The walls around campus are higher than you think

I am a proud old boy of Upper Canada College, Class of 2017. In large part because of the skills and work ethic I learned at the UCC, and the incredible guys I spent time around, I got a chance to be where I am now: doing college the American way, down at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re at a place in your life similar to one I was in a few years ago. I say all of this to make it abundantly clear that everything else I will in this article say comes from a place of love and understanding. 

That being clear, I’d like to have a chat with you all.

There’s a huge problem with the way we live(d) and perceive(d) our lives at UCC. For all the amazing memories to be gained in those halls, there is a serious deficiency in life experience that almost every graduate will leave with. Let me explain.

If there was ever one ultimate truth about every class, program, team, band, and conversation you will come across at Upper Canada College, it is the word insular. Self-focused. Internally-facing. Whatever you want to call it. The point is, UCC really loves talking about, emphasizing, and centering UCC. We all do it. In some ways that’s what makes us special. We reflect and ponder intentionally, and make a habit of thinking about how we can improve ourselves. 

At the same time, though, we’re also very a very small group. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. 

Consider that in any given year, there are 1200 active students, teachers, administrators, and staff in the community. Even with parents included, that’s about 3200 people. We live in a city of about five million, and a country of thirty-seven million, and a world of seven and a half billion. The sample size of our community is miniscule. But it’s deeper than that. 

Let’s be honest with ourselves. UCC is not very diverse. For one, every student is of a single gender identity, and usually a pretty similar gender expression too. Almost everyone who attends UCC belongs to Canada’s 1%. Not the “upper-middle class” – the top 1% wealthiest in the country. And although it’s changed significantly even since I was there, the school is overwhelmingly white, and compared to the demographics of Toronto by percentage, black and other students/staff of colour are extremely underrepresented. In a pretty constantly and fervently hypermasculine environment, real topics of gender and sexuality are consigned to the wayside or considered sporadically in rousing assembly speeches from our brothers which are forgotten just weeks later. But in the wider community of the world, topics of race and class and gender and sexuality are not side issues – these are experiences of real people, and stories which are increasingly important to people of our generation (for a good reason).

This much we can all admit to ourselves. But what is the consequence?

 When we hyperfocus on UCC, and how great we are, and how exceptional our space is, we put on an extreme pair of blinders to the very real world which exists outside of our campus and neighbourhoods. To put it bluntly, the life experience we have and share in the UCC community is not typical and it is not complete. There are important conversations that we fail to (or can’t) have because of it. But when blinders are on, the rest of the world can still see you, though you cannot see the rest of it. That is a unique challenge for boys who leave the college in pursuit of the productive and good lives we all hope to lead. There are a few important footnotes which you might not pick up at the upper school, like:

  1. Women are and will be your intellectual peers for the rest of your life.
  2. There are multitudes of people who will not share the life experience that you have shared with your peers here. That does not make their experience or testimony any less valid.
  3. It’s easy to shutdown questions of privilege on the basis of class, race, gender, alma mater etc. as blanket statements. It’s far more constructive to listen and interrogate your own preconceptions and the privilege we share, because some of it will be true.

The harsh reality is this: there is a great big world outside of UCC, outside of North Toronto, which exists separately from the relatively segregated experience cultivated at 200 Lonsdale Road. That world is incredibly rich, both of people and of opportunity. No matter how hard we try, or what way we cut it, we can’t have it within the UCC community. There are historical, political, social and economic reasons for this reality. Some reasons which are out of the control of any student or administrator of faculty member, and other reasons which are. But in the end, it is the reality we occupy. And it’s irresponsible to fail to acknowledge it.

UCC can teach you math. Very well, in fact (shout out Mr Chun). Or ecology, or English literature, or perspectives on Italian unification in world history, or the principles of stage direction. One thing it cannot force you to learn is deep empathy. The sort of empathy which helps you to assume the best of and give respect to everyone you come across. The kind of empathy which helps you drop the pretense of an all-male environment to seriously consider the implications of your actions, and consider whether your attitude is one that helps make the world a better place for all of its inhabitants – not just the ones who are well off, or white, or male. 

That is a job you will most likely find yourself grappling with in your first year of college. It’s one of the most important battles you will ever fight with yourself. The truth is, when you graduate UCC, there will be a period when you don’t feel like a fully integrated, normal member of wider society. And that’s likely because you aren’t.

But another promise I can make to you is this: the journey to become one is so incredibly worthwhile. You will have to drop the veil of perfection, admit that you are not an expert, and listen deeply. But the development you can accomplish when you take listening seriously is greater than any you will have experienced in your HL course load.

Coming from a place of opportunity and of privilege, it is our duty to be good citizens. I, an old boy, implore you to try – not because it’s easy, not because it’s the path which most of your peers will elect to take – but because it’s the right one.

Upcoming…

Over the 2019-2020 school year, TBAW hopes to bring back various Editors Emeritus to write a piece for the publication. A big thanks to Kimathi Muiruri for his previous work with the paper, and for starting us off with this piece. – Caden Shapiro