Sunday, September 26, 2010

One Woman's Personal Essay--A Universal Story

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
Doris Muise
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.

Your impressions?

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.

Further Reading:
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)


diana said...

I have to agree, it's well-written. It's heartbreaking to hear stories of children suffering this way, and just as you said, it's universal. It may not always be drinking, it may be something else, some other form of abuse.

My first reaction when I read this was how irresponsible some parents can be, especially mothers. But as you said, mothers and motherhood are very difficult to critique.

Chiara said...

Diana-Welcome to my blog, thank you for your comment. You perceived what I did, that the problem doesn't have to be only alcohol but could be another, and "bad mothering" occurs in all cultures, but is very difficult to address.

I remember being shocked to learn that in family violence most physical abuse of children is done by the mother. However, the mothers are traditionally the ones home all day with the children, and more likely to have their patience and parenting skills tested.

One of the most difficult parts of pediatrics and especially pediatric society is recognizing the challenges some children have because of their parents, and that unless the abuse is severe, they are better off staying with these parents. Their love for or desired love for mom and dad holds up to severe tests.

I remember thinking what a mess a certain teen was psychologically and then after meeting her divorced parents thinking she was doing remarkably well give the nonsense they were engaged in, using her to hurt the other, then dumping her when no longer needed (other parent sufficiently bruised) or welcome (parent has a new love interest and suddenly doesn't want daughter staying over with them).

Thanks again for your comment. I hope you will comment on newer and older posts of interest to you! :)

Wendy said...

Canada's past(and present)treatment of First Nations and the residential schools has left a nasty legacy and one that will not easily be turned around. I am very familiar with these issues and have spent much time with First Nations people in their villages. You can't destroy a people's culture and self-esteem without having damage that lasts for many generations.

Of course this doesn't just happen on reserves but when you have a group of people all living in the same sad way in isolated areas it makes it all the more difficult to fix. Very sad.

Chiara said...

Wendy--thank you for your comment, and sharing your experience.

I am especially glad you raised the issue of how Canada's First Nations peoples have been treated: reserves; deliberate programs to eliminate language, culture, and lifestyle; shipping young children to residential schools where they were beaten for using their native languages, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by the religious clerics running the schools.

Reserves are often isolated, with poor modern resources, yet limitations on traditional lifestyles that would be healthier in some ways.

Shamefully, the medical statistics for indigenous Canadians are closer to those of the 3rd world, than the rest of Canada's 1st world population, eg. infant morbidity and mortality, maternal health, deaths in childbirth, life expectancy, etc. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide and homicide are high.

They are a case study in Emile Durkheim's anomie. A shameful one.

This is a potential problem for rapidly evolving traditional cultures everywhere, including in Saudi, which is why it is better to maintain cultural ties, and mores, and have them evolve to meet the times, rather than jettison them entirely.

Thanks again for your comment.

diana said...

You know, what I do find interesting is how children react to this kind of treatment from parents, just like the teenager you mentioned. I know of siblings that grew up to be very different people despite (or because) of the abuse or maltreatment from home, which they both received equally.

Majed said...

Very touching essay and cute boys, there really are people who do not just work for money, but they consider their work as their mission in life and a message that must be delivered.

I wonder why alcohol consumption and addiction rate among native americans is higher that their others fellow citizens,even though they are genetically less prone to alcoholism than others, does it has anything to do with their social status and living standard or may the sense of being marginalized and neglected.

Generally alcohol and other narcotics are considered to be family ruiners, but alcohol being the cheapest and the easiest available, furthermore, its damaging effects being the most grossly underestimated among all, make it number one family destroyer.

Alchol consumption is a major factor behind many cases of child abuse,incest incidents, domestic violence, traffic accidents,divorce cases and even murders.
alcohol addiction always starts with a complimentary cup out of courtesy and ends up with addiction, no one can say for sure that one cup will not lead to addiction, may be and may be so why to run the risk and not just stay at arm `s length from it.

Many people think that children do not feel what is going around, but they do, and it breaks their hearts and leave deep deep scars in their minds to see either their mother or father or both have fallen prey to drinking, gambling and worse being engaged in illicit affairs, but I have never seen or felt more sorrow and pain in eyes than eyes of a child who knows that his mother is selling herself for money, we are not to judge, but that pain is still there in someone `s eyes and that bargain is still being done somewhere everytime.

Chiara said...

Diana-it is interesting, and there have been numerous studies done on it. There are a number of factors: age of the child, personality, birth order, place within the family (targeted? black sheep? different? confidante? responsible by necessity?), and outside supports, like teachers, church groups and clergy (not the wacky clerics), sports coaches, redeeming talents that bring positive attention or provide places to sublimate their feelings (in art, writing, drama), etc.

The girl (age 15) I mentioned, was bright (a plus), attractive enough (a plus), confused (understandable) and an insulin dependent diabetic--which meant that adolescent despair and impulsivity were made more risky because she had the means to make herself very ill or complete a suicide (I used to think of her as "armed and dangerous to herself").

Despite what a jerk her father was being--or his new girlfriend was asking him to be--she did well with therapy, and some family counseling as well. Pediatrics is rightfully optimistic that way.

Thanks for your follow-up comment.

Chiara said...

Majed--thank you for your comment, and sharing your perspectives and experience.

The reasons for high rates of alcohol abuse among Native Americans or Canadians has to do with the past obliteration of their traditional way of life, and present limitations for meaningful education and work. There is some evidence that they may be less genetically tolerant to the negative effects of alcohol, just as some groups are genetically more tolerant--but still may have alcohol related problems.

As you say, alcoholism can ruin families and is more easily available than drugs. Native Canadians on poor reserves often sniff glue, or drink antifreeze (the chemical put in cars to the water freezing and destroying the engine), with disastrous results. Urban poor drink cheap aftershave for the alcohol, which is less expensive and more easily available than normal alcohol.

You raised an aspect I hadn't thought of, mothers selling themselves for sex--that is less common in my experience, but devastating as you point out. Children definitely are more emotionally aware, and sometimes more socially aware, than many people give them credit for.

Thanks again for your comment!

Majed said...

I love children and most children feel free and easy when I am around, it is the same with my own children, because I am the sort of people who can never beat I child, unfortunately, at times it puts me in a very embarrassing situations specially on family gatherings where there are many childrens mine,nieces,nephews and other `s and also adult relatives are there and all (mashallah) these children,running, bouncing , fighting,chasing,shouting picking stuffs throwing others falling down,letting things fall down and crying, no matter what I do I can not calm them down or at least make them go away only because they know for sure that this one never bites, but when someone else give them one roar they all run away and disappear and that is really embarrassing.
Being around children, I am always curious to know how they feel about many things I am (Alhumdulillah)a very respected person even among elderly in my family so people tolerate me when I can not tolerate beating children even when they beat their children they take them away from me to do it.
Some mothers really beat very hard sometimes with hands,sticks,scales,spoon,combs, belts and some give very sharp pinches sometime I can I can hear the objects hitting bones on hands which makes gooseflesh rise all over my skin.
Yet, when I ask the children did it hurt? they say yes and I kiss them place of the pain and ask them if they hate their mothers they says no, when I tell them your mothers are bad they think I am joking and laugh at it and say no, I tell them but they always beat you , they say because we were bad children and would not listen to them, I can say with authority that it is the case with most children, and when they grow up they hardly remember any of this,simply because they know the difference between the disciplinary punishment and random and arbitrary toture which is never forgotten.
how many a times I am speechless and devoid of any explanation when beholding a scene of mother beating her child and he still clings to her hugs her and endear himselve to her and do not want to run away. It is not in vain that some people even in old age and beyond beating kiss her feet and get few moments of peace having their heads in her lap.
As to the use of propylene and Ethylene Glycol and solvent based glues as sustitute for alcohol it is quite a phenomenon here in rich gulf countries specially among students as yound as elementary school students, because liquors are illegal except in few place.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two issues here, the first being the mother who abuses alcohol and is neglecting her child as a result and the second (which is related, as you point out) being the treatment of the First Nations over the past three centuries, which has led to the situation today.

The article really struck me, more so because it comes so soon after the Roma expulsions in France (I knew next to nothing about the Roma before what happened, so I started reading about them). After reading this article and the stuff about the Roma, I felt a whole range of emotions from disgust to guilt.

It both cases, it's happening in modern industrialised nations, where the rest of the population is failing to help their most vulnerable co-citizens. I was going to say the governments are failing, but it's our collective duty to help, especially when we collectively (or at least our ancestors) are responsible for their plight today.

Susanne said...

What a touching essay. My heart aches for children who have gone through so much because of their parents. And often those parents were hurt in some ways as children too. It's sad.

But those pictures are adorable. Thanks.

Wendy said...

First Nations people do not metabolize alcohol very well. They are genetically close to Asians(Chinese)actually.

Children will forgive their mothers, in fact both parents, for much as long as they feel a little love. Children actually are much more forgiving than adults. As for the alcohol and drug abuse by First Nations in their communities (and outside as well) one really needs to understand what happened to the First Nations when colonized. It is a sad story and it is documented that the Canadian government way back then were trying to get rid of "the Indian problem" and residential schools was one way. Deliberately giving blankets infected with small pox to the residents of the Queen Charlotte Islands was another way. I could go on and on about this subject as I have had 25 years of my life spent dealing with it up close and personal. But then that's entirely another story for another time.

Majed said...


I think the kind of our information differs according to the sources we take it from and the way each one of us process it. You said that :( First Nations people do not metabolize alcohol very well ) while, I (may be wrongly) got it totally apposite from Wikipedia/alcoholism supported by references as it claims ( The alcohol dehydrogenase allele ADH1 B*3 causes a more rapid metabolism of alcohol. The allele ADH1 B*3 is only found in those of African descent and certain Native American tribes. African and native Americans with this allele have a reduced risk of developing alcoholism).

And thank you for briefing on the wrongs done to the native americans, It would very kind of you if you could pass over few good links if possible on that.
I tried to get informations, on what the Europeans really did to the native Americans and the Australian aboriginals , as to drive them almost to the verge of extinction in their own Land, but the records,stories and figures that can be found over the internet, vastly clash with one another,over the real causes behind the disasterous decrease in their numbers after the arrival of the white man, earlier it was believed that it was due to annihilation and systematic genocide, but recently we hear a new theory that explains it differently , and how, that, the natives were introduced accidentaly in most often and deliberately in some to deseases unfamiliar to them , deseases against which they had no naturally acquired immunity, but it sounds too simple to believe.

Wendy said...

Majed, I can look for some articles. Let me give you one very abbreviated example regarding residential schools - Part 1. Around 1870 the first ones started. Children were taken by the government from their parents and placed in these schools. Generally they were far away from their villages. The children could not speak English and they were punished if they spoke their own language. The education was generally substandard and the children subject to many types of abuse including sexual in some of them. They were taught they were lesser people than the 'whites'.When the children was about 14 or 15 they were returned to their families. The children could not speak their native language anymore and the parents could not speak English. Further, the children did not know their culture or how to adapt to the lifestyle. They did not know their parents or families and had no idea how to be part of a family.

Wendy said...

Part 2 ...
So now we have children growing into adults, not knowing how to survive properly in their environment and having their own children who they do NOT know how to parent. These children were taken from their parents and subjected to the same residential school experience and then again another generation. These schools were meant to get the 'Indian' out of the children and to supposedly get them into the white society and off their lands. It didn't work because the white people didn't want them in their environment and wouldn't give them jobs, etc.
The First Nations are now a beaten down people who turn to drugs and alcohol because it was given to them or to find solace. They think of themselves as dogs and don't know how to look after their children properly. In many cases the abuse suffered at the schools was passed along in the families and villages.
The Brits who instituted the schools say their intent was to 'educate' and for many it might have been their intent but in general it broke the back and hearts of the people.
That is one very simplified story of what happened here in Canada and similar stories in Australia. I am more familiar with what happened on Canada's west coast but the stories are the same across the country. Here's one link you might find interesting about the schools. Maybe Chiara can make it live.

Wendy said...

Chiara, sorry for hijacking your blog but here are some links for Majed.
On the link above you will notice that First Nations did not get the right to vote in their own country until 1960!!

Chiara said...

Thanks all for your comments, and ongoing dialogues.

I will return to comment more, but for now a thank you to Wendy for the links which I have made "clickable".


A history of residential schools in Canada: FAQs on residential schools and compensation

The Canadian Holocaust

The Decline and Rise of Native Culture [A timeline]

Thanks again to all, and to Wendy for these!


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