When a professor won’t stop for Remembrance Day

McMaster students stood up for 11 a.m. moment of silence
Members of he public place poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, Sunday November 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Fred Chartrand/CP

One of the tensest moments of my first year at McMaster University didn’t happen when I was writing exams or fighting with my roommate or handing in a late assignment. It happened on Nov. 11, 2009 when I was sitting in the musty basement lecture hall of an old arts building on campus.

The English professor started lecturing at 10:30 a.m. When 11 a.m. rolled around, the time traditionally reserved as a minute of silence in respect for those affected by war—through combat or collateral—a student raised her hand.

“Shouldn’t we stop lecture for a minute right now?” she said, and outlined her case: that would be the most respectful thing to do.

A long, awkward silence fell over the large hall. Then, the professor said no. I don’t remember her reason, exactly. It was a convoluted argument about respecting her lecture in the academic space and not interrupting it by glorifying war. She was very against recognizing the moment.

But then the student argued back and more students jumped in, until finally, several minutes past the 11 a.m. mark, the room lapsed into 60 seconds of awkward silence.

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While that particular minute was spent more in embarrassed quiet for the uncomfortable circumstances than in thoughtful contemplation, it has come back to me every November since, as I dwell on war and peace, Remembrance Day, poppies, and everything this time represents.

The squabbles of that morning seem petty in comparison to what it was like to be on campus in the war-torn days of yesteryear. There was a time on McMaster’s campus when the impact of war was not a once-a-November focus, but rather a daily occurrence. Old Silhouette newspaper headlines from World War Two call for blood donors during a European shortage. In desperation, they appealed to women to donate, as men were traditionally the exclusive donor group.

One front-page article from Nov. 3, 1944 warned that the military status of all male students would thereafter be checked and “every student must have on his person at all times either a postponement, a discharge, or a rejection paper.” If any men were “unable to produce these necessary qualifications, their names will be turned in to N.M.R.A. immediately. Within a few days they will receive their military call-up.” (The N.M.R.A. was the National Resources Mobilization Act, which recorded and policed conscripted Canadians for military service at home and abroad.)

The paper from that time period is also peppered with lists of fallen alumni and students. It serves as a sombre reminder for all we take for granted today as students.

For the first time in several years, I’ll be in a position to actually attend a Remembrance Day ceremony on Monday. But if you’re in lecture (whether or not your professor pauses), at work, at home or elsewhere, I encourage you to stop what you’re doing for a moment, not to glorify war but to be thankful for all we have today, the people we owe that to and what we want tomorrow to be.

Jemma Wolfe is executive editor of McMaster University’s Silhouette where this first appeared.