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.

Patterns 10/31 #SOL2021

Media Studies has heavily influenced my thinking of reading and writing; in fact, so much so that when teaching the schools of literary criticism yesterday, I found my lens in my lessons.

In my grade 12 University English class, half in person and half at home on a Google Meet, I was moving through the usual slideshow, a combination of text and image, talking through the information adding details when I had a momentary “oops” thought; I’ve been teaching them as a Structuralist. I forged ahead letting the intrusion scurry into some crevice of the mind, but it prodded me for much of the day forcing revisions to my lessons, and my thinking.

When I arrived at school this morning, on the tenth day of the March Challenge, turned on my computer, began setting myself up for the day, then preparing to write here, I thought, “I can’t do this.” And then it really hit me. This is a pattern and I’ve been here before. Last year, in fact. The evidence is on 10/31 #SOL2020. It was precisely this time last year, one third of the way into the challenge that I had given up on myself.

Not today, I thought. Not today.

Observing the patterns in poetry and nature generate a sense of the profound beauty of art and life. The patterns of action and habit are useful for survival and the rhythm of routine can be reassuring, calming. And, I think the patterns of life are worthy of examination, especially when those patterns cause harm or prevent us from flourishing.

My focus this year in bringing about equity is the work of bringing equanimity, a dismantling of inward and outward, so instead of falling for a pattern in my thinking, I’m clinging to a practice of hopeful noticing and not allowing the pattern to become action. Not today.

Chords 9/31 #SOL2021

The chord is stretched taut, frayed, but holding.

Each night since his return home, I’ve had to hear the sounds of death metal or some other form of screeching rage rock from the basement. It’s loud, but my 95 year old father is nearly deaf so it won’t bother him – even with his hearing aids in and turned on. But I hear it.

I say nothing, but think many things. I decide this: he needs time and space, so don’t judge him or his musical loves. I remember my parents being upset and challenged by my musical tastes, especially when I started going to concerts in Toronto. They listened nearly exclusively to classical music, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and opera; it was always on, always in the background of my home. In fact, I had not heard any popular music until Olivia Newton John, and then again when my brother introduced my parents to the Beatles.

Once in high school, parties with friends revolved around music, and my listening world exploded and expanded. It was the spinning center and the chords connected us. Albums were played in full while we sat on shag carpeted floors; we would sing along, play air guitars, and exchange smiles of recognition in dimly lit basement rooms. We didn’t talk deeply or share anything other than the music.

Last night, we ate dinner as a family though I could tell my youngest son wasn’t hungry; he did it for us, for the family. Conversation flowed and I noticed deepening crevices and slight swelling under my husband’s eyes. He’s not sleeping, I think. After dishes and baking muffins, the youngest retreats to the basement and I bristle against the sounds penetrating the walls – Megadeath. I feel a old fog of ire surfacing, and do my best to push it away with rationalizations.

The music changes and I hear familiar sounds. My body softens releasing tension and I hear the chords of “2112” – Rush. Turning to my husband, I whisper, “Recognize that sound?” Despite the years, some sounds are in us deeply embedded like the vinyl grooves which carry chords of connection.

Ceylonta 8/31 #SOL2021

It all happened so fast.

We gather in a Google Meet right after class, first Amanda and me, then Tobi, then Paula. Amanda looks distraught and she tells me that she may need to leave our meeting to address the current urgency of her father-in-law’s health. She holds back a flood tears, letting only a few escape before the others arrive, then rubbing her eyes as she does when she thinks. But this motion is slower, and more sweeping, as if the intent is not to understand, but to ignore what is known. Grief knocks at both our doors, but we continue to teach and to gather in community; one picks up when anther falls.

That was Friday. This is Saturday.

A text arrives to our group chat: His dad died last night. It was quick and what he wanted.

We text our condolences. We are all somewhat numb to our collective suffering and I wonder if it is getting easier because it is becoming routine. This is what we know.

There are small moments of suffering and larger ones too, merging and overlapping into places of connection and community. Tobi and I decide to send Amanda and her family a meal. Tobi slyly finds out where Amanda likes to eat nearby and I make the call to Ceylonta, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Ottawa. I speak with Raj and he knows the family well. We plan together what to send to sustain them, and I plan to pick it up before 5pm on Sunday.

Forcing open the heavy and nearly immobile front door of the downtown restaurant, I am greeted by scents of coconut and Jasmine and spices that I cannot identify. This place has a history, and appears to be well established. A round brown-faced smiling man greets me and the bags of warm food are waiting on the counter near the front cash. He tells me that he is donating $80 of food for this “incredible family”, these “good people”, and he shares a story of a $100 tip they left. He bows to me, hands in prayer, in front – namaste. He then tells me that there is freshly made tapioca for me and Tobi – two servings, no charge.

I leave with six large warm parcels of nourishment and comfort, food prepared for ones who are suffering the loss of a life. Grief and gratitude mingle and the ripple of community continues.

Nuance and Nonsense – 7/31 #SOL2021

I’ve rewritten this sentence twenty times.

I often revel and am sustained by the incredible complexities of words taking great joy in teaching English to high school students. As lovers of books and words, teachers gather and talk and debate the merits of particular texts, own voices, whole class novels, literature circles, student choice reading, whole language, prescriptive grammar, and I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because that’s not my point.

My point involves an ethic of care about language use and a recent directive from my school board.

As teachers, as department heads, as leaders and thinkers, we deal in nuance regularly. We know that there is no meaning without context. We provide lessons on denotation and connotation of words, demonstrate the use of punctuation to invert or change the meaning of a sentence. So, I was at a loss for words when some responded with a low level of hostility (or, maybe it was just sarcasm and I read it wrong) to the directive against the use of racial slurs and epithets in the classroom. Someone mentioned “cancel culture”.

A group gathered virtually and I could tell from early posts to our Jamboard discussion that some teachers had not received the slideshow, had not read the FAQs from our Human Rights Coordinator, had not thought about our students and the trauma caused by the use of the n-word at school, in education. Ooph. I didn’t see this as a question of subtlety or nuance about the word. The evidence is clear and damning. If we really listen to our Black students and their experience with To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies in classrooms with White teachers, if we really believe them, then we wouldn’t teach them as we have done. It’s traumatic.

The ensuing discussion was just a blur of words. My mouth felt like it would explode, but I knew it would not end well nor promote understanding, so I did not unmute. Then Matt Dotzenroth spoke in a way which provided an interesting frame for considering the merits of texts in terms of equity and oppression, beyond the simplistic lens of specific words. He asked if the use of a slur or epithet does anything in the book “to advance the conversation” regarding equity. I like this, but want to add another question; does the teaching with the slur or epithet promote liberatory education?

There is nuance in teaching, and nonsense too. I can’t imagine that a whole book can be life changing and is fundamentally necessary to be human, yet simultaneously deny the impact of the word use within that text. That seems like nonsense to me. And, even as I write these words, I know there is a gifted teacher with the ability to teach the troublesome texts generating the critical thinking skills that dismantle White supremacy. But, since the vast majority of us are White, and until the vast majority of us are able, I think we should listen to our Black, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+, and other students of colour who experience the impact of slurs and epithets.

Education should liberate so I want to language to live in books and poems and words of liberation.

The Breakout Rooms 6/31 #SOL

Like many, my high school has been engaged in antiracism training this year, and this week we had the second of a series of facilitated workshops. The first had been quite a revelation for many of the staff and I think it supported more engagement in Black History Month. The second involved a close look at our own identities and privilege. This had me off balance in a way that I could not have anticipated. I mean, I’m okay with discomfort and have been really uncomfortable, really really uncomfortable, many times this year. But, this was different. This was visceral pain unearthed from the past.

I’ll explain what happened. First, we were given a series of true or false questions and we went to breakout rooms to introduce ourselves and share. We came back to the whole group for a lesson on racial identity and then we were given a handout with boxes of identity markers such as our parents’ education, our race, gender identity, socio-economic condition, etc. We were tasked with imagining our teen self having to complete the identity categories, and then used triangles to identify for areas supported and circles for areas not supported within the school environment. From here we moved into a new breakout room with other members of an 80 person staff to share. I looked at my circles and felt a wave of panic and tears forming as I imagined sharing this history with a group of people whom I barely know.

I clicked the link to the breakout room I was assigned and saw half of the eight cameras off, everyone muted. I knew this was going to be difficult, again, but terror was with me. The previous breakout discussion stuttered with no one wanting to lead or facilitate so I did what I usually do to break the extended awkward silence and spoke first. But this time, I was ready to run. My heart was racing as I felt my body physically move back from the screen. Again, there was the awkward silence as the whole group waited for a leader to emerge. But, this time, there was no way that I was going to share my circles of struggle in high school, so I unmuted my microphone and said what I was thinking.

“I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a really big ask. I’m relatively new here and you don’t really know me. This just feels like a lot.”

Another member unmuted and turned on her camera. She agreed with me but shared in general terms and also said that she didn’t want to be specific about her circles as it might make colleagues see her differently or judge her in ways that could be damaging to her career of sense of self at work. That opened a window for me to speak more generally about the place where I spent my high school years and then then pass to another teacher whose camera was off.

He began by mentioning his openness about mental health beginning with his father’s suicide in high school, his brother’s mental illness, and the hereditary concerns he manages daily. The clock was ticking on the closing of the break out room and it made me panic for him – I wanted to sit and listen respectfully allowing him the time and space for sharing such deeply personal pain. The time ended and we closed with a thank you for sharing, but it really wasn’t enough.

The breakout rooms got me thinking about the vulnerable places we ask people to go with one another. Sharing out stories takes time and a soft place to land.

Photographic memories (cont’d) 5/31 #SOL2021

(This is the third day experimenting with the writing a fictional short story.)

She sat in her housecoat reading the newspaper article taking quick, shallow breaths, her mouth open, her shoulders curled forward with her head hanging over the table where the broadsheet pages lay flat. She had left her bedroom, venturing down the stairs to the kitchen for the first time since returning home from the hospital, since waking up from the coma, since realizing there had been an accident that she could not remember.

For three…no, six long months, she thought. She was waking up to an awareness that Celia had kept her hidden with a purpose. She had told her that she needed to be “safe”, but the opposite of this was unknown so she searched through the archives outside of her for answers. She searched in photographs.

The sound of a car door brought her back into the moment, one for which she was entirely unprepared and this disoriented her. A panic grew as she heard the footsteps up the path, the door clicking open, then clumping shut, the deep sigh, and then the gasp.

Celia stood in the doorway still partially at the entrance looking like a flight risk. Her arms were still behind her caught in the sleeves of her jacket which hung partially from her shoulders and she was frozen in place facing her sister’s discovery. The newspaper story was there – published with graphic images, published without her.

Rising only slightly from the chair, she glanced down then up, then down again. “What is this story, Celia?” she pushed out of her throat.

The jacket now fell to the floor landing on the moistened carpet in the hallway. Celia crossed the threshold of the kitchen robotically, pulled off her mask, poured a coffee, and then sat across from her sister. Celia did this seemingly without her eyes.

“I’ve been trying to keep the story from you because..” She paused searching for words, thinking back to the plans she had in case she needed to tell her that it was her fault. Celia felt the groan of her empty stomach, but not as hunger so much as a vacancy. Breathing and swallowing another gulp of coffee, she rubbed her right eye to steady a spasm of the lid, a recurring tick that had regularly irritated her of late.

Then, the story emerged with urgency and now it propelled her forward unfolding honestly, or as honestly as she was able, with the limited reflection she has allowed herself. It was mostly factual, most chronological with only vague similarity to the one found in the newspaper.

“My eyes,” she whispered, “were focused on the rear view mirror. I wasn’t watching where we were going. I was looking back. It’s my fault. Your life is changed and it all my fault.”

“But, there’s more, right?”

Stories were now spoken out loud, and she knew it didn’t really matter to what lay ahead, that she wouldn’t find the answer in the photographs, in the newspaper article, but she did finally realize that everything was different and the same.

Pausing the story 4/31 #SOL

After two days of trying to write a short story, I am pausing for reflection.

Yesterday, after class, they came to see me, two of the Five Writers group that I’m supervising as extracurricular work. We’ve been writing together since the fall and the most recent prompt that they accepted was writing a short story; we looked at techniques of setting, and dialogue and talked about the complexity of taking an idea from one’s imagination and translating it to the page so your reader sees what you envisioned. As a writing teacher, I know the importance of writing alongside students, so I decided to join them as part of my own struggle to grow and wrestle with a writing life.

Both of these young women who sat, masked and distanced, are beautiful humans, complex and thoughtful intellectuals who possess a love of literature and humanities; I have taught both of them in grade 11 and, now, grade 12. We have forged a connection through words and I make a point of centering theirs. A month has passed and they are struggling with their ideas and reaching out for advice. I felt a lack in this area of the craft despite knowing the theory, and knowing how to find themes, literary devices, and apply the formulas of analysis to artistic form. But, I’ve never written a short story.

This might not be the most settled time for me to be writing a short story, since there are many personal and professional battles in my wake, but I decided to use this as the moment to gather more from the creative resources within, to mine that spirit which drives us for connection and reflection. And, so, I began to write, and the story has moved and shifted in ways that have been unpredictable. And, yes, I have a plan (sort of) and I definitely have thematic ideas that I want to convey, but the product and the process are challenging me in ways that I couldn’t understand had I not done this.

We talked about our ideas and what is happening with our writing. One fears that her vision of the story will not be understood and she has made several attempts, but her writing stutters — she feels unable to bring the story to the page. The other, too, imagines a story, plots out its parts, but can’t seem to bring it together “into a cohesive whole”. I thought about our processes of writing and wondered if a part to whole or whole to part framing of the writing might be helpful.

I shared my thematic idea:

I’m hoping to convey a message about reckoning with the past, with our own past as a way of moving forward. I was thinking about the ways that photographs can provide a sense of the past that isn’t real and yet being in the moment is so ethereal, so transient and living is like looking through the front windshield of a car while glancing back in the rearview mirror. We are trying to live forward while looking back.

I then shared the process over the past two days and the fact that the story morphed and changed as I wrote while I kept trying to keep this centre of meaning. It sparked a shared recognition and a lightness filled the room; they were both able to see themselves in what I had shared in my writing experience. Although I know that my craft is limited, I just don’t know how limited unless I try and fail and try again to reckon with this writing life.

Photographic memories (cont’d) 3/31 #SOL2021

(This is part 2 of a short story that I’ve been meaning to write.)

Speaking the words, saying it out loud makes it real and true. This is what I fear.

Celia writes these words in her notebook deciding that is enough for today. Even thinking is an awkward navigation of the mind and often she must disembark to stay on solid ground. The situation forces silence and she is muted, feeling blunted emotionally. Yet, she does this with intention and purpose so she can still get up, have a shower, travel to work, do what she does, and return home again. In one piece.

She takes her knitting with her in a handhewn bag made from recycled plastic bags, locks the front door glancing upwards to her bedroom before turning and driving away. The windshield fogs repeatedly and she turns the fan on and then off again when the way ahead is in view. “It must be damp today”, she thinks as the greyness hovers and the sky hovers low as one wanting to touch the earth.

Opening her computer, she flinches at another email request for specific details of the accident; a journalist has found her place of work and the initial violation compelled her immediately to ‘delete’. She knows this reaction would not close this connection, this seeking for the answers to the story, so she decides to open the email which contained attachments – photographs. Scrolling through words that seem to float off screen she senses a presence over her shoulder. The cubicle of space, the area that she can control and monitor with deft precision is breached and goosebumps travel across her neck, tingling and rising up to her hairline.

“Oh my God, what the hell happened there?” The words are drawn out, long and lowly whispered.

The attached photos sit squarely on the screen brutal and vivid, colourful and uncensored displaying graphically the results of Celia’s poor driving. March 2020 slammed her in the chest and she gasped for air just as she had when the airbag exploded, just as she had when the blood from her sister’s head ran across the dashboard and began spilling in her lap.