The morning was cold; the kind of cold where you see people in pajamas running out to warm up their cars hoping nobody looks. unlearn had been on the road for weeks and engaged since the 90’s serving boards of education, colleges and universities. From professional development sessions to new teacher induction programs and student workshops inspiring participants to see the humanity in everyone.
Provoke thought and inspire positive change is a mantra and a mindset that unlearn operates from and thus when invited to engage 18 elementary and 4 secondary schools at Wellington Catholic District School Board, that’s exactly what we did for close to a year.
As I pulled into a school parking lot that morning, I remember feeling really good (showing up early magically does that sometimes eh!). As I parked my car I received a phone call from my co-facilitator and unlearn founder, Abhi Ahluwalia. He was checking in on me and letting me know he was a few minutes away. He’s a father, an entrepreneur, a humanitarian, a partner, a son, and more. Seriously this guy wears more hats than a lids shop! I told him I would head into the school and get a heads start on setting up. Shortly after signing in at the office I made my way to the classroom we were going to begin our day of (un)learning at. I set my bags down in the hallway outside the classroom and as I reached for some tape to hang up the unlearn posters, I hear, “HE’S GONNA BOMB THE SCHOOL.”
The warm feeling I experienced when signing in at the office abruptly came to an end. It was like being pushed into a cold pool. I was drowning in a familiar act of aggression towards the way I look. You know it when you hear it, feel it and see it, hate is an unmistakeable experience. Those who have had to endure this experience, know this experience by way of repetition.
I went from pride to shame in an instant. You carry with you this medal of honor along with a few scars that never seem to fully heal. The hateful words ring out and I am left feeling vulnerable. The student who uttered those words laughs with a friend at their locker located just across from where I’m setting up. My peripheral vision is radar like in that I am now aware of my location in relation to this new threat. I smile as I catch a quick glance of the Toronto Raptors stickers decorated inside this student’s locker and cannot help but think about the Toronto Raptor’s Superfan, Nav Bhatia.
When Nav Bhatia moved to Canada in 1984, fleeing violent persecution of Sikhs in India, he struggled to find work as a mechanical engineer and decided to work as a car salesman. Enduring much hate while selling cars, Bhatia ultimately achieved a record 127 car sales in 3 months and bought the dealership 2 years later. Bhatia is the owner of one of the top-selling Hyundai car dealerships in Canada which has enabled him to amass a net worth of $50 million. Bhatia founded the Superfan Foundation in 2018 as a way to bring diverse people in Canada and around the world together through sport. He spends $300K every year to send thousands of kids to Raptors games.
After the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Championship during the 2018-2019 season, Nav Bhatia became the first ever fan to receive a championship ring. In 2020, he was honoured by the Basketball Hall of Fame becoming one of the first fans memorialized in its new superfan gallery. Bhatia has attended every Toronto Raptors home game since 1995, declaring him to be a true Superfan. On June 19, 2018, Bhatia was named a recipient of the Royal Bank of Canada’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants Award.
As the student locker slams shut, I feel like time is running out on the shot clock and I’ve been throwing up air balls all day. Then I notice another student casually walk by in their striped shirt uttering two words: “shut up” to the offensive foul I received. I swear I saw a referee bringing his hands together to form a T for a technical foul. My drowning heart and mind are immediately revived by this slam dunk of a play. With no time left on the clock, this upstander pivoted to create space for me. This upstanding student will never quite know what they did for me that day. My assumptions of an entire school, entire community, entire board were challenged by this one move. As in the unlearn Puzzled design I felt like the top right ostracized piece. A student not only recognized that but with his challenge to his classmate he actually pivoted to make space for me. Could there be ballers ready to ball everywhere in the face of hate? Are there upstanders on every team? The answer depends on your ability to endure, address, and eliminate hate. We The North is not only a unifying tagline, it’s the destination of an entire nation. Can you see the humanity in everyone? Will you walk by hate or will you challenge it? It’s your shot next.
3, 2, 1 … unlearn.