PAGE 108 of Argyle secondary's 1970 annual is filled with smiling faces.
Next to each photo is a short caption about each student's memories of school and his or her goals for the future - some serious, some evidently jokes, likely inserted by the yearbook's authors. Next to the photo of Robin Tomlin, a shy, skinny teen and a victim of intense bullying, is just one word: "Fag."
The entry might have seemed funny to those who wrote it, but to Tomlin it was devastating, a culmination of the torment he had been subjected to for years in the school's hallways. Four decades later, the word still stings.
"I feel like, emotionally, they've been beating me with a stick for 42 years," he said.
Tomlin, now retired in the Kootenays and suffering from terminal liver disease, wants closure. He has asked the North Vancouver school district to change the entry in the copies of the book it displays on its shelves and to apologize for allowing it to be printed.
After four years of prodding, the district has offered to swap out the page with a revised version, but it refuses to say it's sorry. To Tomlin, that's not good enough.
"The staff of the school looked at it; it was edited; it was sent to a publisher who proofread it for spelling," he said. "It was never a mistake. . . . (But) they won't admit they did anything wrong."
In Grade 12, Tomlin, who was just five foot five and 122 pounds, was a favourite target of a group of jocks in his class.
"(I'd be) walking down the hall, they'd give me a shove. 'You little faggot, get out of the way,' - all that, every day," he said. "In the annual, they even put my name on a list of most absences or most lates because I was scared to go to school."
When, near the end of his final year, Tomlin flipped open the newly printed yearbook and found the name he had been called so many times made permanent- with the tacit approval of school staff - he was crushed. And more than that: he was frightened.
"It scared the friggin hell out of me," said Tomlin. "Homosexuals were beat up and killed back then."
When some of his tormentors told him he'd get hurt if he showed up to grad, he chose not to go. He gave his parents an excuse, and instead passed the night in a friend's basement, drinking.
The sense of persecution followed him even after he left high school. At his first-year reunion, according to Tomlin, one of his old adversaries said: "Get him out of here before we kill him," compelling him to leave early.
Eventually, after marrying his sweetheart, Tomlin moved away from Lynn Valley. He started a new job in a new town and got on with his life, trying to put the experience of his teens behind him.
But several years ago, the old wound was reopened when Tomlin's then 25-year-old daughter came across the caption while flipping through a copy of the yearbook at his home. The discovery hurt her deeply, said Tomlin, and prompted him to look for redress.
"She said if that happened now, these people would be in jail." When Tomlin learned, on a visit to the school library, that the entry could still be viewed there, he asked Argyle to alter book, but was rebuffed, he said. In fact, far from being amended, the annual - including the offending entry - was plastered to the walls at his 40-year reunion. After his attempts to get the change made were refused again in May this year, he related the story on a discussion board for graduates, and attracted the attention of a lawyer and fellow grad who offered to represent him pro bono.
The lawyer, John Stowe, wrote a letter to the school district demanding that the entry be removed. In September, after some back-and-forth, Tomlin received an offer: The district would reprint the page with a revised entry of Tomlin's choice, insert it into any copies of the annual it possessed and even provide a copy to the North Vancouver museum and archives. It would also provide Tomlin with 20 copies of the changed page for his own use.
That was a step in the right direction, but to Tomlin, the comments that accompanied the offer suggested the institution was denying its culpability.
"I cannot take responsibility for the actions or lack of oversight by staff over 40 years ago," wrote Superintendent John Lewis, in an attached letter. "However, I do wish to express to you that I understand your concerns, and regret that you had such a negative high-school experience. I also regret that the yearbook was published in the manner it was by those involved."
The superintendent also noted that that the school district had since put in place a number of policies and programs aimed at eliminating bullying and homophobia. There was a release attached stating that, in return for those actions, Tomlin would not take legal action and would stay silent about the exchange.
Infuriated, Tomlin replied that he wanted a proper apology - in person - and that he wanted travel expenses covered for his efforts up to that point, an amount that could add up to $5,000 or more.
Victoria Miles, a spokeswoman for the school district, wrote in an email to the North Shore News that the district was limited in what it could say about the issue because it was a legal matter, but she did address Tomlin's demand for reimbursement.
"School district funds must be directed towards the education of students," Miles wrote. "It would not be appropriate to fund his requested travel expenses from public funds in this way."
She did not address the district's decision not to apologize, however. It's that reluctance, more than the refusal to cover travel expenses, that sticks in Tomlin's craw.
"They won't say, 'Sorry.' All they say is 'regret,'" said Tomlin. "I want an apology."
© Copyright 2013