What happened

I think I figured out what happened to my parents. In metaphorical terms anyway, but this imagery of reflection is mirrored elsewhere, in others.

I grew up in the second hand smoke of their war experience. The shrapnel did not reveal itself to me until my teen years when it burst through their taut, white, stiff-upper-lipped British skin and shattered the smooth surface of my daily life. She left, he stayed, and I thought I was okay with it all.

My beautiful dark-haired, olive-skinned mother carried inner land mines of her own which exploded periodically whenever I stepped near her wounded parts. She was evacuated to Wales as a child, suffered a perforated ulcer at eighteen, and lived anxiously unaware, even to herself, when the next blasted ulcer of the mind would explode from the inside and make itself known to the outside. Yet, she was, and is still, a warrior, a feminist, and unwaveringly committed to social justice.

My handsome blonde and freckled father joined the Royal Navy at eighteen. He was stationed on a minesweeper, and sprayed down with DDT which resulted in a protracted battle against the landmine of skin cancer. He has spent much of his life avoiding disruption, floating through life, always avoiding, infrequently docking, never really resting comfortably against the shore of another. His hull was reliable and predictable, and mostly impenetrable; his exterior, mostly calm, or remote greyish khaki. Yet, he was, and is still, persistently patient withholding all criticism and judgement allowing the lives of his family to flow.

While he avoided bombs, my mother needed to set them off to remind herself that she was no longer evacuated far from home, that she was still alive. The fumes of England lingered around the edges of my childhood without my knowledge, until now.

This wartime experience never quite left my parents, I think, like many traumas experienced early in life. I don’t know what happened. I don’t need to know what happened. But something did. And honouring their early traumas has helped me hold space in the story for the invisible ones in others.



Tears as a window

I had been holding on all week, straddling a gossamer thread like a trapeze artist. I could feel myself falling, but I had to stay upright, just until the weekend; I had to propel my form forward just to make it through the day, and then I could rest.

This week was full of conflict. It came in many forms and appeared frequently throughout the day. Each built, one upon another, and I held each one as precious projects that needed my careful attention. And these were not just everyday disagreements, but intense and some long standing conflicts that bubbled up and made themselves known. My colleagues who know me, who have worked with me, also know that I worked previously in conflict resolution. They know that I take time with conflict, that I let it steep like a good cup of tea to be savoured once it is understood. But on this day, conflict overflowed and I cried in front of my students.

It was a Friday afternoon, the tension in the building felt palpable, and I’m sure I carried its vibrations into the classroom with me. I was giving my students time to observe, to watch a video while some chatted and I tried to centre myself. Halfway through the period, a disagreement between students broke out and words were hurled like weapons over desks. I listened and waited strategizing, reflecting. These are senior students and there was no hate, no violation of dignity, just disagreement and conflict. But, when I could see it begin to froth around the edges, I knew that I needed to step in, reduce the heat, and bring them to some compassionate place of understanding.

I stepped forward and began to speak about the challenging and gut wrenchingly emotional material that we were witnessing, that we are addressing in the course; I told them that I know it is hard to face, I feel it is hard to face. I told them that you never really know what someone else is in class is going through, how we all process trauma differently, and that we just need to be a bit more forgiving of one another…and then the tears came. Through my tightened throat I pushed out a few more whispered words, “I don’t want you to fight. We have to be forgiving and give space for differences. We are in this work together.”

I grabbed a tissue and saw every face was frozen, eyes forward, looking at me. This often wildly unruly group were staring and silent, listening and feeling with me. I had their attention even though I did not want it in that moment and was already well down the path of self-loathing for this act of weakness. I managed to pull myself together, make a few self-deprecating jokes, and then told them to enjoy one another’s company for the last few minutes of class, tears still hovering on my lids, shame taking up residence as my companion.

At the bell, I stole quickly into the department office to hide. I had seen him hanging back, not leaving the room, which was unusual, especially for a Friday. I heard a knock on the door, then it opened, and he stepped boldly in. “I couldn’t leave for the weekend without you knowing what happened,” and then he told me, and he stepped forward to hug me. It was a gift of compassion. He told me that he hoped my weekend would make up for this difficult week and he left.

We often seek for control in teaching. We manage and strategize and rightfully so. But every once and a while, a moment of vulnerability opens a window. Tears had cleaned the room of that momentary conflict which lasted into the week that followed. They washed away two months of struggle and I felt a deep sense of love and connection to these students. Tears had become the transparent window on my world and had let my students see a part of me they did not know, but even more than this, tears had let me see them.

I could not have planned this, could not have created a strategy for this, and I would not repeat it. I hope never to repeat it. But for some strange and mystical reason, the tears that I shed that day, in that class, with those students, became the necessary window which has changed everything.



Not just hard conversations

If you’re a white person trying to do anti racist work in your classroom, or your school, you better be willing to take criticism, confront your own failings, and humble yourself to the hard lived experiences of those you aim to champion. You better be prepared to interact with the marginalized with a level of humility and compassion that acknowledges their lived experiences and resist the urge to take things personally.

I felt it, and it was hard. It hurt and I was tempted to flee to the confines of comfort. I had to suck it up and realize that sometimes a response has nothing to do with me personally and everything to do with a larger social and historical context.

I called her and the conversation arranging her visit to speak to our students did not go well. She was coming to speak to my students about surviving the 60s Scoop, being involved with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She was bringing her son, the hoop dancer. We were both worried about students and their responses.

Our conversation chugged awkwardly with me trying to back up, explaining and reassuring while she advanced thrusting retorts. She said that she knows the policy of the school board and would take action if needed. I told her that I would make sure my students were respectful. She said, “I don’t need you to protect me.”

We agreed to a reduced schedule of visits, and I hung up the phone feeling guilty. I traversed the conversation over and over in the mind, that night, the next day, shared it with others whose outrage matched mine, until I finally reached an understanding within.

“I don’t need you to protect me.”

“You” isn’t really me. “You” is white people, settlers, the colonizers, the one’s who created the Indian Act of 1876. She has survived and now thrived because of her own strength and the strength of her Indigenous community. She wasn’t really speaking to me; she was responding viscerally to an ancient wound.

She spoke to the students with encouragement and dignity. We heard her story of separation, addiction, loss and the hard work of regaining her culture. Her son showed the students some hoop dance moves, involved them in the presentation and a window on a world was cracked open.

As an anti racist educator, I’ve realized that hard conversations are not enough. I must journey within and reframe my entire understanding of the world with humility and compassion. I have to do more than just have hard conversations.