Waking Life

We are watching the animated film, “Waking Life” in grade 11 Media Studies. It’s a rotoscoped animmated documentary which follows a young man through a philosophical dream. Along the way he has conversations with various scholars and academics about language and free will, life and finding meaning. We are viewing a section and then discussing what it represents, how it represents.

One girl raises her hand and says, “It’s an unfilm. It’s not like animation and it’s not a documentary, really. And it’s not really a film, so it’s an unfilm.”

Another student speaks loudly and extensively about a controversial segment causing many voices to chime in, some at the same time with hands waving about to catch my eye. I’m finding it difficult to hold all these thoughts when lines from a song come to me

“…catch the deluge in a paper cup. Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over, hey now, hey now, when the world comes in, let it come, let it come…”

I hold the song inside, and hurriedly try to give space for all students to speak navigating roughly in the order arms were raised skyward. For some reason, they want to talk about this – not necessarily about the way the film is constructed or any of the media theories. They want to talk about life and ways of navigating truth and reality. They want to talk about knowing and understanding, about justice and the danger of listening to only to the left or ignoring the right, about following the news or not following the news.

Their ideas bursting forth have me reeling a bit like some wave cresting to knock me from my place. I can never catch this deluge in front of me.

And then I smile at the irony if the moment. “Waking Life” is waking life.

 

Duke’s view

Why do they hide my food? And, have you seen the strange things moving about on the box mounted on the wall? Sometimes I see friends that I want to meet and I let my people know, but they just laugh or hold up their small screens to me.

It makes me sad. So I lie down, let out a long deep breath through my nostrils, look up with wide eyes, and they usually make comforting sounds in my direction. Sometimes it’s hard being a dog.

But sometimes it’s great because I get to nap almost anytime, and almost anywhere. My favourite place for a snooze is the bean bag chair parked perfectly between the kitchen and the dining room; I have full view of two windows, see everything that is going on, and I can track the squirrels in my yard that torment me.

My neighbourhood pals just passed by so I decide to whine, glancing out and back and forth hoping they will let me out to say hello…I mean, I’ll be friendly, I promise. I wag and pace the floor huffing and look out the window and pace back again nudging the walker’s knee. It hasn’t worked yet, but I keep trying because I know they love me.

 

 

 

Unseen and unheard

I can write about the students that I see and the voices that I hear at school. But, I’m wondering about the unseen and the unheard. What do they think? What would they say if given the chance?

And, more importantly, how do I make space for them to be seen and heard?

In Media Studies, teachers often ask students to consider whose voice is centred, who or what is being represented, but more importantly, who or what is left out of any media message. When I think about the loud voices online and the even louder voices in mainstream media, I see and hear many are absent.

Yet, every once and a while, I witness a uniqueness of individual spirit that is not widely seen and not widely heard, but is vital, alive, and necessary. Sometimes these are the ones screaming for equity. Sometimes they are just asserting their being as if to say, “See me! Hear me! I exist!”

I am working to make space for them to be seen and heard.

I see him everyday now, and he cannot be missed as he strolls down the hall in heels clicking with each stride. Today, he wears a hot pink crop top, jeans sinched at the waist, and earrings that rest gently on his shoulders waving back and forth with each movement. Tremendous eyelashes brush the tops of his lids and a shock of turquoise eyeshadow which frames each kindly eye. He is shy in his approach, gentle in his speech, and seemingly completely confident in himself.

My heart warms as I see him interact with his peers. He has many friends and most students know him. I see him and hear him and wonder, how does this marvelous unique being exist in this world of teen conformity and maintain himself? How does he manage to be seen and heard?

Sticky Conversations

Some conversations cling to the inner parts of life and linger as residue. And some replay in the mind despite never having taken place outside of it; they squeak forward, back as we wriggle with our emotions. These sticky conversations swell and merge and froth about inside, yet without voice, they hang as impotent possibilities waiting for freedom.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about voice in writing: the voice that I use here and the privilege I have to use it, the voice of my students and how I represent that voice, and even my lessons on Friday at the end of our essay writing were focused on the active voice – many write so passively.

My Eritriean Canadian student wrote about her voice at the end of our Indigenous Literature course.

“The tables turned for a change. For once, we had a seat at their table. We heard, we thought, we reflected. As minorities, we are continuously encouraged to use our voices but what’s a voice with no platform.”

I’m thinking deeply about my purpose and practice, wondering why some voices are so consistently muted. And then I remember another conversation. She sits across from me as we prepare for Black History Month and talk about their experience of racism at school.

It’s always like this. We bring up an issue, and the other kids say, ‘why does it always have to be about race?’ but it is. And…it’s like we can’t say anything about racism because they think that’s all we notice.

Her voice, muted by her peers, was dismissed – say something else. Her voice is stuck inside her sometimes being expelled in sticky bubbles floating about in hopes of finding an ear.

The Whelm

The whelm came today. It is a strange bodily invasion.

At first, I felt it just as fatigue, and dismissed its permeating presence. But, with each interaction, each event, I realized it was more than lack of sleep or excess of marking.

Two dropped promises slapped me back to consciousness; I was able to gather what was needed, recover to fulfill their needs. But, my mind was stuttering, somewhat frozen in place while my heart collected guilt like lint.

In the past, I remember sitting with this incursion waiting for it to pass, knowing it would leave if ignored long enough. Fighting it had felt pointless, so imprisoned surrender seemed practical. 

Having been here before makes this experience familiar, and I decide to give over to the whelm. 

 

 

 

 

A Moment

I sit at their table, Chromebooks open as they wordprocess a literary essay, papers strewn about them with scribbles comprehensible only to the writer. She is struggling to rephrase her directional statement.

I turn over a piece of paper and use a blank space.

“Tell me the topics of the essay paragraphs from your directional statement.”

She reads her statement:

In the novel good relationships make people feel safe, people feel a need to protect one’s family, and they will do almost anything for the people they love.

I write out the words and she searches for synonyms. On the blank page we draw and analyze and categorize the ideas of safety, of protection, and through voice and image, we realize these statements are actions in the name of love. She sees and hears the pattern emerge and her eyes widen, her mouth opens.

I hear the jostling and shifting of chairs knowing I must stay here in this moment to wait for an opening. A pause; she glances from the scribbled page to me, and then to her Chromebook. She dives into her writing; this stubborn formal essay has expanded from a formula to feast.

Choosing Discomfort

Noa Daniel posted a Tweet a few days ago that has stayed with me.

Noa Daniel Tweet

It stayed with me because two days ago, I felt my legs pulled out from underneath me and I have been trying to find my footing, trying to find the ground underneath the place that I choose to stand.

I was in the high school auditorium with hundreds of students, the principal, and the group whom I supervise were delivering poems, videos, and speaches for Black History Month. Preparations had been difficult with some missed steps, miscommuncations, but it had all come together save for one important check, the one that is fundamental to institutional control; I had not seen the speeches beforehand.

Fifteen minutes before the presentation, an unopened email was sent by the guest speaker, a former student of colour. Fifteen minutes after the assembly, the young Black students sent me their “Dear White Students” speech.

Fifteen minutes into the assembly my sense of place dislodged and I realized that I had not done my due diligence in the eyes of the institution.

A few minutes into the speech by our guest, the principal and I texted back and forth furiously with statements like “harshly worded”, “deep and thoughtful consideration, but could be jarring”, “proud of her for stepping out and giving a speech squarely directed at staff”. Our guest spoke her authentic truth. She called out White teachers for blithely granting permission for white students to read the “n” word while reading To Kill a Mockingbird. She shared the challenges of confronting racism and how the unintentional actions of oblivious White teachers can significantly impact the internal lives of Black students. They’d been called out for their racism.

Then, the brave Black girls stood to be the voices of other Black students who described their experience at our school as “underrepresented, isolated, misunderstood, alone, lost, forgotten, disconnected, an outlier and like an outsider.” Students told them about their least enjoyable experiences and the list was read. They least enjoyed hearing non-black students say the n-word and then defend it by saying they have this so-called “n-word” pass…. ” They least enjoyed much more and the students listened to the voices of Black students with the metalic taste of guilt and anxiety on their lips.

Ripples of discomfort and conversation spread in the audience. They’d been called out for their racism.

I was unprepared for their boldness, their committment to speak their truths, but when I did land, it was exactly where I had been heading. Towards growth, towards discomfort, and I chose it because their discomfort is what needs attention.

 

Expectations

Teaching is never quite what you expect, and I suppose that constant mystery and dynamic nature of the profession is what keeps me joyfully here. Yet, you would think after twenty one years that I’d remember how exhausting and rewarding essay writing with students can be. Today is the first day of our literary essay on a novel, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Arriving early each day affords me the time to set up folders, do some photocopying, and ensure I have enough options for planning that will suit a range of diverse needs. Within what seems like minutes but is actually two hours, the students spill into the room at the bell with planning notes, and their novels, and expressions which range from  panic to determination, from apathy to confidence.

I had already decided to resist the urge to move desk groupings into rows for this task and to instead rely on the understanding that this is a test, and that expectations for tests are well known to these grade 11 students.

A hand goes up and I move to sit beside him.

“Ah, um, I’ve got some notes here and know what I want to say, but haven’t had much experience with writing thesis statements, so I’m wondering if this idea that I have will work.”

I nod and listen.

“So, throughout this whole book, there is a definite contrast between a Western way of thinking and an Indigenous worldview. It keeps coming up. In the way things are worded. Like when Minerva is referred to as the ‘weapon’ that will bring the whole system down and I wanted to talk about contrast but that’s not really a motif so…”

I feel a smile brimming and I stifle a screech of joy which springs from his unexpected insight.

He continues sharing his thoughts, his evidence written roughly on notes, and I guide him as he speaks, me writing on paper, moving pieces around until he sees an organization of ideas emerge. We talk for at least fifteen minutes and at the end of our conversation, I see him take flight in the direction of my expectations and his own.

A Conversation

She breezes into the classroom, drops her backpack with a smile and sits beside her friends adjusting her hijab so it doesn’t pinch her full chocolate cheeks. Her eyes light up as we talk about the skill of her essay, the depth of her thinking about the novel she has just finished, The Break by Katherena Vermette.

I want to know how my students felt about their selections in this Indigenous literature course, but the conversations cannot be planned or scripted because these are teenagers who have learned to say what they believe the teacher will want them to say. Instead, I sit with them to see if they have questions about their essays and move about waiting for them to speak while I force my adult voice to stay inside.

“I was so amazed by this book. Every page. I don’t know how someone can write with such beauty and violence at the same time.”

I stay near her group to listen and give her space to speak smiling and waiting.

“It’s the hydro wires that got me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she described that space, the break, like the title. I mean, how does someone do that? Get inside your head with words and change the way you think about something?”

She pauses looking at the pages, clearly wanting to share this love of reading, this space inside each of us where imagination transports us.

“And the buzzing sounds, the way she described the buildings, it was like I was there. I don’t know. I can’t explain it, but this was the best book that I’ve ever read.” She pauses.

“I’ll never forget it.”

She glances up, then sideways surveying the room for ridiculing observers and my heart squeezes a little wishing she didn’t care, and didn’t have to think about being the only Muslim student in the class, the only Black student in the class.

 

 

EdCampOttawa Conversations

I signed up for EdCampOttawa and spent Saturday with teachers, a group of pedagogical nerds like some Comicon convention, but better termed a “camp” for teachers whose restless brains and bottomless hearts push for educational revolution.

I knew what I wanted to talk about. I knew I would have the support of my principal, also in attendance, and my podcast partner. So, when the post-it notes were passed for topic selection, we knew that we wanted to talk about equity in education, about racism, and all the subtle and not so subtle ways that inequality is systemic. We wanted to talk it out and find the path forward.

Now, we are a group of well educated professionals, many with privilege and a degree of power, but two participants shared experiences which are clearly fresh flesh wounds. Their courage to speak about their experiences demonstrated both the overt and the subtle inquities of our educational institutions.

I can’t remember how the conversation begun after the introductions, but the thoughts and ideas flowed fast, back and forth across our elliptical and awkward attempt at a circle in this foreign space at the University of Ottawa. This group of teachers was somewhat diverse though largely White and predominantly female in keeping with education in general. The voices in conversation were often strained songs questioning and seeking, but aware that this is largely untraversed and rocky terrain; the risk of making the “wrong” step is high and our emotions were teetering near the edge.

And then a woman whom I’ve known and respected for her enthusiasm and dedication to her Elementary school students asked how to deliver lessons in identity while she, a hijab wearing elementary teacher, feared being accused by others of “having an agenda”. She paused while asking and admitted to getting emotional even in this reminiscence, this memory of experienced erasure.

And then a young male teacher whom I’ve encountered in Twitter chats and whose reputation is glowing, spoke about getting a job and being told on the first day that he must not share his sexual orientation, that he must hide this part of himself if he wants to stay employed in the profession. Our collective hearts sank and some apologized not knowing how to respond to such honest open wounds.

These conferences and camps are often places where teachers want to walk away with stuff, with lessons, with apps and handouts and solutions to make teaching easier, and happier, and ditch-this, ditch-that. I was that teacher who wanted something to solve for “x”.

But this weekend unveiled some truths to me; there is no formula, no handout, no app, no standardized test for equity in education. It is going to require the effort of mountaineers who know this rocky terrain begins within, and who are willing to summit by putting one’s self at the bottom of the mountain in order to lift others up to that hopeful place of equity. I can’t solve for “x”, but I can use my position of privilege; it feels like the least that I can do.

And, I know there are many more steps on my journey and I will continue to make mistakes. I cringe at my former teaching self and all that I have done to uphold inequity. I have been an ignorant bystander; now, I will educate myself to become an ally. I didn’t walk away from EdCampOttawa this weekend with stuff to teach as much as the echoes of lived experiences which have fueled my learning and I’ll never again underestimate the power of conversations.

 

 

 

Time at home

I walk across the hardwood floors feeling the dip of the wood under weight, hear the gentle squeeze caused by edges closing the spaces between the slats. My aged and worn moccasins splitting at the seams are thin enough that I can feel each crevice, each beginning and ending of each slat, but I put them on each day as protection and warmth.

My house is old and new – a foundation and frame built in 1900 with everything else put in place ten years ago. This place has an old soul having stayed in place making only minor shifts, expansions and contractions, with each passing season. This old woman has a crawl space with a large stone and wooden post logged centrally reaching upward to touch the sky and remants of canning are evident on the crossbeams.

Despite the surface trappings of modernity, the dishwasher, the fresh paint, and the furniture, I feel the agedness of this house and me. There is no secondary sound of children’s voices, no rush to prepare meals, no hovering thoughts of young minds and managing behaviours. My sons are gone, but my father remains with us. His breathing is laboured now, his lower jaw often hanging open as he leans slightly forward, shoulders rounded, to pull the air inside his bony frame. Time is here and evident in the presence and absence of everyone and everything.

Yet,my daughter, held back in development by a seizure disorder, walks about my home as if defying time. She has not aged with us and is developmentally still young, still a child. She walks the length of the living room looking vacantly in no particular direction, sometimes squinting for no apparent reason, and pausing to slide past objects in her path. She exists between worlds; the one of conscious awareness and the one of dreams. Sometimes I think she is so lucky, this beautiful soul who fills the space of my home.