Rioteously Good

On June 15th, 2011 Vancouver won second place in Stanley Cup Finals. To celebrate the win, which most people rephrased as a loss, some Vancouverites engaged in a riot in downtown Vancouver. I myself think that winning second place is perfectly good and dandy, but not everybody agrees with my point of view.  As I read the news about people smashing windows and setting cars on fire the evening of June 15th I felt both sad and confused. Sad that the city I love and live in is being tormented and confused about what the riot is about. “It can’t possibly be about hockey” the thought popped into my head. “If it isn’t about hockey then what is it about?” I kept on thinking.

The next morning there was a new story, the role of social media in both identifying and shaming of the people who participated in the riot. Large number of people photographed and video tapped the events and later proceeded to start facebook pages and websites to shame the participants. Faces were being associated with names and even addresses. There were reports of people having to flee their houses because of the barrage of harassment directed against them, some being fired from jobs and bombarded with hate comments. I want to be clear here, I have no problem what so ever with the idea of somebody meeting the full extent of the law and the police for destroying public property. In fact, some element of public shaming can even be useful and act as a deterrent in the future. However in some cases the back lash against the rioters seems just as bad as the rioting to begin with. Now public apologies were popping up, by now publicly shamed individuals, expressing remorse for their participation in the riot. As I read one such apology of a young woman who had stolen a pair of jeans from a department store, I felt distressed by the long list of hate comments left on her blog. Without a doubt stealing anything under any circumstance is wrong, “Come on people! haven’t we all done stupid things when we were young? Don’t we have memories of deeds we are ashamed of?” I thought to myself as I read one condemnation after another. “Let the law deal with this and take its course”.

Which then lead me to ask myself a new question “What incredibly stupid thing have I done in my younger years?”.  Initially I couldn’t remember a single incident. “Come on Elen, this must be a case of denial. Surely there is at least one thing, one action, that I have done as a teenager that is totally irrational.” No matter how hard I thought or how hard I raked my brain, not a single memory came up that could fit the bill. I suddenly felt distressed: “Was I born a sensible person? Sensible to a fault?” After some deep thinking and few minutes of meditation a memory did spring forth of something totally foolish that I committed as a teenager. Waves of relief came over me dispersed with waves of shame. “Yeah! I did something genuinely bad when I was a kid. Oh no! I feel so bad about what I did”. So here it is, full disclosure.

Many years ago while in grade 10 in Rumethiya highschool in Kuwait I got involved with a friend that was more rebellious that my usual set of friends. Ibtisam was a few years older than myself although she was in my grade, that is because she had failed grades several time and had to repeat whole years in school. In contrast I was a straight A student. Ibtisam was one of the bad girls who would sneak cigarettes into school and smoke them while hiding in a washroom and even on occasion wear makeup to school. I, on the other hand, never touched cigarettes and fiercely obeyed the no makeup allowed in school even when I wasn’t in school. This odd pairing between myself and Ibtisam was commented on  by my other friends and even my parents. “Why are you friends with her? She is nothing like you?” I heard on different occasions. The truth is that Ibtisam was fun, she frequently made me laugh and somehow around her I felt that I was experiencing something  new. One day I was walking down the hallway in school when I heard: “Psst! hey you! Come with me I will show you something fun”. I followed Ibtisam without questioning  and we ended up in art class which was empty of people. Ibtisam seemed to know exactly where she was headed and walked straight to a particular cupboard and grabbed several canisters of spray paint. “Hey! we are not supposed to take art supplies without asking for permission first” I commented. “Follow me!” Ibtisam commanded ignoring my comment. I did run behind her towards the rear alley of the school where foot traffic was always light. There we were met up with three other girls, all friends of Ibtisam,  who were standing there waiting for the ring leader to arrive with the contra band material. Clearly this was all arranged ahead of time and there was no discussion. Each one grabbed a canister and started spray painting on the wall. I was standing on the side offering useful commentary such as “You are not supposed to be doing this, you will get into serious trouble if you are caught, what would your parents say if they saw you now?” The group ignored my self-righteous stance and continued with painting flowers and smily faces. At that point I could smell the intoxicating fumes of spray paint. There was something about painting on the grey wall that seemed like fun. When they were finished each one signed her name on the wall. “Fatimah, Ibtisam, Sameera and Salwa”. When Ibtisam was finished signing her name she dropped the spray canister into my hand: “Go ahead! write your name on the wall!” she commanded me. I shook my head with disapproval “No, no this is a bad idea”.” Don’t be such a coward, do something fun for a change”. Still smelling the fumes from the spray paint in my nostril, the canister of spray paint in my hand was surging with a particular energy. The wild notion of crossing the thin red line that separated good girls from bad girls seemed, for a split second, to be rife with potential.  Something strange come over me and indeed I sprayed my name on the wall. None of us thought at the time that this was a bad idea for more than one reason. In a school of about 2,000 students, in an Arabic country, there were numerous Fatimah’s, countless Ibtisams, abundant Sameeras, cupious Salwas but only one Elen in the whole entire school. By identifying myself we made it super easy to identify the rest of the graffiti artists in the group. No later than 45 minutes later back in my classroom, with my heart still pounding at the excitement of my transformative deed, one of the School Principles aids marched into my classroom with a sheet of paper in her hand. She declared loudly “Fatimah, Ibtisam, Sameera , Salwa and”, she paused for a brief snort here, “Elen.  You are all required to appear in the principals’ office immediately”. The trouble was there were two Fatimah’s in my class, one totally innocent of our public defacement deed, but both were required to appear for judgment day. All of us knew exactly what this was about and how we got identified so quickly. The first thing we did when appearing before our fierce looking principle who had a constant growl on her face was declare the innocent Fatima in unison. The graffiti artists, or public property destroyers, all nodded in unison that one Fatimah was indeed not a member of our group and she was promptly dismissed back to classroom. The rest of us were lectured about responsible behaviour and our parents were called to come collect us. My father showed up at the principal’s office  and somehow managed to sweet talk the principal into letting me off easy. Through some crazy miracle there was no suspension nor detention. As my dad drove me home that day I was terrified of the punishment I would meet at home, I was certain that my dad would kill me. At home my dad asked in a gentle voice: “You do know that what you did was wrong right?”. I replied: “I know that what I did was wrong and I promise never to do it again”. That was the end of our discussion on the subject. There was no punishment, no grounding not even an hour long lecture. Overall I got off easy considering the gravity of my deed. There was such one little hitch, my brother. One year younger than myself, I nicked named him Dewdie when he was still in my mother’s womb. Dewdie was livid with anger, at how easy I got off. Dewdie was the one that was constantly getting into trouble in school and as a result was subjected to a constant barrage of punishments from my parents. From groundings, reductions in allowance and long lectures on responsible bahavior. Initially, Dewdie was happy that somebody other than himself got into trouble and this time it was straight laced Elen. He was beaming a huge smile in all directions when we first got home. After he saw the light handed treatment I received, he wouldn’t stop harping on the issue of how he always got the iron fist yet I was getting the lace glove treatment. “This is not fair” he shouted with indignation. “Finally she did something bad, you guys need to punish her for it”. My father’s answer to Dewdie’s indignation was simple: “When Elen says she is not going to do it again, I believe her. She gets into trouble about once every 10 years. What is the point of going hard on her, she already feels bad. You on the other hand, ….” I will let you imagine the rest of the dialogue between my father and Dewdie. From that point on whenever my brother got into trouble he would raise the “Elen got off easy, so should I” card. It was the only fall out headache from my misdeed.

I don’t regret being an overall good girl in high school, a good student, a good daughter. I don’t regret, later in life, trying so hard being a good wife, a good mother, a good citizen, a good friend, a good employee, a good volunteer. Don’t get me wrong, I did fail in many ways on all these fronts, but I always approached each task with intense earnestness. I only regret that in the business of it all I neglected to be good to me. That is about to change.

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