Monday, November 03, 2008

Nothing but Net Geners: Black and white and misread all over

The story here in Ottawa last week about A.Y. Jackson Secondary School folding its senior boys basketball team had all sorts of man-bites-dog.

It was a hard-news story where each side merited an equal say. One of the players I interviewed, Ashish Darji, has left a comment at His words lend themselves to questions about who is is more out of touch with Net Geners -- the news media, or the education system.

Here is Mr. Darji's comment:
"I thought administration was supposed to resolve problems and help us to succeed, however from the principals and the head of athletics at our school, we've got nothing but put-downs. Today we asked if we could play for the baseball team, and she said 'yes, for sure'. But then why are we allowed to play for the baseball team, if we are skipping, yet not for the basketball team? Today at the protest, teachers were threatening students that if they did not get back to class they would fail the students or not let them play on any sports teams. Students were standing up and fighting for something that they feel is unfair and the administration were even taking away that right from the students. I thought this was canada."
In one shot, Darji hit on what many Baby Boomers in the media and education system get wrong about kids. It is in keeping with what Wikinomics author Don Tapscott digs into in his latest book, Grown Up Digital, but first, there is the issue of race and culture has to be explored.

The A.Y. Jackson story, like it or not you have to mention this, involved school admins from the Baby Boomer generation coming down on Net Geners. The latter, including those at two other schools in Ottawa which are not offering senior boys basketball this winter, include teens with surnames such as Afzal, Baino, Chopra, Darji, Deria, Hamed, Ibrahim, Indawala, Kabamba and Zurmati.

More than one A.Y. Jackson student said it was treated as an unexcused absence when Muslim students missed a morning practice because they had to go to mosque for prayers on Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. In fairness, one of the players noted the coach was considerate and "didn't run us too hard at practice" when players were fasting during the holy month.

More than one person who was at a meeting about the team's status on Oct. 27 said that the school principal -- a Boomer, with 28 years in education, told the young men and some of their parents, "Why don't you join the ski club?"

Quick, name the last black or brown person on Canada's downhill team. In fairness, one can only assume it was the kind of comment we've all spit out in a tense situation. In fact, the principal's previous school has a very well-run nordic skiing team. (I wrote a feature about the program last June.)

Ultimately, it was a sports story that had to be told in 600 words, by a carpenter's son from cracker-ass crackerville. It would have been unethical to risk exacerbating a tense situation, but it could not be ignored. It would not have gone uncommented upon in the U.S., where as King Kaufman once wrote, there is no such thing as a conversation that isn't about race.

The other daily covering the story did ignore it, initially going along with the school's aim to teach a lesson. Their silence speaks volumes. (As an aside, check out the mugshots of its columnists and search for anyone who is a visible minority or appears to be under age 35.)

The young men were taken aback by the "ski club" comment. However, they saw more in terms of fairness and consistency: We can't play basketball due to poor behaviour, but can play baseball or ski for the school?

The Paper of Record in Ottawa had two reporters working on the story and a follow-up by its ace sports columnist the following day, Oct. 30. There was an editorial the following day. (For the sake of the dumb guy, explain why what happens "every day on hockey rinks where the out-of-date philosophy of beating them in the alley still rules" has anything to do with 17-year-old boys whose sports heroes are more likely NBA demigods Chris Bosh and Chris Paul, rather than Senators cheap-shot artist Chris Neil, even though he plies his dubious craft just a few miles away in Kanata.)

When 300 students from a number of high schools demonstrated Oct. 30 in support of the basketball players, it was given short shrift and called a "brief morning walkout." The turnout was reported as 70, with no mention of students from other schools joining in (behold the power of Facebook).

Four days after the fact, though, the Citizen's Kelly Egan, bless his heart, called shenanigans on the school for framing "this as a case of academics taking precedence over sport -- you know, Big Important Life Lessons at stake here, doing the right thing even if hugely unpopular, not backing down to yappy parents, blah, blah, blah.

" ... The way to properly frame the problem, it seems to me, is to ask whether there is a judicious way to discipline members of a group without imploding the entire structure, thus losing a grand opportunity."

The Paper of Record can apparently be counted on to do the right thing ... eventually. A real lesson -- if you accept the idea that working journalists ever bother to learn anything, a dodgy concept -- is that we are way past the traditonal model of we-talk, you-listen and santimonious speechifying about rights and responsiblities. It is out, gone. As Tapscott wrote in his book:
"As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors ... these empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life ... they are replacing a culture of control with a culture of enablement.

"... They prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customize things, to make them their own. They're natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They'll scrutinize you and your organization. They want to have fun, even at work and school." (Emphasis mine.)
It sounds easy enough to understand. The other lesson has brought the point home that educators and the media must be ahead of the curve in terms of tolerance and understanding of people with widely varying backgrounds and social conventions. It is an occupational requirement.

That did not happen here. Instead, one school clung to the old ways, the culture of control. They gloried in a team triumphant, but did not take all of them. And rather than comfort the afflicted, one news outlet repeated the self-serving talk about "building character," as if our education system in Canada had a 140-year track record of turning out people of impeccable character.

Small wonder, then, that it leaves a young man saying, "I thought this was Canada."


Andrew Bucholtz said...

Good post. It's a tough balance to strike: I wouldn't want to see our high schools turn into a situation where athletes can get away with anything thanks to what they do on the court, but getting rid of the team doesn't seem to be much of a solution. There must have been some middle ground where they could exact other disciplinary penalties without taking away these athletes' chance to play basketball.

Mikey said...

While certainly kids in this digital age live in a "culture of enablement", the line between enablement and *entitlement* is a thin one.

One thing seems to be lost in this discussion: Their coach was the *vice principal*.

Extra-curriculars in Canada are made possible by educators giving their unpaid time and energy to give students an experience that would not be possible in the classroom. High school coaches, such as myself, face a difficult task in schools with various socio-economic and racial/religious diversity.

I too have coached a ball team that had attendence and discipline issues. There were two games during the season where we finished with 4 on the court.

In this case, the coach as an administrator, directly responsbile to the entire student body, parents, and province of Ontario for discipline. He, along with his principal, decided that on the balance of the transgressions, second chances and promised consequences to students, to fold the team.

Was it too harsh? Perhaps. But I'm not the coach. We do not, and for privacy reasons, will not know exactly what transpired with each and every student.

Was it unreasonable to expect that when the students were warned by their VP, he might actually follow though? I don't think so.

I know Sager doesn't like it when kids are spoken down to, treated like little kids, or told what to do and when. I do not either. Schools *are* changing. Slowly. Much like journalists or any of the other Canadian instutions dominated by white anglophones. I took us until this year to actually have a government apologize for our residential school system for goodness sakes.

Administrators and coaches make difficult discipline decisions daily because a school is sometimes more dictatorship than democracy at times. Should it always be a dictorship? No. Does it have to be sometimes? In my experience, yes.

Tradition and lack of diversity has made it top down, but so has the Safe Schools Act, parent councils, and our culture's obsession with 'accountability' and test results. But so has human nature and young people's desire to often do what's best for them and them alone.

It is the conflict between that inclination, manifest in lates, skipping, not working, being suspended and dropping credits and still feeling entitled to play ball wearing the school's jersey where I have to side with the trained professional administrator and coach and what he thought was best. Even if he might be white.

sager said...


As I said, if people still want to side with the school and commend them for biting the bullet, that's fine. It seems only fair to do so seeing as educators have so much on their plates these days. They don't have time for the weighty philosophical stuff.

At the same time, though, institutions are behind the curve and must play catch-up. We saw that this week.

I'm well-aware the coach was also the VP, since I wrote about the team during its champinship run ... I will say that in my high school days (1991-96), I don't recall principals and vice-principals ever coaching.

That's part of life in post-Mike Harris Ontario, however.

Mikey said...

I knew you well aware, it's just one of those optics/added wrinkles to this story that hasn't been discussed enough as it relates to this case.

The ski club/baseball team-talk plain silly and doesn't reflect well. But back to the folding of the team.

Does having an administrator being their coach also make him/her more aware of the realities of the daily lives of students? Things must have been bad to make that severe consequence go on the table, and then enforced. Either that or the trouble-makers were less than intelligent calling the bluff of their VP.

I can dance with philosophy NS, but you've articulated a position about how the teaching profession needs to play catch-up.

What things does the education system, and especially the administration of schools, need to do to better guide the youth of today? Affirmative action for visible minority teachers and preferential hiring of males in elementary schools perhaps?

sager said...

No, I would say the whole public education has to be torn apart. It has been one-size-fits-all for 100-some years and clearly, we have outgrown that model, culturally and intellectually.

It's more about one-size-fits-one. That's a real problem, when people are 14 and 15 years old and they're already feeling like a number, like no ones care about them. That's why they get bored and drop out.

Schools are limited insofar as "the art of the possible" due to funding formula in Ontario. (

A simple solution is to encourage collaboration among the kids and the teachers. The students should learn from each other and the teachers should learn from the students. The big illusion is that teachers have all the answers adn they don't (remember that Simpsons when Lisa stole all the teachers' editions of the school textbooks?).

As for the demographics of educators, I would say, affirmative action, at first knee jerk, no ... however, when any profession becomes too dominated by one demographic, problems and blind spots can creep up.

When you're selecting a class for a post-grad program, you want the oddballs who will make up for a well-rounded group ... definitely the admissions people have to sit there and not look at marks, but sit there and say, "Would this person be a good teacher and how would he/she learn from students? How do they relate?"

In my experience, that was in absentia among the typical future teacher types I knew at university. Some came off as grade-grubbing Tracy Flick types and you'd wonder how in hell they could be teachers -- until you remembered their parents were probably teachers.

Mikey said...

Really? I thought the Tracey Flick types just ran for President. Of both parties. My experience knowing people in education is the exact opposite.

Here is a question that I previously did not ask now out of politeness, but hey, we're in a new era tonight after events in the States. I am not expecting a response from the writer, although his choice of words in describing his schooling in Gan leads me to wonder.

Did the front page photo that ran in the Sun that accompanied the AY story help or continue the problem of stereotyping of minorities in our schools?

sager said...

I would hope it helped ... you saw a group of young men, some black, some brown, some Caucasian, who did not look happy. People are going to believe what they want to believe.

(And I went to high school in Odessa, not Gananoque ... six of one, half-dozen of the other.)

ashish said...


Just one thing? How does the ski club, baseball argument seem week? That very statement made by our principal and atheletics director is what got us all angry.

Why is it that we are allowed to play for others teams when we are (supposedly) skipping and have behavioral issues? It does not make any sense. If you are going to can the basketball team for that reason, can all other teams for that reason. There is no sense of logic here.

And Mikey, I don't think you understand, there were 13 players willing to change everything, and i mean EVERYTHING for us to have a team this year. Even though if some of the players haven't done anything wrong, they've accepted that fact and said that, alright, what do you want us to do and how shall we do it?

I doubt any other team in all of ottawa would have gone through this much trouble and hassle to get their team back, and I think it's this determination we have is what lead us to win last year, and possibly would have even this year.