I read this personal essay, and was very struck by it. I would ask you to please read it all the way through, and form your own impressions, before reading my comments, and commenting yourself.
Teaching north of 53
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010 5:52PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Sep. 24, 2010 1:49PM EDT
“Teacher, go back to town,” the children told me.
I was north of 53, three plane trips from Toronto. A Cessna bush plane had flown out over miles and miles of evergreens and lakes, over land so vast we seemed to not move forward at all but hang in a space somewhere outside an earthly realm.
We had landed on an airstrip on the edge of a river surrounded by wilderness, so that my arrival momentarily felt like the first day of summer camp. People milled about beyond the chain-link fence that ran along the outdoor baggage kiosk. A little girl chased a black puppy through the scattering of people. A young woman lumbered off the plane behind me and looked around with scared, doe-like eyes. In her long black tunic and white blouse, complete with open-toed sandals, she looked like a missionary set down amongst the heathens. We had arrived at a remote, fly-in-only Cree reserve in northern Manitoba.
I had been hired to teach a Grade 4 fast-track class to 12 children. The idea was to take a group of 10-year-olds who were academically at a pre-kindergarten to Grade 1 level and focus on literacy and numeracy, with the goal of pulling them up to grade level and reintegrating them into the mainstream classroom.
My first week on the job, I had my doubts. What was I doing in the middle of nowhere, trying to teach children who told me daily to go back to where I came from, children who, when they sat, sat in my chair and refused to budge? They spun and swiveled and smirked at me. They regularly refused to work, refused to sit in their seats, refused to stay in the classroom – those who did show up for school. They jumped each other and wrestled on the floor, easily offended, easily brought to anger and tears.
I stood my ground, read them stories, shared the fact that I was part Mi’kmaq from a place in Newfoundland not unlike where they were from. And somewhere along the way, between a paper-bag puppet re-enactment of Where the Wild Things Are and their first fragile attempts to read, my students learned to trust me, to trust that I was not going to run off back to town before the year was over. They no longer put up with my hugs, they sought them out. My smallest student began to tell me regularly in his quiet, halting voice, “Teacher, I wish you were my mother.”
He didn’t often come to school, and when he did he couldn’t sit still. He dressed in a long black blazer and fedora and walked with teenage attitude. His attention wandered and, when I tried to get him to stop drawing pictures and focus, he would rhythmically slam the lid of his desk every time I tried to speak.
I followed administration’s advice and kept him for detention. He stormed around the classroom overturning desks and knocking books off shelves. He hoisted himself up onto the blackboard ledge and moved in Spider-Man fashion along the length of the wall. He hurled himself back down, his fists clenched and his entire body shaking. A pronounced lisp prevented him from verbalizing his pent-up frustration.
He came to school on the last Friday before Mother’s Day. He showed up in the afternoon and missed the greeting I’d sent out over the announcement system in the morning to wish him a happy birthday. We had 15 minutes left in the class when I stopped the word games we were playing and told the children they could finish their Mother’s Day cards. He immediately pulled out the bookmark he had been colouring from his desk full of drawings.
Shortly after, he came up to where I stood near the sink and showed me the back of his card. On it he had written “To: Mom” along with his name. Below the dedication, I could make out the faint remains of the letter S.
“Teacher,” he said quietly, “how do you spell stop?”
“S-T-O-P,” I carefully enunciated and off he went to his desk.
Moments later he was back, holding up the bookmark again. “Teacher,” he said, almost a whisper, “How do you spell please?”
“Do you want me to write it lightly so you can trace it?” I asked. It was the method we regularly used to make his work manageable for him. He placed the bookmark down on the counter beside the sink.
“Write it there,” he said, pointing to where the word stop had been erased.
I lightly printed the word please and handed the bookmark back to him.
Just before dismissal, he came and stood at my desk. His hands landed heavily on the veneer and he leaned his small body in toward me. A heavy sigh escaped him. A shudder pulled across his shoulders.
“Teacher,” he said, “I don’t like it when my mother drinks.”
I looked into his eyes and whispered the only thing I could think of: “I know. I know.”
“That’s what I wanted to write on the card to my mother,” he said, “but it was too hard.”
Doris Muise lives in Toronto.
Cree boys in a city classroom (Chris Schwarz/Canwest News Service)
Some of the things that struck me reading this personal essay include:
-how well written it is;
-it is reflective of social problems on reserves, but also in other places;
-mothers and motherhood are very difficult to critique, but some mothers, through addiction or major difficulties of whatever type, leave little ones desperate for love, structure, and life solutions;
-most child physical abuse is done by mothers;
-mothers who drink through their pregnancy can give a child "fetal alcohol syndrome", which includes small size, low IQ, neurological and behavioural problems;
-teachers and classrooms provide safe havens, and possibilities for a new self-image and better relationships;
-this 10-year-old loves his mother, and is working really hard to make a better life for them both;
-"but it was too hard" sums it all up.
Cree children in a bilingual Cree-English class (Chris Schwarz/Canwest News Service)
* the opening photo accompanied the personal essay; the classroom ones are from a National Post article.
On the Canadian Cree Nation
On Canada's First Nations
On the Province of Manitoba (17% First Nations and Métis)
The essay is set in Northern Manitoba, among the Woods Cree (right-hand side of the dark green patch), or the Swampy Cree (left-hand side of the adjacent deep turquoise patch)