It was five weeks since the team at Halifax Grammar School had begun travelling a long and challenging road, as we adapted to teaching students who could no longer gather in the classroom.
I had spent much of that Saturday morning over coffee, pondering words I might share with my staff for an upcoming meeting. I was conscious of how difficult it had been for each of them to carry the weight of constant stress, strain, and worry in the face of ongoing uncertainty. So I hoped to find some words of uplift as we looked forward to the final months of school and maybe some warmer days ahead.
But then came the attacks of April 18–19. And like all Nova Scotians and Canadians, I was heartbroken. So the words I sought eluded me, which I was very sorry about, because if ever we needed some words of uplift, it was now. Instead, I found myself thinking about this province of ours and about the people who share it, and in particular about two Nova Scotian characteristics that stood out for me and seemed so important in this moment.
The first characteristic was our unique bond of community. When I first arrived in Nova Scotia in the summer of 1982, I witnessed this curious local habit, a habit that has since become familiar. It occurs when two Nova Scotians meet for the first time. Before any real conversation can take place, they first have to find their two degrees of separation, which they always do, and establish their unique connection.
I had never seen anything like that before. Since then, no matter where I have travelled in this world, I have always seen this distinct familial act between two Nova Scotians, whether friends or “strangers,” who find themselves together in some strange land.
A few years ago, while I was driving on a toll road outside of Boston. A car with Massachusetts plates roared up beside me and rolled down the passenger-side window. In the U.S. this can be a dangerous thing, but the driver of the car had seen my Nova Scotian plate and shouted with a good deal of enthusiasm that he was a Nova Scotian working stateside. We exchanged a few quick words, but since we were driving, we couldn’t quite finish our two degrees of separation dance, so he moved on, smiling and waving, before pulling up to the toll booth.
When I got to the booth, the attendant told me I didn’t have to pay, because the car in front of me had just covered the toll. I smiled at that. I never saw the fellow again, but I have always believed that his paying my toll likely made him feel a little closer to home.
Nova Scotians like to be close. And maybe that’s what I found so unbearably cruel about the aftermath of this past Saturday night and Sunday morning. We couldn’t physically gather together to grieve and find support in each other’s presence like a good family does.
The second characteristic that stood out for me about Nova Scotians was resolve. For about 15 years now, when time allowed, I had been writing books about tragedies that Nova Scotians have faced over their long history. And in every one of those stories, I was struck by the remarkable resilience that Nova Scotians always exhibited, how they always found light in darkness, how they always took care of each other when it mattered most.
As with so many others, I have been listening to a good deal of Nova Scotian music over the last week because our music often celebrates these unique characteristics, celebrates our bond of community and our resolve. One song in particular that stood out for me was an old song made popular in the early ’90s by the Rankin Family called “Rise Again.” In the song, there is a line from the refrain that I kept thinking about.
We rise again in the faces
Of our children
It is a remarkable line, really. We look to our children for some sense of hope in tomorrow and they look to us for some sense of strength and connection in today.
It struck me that this was what my staff had been doing, in their own way, for five weeks now: helping students find, through them, some sense of connection and strength for today, while the staff found, through their students, some sense of hope for tomorrow.
And perhaps, in sharing this experience, both teachers and students were reminded that they belong to a special kind of place and a special kind of people, and that as Nova Scotians, no matter how difficult the challenge may be ahead of us, we will rise again.