BY: KATHY MCDONALD
Of all the experiences that I have been afforded as a trustee with the Peel District School Board (PDSB), few are as rewarding as that of adjudicator for the Excellence in Eloquence Speech Challenge. I sat mesmerized for about ninety minutes while twelve students presented a passionate discourse on various topics. From how to hijack homework, global warming or all about inspiration. What struck me most was how well read, confident and informed about important universal issues our PDSB students are. I think it is the result of all stakeholders working together to achieve the ultimate goal of the PDSB; student success. Teachers and staff worked arduously preparing the young competitors to confidently present their opinion on a topic of their choice. Students did their due diligence and researched their topic, in most cases an original topic. Even if the subject matter was not particularly original they put their unique slant on an issue and made it their own. And parents. Parents, grandparents and caring family members were there supporting the contestants. One could only imagine how many times these speeches were rehearsed, presented and tweaked before the students stepped up to the microphone last Thursday at Helen Wilson Public School.
It was a very challenging task ranking the effectiveness of each discourse. The students were articulate, audible, expressive and well-paced. Most had a confident demeanor, great posture, facial expressions and engaged the audience and the judges. The speeches were well organized, had great opening lines ideas and content. In the end, they were three individuals that managed to distinguish themselves from the other contestants. They had the perfect blend of figurative language and supporting ideas as well as making personal connections that tugged on the emotions of all in attendance.
Being the big sister to an autistic little brother is and continues to be a rewarding experience for contestant number one. She spoke with the maturity of a girl well beyond that of elementary school. Her personal journey captured everyone’s attention. She was authentic and empathetic. This contestant made it quite clear that autistic individuals should not be marginalized and like all students, we, as a society should work to help them realize their full potential. Our differences make us stronger. Even the diversity in mental and social capacity can bring unexpected joys and opportunities of growth for us all.
I have never quite looked at my imagination as contestant number two. This student challenged all persons in the room to embrace their imagination and dare to dream. Just like Martin Luther King. If Dr. King did not dream where would the civil rights movement be today? If Steve Jobs did not envision a personal computer on every kid’s desk and in every home what would the computer revolution look like today? When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he did not have a prototype. He used his imagination. Would there even be an internet or search engine without someone using their imagination and conceiving of things that did not exist? The internet, a global system of interconnected computer networks or Google, a search engine that specializes in internet related searches, would have never been created if it were not for the power of imagination. I am truly excited about the possibilities in the future.
Contestant number three orated about a topic that she could personally relate to as a Black Muslim born in Canada. She spoke about being discriminated by sometimes total strangers because of her religion, color and because she wore a hijab. She was often derided and told to go back to her country. This quandary was quite perplexing for a young girl who has only known one home; “the true North strong and free”. This topic bore particular relevance to me as at the PDSB we have been seeing a rise in hate and islamophobia; as two hateful instigators set committed to misleading the public, maligning the Board and perpetuating gross stereotypes of a people and their religion. She opened her soliloquy with a quote from a Jewish holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace prize winner, Elie Wiesel, “No human race is superior, no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”. From her opening line to her powerful conclusion contestant number three highlighted the follies of bigotry. She obviously even with her personal experiences, conducted considerable research on the topic and presented current supporting ideas that even the most hardened bigot would be challenged to refute. The maturity and poise displayed in my opinion was way beyond that of an eleven-year-old.
As Wiesel said on December 10th, 1986 during his acceptance speech in Oslo on the occasion on the award of his Nobel Prize; “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Like contestant number three, we must be committed to ending bigotry. Autism or any other neurodevelopmental condition or any individuals characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication deserve our respect, not pity. Autistic individuals deserve to be treated with dignity in a non-judgmental way. We all have unique abilities and so do people with autism. Hey just take the time to know, understand and love them. As contestant number two reminded us: make the time to explore your imagination. You never know where that adventure may take you or how you can change the world. So, journey with me and discover things you never knew you never knew. Walk Good. Belle Marché.