Wednesday, 11 January 2017

From Shadow to Light

When you are kid, you often feel like you are living in your parents' shadow.

At least that is how I felt, growing up in a small town where my dad was the high school principal, alderman and respected community member and my mom was a teacher and a compulsive volunteer.

"Oh, you're George Hartford's daughter," people would say.  "Ah, I know your mom!" 

Even now I meet people who knew my parents years ago and hear stories about them.

My parents were leaders in their own way. When they would see a need, they would act. Maybe that is how they learned to live from their parents. Or maybe it was a consequence of being city-bred people who moved to a small town or maybe it was the result of growing up during the Depression or living through a world war.

They had high expectations for us, their four children. Not about what kind of marks we should get or what career path we should follow (although they certainly had suggestions we didn't comply with). They did not have expectations about the kind of wealth we should attain or the status we should achieve. Their expectations were about the kind of people we should become. The sense of obligation to honour those expectations was unspoken, but oh so very powerful.

Did we live up to their expectations?  That's something I will never know.  

But I do know their shadows still loom. The shadows are there when we go to places we visited together. I think of Mom when I am shopping. I think of Dad when there are workplace challenges.The shadows are dark when I do wrong. The shadows loom when I wonder what would Dad have done or what would Mom think.That's when the shadows no longer dominate but guide and support. I think of them both when there is big news in the world and when my kids do something extraordinary or when I have big decisions to make or when I feel sad. Their shadows loom over holidays and special days and dark days. That is when their shadows move from haunting me to enveloping me with warmth. 

I thought of my dad today when I learned that his good friend Burns had passed away. Burns or "Fuzz" and my dad had a long history. They fought together in World War II. They returned to Canada where they had families and served their communities.  They were alike in many ways, and though I did not know him well, I know he was a good and wise man who loved his family.

I know enough about Burns to know that his shadow will figure large in the lives of his two grown children and his grandchildren.

I hope for them that those shadows will gradually cease to be the sometimes dark shadows of memory.

I hope they will find, as I have, that those shadows have gradually turned to light. Light that illuminates a path through this uncertain and dark world. 

The light cast by good parents who have raised their children well.

Friday, 6 January 2017


This morning, I turn on the Christmas lights for the last time. I put the last of the Christmas cookies on my mom's star shaped cookie stand. I pour a coffee into my lovely new Christmas mug.  As I sit in the gentle glow of the old-school lights of our tree, I reflect on the season.

Today is Epiphany. In the Christian calendar, the day celebrates the arrival of the Magi and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. 

Today would also have been my Dad's 94th birthday. 

In our house, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. 
My grandparent's Christmas table

I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, spent in my grandparents' house on their farm, a converted log cabin lovingly added to and renovated over the years. 

Christmas was waiting.

It was waiting for Christmas dinner. 

It was waiting for the huge table to be constructed by combining the ping-pong table and assorted other tables in the middle of the living room. It was waiting for it to be covered with white linen tablecloths, set with the best dishes. It was waiting for the silver to be polished. It was waiting for my grandfather to say grace before the 30-40 assembled relatives and neighbours began to feast. 

Me and my cousins
Christmas was the infamous little red kid's table in the other room. 

Christmas was waiting to open presents after the dishes and the tables were cleared away. 

Christmas was waiting to be old enough to read so you would have the honour of being allowed  distribute the gifts.

Later, Christmas was at my aunt's house in town, my aunt and cousins cooking and serving dinner. It was the living room floor awash in wrapping paper. Christmas was cousins, aunts, uncles-all laughing, children everywhere,

Still later, Christmas was my parents' big Tumbler Ridge house. 

In Tumbler Ridge
Christmas was waking up to see the delighted little faces peering over the balcony that overlooked the living room, basking in the glow of the tree lights. Christmas was hearing their whispers, "He came." 

It was waiting for my brother and sister to arrive so we could open our stockings. It was waiting for my mom to put the Christmas pudding on to steam and put the turkey in the over before we tackled the tree, so many presents it felt almost obscene.

Still later, the small Tumbler Ridge house and then my brother's Victoria house filled with siblings and parents and love.

And now, my parents gone, my siblings far away, my own kids make the journey back home. Now, just the five of us gathered round the tree. 

Our Christmas filled with ghosts of the past.

Epiphany is a time to bless the home to protect us from evil for the coming year. The blessing represents the hospitality offered to the wise men. It invites God's presence into the home for the coming year. 

We will pack away our Christmas tree and our Christmas dishes and our Christmas decorations. My kids will return to their homes. And we will wait for another Christmas. 

An epiphany can also be a feeling. A sudden and rare experience. An enlightening understanding that gives us a new perspective. My epiphany, despite the sadness I feel as I deeply miss those no longer with us, is my realization that these ghosts are not to be mourned. They have blessed us with their presence and their memories. No matter what the configuration of people attending our Christmas festivities, we are truly blessed by generations of love. May their blessings continue to shine over us.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Of Dogs and Children

Years ago my former sister-in-law posed the question, "Why do people have dogs?"

Why indeed.
Me, Dad and Pabby
Our first dog was Pabby, rescued by my grandmother from a box on the side of a country road. My other grandmother called Pabby a "borderline collie"- some kind of cross between a border collie and a spaniel.  In my parents' photos, Pabby paces protectively between me and the lake or the river or whatever other possibly dangerous situation my parents had placed me in.

Later on, we adopted Leslie, a greyhound who had been abandoned in the campsite across from the Chisholm fire tower.  I only heard Leslie bark twice, both times when she thought the family was being threatened. Leslie loved little kids. They could crawl all over her and she would just lie there and take it.
After we got married, we had Emily, a loyal cocker whose biggest flaw was that she loved everyone equally. When we lived in Viking, the neighbour lady hated dogs and struck Emily with her purse. Undeterred, Emily continued to approach strangers with the idea "the only reason you don't like me is that you don't know me well enough."  Not long after we got Emily, our first child was born. When the baby cried, Emily tossed her ball into the bassinet as if to say "This makes me happy, you try it." We used to put the baby in her Jolly Jumper in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. We would throw Emily's ball through the doorway and Emily would charge past, setting baby spinning. That was the first time we heard our baby laughter. Uninhibited, deep and unexpected laughter-the kind only babies make.
Russell at the lake

After Emily, we got Russell, the smartest dog I have ever known. Companionable, curious and always wanting to learn; he had a particular affection for children and tore up both the interior of the van and more than one windowsill trying to get at some children to play with them. I am sure he thought of himself as a child.

For a time, we had a day-home operating next door.  We cut a hole in the fence and Russell would drop his ball through the hole and the kids would throw it back at him. When we went for a walk, these same day-home kids would ask us if we were Russell's mommy and daddy. For years we met parents who asked us how Russell was doing.

The kids taught him tricks and hosted birthday parties for him and gave him Christmas presents, which he cleverly found and unwrapped well before Christmas every year. He slept outside my daughter's door, watchful and protective. 

A year after we got Russell, we also got Anna, an inbred Jack Russell who came from a low rent puppy mill on the poorest farm I have ever seen.  Anna was not too smart. But she was loyal and loving and had the best sense of humour. She was particularly attached to our youngest and thought up endless ways to taunt him into playing with her.

My husband's family always had a dog. Taffy was the first. In almost every photo, there is Taffy. At the skating rink. On the sled hill. Sitting at the picnic table in a campground. Taffy was followed by poodles Dusky, Gatsby and Topper. 

In the in-law's house, the family dog was revered to the point one Christmas my father-in-law was dispatched to London Drugs on Christmas morning to get the dog a Barbie because "it's not fair that the girls have dolls and Gatsby doesn't."

After Anna and Russell died, we did not hesitate to get more dogs even though we no longer have kids at home. Sometimes we think we are crazy. Why do we have dogs?  They are a hassle. You have to clean up after them. They always want in or out. They track in dirt. They need to be bathed. You need to book dog friendly hotels and make arrangements when you travel. Why? Why have dogs?

Dogs never judge you. They don't care what political party you belong to or what race you are or what your status in life is or how much money you make. They love you unconditionally. Dogs are loyal. They don't abandon you because they disagree with you. They don't even stop loving you when you are mean to them. Dogs are unique. It's an adventure finding out what their personalities are and discovering what their talents will be. Dogs make you get outside yourself when you are feeling down. They remind you that the world isn't just about you. Dogs care about how you are feeling. Dogs never lie. They are just who they are. Dogs love life. Your smallest word of praise makes them happy beyond words. If you give them their freedom, their joy knows no bounds. And if you have treated them right, they always come back. Because they love you. Kind of like your children, when you think about it

Why have dogs?
Why indeed.

Finian and Pippa

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

How Can We Live Well Together

What is the nature of Social Studies?

I have found myself asking that question over and over again as a Social Studies teacher.

What is it we want students to KNOW?
Who is it we want them to BE?
How do we want them to LIVE?

If we could distill the key idea of what we want from a Social Studies education, is there one sentence that encapsulates it all?

What resonates for me? 
Social Studies is learning how we live well together.
If we could break that down further, would it cover everything the future citizens of our planet need to know? 

Who am "I"? 

  • "I" am an individual, with unique characteristics and identity and beliefs and values and skills. But "I" am not alone. "I" am also a part of "we".

Who are "we"? 
  • "We" are families and communities and cultural groups and ethnicities living on farms and in the country and in small towns and cities and nations and refugee camps. "We" are all citizens of this planet.

What does it mean to live well?

  • Living well is quality of life and physical health and mental health and spiritual health and standard of living and a sense of purpose and good relationships and stewardship for the land that sustains us.

What does it mean to live well together

  • The "social" part of Social Studies is the hard part. Over the course of history, people have come up with many different ways of living and organizing ourselves socially, politically, and economically. What have societies done in the past that allowed them to live well together?  What have they done that achieved the opposite? What can we learn from the stories of the past that can help us move forward, past egregious errors and injustices, into a brighter tomorrow? For our global society to evolve, it must be fueled by people with creativity, hopefulness, innovation, critical thought, open-mindedness and empathy.

How do we live well together?
Sadly, sometimes, we just don't.

Following Brexit and the election of Trump and the rise of Le Pen, it seems that the lesson some people have learned is simply that we cannot live well together.  

As a Canadian, I think that is wrong. 
We can live well together. 
We do live well together. 

Jason Kenney accuses teachers and the education system of "social engineering". But really, isn't that what our education system is supposed to do?  Engineer the world we want?  And that is the world we want. A world where we can ALL live well together. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

better left unsaid

My co-worker Jamie sent me a "Facebook Memory" dating back to when she started her current teaching job. We had a chuckle about what she wrote. And it reminded me of my diary from my first days of teaching-so embarrassing it's hard to read. "Let me guess," said Jamie.  "You were going to change the world." "Worse," says I. So I went back to the old diary. Still shame-inducing. But I wondered if others might be interested in reading about the dreams and ambitions of a teacher just starting her career. And I wondered if others beginning their teaching journey might share some of my feelings. And maybe if I typed out an edited version, it would look better in black and white instead of turquoise ink in a Hobbit's Travels journal. (Turns out, it doesn't) 

So at risk of my own intense humiliation, here are some excerpts.

Sept 2 1980

I hope this is going to be a good book, because it's going to be a book about teaching-a diary of my first year as Miss Hartford, Teacher-Librarian.

The weekend before I started my job, I drove down to the family cabin. As I looked into the sunset I found myself wanted to tell someone about my real objectives in teaching- not the things you say in a job interview, not the things you say to your closest friends- the things you scarcely even admit to yourself.

I want to open their eyes to sunsets, to have them see and feel fireworks, and hear a baby's first cry, and suffer the pain and joy of loving and losing; to have them weep over death and sorrow; to explode with outrage at injustice; to scream for fairness and become sick with man's own depravity and inhumanity.  

I want to be the one to make them reach inside themselves and rediscover their emotions, their beliefs, their morals and their senses.  I want to be the one who guides them into an awareness of their own incredible value and potential. I want them to read and write and explore the age old beauties and perfections and questions of existence.  I want them to fight for their beliefs; I want them to explain their hearts; to exclaim with wonder and recognition and awe with what they have found.  So many things I want for these nameless, faceless masses. And I wondered:

Can a person do all of these things?
Can a teacher do all these things?
Can an English teacher?
Can I?
And if not a person, a teacher-me-then who?

Because I believe with all my heart they need to be done.


Imagine my surprise on my first day of school when I came back after coffee break to find none other than THE Henry Petkau, superintendent of schools, in my library!  He was very nice and told me to contact him if I ever needed anything.  (I learned later that every year on the first day of school he tried to visit every school in the county and say hello to every teacher.)

Sept 4

Oh my. After re-evaluating my job I've decided I will need to be BIONIC. Yesterday G____ came in to tell me that in addition to being teacher librarian, I would be teaching a grade nine class and a grade 7 option and two junior high options in library science! I was definitely surprised!  Last class of the day we had the junior high kids fill out their option forms.  I had the 9Bs.  I guess I seemed slack or hilarious or something because they basically all signed up for library science.  But after school we sorted out the forms and the other teachers just weeded the jerks out of my class and put them all in Rocket Science!

Sept 12

I'm learning to hang on to the rewards that come few and far between, like the Bio 30 girl who thanked me for helping her find books on cancer or the excitement of the grade sevens when they learned they could keep books out for TWO WHOLE WEEKS! Mostly I am finding that it's going to take time to get this library into the kind of order and structure I crave. I hate waiting without a structure and a routine and an ordered pattern. And I'm being forced to learn that I can't do it all myself. I'm learning I have to delegate some of this stuff. And I'm nervous that I am going to offend the staff's precious memories of my superlative predecessor. She's a tough act to follow. 

Sept 15

So...I survived the two weeks. Now the going gets rough.

Today I wondered if really matters, what I teach, what I do.  Can I ever hope to reach them? Even one of them? Aren't there better paths of reaching them? Helping the ones that need help the most? Right now I would just be happy if I could just make them think! Today I felt like a jailer holding them back from their real world why shouldn't we make it real for them?  So I re-think my plans and objectives with the meager hope that I can relate the world of books to the mind of the adolescent! Somewhere there has to be a clue! Some trick, some hint.

And yet, can it ever be enough? Am I real to them? I feel helpless and hopeless, as if it's never enough.

I promise not to be a jailer of minds or spirits. I promise to try to change "schooling" for my kids at least, into an open door, a world of choice-instead of a prison, locked doors, a dead end street.

Oct 17

I feel like I'm not doing anything really important. I guess I'm not the kind of person to make a powerful impression on young minds.  But maybe, just maybe, I can instill a little trust, a little belief, a little humanity.

People say I'm a sucker:naive and such. But I think that won't change. I just wish I could do MORE. Some day, I tell myself, some day I'll reach someone.

November 16

The hardest lesson I'm learning is that I'll never really be their friend. No matter what, I'm always the teacher:they're always the kids. And its the moments when I realize this that are the hardest to take.  I wish we didn't have these barriers. I wish we could be equal and learn from each other.  I try so hard- and yet I have to keep telling myself not to look for friendships, for confidantes, for sympathy, empathy, anything. I have to remind myself I am not their sister, their mother, their friend.  My only relationship is teacher to student. Maybe some day I'll convince myself that I belong where I am-not in the class beside them as a fellow human being like I wish to be.

Jan 20

I started this entry wanting to bitch about the administration-how they laugh at what I want. How they won't fight for what I need. - how I feel like I am talking to a wall when I ask for new magazine boxes or new curtains or an actual classroom to teach in-stupid, simple, necessary things they can't or won't let me have. (I learned later from my superlative predecessor that she-in a fit of anger over a battle about replacing the above-mentioned ancient curtains- had torn them down, carried them into the principal's office and thrown them in a heap at his feet. After she moved to another school, he had them dry-cleaned and hung back up in the library. It took me another 5 years to get them replaced.)

I've got to hang on to what I believe, to keep on believing that my philosophy, my way is right and theirs is wrong. No matter what!  What I am doing is right, my opinion has value, and screw the rest of them!

I think I'm doing good things!

May 6

There are so many things I think they should know. And I have no right to intrude on their personal lives.  Do I have any business telling them what to hold onto? What to throw away?  They are living their lives and at times I see how maybe I could help them-advise them-but who am I? I am not of them. I am apart from them and I always will be.  Still I want to make a difference for them. Isn't that why I'm here? Aren't I supposed to be enabling them to know themselves, to know the world, helping them cope? Dammit, more than COPE.  Be happy!! Love life!  Know they are worth something! I want them to believe in themselves-to believe they matter and that they can go somewhere, be someone.

...who am I kidding? What can I do? But what would I do if I didn't try? Where would I be right now?

Me and my teaching friends, about to begin our careers!
SELAC, April 1980, Banff Springs Hotel.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Pro Patria Mori

I grew up in hopeful  times.

In the 60s and 70s, wars were mostly proxy wars, fought by other countries in lands far away for unjust reasons. Or civil wars based on tribalism, racism and religion.

Canadians were peacekeepers and proud of it.

My parents and grandparents grew up in different times. Canada was new and more closely tied to Europe. Hitler was a very real enemy, a danger to the way of life of millions on the planet. The Aryan Nation, the scapegoating of minorities, the extermination of the Jews and the planned military takeover of the world threatened everything my father and his generation believed in, and he and millions of others were eager to play their part in offering the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.  I was proud of my dad and my grandfather who fought in World War I. I was proud of the military medals for bravery that they themselves were ashamed of. I was proud that they had risked their lives for the world I grew up in.

When I started teaching, my friend Liz and I both taught thematic units in junior high about war. Beyond “In Flanders Fields”, we taught Mona Gould’s “This was my brother at Dieppe”  and  “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen.  I showed Helen Caldicott speaking about the nuclear threat in the NFB  film “ If You Love This Planet”. I went to teaching sessions on disarmament. My  library contained Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel  Johnny Got His Gun. We talked about the horrors of war and the bravery of our ancestors and how we recognized sacrifices they made.

They say the best way to understand something is to teach about it. But in all the time I have spent teaching about war, I don’t.

I don’t understand it. 

I respect the sacrifices of my ancestors. But war is horrific.  In today’s world, is war ever necessary?   Is it necessary to make the ultimate sacrifice “for your country”?  Millions upon millions dying and for what?   Nothing made my dad angrier than seeing a coffin draped in a flag. I know he agreed with Howard Zinn when he said “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

Why war in modern times? Because one nation fears that another nation will control the ideology of another on the other side of the globe? Because one nation wants access to the resources of another?
How can it possibly be sweet and fitting to lay down your life for your fatherland?
But in the wake of the vitriol after the last provincial election, in the aftermath of Trump’s hate-filled campaign, in the misogyny revealed by the PCs, in the threats to the environment that will sustain my children and grandchildren, I’m beginning to see.  I’m beginning to see just what it is about my way of life I would lay my life down for.  Equal rights and global economic stability and respect for the grasses and rivers and air and land that sustain us and belief in diversity and social justice and compassion for the oppressed. How much do those things matter? Which of those would I offer up my life for?

I’m beginning to see what that means.

And it terrifies me.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

My Father's Sweater

My mom was prone to starting projects she never finished.

Especially sweaters.

She would get halfway through or nearly done and lose a knitting needle or run out of wool or misplace the pattern or start something else or just stop.  When we moved them out of their house I found bags of unfinished sweaters.  I took them all home, thinking one day I would pick up where she left off.  I never did.

But there was one sweater she finished for my dad that he wore everywhere. Made up of brightly coloured squares on a grey background. When he died I did not have the heart to throw it away. 

For 6 years it has sat in the back of my closet.  I thought to myself, "If I ever have a really bad day, I will wear Dad's sweater."   When I needed my dad's wisdom and kindness and faith and passion for justice, the sweater would wrap me in warmth, reminding me of who I was and where I came from and what I believe in.

I am wearing it today.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Send in the Clowns

Mr. Jean blames the NDP for something that hasn't happened
Not going to lie. Clowns aren't all that funny. At best they try to frighten you with loud noises or mock others for their stupidity. At worse, they are creepy and dangerous. Who likes clowns? 

Certainly not the superintendent of Fort McMurray schools who banned clown costumes from all schools this Hallowe'en.

Perhaps superintendent Doug Nicholls was thinking about the clowns Edmonton Journal cartoonist Malcolm Mayes portrayed in his recent cartoon. The clowns who are bringing "Modern Learning Ideology" (whatever that is) into our schools.

Could it be the "ideology" Mayes was mocking was inspired by Unite-the-Right hopeful Jason Kenney? Kenney, the man who spoke about "social engineering" which he claims the Alberta NDP government will implement because of their "ideology," oddly ignoring the fact that every political party has an ideology, including his own? His party that once suggested all educated Albertans should have an "entrepreneurial spirit"? 

Jumping into the fray of the misinformed, Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean cleverly mixed his metaphors when he sent out a tweet suggesting Alberta's NDP government is irresponsibly experimenting with the children of this province, despite the fact no changes to curriculum or pedagogy have been implemented since the government took power in May of 2015.

Mr. Kenney seemed to enjoy the clown cartoon as well, tweeting the following:

"We need curriculum reform that focuses on numeracy, literacy, knowledge and skills; not on the NDP's ideological agenda & pedagogical fads."

All of this kerfuffle is based on the far right's made-up ideas about the future of our schools. IF any of these gentlemen had taken just a very few moments to review what is happening with curriculum redesign, they would know that foundational knowledge, numeracy, literacy, skills and competencies will still be taught in the future. They would also know that pedagogy will still be determined by teachers using their professional expertise.

Yes, there will be change. There must be change. Society has changed since Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean attended school. Our demographics have changed. Jobs have changed. The way we communicate has changed. And some of the things we learned were just plain wrong. So the current government is working on curriculum change- change that has been long in the making. Some courses in Alberta's Programme of Study date back to the mid 1980s. Even the newer ones are close to ten years old.

While the PC government (the party Mr. Kenney wants to lead) was in power, there was a great deal of work done on redesigning the curriculum. Inspiring Education proposed an extensive transformation of the education system. Curriculum prototyping was designed to modernize the curriculum and streamline how we design it, based on a common language and framework and sound instructional design principles.
From "Inspiring Education" 2010
Under the current government, this work continues.  Far from being based on any experimental model or political ideology, the process uses extensive research from around the world to consider what foundational knowledge students should master, what skills they should possess and what competencies they should obtain in order to thrive today and in the future.  Hundreds of experts including university professors, teachers, and others are part of this process. A province wide survey is under way.  No politicians. No "ideological" goals. Just a plan to equip our students with the skills to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Maybe Jean, Kenney and co. are opposed to the development of students' critical thinking skills, essential in our increasingly complicated world. Skills that would help students analyze the messages they are bombarded with every day. Or maybe they believe there is no new knowledge in a world where, according to some researchers, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. Maybe they thinking learning is sitting in a desk, reading a textbook and writing a test.

In the field of social studies, my colleagues and I describe the nature of our subject as "learning how to live well together". But perhaps Jean and Kenney have other ideas. Perhaps their version of the future does not include everyone. Maybe they all share the vision of old-stock former Social Studies teacher Wildrose MLA Mark Smith who recently boasted about how he and his neighbours successfully prevented a group home from being established on their street. 

The world today's children live in is complex. It is diverse. It is competitive.The jobs children will hold may not exist right now, whereas many of the jobs that exist now are disappearing. The future will require citizens who are flexible and hopeful and knowledgeable and empathetic. We live in a world where simple memorization of facts and figures is not enough- people will need to know how to learn, how to separate truth from fiction, and how to collaborate and communicate with others of different ethnicities, religions, orientations, political leanings and capabilities. A world where sexism and xenophobia and isolationism must not be encouraged

We cannot prepare our children for tomorrow by giving them yesterday's tools. 

The clowns who frighten us and mock us are not the forward-thinking educators of Alberta, who are helping students to thrive in an uncertain world. They are the politicians who deny change is needed.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Duty of Care

I’ll call him Duncan. That wasn’t his name, but that’s what I’ll call him.

His mom called shortly after he enrolled. She wanted to be sure his name would never be used publicly. He had been sexually abused. She did not want the predator to find them. He was registered in an online course and his name appeared to the other students.  We changed his online name.

While I was reviewing his file I discovered he was 13. He was 13 and registered in grade 11 Social Studies and English.  There was no record of him on the provincial database of student information. I phoned his registering school. The lady who was listed as his contact knew nothing about him. She gave me another number to call. A small child answered the phone. Both Mommy and Daddy knew Duncan. Or at least, they knew his name.  I asked what his educational history was and why he had been registered in grade 11. They could not tell me anything other than he had been home-schooled with their programme for years and his mom wanted him in grade 11. She had the legal right to make that decision.

I called Mom again. She told me he was gifted. He had taken grade one in a traditional school but he was smarter than all the other kids so she had home-schooled him. She took him back to school in grade six and he was bored. She tried again in grade nine and that didn’t work so she had enrolled him in grade 11.  I suggested there might be skills and knowledge he was missing. She said he was a genius. Also, he knew everything about computers, in fact he was on one right now. I said I wanted to talk with him and explain how the course worked. No. He did not like talking on the phone. Mom relayed more about the abuse which had occurred over 6 or 7 years during the period she was homeschooling him. The abuser was an uncle or a man who he called uncle. My sense was that it was her boyfriend. She had no idea it was going on. She had a new boyfriend now and they were in B.C. Duncan didn’t like going out. He didn’t have any friends. He sat in his room all day playing video games.

I called the registering school again. Did they know anything about the abuse? Had it been reported? They didn’t know.  I called Social Services. They said he was in B.C. and out of their jurisdiction. I phoned B.C. Social Services. Did I have proof of abuse? No? They were not interested but maybe I should call the truancy officer. I called her. He was registered in an Alberta school. She didn’t care.

My teacher radar was going off. Everything about this was wrong. And I was powerless.

Eventually Duncan started handing in work. It was not close to the level it should be.  I contacted his English teacher. Weird thing, he says. There’s some paragraphs in big pencil letters about how he loves kittens and wants to run away to Vancouver to see Hillary Duff. Then a philosophical treatise in completely different handwriting in pen on Of Mice and Men. We went to see the principal.  “I am very uncomfortable about this”, I told her. We had a conference call with mom.  “We are concerned about your son. This business of him being enrolled in grade 11 isn’t really working for him. We wonder if this is really in his best interests," she says.  “Also. It appears someone else is writing the answers to his questions.”  Mom was indignant. The assistant principal asked to speak to Duncan. No, Mom said. He doesn’t like talking on the phone. Eventually he was withdrawn from our programme.

I sometimes wonder what happened to him. How long did he stay in his room in his apartment in Chilliwack? Did he ever receive a formal education? Did the new boyfriend treat him well or was there more abuse?

Every now and then you have a student whose story haunts you. Duncan’s story haunts me. It haunts me because everyone failed him. The people who were supposed to offer a duty of care failed him. I failed him. The system failed him. I tried so many ways to make things right, but in the end, I never even heard the sound of his voice. 

Maybe no one ever did.

"Duncan" was a student with Wisdom Home Schooling, contractors for Trinity Homeschooling. Trinity recently had its accreditation revoked by the Government of Alberta due to financial mismanagement and lack of student supervision.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Gather Round

It's cold outside, boys and girls, so gather round the fire while I tell you a story.

Long ago and three blocks away, there was a small group of people who wanted to bring light to darkness. Who wanted to warm the winter nights with song. So they started a little club. They thought long and hard about a name until finally the elder of the group- a man we shall call "Bruce" - said "We shall call it 'Stage North'.'" 

And thus it was born.

We shall invite many people to join us, the people said.

We shall entertain with minstrels and troubadours. We shall serve wine and provide sustenance and it will be good. It will be a place where all shall come and forget about their troubles, for their troubles were many and the nights were long and the winter was cold.

So they planned and they worked and they invited these many people. Yet lo, the people did not come.

The small group of people drank the wine and ate the food and listened to the music. But they were sad. For where were these people they had worked so hard to entertain?

But they did not give up for they were a northern people and giving up was not their way. They worked harder. Slowly slowly the people began to come.

More people joined them.  They kept working. They learned that across their vast and wintry land there were many clubs like theirs. They sought out their wisdom. The wise ones from near and far beseeched them not to give up. "One day you will look out and you will see it and it will be there because you made it and it will be good."

By ones and twos, slowly but surely, the people came. The small group of people moved to a bigger house and again a bigger house. And still the people came.  They came for the wine. They came for the warmth. They came for kinship. They came so they wouldn't feel so alone. But most of all, they came for the music.

And it was good. 

It was very good.

Leeroy Stagger performs at Stage North, October 2016

Friday, 30 September 2016

Apples and Oranges

On the first day of grade two, I entered Mrs. Teeple's class full of excitement and fear. 
I had my brand new dress. 
I had my new scribblers and pencils and crayons.  

There were 42 of us in that class- some from farms, some residents of a new neighbourhood full of new houses for oil and gas workers in our burgeoning, hopeful town.

I found my desk and neatly stacked my school supplies inside. I was very proud of how it looked. I was ready!  No sooner had I done that when Mrs. Teeple barked out that we were NOT to put our things in our desks. She had a seating plan and everything had to be moved.  I was mortified.  I tried to surreptitiously remove everything from the desk before she caught me. 

How well I remember the shame.
I didn't want attention. 
But mostly, I didn't want to be wrong.

I think back to that day on Orange Shirt Day, a day to recognize the children who attended residential schools. 

The movement was founded by Phyllis Webstad, who was a student at St. Joseph's Residential School in Williams Lake in the 1970s. She was told she was not allowed to wear the bright orange shirt her mom gave her to wear on the first day of school.  I picture this little child, full of hopes and happy anticipation, proud of her new outfit. 
A girl just like me. 
A girl whose mom took pains to help her child come to school ready to learn and grow and belong. 
A girl ready to start the school year. 
How she must have felt. 
How ashamed she must have been. 
Ashamed for herself. 
But even worse, ashamed for her mom because it was the blouse her mom bought, with all the best intentions, that caused her humiliation. 
Being ashamed of yourself is one thing, but being told you should be ashamed of your mom is much much worse.

Phyllis says:
“The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
And while I think about how alike Phyllis and I must have been on our first day of school, my story and the story of Phyllis Webstad are as alike as apples and oranges. While my momentary childhood trauma was forgotten and I (and later, my indigenous brother) were supported in finding our own way under Mrs. Teeple's iron fist and warm heart, Phyllis and thousands like her learned that not only were their clothes wrong, their language was wrong, the way they were raised was wrong, their parents were wrong and they did not belong. They learned their own identity was something to be ashamed of. 

Today, I am a teacher. 
I hope I don't ever tell a child his or her way of living is wrong and that they should be ashamed of being who they are. (Except for you guys cheating off Course Hero, my EYES ARE ON YOU.) 

I hope I truly show that I believe every child matters.
If I do ever make my students think they do not matter, even in subtle ways I am not even aware of, for that I am truly ashamed.