Forty-two years after he was labelled a “fag” in his high school yearbook, Argyle graduate Robin Tomlin has received a formal apology from the North Vancouver school district.
Tomlin, now retired and suffering from terminal liver disease, drew national media attention and a massive outpouring of public support Wednesday when the story behind the slur — and the school district’s seeming refusal to say sorry for it — was reported in the North Shore News.
The day after the story broke, North Vancouver superintendent John Lewis delivered what Tomlin said he had been seeking all along: A written apology and a pledge to fly him here from the Kootenays to receive the words in person as well. That meeting has yet to be scheduled, but it appears likely to take place later this month and to be followed by a news conference.
Speaking to the News Friday, Tomlin said he had been stunned by the public’s response.
“I’m getting probably 200 to 250 responses a day on my email, 99.9 per cent (of them) positive, coming from Toronto, Australia, the States — everywhere,” he said. “I was hoping for this kind of response, but when I actually got it, it surprised the hell out of me. . . . There are people out there who actually really do care.”
Tomlin, who graduated in 1970, says he was the target of merciless bullying by a group of jocks in his school. Shy and small for his age, Tomlin was labelled “faggot” by the larger boys and tormented to the point he began habitually arriving late, and even felt compelled to skip prom. When, toward the end of his Grade 12 year, he saw the label had been made permanent in the annual, he was crushed. The experience has haunted him ever since.
A few years ago, at his daughter’s urging, Tomlin asked Argyle to alter the copy of the annual in the school library to remove the old insult, but they refused. When he was rebuffed again in May this year, he said, he enlisted the help of a lawyer and fellow graduate, who agreed to represent him.
After some back-and-forth, the school district offered last month to replace the offending page in the library, send an amended page to the North Vancouver archives and provide Tomlin with 20 copies of it for his own use. Attached to that offer was a letter from the superintendent, saying he regretted that Tomlin had had such a negative experience, but that he “cannot take responsibility for the actions or lack of oversight by staff over 40 years ago.”
That response, which Tomlin felt fell short of an apology, and an attached release requiring him to maintain his silence and forgo legal action, infuriated him and prompted him to contact the News.
While she understands how it might be perceived this way, it’s not accurate to portray the school district’s seemingly sudden decision to issue a formal apology as an about-face, said spokeswoman Victoria Miles.
“We’ve been working with Mr. Tomlin over a period of months toward an apology that would meet his expectations,” she said. “There is not a change, it’s just that he’s initiated media and the public in what was a respectful dignified process” designed to protect Tomlin’s privacy. “There wasn’t an intention not to apologize.”
Both Tomlin and Miles pointed out that in all of this, one group has been markedly silent: The former students who were directly responsible for the slur.
“We’re sincerely hoping they will step forward and sincerely say the words that Mr. Tomlin needs to hear,” said Miles. “When organizations take responsibility — as they should — and acknowledge that a wrong needs to be righted, it doesn’t absolve individuals who committed the act.”
Tomlin was skeptical that they would do so, however.
Either way, he hopes his story will call attention to the issue of bullying, and perhaps help others avoid a similar experience.
“If I help even one kid, that’s great.”
As to whether he will accept the district’s face-to-face apology when he gets it, that remains to be seen.
“It depends how sincere it is,” said Tomlin. “That’s why I want to look at them in the eye when they do it.”