Thursday, 12 June 2014

Roots and Branches

Roots and Branches

When I was a little kid I remember sitting down with my granddad to look at a tiny toy dresser that he had given me for my dollhouse.  “Just imagine,” he said, between puffs on his pipe.  “This was made by a little Chinaman, sitting in a dark and smoky room there in Hong Kong, gluing the little pieces together by hand.  Every day, just gluing these little pieces together for pennies.”  Together we marveled at the time and effort the little “Chinaman” had put in to making this exquisite piece of furniture.  Together we wondered about his world, so far away. 

My grandfather George Martin
My grandfather came to Canada from England as an orphan.  Working for the Bank of Commerce, he met and married my grandmother, a fifth generation Canadian who had recently arrived to pioneer in the Peace country.   As they left behind their known worlds for their grand adventure, globalization and pluralism were powerful forces in their lives, even if they were not words in their vocabulary.

My grandmother Marion McNaught

In World War I, granddad reached the Front, from which he sent along a steady stream of post cards and letters describing the people and way of life he found.  My grandmother soon journeyed across the Atlantic to be closer to him, working in a munitions plant outside of London.  In retirement, granddad worked to relieve bank managers in the Far North, sending home many letters describing what he found there.  To her dying day, my grandmother considered pieces of land on which a person could still homestead. 

My grandparents’ legacy has never been lost on me. My husband and I met in Shanghai and have since dragged our kids through North, South and Central America, Europe and Asia.  As I walked the streets of Hong Kong with my own small children, I wondered about that Chinese labourer, sitting in his dark workroom.   His reality was not so different than the one Grandad and I envisioned.

How do you teach a child empathy?  My grandfather imagined with me the life of a man whose days were spent gluing together children’s toys for a meager living. Together, Grandad and I explored a foreign territory that was at once strange and enchanting, yet one to which we were deeply connected. Even though he did not realize the term “Chinaman” was less somehow acceptable than the term “Englishman,” his respect for other cultures was readily apparent.  Even though he had never heard the term “global citizenship,” he understood that it entails both an appreciation of the life-enriching power of diversity and outrage at disparity. I only hope I have been able to do the same for my own children and for my students. 

Originally published as "How do you teach empathy to a child?" 06/04/2010 in ATA News Moot Points.