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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

It takes a whole village

by Carollyne Sinclaire

We scrambled down the steep staircase, to Semiahmoo Bay. White Rock is Canada’s piece of California, a sunny stretch that captures the atmosphere of beach paradise complete with shops and restaurants. We head down the pier and the tide is almost full, but not quite. It is that transition time of day when the fishers still work the end of the pier, usually with crab traps and poles.

"There must be a boat in," Peter muses as a large crowd, perhaps 100 people, hang over the rails at the end of the pier. Seagulls swoop and flap in the winds. I peer through the gaps in the crowd for the object of their interest.

"It’s children, they’re diving off the pier," Peter says.

"But there’s no diving. There’s a sign right here," I say. The pier is over two stories above the water at this point in the day.

A boy of about 13 or 14 stands on the protruding beam on the edge of the pier as a girl just a little younger, perhaps a sister, scrambles under the railing to join him on the next protruding beam, a couple of feet away. The crowd has pressed in to look and see what will happen. The boy swells with bravado, enjoying the attention of the crowd. Surefooted and confident, but lacking in style, he calls over to the girl, "You’re next, right after me" before he hurls himself into the water.

The crowd is enjoying this cheap but crude form of entertainment. I am reminded of the Acapulco divers who, for coins, dive from perilous heights for a mesmerized crowd. But these are children. Children who haven’t read the signs or do not take heed of them. No adult in the crowd stops to intervene, to chastise, or to warn them. Where are their parents? Did they come to the beach alone? Are they off the docked boat? A tightness overcomes my chest. This is wrong and I am part of it.

The sister, about 12, is not to be outshone. She calls over to a younger child who is just stepping out onto the next beam. "Okay, I’m going to jump. You’re next." The 12-year-old studies the water with diligence for a second before she jumps. She too displays confidence but no elegance. The crowd loves the big splash. Once surfaced, treading water, she calls up to the youngest, "Hurry up. I can’t wait all day."

The little sister, about 9, calls down, "But I’m scared."

"It’s fine. Just do it," the girl in the water shouts to her slight sister, perched on the beam, seven or eight meters above.

Quickly, and with force, I leave Peter’s side and make from the end of the pier to the railing where the child is standing, gently pushing my way through the crowd. I am two-and-a-half feet from the jumper now, behind the rail. The child is shivering as she balances on the beam. Her weight shifts from one foot to another.

"Hurry up. I’m waiting. I can’t wait much longer," her older sister calls up from the waters below.

A male voice from the crowd urges her on, shouting, "You’ll like it when you get used to it!" The crowd hushes, waiting for the jump.

I bend down and through the slates in the railing, I say softly to the child, "You don’t have to do this. Not if you’re scared. Just reach out and take my hand."

She does not move. Oh, no, what if she jumps and she’s scared. She may not clear the pilings. Her little arm reaches back behind her and I take her hand and fasten it in mine. She turns her little body, and steps lithely under the railing onto the pier. I look into her scared and sorrowful eyes, and try to console her for her choice, "There are signs. No diving. You shouldn’t jump here. It’s not safe." Quickly, she skitters away.

Immediately the crowd disseminates, the event is over, the crowd scatters itself along the length of the pier to leisurely stroll back to the beach. Lovers arm in arm, young families with small children in buggies, mothers and dads with toddlers in hand, older couples dressed to dine out. Peter stands beside me. We are still together as the crowd moves past us. What were they thinking? Why didn’t they respond to the child’s fear? Other than egging her on for their own entertainment? What would the people in the crowd have done if those children had been hurt? Would they have borne any sense of responsibility?

As Peter and I turn to head back from the pier I see the little girl slumped under the No Diving sign. Is she ashamed that she did not jump? Is she feeling that she let her older brother and sister down? By placing herself under the sign, is she announcing to the crowd that it was the right thing to do for her not to choose to jump? Or is it just a coincidence that she chooses to sit there. I am stunned by the crowd, angered by their callousness, shocked by their unwillingness to be a parent to a child.

What more should I have done? Should I have lingered to speak to the child, and assure her that she made a good choice, to help her with her feelings? Would she have accepted my words?

There used to be a proverb often seen on t-shirts that said, It takes a whole village to raise a child. Was that proverb only acrylic ink on cotton? Was that a true sentiment at the time? Has that duty of care left us or did we ever assume that responsibility? Do we only care about our own children? Have I lost track of humanity? Has society changed?

Carollyne Sinclaire is a Vancouver elementary school teacher.

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