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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The ultimate meaning of life is to embrace that which compels you to act in spite of fear.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Path

A true story.

In the summer of 1973, when I was 7 years old, my family moved to Markham from a small town in Northern Ontario. As usual, I settled in and started making new friends. My father was an engineer for the MTO (then MTC), so moving around and finding new friends pretty much defined my early childhood.

Markham life was pleasant. People were friendly, though as a whole they seemed more homogeneous than the folks up north. We lived in a bungalow in a postwar neighbourhood -- a middle-class subdivision. In fact, it was much like Scarborough, but with corn fields and more money per capita. As for our family, we were neither rich nor poor; there were certainly no major obstacles. I took my place in the universe for granted.

And I had my own route to school: go north up the street, turn left behind the dry cleaners, walk a small parking lot, and swing north past the tavern, and then go west on the sidewalk until I arrived at my school.

My path. My own turf.

That winter, I learned a bloody lesson about turf. One weekend I was walking to my school to play. I decided to to cut through "the apartments," two monstrous compounds that loomed within view of our house; their mere presence was vaguely threatening.

Strange turf.

I'd heard the warnings from my classmates: apartment kids are delinquent, illegitimate, evil; they hate the kids who live in houses. Besides, they must be poor Protestants, not moral middle-class Catholics like us. Even at that age I was suspicious of such distinctions. My friends didn't know that I was Protestant on my mother's side. So I dismissed the words of these doomsayers as I made my way between the parking garage and the first apartment building. Instead, I focused on the sound of snow crunching under my feet.

Suddenly, my carefully balanced sense of bliss was disrupted by a coarse voice: "Hey, what do you want?!"

Three apartment boys, looking rough and ready. Which is more than I could say for myself. The rest is a blur. Memory is incomplete. I recall feeling the cold, raw aggression, and the taste of warm iron. It was like an unruly hockey game compressed into several seconds. I arrived home with a bloody nose and a fat, bleeding lip.

My parents fixed me up. My father is a steady man, not easily alarmed. There was some discussion about my route to school. Naturally my mom was worried. My father then asked me if I wanted to keep going that way. I nodded yes, even though I was scared. I didn't want to let him down. Nor did I want to let myself down. Back in the 1970s, fights between boys were cause for discussion, not public inquiry. And no self-respecting boy would accept a lift from his parents. Maybe an armed escort -- an older brother or sister. But my streetwise older brother had his own turf, his own battles to deal with.

This was my problem.

Monday came. My stomach felt like a block of acidy lead. Sullenly, I grabbed my bag and started walking. Sure enough, the leader of the three boys was waiting for me behind the tavern and dry cleaners that separated the apartment buildings from my street. He was saying something about his friends being close by.

I hesitated. He sneered with delight. I told myself (in boy terms): "If you don't walk this walk now, you'll never be in control of your own space. These boys will own you. And you'll never be free."

Shaking, I stepped forward and said, "This is my street. I'm going to school."

The boy held his tough stance, just to see if I had as much strength in my spine as I had in my words. Something revelatory happened: I found my own strength, and I realized my opponent was just another boy with turf that happened to meet my turf.

I marched toward him, my eyes locked on his. He seemed surprised, and strangely pleased. Grinning, he backed away, and I passed. I'd earned his respect. That was enough for him. He took off. His friends were nowhere in sight. I never saw them again.

And I never feared "the apartments" again. And to this day, I don't hate Protestants or apartment building dwellers or anyone else for that matter. But my space is mine. I walk my street. Whenever I choose.

This is my freedom.

Copyright (C) 2005 Tom Kernaghan


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