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COLUMN SIX: The beast inside us

Reflections of a St. Michael’s College alumnus

BY COLIN BREZICKI
Special to the VOICE

It was as a student, in English class at St Michael’s College School in Toronto, that I first read Lord of the Flies. A bunch of English private school boys, marooned on a Pacific island, reverse evolution, shed their uniforms and thin veneer of civilized values and start to destroy each other.

That was half a century ago, so it’s taken a while for the irony to surface.

This month my alma mater is making unwanted headlines across Canada for its alleged history of bullying, victimization and sexual assault, supposedly done in the name of team spirit and bonding. So far, six students at the school, all minors, have been arrested and charged with criminal offences involving things like gang sexual assaults with a weapon.

Late last week, the school’s president and principal both resigned.

Other students, past and present, are coming forward with their own stories about what psychologist Joseph Gillis terms “ritualized violence” at the school:

“Ritualized violence is particularly problematic, especially in schools, because of the notion of toxic masculinity. So these circumstances are all-male environments where the most negatives aspects of male stereotypes and behaviour — the aggression, lack of empathy, dominance, control of others — intensifies and goes unchecked.”

Writer Bill Dunphy, who attended St. Mike’s some time after I graduated, reveals in the Globe and Mail that on his very first day a science teacher punched him in the stomach as he filed out of the Grade 9 welcome assembly. His French teacher had a habit of slamming the textbook down on a student’s head to force home a declension, and flung chalk pieces at the inattentive back row. Another alumnus, a lawyer who deals professionally with cases of intimidation at the school, suggests that he wasn’t at all surprised at the raw sewage sluicing its way out of the place now that the “code of silence” has been broken by a police investigation.

Yet another alumnus, Jean-Paul Bedard, now 52, writes in the National Post that he experienced “sexualized violence” when he attended the school in the ‘80s. “It’s part of the old boys’ culture,” he says.

Apparently, St. Mike’s is not an isolated case. Similar traditions of initiation exist at private boys’ schools in the US, notably those that prioritize team sports. The most recent atrocity at St. Mike’s—sexually assaulting a Grade 9 student with a broomstick while filming the event for posterity—was inflicted by members of the junior varsity football team following its seventh consecutive CISAA championship.

One doesn’t readily think of the debating society, history, or chess club taking part in such “bonding” rituals as a way of enforcing the brotherhood and ensuring further triumphs down the road.

Still, the most shocking, and evil, aspect of the broomstick assault is that the victim had nothing to do with the football team. He was an innocent kid who entered the locker room looking for his friend to give him a ride home. His friend had left, but the Beast, it seems, stayed behind.

This helpless victim reminded me of Simon in Lord of the Flies, the fair-haired child who communed with nature on that tropical island, who listened to the breeze in the palms and the winged insects humming in and around the wildflowers, and felt the pulse of the sea against the shoreline. Simon was a loner, not part of the team of schoolboys marooned in the middle of the Pacific with no adult supervision.

The choirboys—a separate and malignant cult among the private schoolers—were chanting and dancing around a huge bonfire as Simon emerged from the trees with a message. He had learned something about “the Beast” everyone believed inhabited the island, but before he could speak the frenzied gang attacked and killed him, then left his body to be lapped up by the waves.

If they’d had iPhones they might have recorded the whole thing.

The Beast, as Simon learned, was real enough, and it lived not on the island, but inside the boys themselves.

Golding’s novel was written as a bitter parody of a “boys’ own” novel from a previous century. The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne, records the survival efforts and adventures of three boys—Jack, Ralph and Peterkin (think Jack, Ralph and Piggy in Lord of the Flies)— shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific. These lads are exemplary models of “old-school” British values: manliness, loyalty, patriotism, fortitude and altruism. I read the book several times as a child and understood what Golding was up to when I read his novel years later.

Father Joe Penny was my English teacher back then. He was a kind man, I remember, with a gentle humour, and his favourite character in Lord of the Flies was Simon. Simon had empathy, Father Joe would say, and empathy is why we read books like this.

He was right of course. Empathy is exactly why we read “books like this,” so we can experience what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while, especially those who are different.

I wonder what sort of reading culture exists at schools like St. Mike’s anymore. One hears of books like Lord of the Flies carrying trigger warnings at university because readers might be traumatized. Is it possible that not reading fiction like this can mean having to deal with the thing itself? The boys now charged with sexual assault at St. Mike’s are 14 and 15, similar to the boys in the novel. I don’t think Jack, the head choirboy, was much of a reader either.

If my school in the early ‘60s had a tradition of toxic masculinity protected by a code of silence I wasn’t aware of it, and I was involved in all aspects of school life: team sports, debating and student council.

So how did it all happen, is a question I share with some of my classmates from those days.

Fingers already point to the usual culprits: entitlement, social media, overindulgence, privilege, maleness and so on.

But maybe such behaviour has to do with what Father Penny would regard as a loss of empathy, something quite distinct from a prevailing smugness about how far up the evolutionary ladder we think we’ve climbed.

Can we look anywhere in our world and entertain for a second that man’s inhumanity to man is no longer with us?

Another old teacher of mine once said to me, by way of counsel, “It’s a fallen world we inhabit and we were never offered anything more than a chance to build a paradise within.”

And even in that paradise there’s a serpent in residence. A beast, if you will.

Simon heard him speak from inside himself when he faced the flyblown head of a pig impaled on a stick—the lord of the flies.

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill?” said the head. For a moment or two the forest echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

In the meantime, one feels profoundly sad for the victims and their families. And for the students who attend the school in good faith, to be taught “goodness, discipline and knowledge.” How do they hold their heads up now that their school has crash-landed on its own playing fields?

Now more than ever, as the wheels of justice grind on, maybe it’s time for some empathy, and to make this a real teachable moment.

 

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