How I learned to play chess and dodge the bullies at the same time

On February 22, 2017, Canadians are encouraged to participate in Pink Shirt Day. By wearing pink, you can show your support to help promote inclusion, respect, and empathy and put an end to bullying behaviours. 

My Pink Shirt Day promise is to share my experiences of being bullied.

I used a chess-club pass as my ticket to escape the persistent cruelty of recess.

I was nine-years old when my uncle sponsored my family to immigrate to Canada and, at the time, it felt like we’d won a lottery. It was the mid-seventies, when England seemed very bleak, offering little promise to a poor, working-class family living in public housing, on a council estate.

Canada, in contrast, felt like Disneyworld, a world full of possibility — even while we were living in my uncle’s basement during that first year.

Yet, at school, I was the “other.” There were kids who felt they had a license to physically abuse anyone who stood out, whether they were a visible or religious minority, or a kid with a disability. As a newcomer during those first few years, I was one of the kids singled out as being different which gave them permission to give me wedgies, ritual beatings, and much worse. I considered it a good recess if the worst that happened to me was that I wasn’t picked for a pick-up game team: being ignored may have left me feeling isolated, but at least it was free of violence.

The situation finally started to subside when I avoided recess altogether by joining the chess club. I keep the pass as a reminder.

Now, as an adult reflecting back, I’m able to recognize the bullies as kids rather than offenders. They needed help themselves. Some of them had incarcerated fathers. They were neglected, often hungry. They were treated as pariahs by the teachers who should have been helping them, kicked out of class for what would now be recognized as attention deficit disorder.

As a parent myself now, I see some progress. While cyber-bullying offers an anonymity and reach that the bullies of my day didn’t have, with consequences which are absolutely devastating, as we know too well, I’m still hopeful. We live in an era where parents and teachers are very conscientious about raising kids to be accepting — where they are learning to work through problems rather than lashing out. One kid getting bullied is too many but, overall, I think it’s a more welcoming climate today for kids who are different. The kids, largely, are alright.

James Gilbert
Assistant Deputy Minister, Public Affairs and Stakeholder Relations Branch

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