When I started high school in 1991, I was nervous and excited, like a lot of kids going into Grade 9. Â Coming from a very small rural elementary school at the edge of the village of Keene, walking through the doors of this 160-year-old urban high school was like a dream. Â One of 50 students accepted into the Integrated Arts Program that year, I knew only two other people at PCVS, and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
Elementary school had been, for me, completely brutal. Â Our family moved to the village when I was in kindergarten, and in a place where many families could trace their roots back generations, we were strangers. And from that point, until my graduation in grade 8, I was a social pariah, an easy target for bullying, a weird girl in hand-me-down clothes who loved books and knewÂ nothingÂ about sports.
People often speak about the idylls of childhood as though kids are innocents, and being one is an unrelenting exercise in pleasure, play, and freedom from responsibility. Â I can’t identify; childhood for me was an endless round of fears, from what new taunting, theft, or physical violence was going to be inflicted upon me at school, to the ever-present money problems at home that formed the backdrop to everything else. Â When I look back, I remember stress, anxiety, and depression; I retreated further into my books and was dragged resisting out of bed in the mornings to go to school. Â On the walk, I would often daydream about falling and breaking a leg, the idea of avoiding school for a week so appealing that I longed for injury. Â
I didn’t have anything that I’d call a ‘friend’ in elementary school, so there was no one to turn to in moments of fear or frustration. The teachers were either oblivious or complicit, with the exception of Mr. Kelsey, whose classroom was a refuge of learning in a desert of stupidity. Â In one memorable incident in Grade 5, my teacher called me a liar in front of the class for insisting that there was such a thing as a sand dollarÂ – despite the fact that I was holding a photoÂ ofÂ one. Every interaction left meÂ bewilderedÂ and afraid.
Look, I don’t know what kind of kid I was – maybe I was annoying, or odd, or whatever – but no one deserves the kind of treatment I got. Â I often left school in tears, sometimes sneaking back home after my parents had left for work. Â My attendance record was awful.
When the opportunity came up in Grade 8 to audition for the Arts Program at PCVS, I leapt at it – in my case, I was certain that the devil I didn’t know couldn’t be any worse than the devil I was already subjected to. Â I knew I couldn’t continue on with these sameÂ tormentorsÂ at TASSS; I couldn’t even contemplate a future where I rode a bus and went to class every day with these horrible kids. Â The veryÂ thoughtÂ induced a despair I can’t articulate. Getting accepted into the program was the best news I’d received in my young life.
Going from being the lone weird kid at a rural elementary school to being one of a group of weird kids at an urban high school was a freedom that I had longed for but never imagined could be mine. Intellectual pursuits were encouraged, being cultured was admired, and my hand-me-downs suddenly were transformed from the markers of a poor kid to vintage cool. Â I went from being the kid who’d been skipping school since Grade 1 to having perfect attendance in Grade 9. Â A quick five-minute walk brought us to all the theatre, visual art, and culture we could ask for. I felt like Cinderella, stepping into the Prince’s ball.
Sure, there were still bullies; we got called ‘Art Fags’ more times than I could count, tripped in the hallways, taunted and pushed. Â But we outnumbered them, and my new freedom gave me the confidence to stand my ground and face them down. Â In 1995, when PCVS established its Anti-Bullying Committee (a group of parents, teachers and students that I’m proud to have been a part of) and surveyed the school, we were surprised to learn that the majority of students felt safe and had little to report. From what I understand, they’ve continued to nurture that kind of environment, a place where students of all types can find a place to fit, to learn safely, to grow into adults who go on to shape not just our immediate community but also the national dialogue. Â While bullying has become a high-profile issue in the past few years, PCVS has been proactive in dealing with it for nearly twenty.
When I heard that they were talking about closing a local high school, I didn’t worry much about PCVS; every argument, from capacity to student performance to good city planning stood behind keeping my alma mater. Â When I heard that they were leaning towards closing TASSS, I felt that they were making the right choice. Â A dated building from the late 60s, with asbestos and sinking architecture in the suburbs of Peterborough, TASSS was operating at half-capacity. Â It made perfect sense.
But in what seemed like a fairly sudden turn, the Trustees voted to close PCVS.
Like many in the community, I was stunned. Â The arguments for closing PCVS seemed senseless – one trustee mentioned the lack of playing fields (students have used Nicholls Oval without problems for decades), another cited the absence of a robotics program. Â Protests began immediately, and involvedÂ theÂ whole community – from downtown merchants to community members, alumni, and current students. Â The suggestion that the Integrated Arts Program would be moved to TASSS was met with fear as TASSS students began writing threats and insults online. Â A rally to protest the decision at Queen’s Park in early December drew 500+ participants, and despite freezing rain and raspy voices, remained loud and strong for hours. A video created by PCVS alums Brown Meadow Bird and Jared Raab drew tens of thousands of hits over a few days, now standing at 126,000 and climbing, and brought nationalÂ and internationalÂ media attention to the proposed closure.
I’ve heard a lot of people’s opinions about the situation, and a lot of angry reactions to the idea that Peterborough needs PCVS, and while I can answer their arguments from an urban planning, financial, and academic standpoint, today I prefer to say simply, from my own experience, that I needed PCVS. Â Kids like me need PCVS still. Â It saved my life and my future. Â It put me in a position to become a confident and competent adult. While the arts are central to my life, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I had through the Arts Program, much more than that is the safe space PCVS gave me to dream, to attempt, to accomplish and to flourish.
As long as I have breath to use, I will protest and work against any acts or decisions that lead to the end of that safety.
In the words of the PCVS school song:
Lift up your heart and let our your voice,
Here we belong and here we rejoice,
Fighting, Singing, Marching, Swinging,
Onward to Victory!Â