one, and I ask “why?”
His response is immediate: “I was bored.”
The key? A grey ESC.
January 13, 2020 7:20 pm. Back to Costco and the present moment.
Adam and I exchange a few pleasantries as we both wait for our wives to return with the mass quantity items that we will be consuming over the next month and a half. He’s now a finishing carpenter, been married for two years and his first born, Charlotte, just turned one.
At this point, I reach into my pocket and pull out my key chain. Affixed to it is a keyboard piece that I’ve carried with me for close to ten years: the grey ESC key.
Adam let’s out a loud expletive which leads to an instinctual “earmuffs” movement of his hands over Charlotte’s ears. We share a few more laughs, I answer the obligatory questions about former teachers, our wives return, and we wish each other well as we depart.
Adam, the student with a behavioural designation, grabbing at ESC, looking for a way out, because he was bored. I always questioned if he understood the statement he was making. Now I know that he did. I wonder how many students today wish they could press a magical ESC key to get out of their classes.
Every morning, for the past ten years, I’ve placed that ESC key in my pocket to remind myself that in all that I do, in every conversation I have, in every school visit I go on, in every meeting I chair, I aim to always reframe the process of learning for those around me – from doing school to engaging with it. I am cognizant of the Adams in our system right now: the voiceless, the struggling, the ones on the edge. How do we ensure that their voices are heard? How do we create a system where they can co-construct their own personalized learning experience? How do we change thoughts of escape into a greater desire to immerse oneself into work that’s worth doing, learning that worth’s mastering?
Since I recently finished reading Jeffrey Krames’ Lead with Humility, who better than Pope Francis to succinctly address these questions. In one of his first homilies after the papal conclave of March 2013, Pope Francis stated that the great changes in history are realized when reality is seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. Adam went through high school, like so many others have, on the periphery. But his are the types of experiences that need to be shared because they question the comfortability of a center that does not ensure equitable experiences for all students.
My hope for 2021 is that we all start at the periphery; we examine our practices so as to provide the Adams of our worlds with voice and agency; we create a system, not just one school or one classroom, in which escape is no longer a part of anyone’s educational plan.