Simulation or Real Life?

Simulation or Real Life?

June 16, 2017
By Lindsey Sorensen, teacher, English, Crofton House Senior School

It’s 4:30 pm on Friday, March 30, and I’m in the lobby of the Sheraton Wall Centre north tower signing girls in. It’s chaos in the lobby: there are clumps of students everywhere, trying to find their chaperone teachers, all hauling luggage, some lost, some greeting friends, some frantically doing last-minute research. They’re all in each other’s way, but they don’t care. They’re too excited, nervous, and happy to be here.

Above the din, supervisors are trying to organize the students in their charge:

“Find a washroom and change out of your uniform!”

“What’s your name again? Did you check in?”

“Is that Tiara?”

“Take your luggage down the escalator to the Pavilion room!”

“Last name please! … How do you spell that?”

“When you’re done, come back and get your registration package!”

“Wait! I know your name - don’t tell me!”

“Down one floor - Pavilion!”

“Yes, you need to change!”

“The washroom is locked? Go down one floor and try that one!”

“Down one floor and put your luggage in the Pavilion room!”

“Pavilion ... just follow all the other people!”

“What’s your name please?”

“Come back up and get your registration package!”

Chris has organized the registration packages and name tags and he and Simon are busily handing them out.

“Where’s Jessica?”

“What’s your name?”

“Take your bag to the Pavilion room!”

“That’s Jessica texting me now - she’ll be here soon - the traffic is heavy.”

“The opening ceremonies start in 5 minutes - everyone down to the Grand Ballroom please!”

Finally, the chaos subsides. We cross-check with each other - all 49 Crofton delegates have arrived, and we’ve also checked in with the Crofton girls who are staffers and secretariat. Whew.

The Canadian High Schools Model United Nations conference has begun. There are many groups in the hotel this weekend, including over 600 student delegates, plus staffers (students who run the committee sessions), secretariat (students who run the conference), and a group of adults (who put on the conference), as well as many chaperone teachers. As always, I pity any tourists who are at the hotel on vacation as it won’t be quiet and restful for them! It’s a full weekend of chatty, energetic teenagers clogging the elevators, enthusiastically debating world issues inside and outside their conference and hotel rooms, and hungrily filling up all the seats at the local restaurants.

We’ll be checking the girls out for dinner soon, but in the meantime, we can take a few minutes to note where our girls’ committee rooms are, get everyone’s hotel room keys, and figure out the chaperone teachers’ responsibilities for the evening. From here - until check-out, that is - things should be relatively smooth. We will check the girls out and back in for each meal break, check their committee rooms to see how they are doing, and do bed checks. There’s a lot of checking!

It’s interesting seeing the girls in this environment. The dress code is “business casual,” but few delegates are dressed casually. The boys are in dark blue business suits, and the girls are smartly dressed in skirts, or chic pants, or dresses; they almost all wear heels (by the end of the conference, a lot of girls are gingerly limping around carrying their stilettos!).

As I’ve discovered, the clothing at MUN conferences is really important. When they don their power outfits, put on their nametags, and get their country placard, they become the representative for Nigeria in the World Health Organization or the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Sweden in the Joint Crisis Committee or the the Prime Minister of Canada in the Commonwealth conference. For these students, for a weekend, the simulation that is Model UN is real.
They are amazing to watch. I remember being deeply impressed the first time I watched a Crofton girl in the UN Security Council debating key points with her ideological opponents. She was articulate, polite, assertive, and incredibly persistent. Every time the member from China made a point, I could see her steeling herself while he spoke, readying for her counterpoint. She had figured out how to begin with a few words of introduction that allowed her to gather herself before she launched into her argument: “The United States agrees with China that sanctions against North Korea could have a negative impact; however, since China is refusing to put pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear program, the United States feels that it has no other choice …”

If I closed my eyes, and if I pretended the boy representing China didn’t have a squeak in his voice, I could be at the real Security Council.

How do they do this?

They take it seriously. They research their country’s foreign policy, they memorize the UN procedures for debate, they practice.They learn about politics and world issues; they rise to the challenge of speaking in front of others; they face their fears. They do conference after conference, beginning with the easier committees like the World Health Organization, graduating to the harder ones such as the Security Council, the JCC’s, or the historical committees.

And I get to facilitate this!

Some of my favourite moments are when I’m doing bed checks, and I get to find out more about how things went for the girls that day. They know I want to hear what happened, and that I support them, and they tell me in a huge rush what they said, and what others said in response, and how the dias never sees their placard and how annoying Russia is and how Mexico is going to win an award because she’s so smart, and how they didn’t get a chance to say what they wanted to because the moment passed. They tell me about how they were able to get other delegates to agree to their resolutions, which is a major victory as this is how the debates are resolved in MUN. They tell me about how they spoke for the first time ever (the other girls in the room smile and laugh and say, “Now she won’t stop!” and “I remember when I wouldn’t speak!”). They talk about the boy who makes silly points or who won’t stop talking or who always gets called on; they struggle with their shyness and politeness in the face of this.

Also impressive are the girls who staff or are on the secretariat. The staffers run the committee rooms: they are on the dias at the front, and their jobs involve selecting who speaks next, ensuring that the UN rules and procedures are followed, and making sure the debates don’t get off track or get too circular. This requires very good leadership skills: some of the committees have 50 or more delegates (many of whom are rambunctious boys!!). It takes a special skill to be able to keep a room full of debating teenagers engaged and focused; over and over, I see our girls handle this with poise, efficiency, and humour.  

The secretariat I only see in passing: a swirl of hair and a walk that I recognize as each girl flits from fire to fire, gracefully putting out each one with awe-inspiring efficiency. It never ceases to amaze me how well the girls do in these difficult roles, acting with a maturity beyond their years. Or maybe it’s not beyond their years, it’s just that this is a circumstance that allows them to show what they’re capable of.

At the delegate level, MUN has some obvious impact on the girls: they become more knowledgeable about the world, they learn about important current and historical issues and events, they learn to negotiate with others and resolve issues under time constraints, they develop confidence in their public speaking skills and in their ability to understand complex issues. But there are also some unpredictable effects that come from their effort and commitment.
One girl who is a keen “Munner” told me that she joined because she wanted to improve her English. Imagine having to keep up with others’ arguments about complex world issues, let alone formulate your own articulate points, and then stand up in front of a room full of people who are staring at you and deliver them, all the while not being sure if you’re being understood! In my view, this is very brave indeed.

Then there’s the girl who was so unsure of her points she didn’t know whether or not she should speak at all because she didn’t think she had much to offer. Everyone else in the NATO committee was so much smarter and well-spoken, according to her. I urged her to speak anyway; after all, she had done all the research and clearly understood her topic. We talked about how to subtly steer the conversation to the points she wants to make, even if the conversation has started to go in another direction. We talked about how it’s not necessary to speak for the entire allotted time; she could just make her point and then sit down. We talked about building off others’ comments, especially those of potential future allies. We talked about staying engaged, even when the discussion flags. We talked about not letting the brilliance of others stop her, but instead, how it could inspire her to up her game. Not only did she not give up, she went actually won an award at that conference, which was a credit to her determination and persistence.

I have many stories like this! The girls get a lot out of MUN, not necessarily because of MUN per se, but because it’s an activity that allows them to challenge themselves. In that sense, it’s not a simulation at all. OK, it’s true, world leaders don’t change their policies because of the decisions made at Model UN. But since the Munners of today may be the world leaders of tomorrow, the decisions made at CAHSMUN may change the world after all.

The rewards are plentiful for me, too. It’s my job to encourage them to keep trying in the face of all their fears. It doesn’t matter if they win awards or not, watching them really try to do well is something I find deeply satisfying.
After the conference is over, everyone rushes up to the lobby and tries to leave at the same time. The chaperone teachers run some of the girls out to their parents’ cars, and some parents come into the lobby; it’s all I can do to check the girls off the list fast enough. It’s a frenzy that’s over in a few minutes.

Exhausted but satisfied, we head home.