When our friends, Paolo and Maria moved from Toronto to Calgary four years ago, their son, Henri was fourteen. Once there, they reported he was adjusting well to Grade nine French immersion, even though Alberta’s ninth grade was the final year of junior high, as opposed to Ontario’s first year of high school.
Only later did my family and I learn about Henri’s junior high school kerfuffle: If he’d already gone to prom in Toronto, after which, all his friends started high school, why was he back in junior high at the new school that by the way, was half an hour each trip by bus? To Henri, moving to Calgary was totally coercive and hugely inconvenient.
For Maria, although her transfer came suddenly, it was an important career move in the pharmaceutical industry. Her firm wanted her to be a Spanish-speaking manager in Calgary.
For Paolo who supported Maria’s decision, he’d also lined up a potentially seamless transition as IT specialist to a Calgary cardiologist.
Henri protested: “Well, good for you two, but what about my life?”
Paolo and Maria acknowledged why Henri was unhappy. They also admitted they hadn’t consulted his feelings sufficiently before moving. But Paolo tried to soft sell the advantages of an extra year in junior high: “Being the most senior grade always comes with perks. You can mentor the lower grades again, but this time, even the grade eights.”
Maria added, “Plus all the peer leadership you had in Toronto … and you have a full year to grow taller before high school.”
Without fully accepting his parents’ defense, Henri did form close relationships with several peers whom Paolo and Maria liked, and with whom he went (a second time) to prom.
Still, from emails and photos, we saw they were doing well. Henri was certainly growing very tall and athletic. “I’ve been playing soccer and hockey at school”, he told us. Well, bravo, we thought.
By Grade eleven, Henri also decided to give French a break after high school and to focus on sciences at a local university.
Spring and early summer 2023 came and went, during which time we learned about Henri’s application to three programs: Kinesiology, Athletic Therapy, and General Science. June was the month when he received one letter of acceptance, but two letters of rejection.
With an offer from his last choice, General Science but none from Kinesiology or Athletic Therapy, Henri was so disappointed that he retreated to dark, sombre moods. When we spoke in July, he was angry and pessimistic, ready to cut ties forever with post-secondary education.
My family and I were concerned, but also hopeful. Acceptance by any school was an irrefutable green light. But we remembered Henri’s unresolved grievances over the move to Calgary, and now an impasse that neither he nor his parents had anticipated. Moreover, when most of his peers were successful with their applications, Henri was unprepared for such a blow to his self-esteem.
Two months ago in September, Maria and Paolo received some advice from Henri’s high school principal that first and foremost, Henri hadn’t failed. She added that a basically good student like their son didn’t need to be despondent over one setback in a super-competitive process. Instead, she suggested a gap year for young people to build character, earn some money, and critically assess post-secondary choices again. “When Henri’s ready, there’re numerous options in the medical field alone”, she added.
At the same time, principal Donna Koyama recommended mental health exercises for the whole family: a chance to look at their lives since moving to Calgary, the pros and cons for each member, and how to move forward with a maturing teenager who’d experienced a stumbling block. For Henri, Ms. Koyama emphasized the importance of cultivating lifelong, healthy self-esteem and self-reflection and strengthening resilience when confronting adversities.
“I’ve always liked Ms. Koyama”, Henri smiled for the first time in months, when his parents told him about their conversation with her. “She’s the one who suggested a science degree when half the kids in French immersion were thinking of journalism or film studies in Québec.”
Last month at Thanksgiving when we emailed Henri about his gap year, it took him more than a week to get back to us, and only when we asked Maria and Paolo if everything was all right with their teenager.
Henri replied that he was working for the bookstore of a private music school but didn’t share much else. What we appreciated was his mention of skilled trades in robotics or mass communication for an upcoming school year.
We promptly sent encouragement and helpful resources, including the name of a cousin working in Alberta Education’s apprenticeship branch. But we haven’t heard back from Henri who may need some time and space before reaching out again.
Although moving to Alberta seemed relatively smooth for Paolo, Maria, and Henri, the unspoken upheaval to at least one of them, if not all of them, must’ve taken a toll. Everyone needed to adjust to a new environment, like newcomers to Canada who’re pushed to forge on. Economic trade-offs aside, invisible or hidden social and emotional stressors may not always be dealt with, but they must be addressed all the same.
We feel deep empathy for young Henri. In Toronto, he was a thoughtful boy who liked school even if he wasn’t always an A student. He read well and enjoyed math and science. Excelling in sports, his leadership skills stood out in junior high when he mentored young readers, and when he helped with school safety via playground supervision and hall monitoring.
If Henri’s moody and unhappy, we hope with self-reflection and resilience, he can soon overcome the challenges. We also hope the family can take time to renew their affection for each other toward more compassionate give-and-take. After all, Henri may be with his parents for only a bit longer. He may soon finish college or university and launch his own future, and hopefully, by then, he won’t be grumpy anymore.
by Mina Wong