Students give world a lesson in courage

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

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The first group hails from Ottawa. Sarah Osborne, Alicia Stainton and other preteen girls on their soccer team boycotted a tournament because one of their teammates wasn't allowed to play in her Muslim headscarf.

The second is from rural Nova Scotia. David Shepherd, Travis Price and their teenage friends organized a high-school protest to wear pink in sympathy with a Grade 9 boy who was being bullied.

These under-18 Canadians stood out this year because they stood up - not just for what they believed was right, but in defiance of a stereotype about their generation.

"I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders," says Mr. Price, 17, who organized the pink protest. "Finally, someone stood up for the weaker kid."

Says 12-year-old Sarah, "if one person can't play soccer because of her religion, it just wouldn't be fair. Inside is what matters, not the outside."

Sarah and the other girls from the Nepean Hotspurs Selects had no idea their tournament outside Montreal in February would land them in the middle of an international tempest.

It was Sunday, and the second string of their team was heading onto the field. Suddenly, the referee made a call: 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour, known as Azzy, wouldn't be allowed to play in her hijab.

The Nepean girls had trained hard and were eager to play the national-level match. But there was no way they'd play without Azzy.

They decided to walk out of the tournament, forfeiting their game rather than dividing their team. (Three other Ottawa-area teams followed suit). In the world of grownups, the flare-up on the field was all about culture clashes and religious accommodation.

To the 11-year-olds in knee socks, it was about playing fair and playing as one. To them, Azzy was a teammate, not a religious symbol.

"I like to play soccer, but Azzy is my friend, and I don't want to play if she's not going to play," says Alicia, now 12.

"Our team is so close, we're like sisters," Sarah says. "We all talk on MSN and on the phone, and we tell each other secrets … if it happened to anyone else on the team, Azzy would have stood up for them, just like we did for her."

Ultimately, the team's unity proved to be its strength. The Nepean Hotspurs Select went undefeated this season, winning the league championship.

"For these kids, politics and religion don't matter," coach Louis Maneiro says. "They don't see race or colour. They just see themselves as being kids. And when they're together, they're a team, undivided."

A similar spirit brought together the group of Grade 12 students at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. On the first day of school in September, a new boy showed up wearing a pink polo shirt.

A group of bullies began to taunt him. They called him a "fag." Word spread through school that they were threatening to beat him up.

Mr. Price heard the stories and couldn't help think back to when he was in grade school. He was bullied so relentlessly, he faked illness to stay home. "I wasn't the richest kid on the block or the one with the nicest clothes. I always felt alone, that I had nobody to turn to."

About a dozen Grade 12 students gathered in the school foyer to talk about helping the Grade 9 boy. One of them was Mr. Shepherd.

"My whole life I said I should do something, and I never did. This is my last year [in high school] Now's the time."

So Mr. Shepherd and some others headed off to a discount store and bought 50 pink tank tops. They sent out messages to schoolmates that night, and the next morning they hauled the shirts to school in a plastic bag.

As they stood in the foyer handing out the shirts, the bullied boy walked in. His face spoke volumes. "It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders," Mr. Price recalled.

The bullies were never heard from again.

The pink protest spread to dozens of schools in Nova Scotia and across Canada. NBC News ran with the story. E-mails poured in from as far as Germany and Japan, and high-school principals from Wyoming and Arizona e-mailed to share their amazement.

"This tells us there was no beacon of light out there," acting principal Graeme King says, "and all of a sudden, there was. The boys stood up for down-home values."

Wearing pink. Walking off a soccer pitch. Small gestures that made a big statement about inclusion.

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