Wednesday night I had the opportunity to participate in something very special here at school. I helped take a group of very wealthy private school kids into downtown Toronto to go on a night walk with the Salvation Army.
We took a bunch of supplies, ranging from toothbrushes to socks, with us and went on a tour of the "hot spots" of the homeless community to distribute them and talk with any of the homeless people around Toronto. We first walked through some pretty rough neighbourhoods and got yelled at and taunted by the locals. This frightened some of the students, who have lived, by and large, fairly sheltered lives.
There was this one girl, let's call her Christine, who was especially afraid. She repeatedly asked for me to stay close to her and revealed to me that her number one fear was having someone pull her into a dark alley and shoot her up with heroin. Despite my many attempts at explaining the inherent infeasibility of her concerns, they did not subside.
When we walked through a park, Christine was incredibly afraid of any contact with any homeless people. As the night went on, I gradually snuck away from her, hoping that she would be slightly more comfortable in her environment. I was pretty amazed by the results.
As we approached Nathan-Phillips Square (City Hall for any of you not familiar with the centre of the Universe...) we saw more, and more homeless people. Many students went up and donated their gifts directly to the recipients but I noticed Christine staying with our group. As we rounded the corner, I continued to watch her.
After a while it was fairly apparent that Christine was one of the few remaining students to have not made direct contact with a homeless person. Sensing this, she bit down on her fear and slowly made her way over to a gentleman huddled in a bus stop. I listened as she introduced herself and offered an apple and toothbrush. I could sense her voice shake.
To my delight and her shock, he gratefully accepted and begin to have a real, normal, honest-to-goodness conversation with her. No screaming, no stabbing, no stealing, no injecting with drugs.
She could probably pay off my student loans with her allowance (and that's saying something!), and I would see more money in a month than he would in a year. But in that moment, it did not matter. Right then and there the three of us were all equal. Three exceptionally different lives and social classes all juxtaposed in one surreal environment.
As our group left Nathan-Phillips Square I looked over at Christine, and said the five words that I feel every educator should say as much as possible, "I am proud of you".
I certainly, was not lying on that one. I was proud of her for helping someone in need, I was proud of her conquering her own fears, but most of all I was proud of her for opening up a piece of the real world, not only to herself, but to me as well. Her, and all of the other students there with us, really helped remind me that deep down inside we aren't all that different.
Looking back, I would be lying if I said that I wasn't a little bit afraid wandering through these slummy parts of Toronto, but after being inspired by the students and meeting some of these brave homeless people, I can say that much of my fear was alleviated.
While it is not at all easy, I really encourage any of you out there living near a disadvantaged area to go out and find a chance to interact with the people who are far less fortunate than you are. Who knows, it could give you a chance to be proud of that little bit of Christine that lives inside of you.
Until next time,