A visibly happy Robin Tomlin announced Monday that the North Vancouver school district had finally given him closure, 42 years after a homophobic slur appeared next to his photo in his Argyle secondary yearbook.
“They made a very sincere apology,” said Tomlin at a press conference outside Argyle, minutes after receiving the long-awaited mea culpa at a private meeting with district officials. “It’s a happy day.”
Tomlin, a victim of severe bullying in high school, made headlines earlier this month when he went public with his story.
As a shy, skinny teen, he had been picked on mercilessly in his Grade 12 year, persecuted to the point that he had been too intimidated to attend his own graduation. His suffering had come to a head towards the end of the year when he opened his annual to find that the text he had submitted to appear under his name had been replaced with the word “fag.”
Tomlin has been trying for the past several years to get the book changed and to extract an apology from the district. Monday’s event was the culmination of that effort.
“I hope that the school district’s apology will bring some peace and long overdue closure for Mr. Tomlin and his family,” said superintendent John Lewis, reading from a prepared statement. “We share a common and continued concern for the youth of today and an interest in creating a more positive environment for the future.”
The slur should not been seen as reflective of the attitude of the Argyle student body — past or present — added Lewis. Nor did the apology absolve the individuals responsible. Pressed by reporters, Lewis said he did not know who those individuals were.
“We really don’t have the resources to go back 42 years and investigate what transpired at that time,” he said. “We would count upon people coming forward. . . . We would certainly welcome answers.”
The in-person apology was an emotional event. Tomlin said that his daughter, who had accompanied him on the trip in from his home in the Kootenays, was in tears afterwards, and so couldn’t join him at the press conference.
Referring to several former classmates and other supporters who were on hand holding candles, Tomlin said the show of solidarity was “awesome.”
“Thing is, if I’d known that (support was there) 42 years ago,” he added, his voice cracking, “this wouldn’t have happened.”
Vicki Nettles, a classmate of Tomlin’s, was among those who turned out to the event. She said she was elated by the school district’s actions.
“As Robin stated, it brings closure,” she said. “But more than that, it bring light, and we need a huge light shone on bullying, on the mental, physical and emotional abuse of people — not just children — of people.”
She hadn’t known about the entry until she’d seen it in the news, she said. She’d been shocked, but she was doubtful any individual would ever be held responsible.
“It was the people who did the yearbook, but no one’s going to come forward, and no one’s going to point a finger,” said Nettles. “You won’t find that in the Valley.”
A larger celebration was planned for later that day at the Black Bear Pub, where a number of supporters were expected to attend.
Tomlin began pressuring the school district to do something about the yearbook slur several years ago, after discovering a copy of the annual at the school library still contained the offending entry.
In September, after Tomlin had enlisted the help of a lawyer and fellow Argyle graduate, the district agreed to alter the page and expressed “regret” for the entry, but did not send Tomlin an official apology until early October, shortly after the story ran in the North Shore News and was picked up by media across the country. The district promised later that week to say “sorry” face to face.
But it was not that scrutiny from the press that prompted the organization to take the steps it did, said Lewis. “I think that as we worked through a process for a number of months, we were very close to reaching a satisfactory outcome for Mr. Tomlin and also for the school district.”
Tomlin showed off a corrected copy of the yearbook to reporters, reading out the new entry, which contained the words he had originally submitted.
“Meet as many people from all over the world as I can,” it read. “I want to be a cowboy.”
Asked if he was looking for an apology from slur’s authors, Tomlin said no.
“They know what they did. I know who they are. Leave it at that,” he said. “If they want to live with themselves, let them. That’s their world, not mine.”