I was wrong. I thought that taking a day and a half away from school work this weekend would help me catch my breath, help me focus and choose. I have struggled with many decisions this month, though lately, it has worsened. And, this struggle hasn’t just been choices about the content of grade 12 Social Justice and Equity class in this last week of this last year of high school for my students. I have struggled with my role as a leader or facilitator in the virtual room as we wrestle with hard conversations. Should I spend more time on Islamophobia? What about the atrocities of the Residential Schools? What message am I sending by not addressing Palestine this week? It’s Pride month and we haven’t talked about homelessness. What social justice issue am I neglecting for my own comfort, to avoid the conflict among students?
This class is virtual, online learning, leaving me unable to read the emotional response of digital icons, unable to gain the knowledge through movement, the shifting in chairs, the heavy breaths in and out – but maybe that’s just an excuse that I’m telling myself. Still, I do know that I have been purposeful in managing each conversation with intensive listening, following up with those who voice concerns, and intervening when meetings spiral into religious debates verging on combative over collaborative discourse. I feel the urgency of every – single – choice – now, in this moment, with this graduating class.
I had hoped for some room to breathe on Saturday, so I worked in my garden waiting for nature’s guidance. I thought, “maybe there, in that open space, I will find a way to breathe and then all the issues would find the right amount of air”. Of course, I was wrong. Every step on the green grass outside my house was a reminder of my freedom to walk on a land that is legally called my “home”, in a place where there will be no knee on the neck of my son, on a sidewalk where there is no risk of hatred or death by car.
I am still shallow breathing this morning, anxiety and indecision sending my shoulders up and slightly forward. Noticing my breathing reminds me that there was once asbestos in the walls of this classroom that I am standing in, and maybe it’s been “removed”, and I remember having been assured that the air is “safe” in this century old building. There was a time when asbestos kept us safe, but now we know better – lessons learned from the lungs of workers who took their last breath. I open the classroom windows each day anyway, not because I don’t trust these assurances, but because the air from the tree-lined street is always sweeter smelling. Flying visitors enter because there are no screens on these windows, so wasps and moths join me in this space. I’ve mastered a technique, both paper and air, sending them to freedom with a gentle breath, blowing them somewhere safer.
In the moments of thinking and writing here and now, I’m clearly avoiding a choice, avoiding responsibility and making the choice to step away from the difficult lessons while I notice my surroundings and breathe the air in my white-middle-class-Canadian-freedom. And then I hear Tobi’s voice reminding me to press ahead. I’m trying to make the lessons fit when, really, the lessons are hard and uncomfortable. I should never be comfortable in what I have chosen until I can see each student has moved into a society that defends all human rights. My classroom once contained the poison which resulted in breathing problems, lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma; those previous generations of students learned in this space breathing in air they felt was “safe”; they moved into the world after leaving this building with the possibility of poison in their bodies.
As an educator, I feel the push to breathe life into the walls of whatever learning space there is – physical or virtual – to open the windows, the doors, to unleash the natural genius, break down the injustice for the privileged who walk with me in this centuries old building. I was definitely wrong. But not for the reasons that I initially thought. I was wrong to think that my work and my life are separate ventures parcelled discretely for processing. Breathing is necessary all of the time.