If and Then

I asked my grade 10 students to define the word “if”. They looked at me wide-eyed, mouths slightly open, then heads turned and they looked at one another. I moved to the document camera and wrote:

“If” is a hopeful word, a full of possibilities word.

Mo chimed in and said, “Ya, but it can also be negative.” They chattered and shared ideas and struggled to define the word.

If only we imagined the glass half full and we saw with forgiving eyes all that is beautiful.

If I could use my thoughts to give and if I could receive the needs expressed as thoughts, then…

We paused here and talked about parallel structure and the ellipsis, a mark of punctuation they use, but do not understand.

But something prevents me – an disease, a deterrent holding back the hope of possibility.

I told them about shifts in tone, and showed them how to move from something positive to something negative.

“If” sometimes presents excuses like dogs eat essays, and computers delete documents, and social lives are more important than “if”.

Maybe “if” has two sides: one hopeful, a promise – one excuse-ridden, a promise broken. If only I could define “if” then…



It happened on the bus

It happened on the bus. I remember it vividly like a photograph etched in my memory.

In this photo, I am coming home from my job in downtown Ottawa. I sit in the window seat looking, my eyes over my right shoulder blindly staring out at the frozen river, snow covering all visible ground. It is the bleaker, deeper, and quieter part of winter when only the grey, salt-stained concrete contrasts the white snow and the trees stand skeletal in the bitter air. I feel the forced mechanical drone of the bus under my feet, about my head like vertigo. Bodies seemingly absent from experience sway back and forth as the bus rounds corners and they reel forward, then back at stops.

I wear sunglasses to hide from others eyes. I relive the past three months of seizures repeatedly going over and over the events to be sure it was not imagination, not my fault. There is a memory in the photograph, a memory in the memory. My now six month old daughter, my second child, has undergone the most invasive, extensive, expensive assessments available to modern medicine. I was told that I will have a severely and permanently disabled child as sibling to my bright, intelligent two year old son. Juxtaposition hovered on my lips. I now counted and timed the number and duration of seizures she had each day. I measured medications and researched interventions in some infinitely futile and powerless effort to stop a furious onslaught of unknown origin. The doctors shook their heads, mouthed sounds, and lowered their eyes.

In this photograph of memory, I look away, out of the salt-streaked window to the lifeless world mechanically moving frozen in a dream-like death march. Pathetic fallacy, I tell myself. Spring will come.

Some people on the bus read, some sleep, others chat with one another, their lives chugging along in routine. Another bus ride home, another dinner routine, another pattern of emotionless motion. I envy the routine dullness of everyday. From my place of hiding, I look and long for boredom, for moments empty of emotion.

And then it happens. Unannounced, unpredictable, and spontaneous, like some divine seizure, some electrocution given to thaw the salty and frigid anguish. It moves like an ocean wave curling and cresting over me from behind. This stealthy child of hope crashes into me, while I sit trying to unfeel the weight of my world, and it presses my body against the cold steel seat of my position. Like one compelled by water, I lift my head for air. In this photograph of memory, I feel myself gasp for breath. And then it happens. I feel the joy of life beginning to spring.

Writing Beside Them

I am trying to live the practices that I learned this summer. I’m trying to be very precise and persistent in holding true to what pedagogical practice and research has shown to be most effective with students, and I’m trying to practice in front of my students.

I gave my grade 11 students an article, “Just Mom” by an Indigenous author, Kahente Horn-Miller in which she spoke of a “bundle of knowledge” gained from her mother, the Mohawk Warrior Princess. I asked students to speak with an elder or coach or someone in their life who had provided them with a “bundle of knowledge” and write a 300 word essay. I told them that I would join them in this writing, and this is what I wrote:

Letters of Hope

by Melanie White

I was never close to either of my grandparents. It’s not surprising, however, given the fact that they lived so far away and we had such infrequent contact. Yet, my father’s mother often figured in my imagination because of her capacity for hope.

She was a very round and smiley women with a full head of curly white hair and a tendency towards silence. I remember her house in Birmingham, England, the same one that my father grew up in during the great depression, the same one that was bombed during WWII, the same one where they found her lifeless body on the stairs from the kitchen, her dead budgie bird in her right hand.

She was 94 years old when she died, but her quiet presence in my life reminded me to always hold on to hope.

I wrote her a letter when I was eleven years old. I was concerned about the state of the world, fearful that the next atom bomb was about to be dropped, or that overpopulation would force the globe out of the orbit of the sun. I wrote the letter initially as a thank you letter for a birthday gift – she never forgot my birthday, or Christmas – but my writing took off in another direction and I wrote pages and pages of concern, somehow knowing that she would send me words of comfort.

She wrote back.

I have seen three wars in my lifetime and lived through the Great Depression, and my life is wonderful. People pull together in difficult times, and the world won’t fall out of the sky. God made sure of that. Everyone is capable of great goodness, and there are young people like you who will change the world. Just hold on to hope.

Love Gram xxx

I thought about her words from the letter and that budgie bird found in her hand and wondered if the bird’s name was Hope. I think that would make her laugh.

“This painting is a mirror”

Image result for christi belcourt

I am awestruck by the beauty and complexity of Christi Belcourt’s art. And I am somewhat ashamed at my ignorance and inability to accuractely read and interpret this piece. Her gift has given to me and my experience is enhanced, but I have nothing in return, no way to navigate its truth with words.

I visited a store in Ottawa this summer called “Beaded Dreams” which is Indigenous owned and operated. I spoke with Ashley, a talented beader, and she told me that hers is a gifting culture. Christi Belcourt’s gift is given a title with the word, “mirror” and I keep thinking about a spoken word poem by Guante, “The Family Business” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2fIn8n9KEo . His poem contains the line, “they got me wiping my reflection from the glass”.

I also keep thinking about Emily Style and how she wrote about the curriculum as “Windows and Mirrors”; I am deeply committed to students being able to see themselves in our classwork this year, so this art and writing and thoughts are consuming me. Yet, I am fortunate to have a partner in this difficult be necessary work. Amanda Potts is a beautiful person, a beautiful teacher. Her classroom is a painting that is a mirror for all of her students and you need to know that she works with the most struggling students; she works with the ones that others fail to reach. I hear about her lessons, her thinking and ideas and watch her through this window wanting to see myself reflected on the glass.

She talks about reading and writing, how all English teachers read, but very few write and she’s right.

So I’m going to write.

But today, I am afraid.

Tomorrow, begins the important work of Indigenous Studies in grade 11 University English at Nepean High School, my first year as English and Fine Arts Department Head. I look up Christi Belcourt’s painting again and find it on a website https://resilienceproject.ca/en/ filed under the category of “resilience”. My consternation is fractured with a smile, aha, and I vow to take the gifts of learning and give them all away.