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The long road to publication

I’ve come to realize I’m not a prolific writer. I publish so little that it still gives me a thrill when I see my name in a publication. Or online. This one is especially sweet.

In November 2019, I pitched Broadview Magazine on a story about restorative justice. They said, yes, they’d been thinking about doing a feature on restorative justice in the education system, specifically with regard to bullying, but since I didn’t have any experience writing long-form essay, they’d assign it to one of their writers. I pushed back, insisting I could write the story, and do it well. They said yes. The deadline was May 2020.

November and December 2019, the Ontario school system was in upheaval. There were rotating strikes as teachers’ unions, parents and students alike protested decisions made by Doug Ford’s government. Students were in school two or three days a week, depending on the school and the week.

In December 2019, my family and I went to Northern Ireland for a month, during which time I constructed a list of sources for my story, and sent it off to the editor. I had no idea what journey this story was about to take me on.

We flew home on Jan. 10, 2020. I quickly lined up a couple interviews for early February, conducted them and transcribed them. Off to a good start.

By late February, the pandemic hit. By early March, virtually everyone was under a version of public health protocols, and by mid-March, we were in lockdown. No in-school learning, few administrators in the school offices. Teachers became heroes who coached their classes along online, battling their own and their students’ struggles with mental health in a pandemic.

How does one write a story about the education system when the education system is shut down?

I looked for other ways to tell the story. I found a source, a woman in BC who used restorative justice processes to address her own assault as a teenager. Her story was honest, and beautifully wrapped up with her mom’s story and the restorative process they underwent together. I wrote the story and submitted it in May 2020.

It wasn’t the right story. It wasn’t the assigned story.

Back to the drawing board. I plumbed my networks for sources who had the right story – a story of bullying in school resolved through restorative processes. I asked my sources for sources. I joined restorative justice Facebook groups for educators, facilitators, researchers. I still did not find the story. I couldn’t find the Person With the Story. I wondered if I should just give up.

The months dragged on. More interviews. More dead ends. Lockdowns. Closed schools and offices. Stay-at-home orders. It seemed the universe conspired against me completing this story.

I put out a desperate plea on my personal Facebook page, outlining specifically who I was looking for as a source and the sort of situation that had been resolved using restorative processes.

Enter Crystal Zehr. I’ve known Crystal for probably 10 years. Our kids went to the same school. They occasionally shared a childminder. Crystal lives in my neighbourhood. Around the corner. I didn’t know her story, until she offered to share it.

“Would my story work?” she asked. I didn’t know her story, so I messaged her with a bunch of clarifying questions, to make sure we were on the same page about restorative justice. I hardly dared hope that she might be the Person With the Story.

She answered all my questions thoroughly and honestly. Every one. Her story became the foundation for this article. It’s difficult to read. Our children have such capacity for unkindness sometimes. I rewrote the article, and submitted it in February 2021. It published in print in August, and the online version came out this week.

However, without Crystal’s story, this story would not exist.

I can attest to the kind and beautiful person Crystal has become in spite of her story, or perhaps because of it. With the right tools, the human soul also has incredible capacity for healing.

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