The writing was on the wall. The closures would happen. But a lot of people were upset, and I was one of them.
In the early 2000s, my family and I were living in a mainly rural (at least by city dweller standards) valley in south central British Columbia. The West Kootenay region is known for its diverse outdoor recreation activities and as a great place to raise a family. It has a proud industrial history, evidenced through the longstanding pulp mill, a massive lead zinc smelter a few miles away and several hydroelectric dams, all of it within spitting distance of the mighty Columbia River. Generations of families had worked at these institutions over the many decades, paying homage to both the companies that provided a pay cheque and the labour unions that fought to improve their lot in life.
Tradition meant a lot. So it came as an unwelcome shock when the provincial government of the day announced the closure of several schools in the area. Not just one or two, but almost half of the local educational facilities would be shuttered the following year. As a parent with two young children, I joined the chorus of discontent, chatting with like-minded folks on the playground and in coffee shops, decrying the unjust nature of the axe that was about to be swung. “It’s not fair!” we proclaimed to anyone who would listen. “They wouldn’t do this in the city! It’s always the ones who built this country that get hit the hardest!” The refrain was loud and sustained, leading to months of letters to the local editors and talk radio banter. A lot of people were unhappy.
After a while it occurred to me, and well before many others drew a similar conclusion, that this was going to happen in spite of the protests. The politicians and bureaucrats hundreds of miles away had evidently pored over the data that showed the number of kids attending school was in decline and that many of the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Cold hearted and dispassionate, they had made their decision. Shut ‘em down. They cared not that these buildings and playgrounds were the same ones the parents and grandparents of today’s kids had studied in and played on. Beloved institutions that were supported by the strong local belief in the value of tradition. Instead, it was dollar figures in a spreadsheet. Shut ‘em down. Sign the order. Case closed.
I’m an optimist. That’s not to say I always look at the world through rose coloured glasses, in fact quite the opposite. I tend to view it in the harsh light of day, the glare of reality smacking me in the face quickly. I dislike many things, but as bummed out as I may be about something, such as seeing my child’s school meet the wrecking ball, I always end up turning the corner and working with the reality I have, not just the one I want. Optimism is not something one can quell, like pouring water on a campfire, extinguishing it forever. The embers are always lit and burning, waiting to flash up, trying to make something better.
There are, unfortunately, a lot of dead optimists that expired before their time. Explorers that met their fate in an unforgiving wilderness. Aspiring inventors that tried to fly in an age before structural engineering and aeronautics was figured out. High wire daredevils that lost the battle with gravity. The average person would take one look at their endeavours and dismiss them as lunatics, crazy people with a death wish. But the optimists looked at it and said “Why not me? It’s my time to shine. I can do this”. So they ploughed ahead, and a few of them made it. It’s through their efforts, as insane as they might seem at the time, that we advance and improve ourselves. No one ever discovered a new world sitting on their couch.
Armed with my innate inability to say “no” to a challenge, a strong dose of naiveté and an urge to do SOMETHING, I decided I’d tackle the whole school closing issue in a new way. I wouldn’t try to oppose the unstoppable force of a government ministry that has already made its decision, and in fact the data supported their move. Instead, I’d figure out a way to make the educational experience for our kids better in spite of having almost half the schools shut down.
So, pen in hand, I got to work. I just had to come up with some ideas that would help the kids learn, have fun and be inspired with less money that had previously been ponied up each year. In fewer buildings. While travelling further to get there. I mean, if our ancestors could figure out how to fly, make pizza and play the guitar (after inventing it), how tough could this be?
Several crumpled up pieces of paper later, I came to the conclusion that it was quite hard. Really hard. Inspiration and enthusiasm had been shot from the sky like clay pigeons blasted by a shotgun. Not one good idea, even as judged by me, let alone that would pass the scrutiny of legions of other opponents, naysayers, armchair pundits and school officials.
It’s a good thing that optimism is hardwired into me. Giving up on this high risk low payoff venture was certainly the most sane and rational course of action. I mean, apart from my own kids’ involvement, why did I even care? It wasn’t my fight. This kind of thing happened elsewhere all the time and students still found a way to get a local education, then go on to become doctors and carpenters and the like. I was going to make enemies of friends, those who saw my little escapade as a means of accepting the closures, agreeing with the government, of supporting their heinous actions. Why the hell was I wasting one more minute?
But I couldn’t give up. It wasn’t in me. My pursuit of this almost certain to fail scheme was impossible to let die. Like a dog that chases balls – she’ll do it until her feet bleed then fall over from exhaustion. It’s not something you can control. It’s not even about control or power or winning. It’s just something I had to do.
Since my creative juices seemed to have dried up, I figured the next best thing, or perhaps even a better thing, was to ask all the other smart people I knew what they thought we should do. I was fortunate to know quite a few of them – engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, mothers, teachers and others that were thoughtful and intelligent. I canvassed them with my crazy idea, and surprisingly a number of them agreed that chasing something positive can be more powerful than merely fighting something negative. They were on board, whatever that might look like.
Through a series of subsequent conversations, we determined that we needed a focused public event. It would consist of several facilitators asking questions of the interested general public. An idea generator, using good enquiries to try and solicit suggestions for improvement. Better than a few of us squirreled away in a basement scratching out our own thoughts. If the ideas came from the public, they were more likely to buy in. So I went to work. I found ten very clever people to lead the sessions and give up an evening of their life, including the school district superintendent who was also searching for answers to improve his soon to be new world. We convinced the local college to let us have the run of their campus for the event (“um, no we don’t have any money, would you consider setting the rental rate at free?”). We posted flyers and pestered the radio stations to give us free ads. We got the local provincial politician, a member of the party requiring the cuts, to show up. We even coined an acronym, the Strategic Pursuit of Educational Excellence in the Kootenays, SPEEK, since it seems to be a law of the universe that no movement gets off the ground without a catchy abbreviation.
Showtime. The night of the event arrived. My day job had me travelling so I screeched into the college parking lot running late, but at least my tardiness was supported by a lack of preparing the facilitators for their roles. We hastily convened and I issued nine questions to nine professionals, saving one for myself. Fortunately, they thrived, in spite having very little in the way of a script. Lead by their skills in charming a crowd, we spent two hours in separate groups soliciting suggestions to the questions we posed from the two hundred or so interested citizens that showed up. What activities engage kids and don’t cost much? Which age groups work best together? What about staggered days to allow more kids to share fewer facilities? And so on.
By the end of the evening I was exhausted, but the work had just begun. If we were to be at all successful, the powers that be needed to hear and accept the ideas. I spent days writing a comprehensive report, ensuring all of the suggestions were ranked by popularity and ease of implementation. Thank you cards sent and the report complete, I hit the Send key with pride. Now I just had to await the response from the government.
Which never came. I sent several follow up emails but after a couple of weeks I knew no response would ever grace the threshold of my Inbox. All of that work, for naught. The people I had encouraged to show up that night, offering their time and energy and expertise, would have been better off taking their families to a movie. All of those ideas offered by an interested public now sitting in an electronic dustbin somewhere on an anonymous server.
Time passed and as scheduled the schools closed. Dejected and somewhat ashamed by the total lack of response from the government, I didn’t talk much about SPEEK unless someone else brought it up. The bus schedules were adjusted and kids were shuttled to their new schools. Business as usual. Life goes on.
Months later I had all but forgotten the event when I ran across a teacher at my daughter’s school. We were chatting idly about nothing specific when she said something that renewed my faith. “We’re going to try a few concepts from that SPEEK event. Some pretty decent ideas that came up”. I had forgotten that in addition to sending the report to the government it had also been forwarded to those that attended. Including her. We said goodbye and went our separate ways. I smiled as I walked to my car.
I’d been looking at the whole thing the wrong way, like looking through the big end of a telescope. My belief had been that some far away entity, in this case a faceless government ministry that I didn’t know would solve our problems for us, and all we had to do is give them the ideas. But I had just been reminded that the best way forward is to work with the group of people that are most affected by something and give them the freedom to find the solutions. And they will, because they have the most the gain, the most to lose and care significantly more than anyone else.
We work best when we are in groups. We are social animals, who are designed to live, work and play together. We are like ants, bees, dolphins and elephants, not like the solitary tiger who hunts alone. My experiment of working by myself to figure things out was designed to fail. I’m not nearly as smart as all of us. Only by getting together, listening to one another and accepting that action is our responsibility will we solve the social, economic, health and energy issues of the day. Don’t wait for a prescription from afar.
In the next few months and years, we have many big issues to tackle. What will our new world look like? How do we get ready for the next global calamity? Will our economy rebound or change?
We have faced massive challenges before and come through them the same way, by allowing those with a strong vested interest to lead the charge. With a few crazy optimists mixed in for good measure.
And in the spirit of full transparency, I’ve had many other ideas that fell flat and deservedly ended up in the trash. But life goes on, and who knows what will come to mind next time?
Hmmm, I think I may have found a solution for a real time global language translator. Now, if I just attach this battery…