Doing hard things 31/31 #SOL

This has been very, very hard for so many of us. And, I know that I have put myself in situations without considering just how difficult they might be. But, this. This March has been really, really hard. The hardest by far.

It’s been the kind of hard when you lie down at night, and stare at the ceiling without a sense that you will sleep. The kind where you wonder if you’ll be able to ignore the thoughts in your head, the fears for your family. You wonder if you’ll just toss all night, race into work the next day to teach, and then mark, and then teach, and then mark without a day between one week and the weekend. They are really the same – the beginning and the end blur into an amorphous period of time – morning, night, morning, night.

It’s been the kind of hard where you notice your neck near the base of your skull is so tense it’s hard to turn and look left or right and then you notice a stye developing near the corner of your eye, a little flutter of the heart, and you wonder about your body responding when your brain refuses. You see your students dropping, missing, falling, and you kick into another gear, restore the composure to be there – for them – lift them up – the adult in the room, ready to help, all the while pushing that pain somewhere else into the future – the summer, maybe, when it can be owned. For now, it is unacknowledged and I refuse to go there.

It’s been the kind of hard where your heart squeezes and you learn how to secretly release a whiff of suffering travelling on air moving up the throat, expelling enough of a gasp through the mouth to release just a bit of the grief without displaying tears. I’ve actually become an expert and masks are helpful. Besides, only one other person here, in this school, knows about what is really hard for me right now, so when they ask, I just smile, and mention something light or funny to keep me from dipping below the surface of functioning.

It’s been the kind of hard where writing about another world, another experience, another person was the best kind of therapy. Yes, writing here was hard, harder than last year, and really hard this March. But it did give me a place to create another world, to imagine other experiences, and to delight in colours, in chords, and in collaboration. Thanks to everyone who read, and most of all, thanks to Tobi and Amanda who help me consistently do hard things.

Delight in Hues 30/31 #SOL

Most mornings my classroom is bursting with pale yellow light brightening the ancient plaster walls, the blackboards dominating wallspace next to turquoise papered bulletin boards. A butterfly border frames the blackness where posters stay vertical with magnetic force and where no chalk is residue, the missing marks of another way in the world.

Two overflowing ferns speak across the room, one at the front, the other at the back, sending secret messages on air, purifying it from their soulbound pots, reminding me that earth is a floor below. Water spills over the pot’s edge to the ancient warn wood desk, the unfinished surface, a warm tan which echoes the history of this place.

Students arrive near 9 am moving in smudges of colour through the halls, a pink backpack, a decalled skateboard, some camo tights, with smiles that cannot be hidden revealed in the eyes. She came for tea before class, and we talked about family stories, the ones known or known only in part – our grandparents and parents. She told me that her great grandfather, Fred Taylor, painted the art which adorns my paperback version of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, In the Skin of a Lion. I remembered the story and the artist, Caravaggio, who used light and shadow – chiaroscuro – a colourful memory of research done with my youngest son who loves art and tries, never succeeding, to understand it.

With a purposeful turn to the windows, I delight in moving blues and whites of sky which whisper the return of greens. Although, I am not a successful gardener, green is my dominant hue; it is my source of energy, both internally and externally. It is in my iris, in the memories of my youth on grassy carpets meant for cartwheels, and leafy trees meant for hide and seek. It is my favourite meal in leaves of kale and florets of broccoli, vegetables that once made me scrunch up my face in an “eww”.

But green is such a hopeful hue,

so green will always live,

along with light,

in all the spaces,

where I am,

and always spread delight.

Place 29/31 #SOL

(I wrote alongside my students today, and they responded to this prompt – slow down time and describe a place which is vivid in your memory.)

The summer wind blows the tall sharp sweetgrass clinging to the white sandy mounds. Swirls of miniscule stones strike my legs like a multitude of beads, and the clatter of poplar leaves makes it nearly impossible to hear those already on the beach ahead of me. The lake, white-capped by the strong gusts, swells and bodies flow up and down with the waves.

My eyes water as I squint to block the glaring rays of afternoon sun high in the sky. Vagues shrieks of children and the sound of splashing water travels on gusts of air. Once we crest the small sand dune, we see a vacant spot on the warm sand welcoming a towel and umbrella. I am in blues and whites and greens of nature, and my nose consumes the scents of sunscreen, wind, and water. This is my place of rest.

Coalescence 28/31 #SOL

I just read a student essay about David Guterson’s novel, Snow Falling on Cedars and I am enthralled by her close reading of the novel, her insight into his purpose as she states, “that time and memory are part of the same nebulous, all-encompassing fog that is anchored in geography and is as palpable as snow.” I wrote about this idea of memory and place in my post, “Mapping” and iterates with Chris Cluff’s gorgeous poem, “Maps”.

Later on, I read Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race after I was reflecting on a heated discussion with students from the Diverse Student Union, thinking about the work white teachers need to do to create the necessary sense of belonging at the school. One chapter arrested me: “Everyone is Different; Everyone Belongs”. Irving explains the thinking of inclusive principal, Joe Petner, whose vision extended to every child with every ability. He proposed a fundamental understanding that there is no “normal” and the article that I had read with students about Unilever removing the product label “normal” from it’s products merged with the audiobook version which was being narrated to me. And yet a third iteration of “normal” came to me while reading the remarkable new book, The Black Friend; On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph.

I need to do another post on this book because his use of auditory conventions (fast forward, rewind, pause, stop) within the print text is innovative, engaging, and overall just brilliant.

But, back to where this all comes together; after listening to the our students, another teacher challenged me on the fact that I did research and came to the conclusion that we might lack the cultural competency to understand the situation. It’s still rather raw and fresh and nebulous in my memory so rather than map out any details that I am have brought from that past to the now, I’m going to fuse the threads of this situation and braid the temporal thoughts with belonging and normalcy. In Joseph’s book he writes about white people saying, “That’s Black, or that’s Asian, – that’s not normal.” (Joseph 91) He goes on to explain the importance and value of difference. “Over the years, my favorite things about people become the ways in which they are nothing like me…I’m asking you to protect one another and learn from one another. I’m asking you to turn ‘different’ into the new normal, and tell others to do the same.” I read these lines to my students.

Thinking sometimes needs other sparks from the universe; we begin with an idea which gets added to by others, and then we hold the concept coalescing in our head, pulling in little atoms of thought and language from out there, as if we are in communion. There is no map, no normal, only disparate threads of difference which coalesce in something unified and wholly full, fully whole.

Journals 27/31 #SOL

I used to write when I was young and I remember carrying this sporadic practice into university. I shared my short stories with roomates; and then I shared poems with my professor. I remember the day quite vividly; a summer course and we were walking down the interlocking pathway between buildings, the sun warm and the air clean and sweet smelling. His assessment was startling. Not that he wasn’t giving me what I asked for so much as the fact that I was not ready for his brutal takedown. He read, then responded, and I stopped writing.

After the birth of my daughter, I started writing again, documenting a journey to a foreign place in myself and although I have that journal saved, I have not read it since. I recognize the outside cover knowing what it stands for. I’m not ready to read that writing, to return to that place in time through such a tangible form – not yet, anyway. In those years, when I had written enough and found my way in this new role, I stopped writing.

Now as a teacher of reading and writing I am startled by my own failures in writing. Looking back now, at some of the formulaic writing that have I taught, I am saddened. So many lost opportunities in the past twenty plus years and I wonder how many students in my classes stopped writing.

Nonetheless, instead of letting regret turn to despair, I am taking writing seriously on the rest of this journey.

Essay Transitions 26/31 #SOL

Although

this is hard and frustrating and intellectually exhausting

what you are doing now is foundational,

transferring mind to page –

thoughts to words –

a mess

wrestled for sharing.

Consider

this shape so seemingly firm and rigid

as flexible

and bend with the form

to make it fit your vision.

Connect you to us and

after each example that enlightens

examine

bringing a microscope to the mind and

invite the artist within

to speak

to add beauty

and insight

to this chore,

nonetheless,

consequently,

therefore.

Mapping 25/31 #SOL

We greeted one another in the hallway this morning a few minutes before the students of Cohort A would be entering the building. Through medical masks he joked about his elderly mother losing her memory. He phones her daily and is sometimes challenged to find conversational topics. With care and generosity, he plans each call. On this past weekend, he and his partner had walked his old neighbourhood, the street where his family home still stood, the street where he purchased his first house, and he planned to tell his mother what had changed and what was the same.

“But what about our house? Is it the same?”

“Well, they’ve added a third floor.”

“Where is it? In the backyard?”

“No. I said it’s another level, a third level of the house.”

“But where is it?”

I listened to his story and kept looking for evidence of memory loss, but couldn’t locate it. I wondered if this conversation between mother and son had little to do with memory and more to do with mapping. She had moved, migrated from a home she knew, and the description couldn’t be mapped in her mind.

We parted, the masked students began entering, taking seats six feet apart, opening laptops and phones. At the start of every class, we all read for twenty minutes, a moment of communal indulgence in any book; hopefully a book they love with no other purpose than love. I sometimes share lovely lines or beautiful wisdom offered by the book that I’m reading, and today, I picked up where I had left off in a remarkable collection of memoirs called, A Map is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home. Each essay, each story in this small book transports me to some other world and I sit spellbound at the front of the classroom imagining the motions necessary to depart and arrive in some other place on a map. To find a home and sense of belonging in the unfamiliar.

I’ve always felt the value in slowing down the rush to consume the action of a story, in taking time to situate it in place. I used to assign the making of maps for novels and short stories where setting played a symbolic or significant role. I wanted them to imagine these places. But then the internet came. Maps from stories appeared online which they downloaded and handed in making this assignment completely meaningless.

I wonder now. If someone gives you a map of your home, do you really understand your place? Or perhaps, instead we make our own, mapping the journey, remembering the past as something fixed in the mental map of our minds.

Lines 24/31 #SOL2021

A colleague calls me to talk, the second time in two days, and we are on the line for a long time. Concerns are expressed about the a group of racialized students and white allies whom I supervise.

I’m on the line for another hour tonight, about the same time as last night, listening mostly. Words begin to blur and merge and spread across my face and I feel my eyes close; my ears filter out this language for fear they may infect my heart which beats wildly in my chest now rising and falling faster than one would expect for someone who is stationary. I own my error in judgement, failing to forewarn this colleague, and I apologize. That was my omission.

I hear words like “the tone” and “losing allies” and “damaging mistake”. But then I hear “crossed the line” and I am propelled to write this down. Only these words – on a lime green sticky note which sits at my computer glaring and asserting its presence and persistence for several weeks.

It is late and I fear that I will not sleep with elevated emotions and blood pulsing in my ears, so I fix my usual turmeric milk before bed, a symbolic and hopefully homeopathic ritual meant to address inflammation. But, it doesn’t work. I lie awake feeling the adrenaline still moving for some time afterwards and wake again later mid-sleep, shifting position repeatedly, trying to find comfort despite my partner’s position, always close by and warm.

The next morning, I reach back into the corners of auditory memory trying to retrieve lines of dialogue from the conversation, but I am lost in sense without substance. I wonder if maybe I just blacked out in those moments, maybe the phone line went dead, or maybe I was too consumed in an emotionally defensive posture that I was unable to hear accurately. I try to retrieve some semblance of language.

My husband sits beside me at the kitchen island, our usual breakfast routine on weekdays.

“They are angry that I supported the students and feel they crossed a line.”

He looks up from scrolling Twitter. “Who drew the line?”

I startle at this seemingly simple question and regain my centre feeling a sense of balance suddenly seeing clearly. In that moment the fog of emotion fades and the lines meaningfully merge.

Speaking in Public 23/31 #SOL

Speaking in public used to paralyze me. Of course, this is really quite strange when I think about being a teacher and I essentially speak in public every day. But, back then, I would physically seize up as a wave of panic hit my entire body causing a fascist coup of form. It took control and there was nothing my mind could do.

This one particular pivotal moment established a cascade of similar moments which abated but which surfaced for some time. Until they didn’t anymore.

I used to work for a provincial government agency and I was one of a few female managers attending a seminar on leadership; I think I was the youngest, too. I was a fairly recent undergraduate with an English and geography major who’d risen through the ranks to a role in management. I had a broad background having studied the Sciences before switching to the Humanities. But, I had no skill in politics or diplomacy. I had no role models nor mentors. And although the memory of the actual event is vivid only in sense, the content and facts of the situation are just murky memories.

“We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.”

I am centre stage, imprisoned by high backed Black leather chairs around an oversized faux mahogany boardroom table. Someone has just reminded me of a recent event back in the main office, one in which I was publically undermined by a male colleague. ( Insert flashback to my youth, when my feminist mother was trying to point out how patriarchy works, and I missed the lesson.) I am completely naive, probably more so than the average young woman (Insert self blame here for resisting mother’s lessons.) All eyes fix on me and wait for an explanation. I feel it rushing fast, my blood filling my face and through hyperventilating words, I push out a heaving explanation too incomprehensible.

I name it, outloud, thinking this will pass. “I know that I’m not being clear.”

I wait for the breath to come, for someone to drop the airbag from the ceiling of the cabin. I see their eyes widen, mouths drop a little. I did not think of this at the time, but no facilitator steps in, no colleague steps up. Instead, around the large table, all sit as bystanders to the body-snatching with no attempted to aid the suffocating.

The response is tattooed inside me, always just beneath the skin. It was awful and it’s still there under the surface whenever I feel my emotions rise in a group leadership meeting.

How can we talk? 21/31 #SOL

This question, a staccato in my head, reverberates as I fumble through my hybrid teaching wanting to connect the “at home students” with the “in school students”. I am still revising the plans once formulated in August, practiced and revised again with one class, then another, revision upon revision, now with a fourth and a fifth class. I keep hoping how we talk in virtual meetings will mirror how we talk in person. But, the disembodied sounds from boxes in a grid flows very differently, and I don’t think it has anything to do with cameras off or cameras on. Both are only nearings or approximations of what is human discourse.

Yet, how can we not really talk at “moments like this”? That necessary talk is doubly hard and doubly necessary.

Nonetheless, some gathered last week as a group of diverse students to address the hate crime in Georgia, the shooting of Asian women, and the growing recognition of Anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada. They were open and vulnerable, supportive and inclusive, but this is emotional work in spaces not built for human sharing of pain. While the shooting happened in what feels remote, the US, the reports from Canada are up close, and in person. We have a problem with Anti-Asian racism, but how can we talk?

Back in class, I share the lesson using the guidance and wisdom of Teaching Tolerance and a resource from the Toronto District School Board; but it’s not enough. I know it. The students know it.

So, I pull myself together, and reflect on the situation. Even though I’m the one doing most of the talking in the classroom right now, it has to be better than silence. In that breath, my question transforms. How can we not talk about something so important?

Irritation 19/31 #SOL

(Another writing alongside my students today.)

My eyes are making life difficult.

I notice the messages they are sending, but why are they so angry and on the verge of spilling tears? Each morning, I reach for the Visine, soothe them sometimes with drops for dry eyes, bathe them with warm water and then cold water, but there is still no change, no relief. Each visit to the mirror finds me examining the maps appearing in the white region, rivers of red veins, spidering out in all directions, but clustered near the tear duct, where debris settles into a cavernous space. The lids have formed a coalition with gravity and I exercise them lifting with my mouth, widening both in tandem.

This morning my right eye started acting up deciding to march to a different beat. It seemed to pixelate and I remembered a colleague telling me this is an ocular migraine – a rogue defender of the oculus realm. I couldn’t follow the words on the page, my most favourite time of the day, and I couldn’t find peace with this rebellion taking place.

Listening seems to be a path towards some truce in “this moment” – so many moments that I realize the irritation is the signal. I tell myself, “read the maps in your eyes, listen to the swelling resistance – these parts seeking sovereignty and wanting no part in this grinding pace.”

Myth 18/31 #SOL

(Today’s writing prompt asked for an “origin story” or a myth and this is what I wrote alongside my students.)

Melanie was born in the darkest of nights at the cusp of daylight. She sprang as stream of white light from green soil crusted with leaves and damp shoots of ferns, mosses, and lichen, and her voice pierced the air like an arrow shot from her mouth landing in the belly of her water-mother. Wounded, her mother sank to the bottom of a large lake where she lay screaming to her daughter who did not hear for many years. Instead, Melanie looked to the forest and fauna for guidance where the trees became her keepers and the birds became her siblings. There she wandered and kept records of their appearances drawing them and learning their names. 

In time the trees transformed and she knew that she needed a new home, so she set out on a journey of discovery. She visited strange worlds with mosques and delicious food – chai offered in every doorway – then swam down rivers with damaged manatees before she heard her water-mother’s voice calling her home.

Water-Mother | 2016 | Natalie Field Photography
Water Mother by Natalie Field Photography: http://nataliefield.photography/conceptual-fine-art-photography/attachment/1-water-mother-natalie-field-a1-web/

When I was eight 17/31 #SOL

“What happens if we stick to being the truest version of ourselves…” Luvvie Ajayi Jones

I am eight years old, my legs stretched out above me, my back firmly on the floor, near the sofa where my mother sits properly, legs crossed, reading. I am gangly, confident, and wild. My older brother sits in a chair across the living room, on the other side of a wide window facing the courtyard of our street, a console radio with a record player beneath it. I am soaking in the beams of sunlight gushing through the large window touching the carpeted floor. He is expressing doubt about something and I somehow realize his words are meant for me.

“But, I love me!” I declare, and my mothers speaks warnings against myself with prompting to be “ladylike” and although she never uses the words explicitly, I understand the language – show deference, be small, and quiet, and delicate – all the words, including “ladylike”, which I am not.

There is a photograph from that summer, my legs stretched out in front of me on the soft beach sand, my back curled slightly forward with both hands clutching a peach. My belly is folded, protruding over my bikini and my face heavily freckled with my waist length hair tied back in a pony tail. I am squinting against the sun, or against this photographic intrusion on my being, an interruption of my enjoyment of the beach and of the peach dripping down my layers of flesh around my middle.

A guidance counselor calls me in for a “conversation” in grade 10. She wants to know how I’m doing and if anything has changed in my life. I’d never met this person before and I am frozen in place, in the pleather chair across from her desk. I am not sure what to say, reassure her that everything is fine, but I think afterwards, “perhaps my weight loss prompted this, or maybe my role play in drama class was perhaps a bit too convincing”.

I look back to the living room scene, my inability to remember if this was a weekend or weekday, what season (though I think it might have been fall because I was wearing tights), but do remember the vivid feeling of startling surprise and revelation that I should think differently about me. If only I could be as I was when I was eight.

What we hear 16/31 #SOL

George took my 95 year old father to have his hearing checked and his hearing aids updated yesterday. For some time now, it has been customary to repeat any and all things spoken to my father, and part of me suspects that this is not about his hearing at all – this is about processing. I imagine his brain saying, just say ‘pardon’ everytime anyone says anything and this will give me time to think.

I got home and my husband reported the diagnosis – he has only 30% hearing on one side, so there is no point in using a hearing aid in that one ear. It won’t help. The other ear will be outfitted with the latest model of Bluetooth technology which my father automatically assumed would allow him to connect to the landline phone that we maintain, mainly for him. (Note to self: buy a Bluetooth landline phone if they make them.)

George drove him to the hearing clinic and they waited, in the car, in masks, outside the building. He called the receptionist to announce their arrival.

“Syd White is here for his spa treatment.”

She snort chuckled, and asked George if he would be coming into the building with my father.

“No. I’ll just shove him through the entrance.”

She laughed – out loud this time – recognizing the humour in caregiving as our bodies fail and we need help with everyday tasks. Some might hear this as cruelty rather than humour, but she works with the hard of hearing and likely understands how long term care requires a sense of levity in the everyday.

My father has lived with us for the past 27 years. He was the primary cook and childminder in the beginning, and now, we are slowly assuming the many roles he fiercely clung to . He gave up his license and stopped driving this year. He just started to allow us to prepare his supper, most days. He walks at least twice a day and works out on a rowing machine and Bowflex elliptical taking great pride in his physical health. But, the shattered steel-encased femur, a consequence of the car striking him on his bike at 84 years old, is causing him some difficulty now, and his hands shake enough to send his knife flying to the floor when he carries his dinner plate and cutlery from the kitchen to the dining table.

George stays at home caring for our disabled daughter, and now, for my elderly father. I love coming home and hearing about their day, the small stories about trips to the store, other dogs in the neighbourhood, which birds are showing up now that spring is cresting, and deeply appreciate listening to the stories.

Musical Influences 15/31 #SOL

Noa Daniel asked me about it, Tobi lives it, and Amanda inspired it.

It’s no secret that music has a powerful effect on the classroom and when I allow students choice with music, I feel like I get to know them better. Music has been playing in the background for most of my life and it’s only now making a more conscious appearance in my thinking and teaching. Music really has defined my experiences, my memories, and it has now come into the foreground of my mind.

To explain the three influences mentioned above, Noa Daniel had me as a guest on her P3 Podcast where educators share three songs that define them. Tobi’s partner is a cellist in the National Arts Centre orchestra and she manages the stage (and yes, she is also a full-time teacher – don’t ask me how she does it, I’m sure she has a twin sister or she doesn’t sleep), and Amanda found an incredible interactive article in the New York Times called “25 Songs That Matter Now“. She used it with her class and claims that the students, “LOVED it”. These three have been musical influences on me, although I think they don’t actually write or perform it.

Nonetheless, today I asked students about music, about reviews of music, and I am encouraged by what they had to say.

The conversation started with Ana mentioning the content of the songs that were selected. “Most of them have an important social message that’s necessary to talk about now.” And Tarek pointed out that a few of the songs were circulated widely because of TikTok. Angus focused in the reviews themselves and made lists of the types of metaphors in the musical reviews noting that one compared the music to art and the act of drawing, another used the language of war, and the third was personified as if the music performed an action. Ciaran followed this by explaining that the metaphors, the imagery, and the heavily connotative language allows the reader to connect while Anna noted the reviews self-consciousness in the connections they made to the music.

And then I asked what surprised them; “Cats” they said. They were surprised that a song from what they deemed “a bad musical” had the honour of a song “that mattered”. They wondered about this choice so I reminded them to consider the publication as a whole, and it’s cultural or geographical location as a potential clue. James made the connection instantly saying, “Broadway”, and the significance of context, reviewer, and content was made.

This free flowing discovery of meaning allowed me to point out the ever flowing negotiation with a text, the triumvirate of author, text, and reader. I had to dance with the lesson never quite knowing but allowing the music to flow and trust those who helped me find it. Thanks Noa, Tobi, and Amanda for being my musical muses.

Listening to Student Podcasts 14/31 #SOL

I’ve been evaluating student podcasts this weekend and it really is joyful listening to their voices.

This group of grade 12 students were given the task of researching the author and a topic in the book that they chose. In lessons, we had talked about the usual musical intro, the overall summary in the opening and the need to write for the ear instead of the eye. One student, Chloe, chose Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and her topic was the “otherness, outsider, or misfit” of the Southern Gothic. As a class, we had also studied podcasts, sampled them, and talked about the necessity for creating an immersive auditory experience for an audience, but Chloe did this and so much more.

Half way into the podcast, her script read:

Between us are two steaming plates of roast dinner, a coffee, a beer, and a cigarette in an ashtray. I point out to you the man behind the counter, he’s watching his customers closely and thumbing his nose. We think of him as an “other”, apart, a misfit. An icon of his repressed identity. We go back to our dinner, and a server brings us cherry pie. Now, I point out the window. I’m trying to explain something to you, trying to make my case. Do you see it out there? It is the American South, great “defeated” nation, simmering with unspilled rage. I tell you, finally: the South is the freak of America. Can’t you see it?

At this point, I realized that she was not only taking me into an immersive experience, but she was also taking me into the book creating the mood of the Southern Gothic as I was listening. The research, the complex thinking, the interconnectedness of texts and information, the building of another world – it was all there, in six minutes of creative genius.

I’ll admit that not all of them contained such creativity and insights, but each student was able to be successful and I was able to evaluate all aspects of the curriculum without having them present synchronously to an audience. And, one of the unique aspects of podcasting is that students have to listen to their own voice as editing before publishing. There is a creativity in using music and sound, in writing and selecting the atmosphere and genre of podcast, and importantly, there is this metacognitive aspect of listening to one’s own voice built into the process.

The iterative nature of podcasting keeps me thinking and contemplating more ways to listen to the voices of students.

Choosing Books 13/31 #SOL

Choosing one book to read at a time is a challenge for me. The round, former dining-room-table-picked-up-at-a-garage-sale-now-front-table-in-my-classroom is full of books. No, actually, it is full of stacks of books and I’m running out of space to open my daily attendance record. If the percentage of occupied space is any indication of what matters, then I’m happy with this. The table is circular, in a place of prominence in the room and students witness my daily selections of different books, my enthusiastic punctuation of the silence with the pulling of sticky notes, my gasping as I highlight and feverishly add marginalia to the pages of beauty and brilliance.

We sit silently for 20 minutes at the beginning of each class to read and I’ve told them that they should fall in love with a book. I talk about abandoning books, breaking up with books, and realizing it’s just not the right time for a certain book. So when I saw a young Arabic student walk into my classroom carrying a copy of Lord of the Flies, I knew that I needed to intervene; this might be an unbalanced relationship. I asked him why he chose it and if he was liking the book. I was hoping for a conscious choice and not just one that was defined by others. Then a week or so later we talked again and I shared my concerns with the colonial perspective on Indigenous peoples illustrating this with a flashback to my disposal of the books and the subsequent locking of my Twitter account (I think I’ve written about this before). Public breakups with celebrity books is messy and the tabloid Twitter accounts found me. They thought I was the problem in the relationship.

But, I’m aiming for love and helping my students find it. It’s not always rational when we fall in love and people will try to tell us what is worthy of our time and attention. So when I spoke to this young man a week or so later, he relaxed in his response and told me that he didn’t really enjoy it. He finished it, but. We connected over this breakup with the canon and agreed the book has problematic ideas that need to be addressed in the teaching. I’d read his personal memoir, so I knew his cultural origins and started a search of texts by Arabic authors, Aria by Nazanine Hozar and Darius the Great is Not Okay by Abib Khorram.

former dining-room-table-picked-up-at-a-garage-sale-now-front-table-in-my-classroom

Pulling from my shelves, I dropped them on his desk and moved to the front to set the timer for reading time reminding them, “find some beautiful words and ideas”. The books stayed on his desk for most the class, and just as he was about to leave, I asked which he had chosen. Eyes averted, he slid one of the books aside nodding, This one – a secret love scuttled away like a guilty pleasure ready to be discovered.

Silences 12/31 #SOL

Gordon Hempton said that “Silence is the poetics of space.”

I love the images that this sentence evokes, a merging of the physical and linguistic, and this naming of the place where it exists. This silence is not inactive – it implies the actions of listening and observing underneath the subjective noun function. This silence is a form of communion.

In his essay, “Listening to the Patient”, which argues for literary study in medical school, Dr. John Stone writes that,

Physicians and writers draw on the same sources: the human encounter, people and their indelible stories. And the works of both depend on skillful use of the senses. As with Holmes, success rests with the powers of observation.

This text which began in an examination booklet for grade 12 students at the beginning of my career revisits me with new insights gained over time. This was created before social media, before Google Classroom and before online accessibility exploded in education. I’m reading this now and thinking about the need for silences, for listening, for observing in these new spaces of learning.

Today, I’m leaving some space for silences.

Weighing the Stories 11/31 #SOL

I was having a conversation with a student the other day – her mother works with refugees and has facilitated storytelling workshops. As her daughter, this student was a guest at a story telling event and she told me that afterwards, she left feeling “the heaviness of their stories”. Attending was an honour and leaving changed the mass of her being.

We’d been discussing this because of our Writer’s Club meeting the night before. She had shared her writing of a short story, and I shared mine. We connected over gravity.

I then told her my story of teaching at Adult High School for three years. Reading and hearing of war, poverty and homelessness changed me. I learned from new Canadians, from those attempting to reclaim their lost high school years, to heal. I’ll never forget the Creole woman who looked at Macbeth on the pages of our Falcon textbooks and did not know how to navigate the page; “What are these names at the left?”She had never read a play. That moment reminded me of the many assumptions that Whiteness makes. Or the woman from Sudan who navigated her writer’s notebook with one arm deftly, graciously, and with the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. Her missing arm, draped in her hijab, never once interfered with her ability.

Their stories left me wondering at the absurdity of teaching Shakespeare for those just learning the English and for those whose need was utilitarian in many ways – they needed high school for work, for survival. This is when the canon lost it’s power over me.

But getting back to the student sharing her story — she then talked a bit about the trauma in stories and “young privileged minds” who don’t know this lived experience; we both paused in measuring the complexity, the solemnity of this. I sensed this “heaviness’ which she was carrying as the weight of others’ stories.

I said that I often consider what loading of trauma is done in education intended to build empathy, and wonder at my own teaching – where had I left a student pulling stories along with them? Was this weight for uplifting? I thought about gravity and the force which pulls us down, but also plants our feet firmly on the earth, and then how gravity can be grave, as in “serious”, as well. I wondered about the distance between the story and the self, and how closely can my students touch the stories? All this filled the space of a pause in conversation, until I broke the silence.

So, someone like you hears the story and you are merged with it, you feel as if you are in the story? Others might have distance between themselves and the story.

She smiled and nodded as I explained more, a moment of shared understanding, me giving her the words that she was unable to express under the load.