The only reason we were even in that part of the school was because I was leaving early for an appointment and wanted to pop into the mailroom on my way out. The screeches and thuds emanating from the boys’ washroom on the second floor were impossible to miss; the noise careened around the hallway, echoing loudly. My colleague and I rushed forward, then paused at the entrance. Laughter, for sure, but also chaos and, possibly, destruction.
“What’s going on in there?” I raised my voice to be sure they could hear me, but I stayed well back from the door. Simultaneously, I sent my colleague to call the main office and tell them what was going on. Suddenly, a wet face with damp hair peered around the corner. His eyes got big, and he ducked back into the bathroom. Seconds later, he appeared again.
“And… you all need to be done,” I replied. “Time to get out.” I said the second part loudly so that whoever was in the bathroom could hear me.
A different young man appeared, apologizing, “Sorry, sorry. We were washing up for prayer.” He moved down the hallway towards the prayer room.
(Though I am not Muslim, I will explain here my understanding that Muslims must make wudu before they pray. This is a purification ritual. The boys were in the bathroom for this purpose.)
A moment later, his damp friend peeked out of the bathroom again. Laughter came from inside. Now I was frustrated. “Time to get out,” I repeated, loudly. More laughter. “Get out,” I said again.
One by one, boys came out of the washroom. I know them by sight because they pray daily and, occasionally, I supervise the Prayer Room. “Go on,” I instructed. I was firm, but not unfriendly. Washrooms are not for wrestling.
One young man muttered under his breath, “You need to show some respect.” I took a deep breath before replying, “I am showing respect; I am also asking you to leave.” He disagreed with my self-assessment and repeated several times that I was not respectful. I allowed him his opinion because I cannot choose how others see me. By this time, my colleague had returned, and the students moved off in the direction of the Prayer Room. I let out a big breath.
I turned to my colleague. “Was I disrespectful? I wasn’t disrespectful.” I wasn’t sure if I was asking or telling. My mind was already moving back through the encounter. Nope, nothing disrespectful. Polite and firm. And my colleague was there for most of the interaction. Good.
As we went towards the office, we met up with a male teacher who had been sent to see what was happening. I explained. Then I explained to the secretary so that they could pull camera footage of the hallway to see who had been causing such a ruckus. Then I explained again to the VP. Finally, my colleague and I headed out; I still had time to make my appointment.
I left school feeling vaguely uneasy. The young man definitely thought I was being disrespectful. Would he complain? Would he insist? If he did, would I have any recourse? I wasn’t sure.
Later, as I walked home from my appointment, I paused and leaned down to take a picture of some flowers. I had been aware of a man walking slowly behind me, but I hadn’t entirely registered his presence. That is, I hadn’t registered his presence until I straightened up from my photo just as he tried to pass me on the sidewalk. I jumped, surprised.
A tall, slender Black man held up his hands. “Sorry! Sorry! I thought I could get by before you finished.” He backed away a step, hands still in plain sight.
“It’s my own fault,” I smiled, trying to reassure him, “I’m forever slowing down for flowers.” I smiled again.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he replied.
“No, really, my fault.”
We were stuck there, awkward, for a moment. One of us had to move first, but we were going the same direction. I decided to cross the street – even that choice seemed fraught – letting him continue his meandering walk without my obtrusion. As he left, I recognized how threatened he must have felt by me, some white lady whom he had unintentionally startled. He had no idea what I might do, who I might call, what I might say. I have never before been so painfully aware of myself as a potential menace.
Then, just ahead of me, he, too, crossed the street and walked up the sidewalk towards what I assumed was his home. He turned and saw me behind him. I wanted badly to be friendly, but I don’t get to decide how others see me. Still, I had the choice to reach out.
“I think we’re neighbours,” I said. “I live just there.” I pointed down the street.
We exchanged names, chatted briefly about how long we’ve been in the neighbourhood, shared vague pleasantries. I shook his hand, and I left, hoping that he didn’t still feel uneasy.