"We need to figure out who can make it tonight
and who cannot."
Another start to another class with my Native Awareness students. This
group has been so wonderful that I cannot imagine not being able to see
them and be with them on a regular basis. It is comprised of some pretty
interesting individuals who are not always welcome in different arenas.
Donald for example, can only go tonight if the house mother in his group
home allows him out past his curfew. That should be alright though because
fortunately I am also a probation officer (just one of the many hats I
wear, didn't know it would be handy in this way).
Linda will have to check with her mother to see if she will babysit her
two year old. Normally this is not a problem except that the night before
she was out partying and didn't get in until the next morning so she's
Randy is not sure that he wants to miss his hockey game tonight. Sure
it's not a league game but all the guys will be there. Randy plays almost
every night until two or three in the morning and then parties till four
or five. I think the real problem is that his girlfriend freaked about
how many times he gets to go out while she is home with their ten month
old. Will she understand how important this is?
Jennifer is absolutely excited to go but doesn't know if she has anything
appropriate to wear and certainly can't afford to 'pick something up'.
Her social assistance cheque does not go very far after she pays her rent.
James will probably be able to go but doesn't think he has a pair of
jeans without holes in the knees. He is also concerned that his family
is going to church tonight and he's not sure that he will be able to go
if there is a time conflict. I think there is a bigger issue for him though.
James is illiterate but has developed enough tools to normally get by.
Unfortunately, tonight will be a 'fancy' dinner so he can't guess at what
should be on the menu and order accordingly.
Quite the crew some teachers would say. I have heard it before.
"Don't they drive you crazy?" "Are they LEARNING anything?"
"I kicked her out of my class last week. She's never there and when
she does come all she ever does is sleep!" "He never hands anything
in and is always asking to go to the washroom."
"We need to figure out who can make it tonight
and who cannot."
A simple statement, a simple organization process. A simple matter of
determining who is interested, who is free, who has something to wear,
and who is quick enough so we won't be late. What I didn't really understand
as we were making our selections for the evening was just what this statement
would mean to me as I reflected back on the magic of the evening. Who
can make it?? Who is ready?? What did it require for one to be ready??
Ready for what? What would tonight really mean for each of us individually
and for us as a group.
Tonight was the evening of the Aboriginal Youth Awards banquet. The tickets
were $50.00 a piece, something I could not afford myself but fortunately
a friend was going and could get me six tickets. I was a little worried
about how I might 'select' students but amazingly they worked it out themselves.
Prior to the day of the awards we had discussed the upcoming evening and
they decided that if more people than tickets wanted to go we would simply
have to draw names. The day of the banquet some students indicated that
they did not want to go. A couple of the others were sick and couldn't
go. We phoned them but they said they were not well enough. In the end
I was left with five students who could go home at 3:35, get ready and
be back at the school by 5:30. Thus we had our group for the evening.
We laughed continuously throughout the evening. From the time we arrived
until it was time to go home. It was wonderful to see the smiles, at times
even tears when we laughed so hard, on each of their faces. We have enjoyed
some pretty humorous times in class but none have come close to this event.
The evening started out with a procession of elders, honoured youth,
traditional dancers, and special guests which moved through the general
seating area to create a circle which would include all 1000 plus people
attending the event. My students watched the procession in both fascination
and awe. We were fortunate to be placed at a table right in front of the
stage. Once the circle was complete, the evening began with the introduction
of our MC's. A few short words were shared, our thanks to the creator
extended and then dinner began. My students had been bubbling enthusiastically
up to this point, sharing who they had seen, who was here that they knew,
and who they wanted to get to know.
It was at this point in time that I was once again shown how ingenious
our young people can be when faced with difficult situations. Of course
I completely missed this reminder until much later when I was writing
about our evening. When there was a break in the discussions James indicated
that he wanted to slip out for a smoke. This is not an unusual request
from him so I didn't hesitate to say yes. James was gone for quite a while
and even one or two of the students commented. I did not want him to feel
that I didn't trust him so I had already told myself I would not go looking
for him. I would just wait and trust that he wouldn't slip out on me.
I didn't believe he would anyway but after awhile I started to get nervous.
Finally as I looked at the entrance doors for the umpteenth time I saw
him step in and look around. He did not make eye contact with me or even
seem to look at our table. He then left the room, moved down the hall
to the other set of doors and reentered the room. Once again he was looking
around the room. At this time I figured, Oh, James can't find our table,
there are too many people here. So I quickly jumped up and went out into
the hall to rescue him. The mother in me was zeroing in quite quickly
actually. As he moved back into the hall and past both sets of doors on
his way out of our area, I quickly caught up.
"James, where are you going? I saw you come in looking around, couldn't
you find our table?"
"Yeah, I know where it is, I was just looking for someone."
"Oh, I thought maybe you got lost. Why don't you come back in with
"I didn't have a smoke yet, I'll be quick"
"Well, alright but hurry back."
Off we went in each our own directions. After about ten minutes James
rejoined us. Actually he was just in time for the salad as the waiters
and waitresses were just getting to our table with the first part of our
meal. What I didn't realize at that time was that James had just demonstrated
for me and anyone else who was aware, one of his many literacy survival
tools. He wasn't looking for anyone (others at the table asked who and
he just said 'never mind') and he probably didn't want a smoke. He was
simply ensuring that he would be out of the room long enough to not have
to chose an item off a menu for dinner. You see James can handle himself
quite well in the usual fast food scenarios but as he had never been to
a formal dinner he had no way of knowing that you did not have to order
a meal from a printed menu. His perception of formal dinners probably
came from the many restaurant scenes on T.V. in which one elegantly chooses
appropriate and delicious meals from a menu. He is smart enough to know
that ordering a 'cheeseburger' is probably not appropriate.
"We need to figure out who can make it tonight
and who cannot."
What did it require for James to be ready? Would I have judged him as
ready if I seriously considered the evening from his perspective? Might
I have been more concerned about how uncomfortable or exposed he might
have felt and decided not to expose him to the possibility of this? Would
other teachers have judged any of them ready for this evening given their
personal backgrounds and struggles?
I have gone through a process of change in the last year or so which
has been a direct result of two things happening in my life. One is being
given the opportunity to focus a lot of my energy on the Aboriginal students
in our building and Division through the course I teach and a research
project I am currently involved with. The other is being a part of a group
of teachers currently working on their Masters Degree in Teacher Action
Research. My involvement in both has really opened my eyes in terms of
my own understandings of who I am and what I am about as a person, a teacher,
and a learner.
As a teacher of Native Awareness, I needed to explore my own history
and the history of my people. This has been a somewhat difficult journey
for me as I have always denied any connections to Native people. I can
easily pass for a 'white person' and have always chosen my dress and appearance
to reflect this. Suddenly I was required to teach about a way of life
I had very little knowledge of and had rejected for most of my life.
As I struggled with who I thought I was and what I thought I was all
about, I came to the realization that I have always felt like an outsider.
Someone on the perrefial of other people's lives. This was probably most
obvious to me as I sat through the beginning classes of our first Master's
course. Many times I felt like I had entered the wrong room. I was definitely
feeling like I was not capable of the task before me. This feeling was
not new to me though so I immediately went into my 'survival' mode and
listened carefully to everyone else. Whenever I contributed I made sure
that I had thought things out very carefully first and only contributed
in small ways to ensure I didn't make any mistakes. I knew how to 'work'
this scenario because I had been here before. The question upper most
in my mind was did Dr. Newman know what I was doing? I knew if I was careful,
I could jump through the hoops as required. When I think about the fear
I felt in the beginning and the small risks I took to remain a part of
this group in an acceptable way and how much energy that all took on top
of my 'day job'. I am amazed I was able to get through the beginning without
I know my strength and I also know how easy it would have been for me
to 'decide' that doing my Masters was not a good idea at this time in
my life. I really did have an out. When I reflect back on the night of
the awards banquet and think of James and what his choices were that night
I am reminded of how much he must have wanted to be there. To risk any
of his peers figuring out that he couldn't read the menu or for that matter
his teacher. He didn't really have an out. He had no money for a bus,
was in a place he had never gone to before, (James has only been in Winnipeg
and off his reserve for approximately 1 1/2 years), and didn't know anyone
else there except our group. Yet he still came knowing all that he was
risking. The desire to be a part of that evening, and part of that group
was so strong. I understand this desire so well and realize just how much
he would have struggled and worried about it just as I have and did.
The questions which came out of that meal were incredible. Things that
I had not really recognized as concerns or as 'new' introductions to some
of my students were suddenly a part of our conversations.
"What kind of soup is this?" (Oil & Vinegar dressing) "Which
fork am I supposed to use for this salad?" "What is this? It's
kind of green." (Broccoli) "Which is the meat?" (The chicken
breast and the potato were kind of the same size and shape) "Should
I take my dirty glass back?" "Hey, what's this thing for, blowing
your nose?" (cloth napkin)
It was interesting to see how they helped each other out with the things
they didn't know. With each question came a response from the others with
suggestions on what it might be, what to use, or how you should use it.
Sometimes one of them would watch what I or one of the other two adults
sharing our table were doing and then copy it. The students really didn't
appear to care what any of us at the table thought. I think they were
comfortable with the two gentlemen we were sharing with because one drove
some there and is a friend of mine. I told them he would be there, and
the other was Métis with a very heavy accent. Although we shared
many laughs no one appeared to be uncomfortable about their lack of knowledge.
"We need to figure out who can make it tonight
and who cannot."
To watch those students feeling comfortable enough with each other to
expose themselves in the way that they did and also to reach out to each
other in a helping way was refreshing. I have always valued caring and
supportive people. As I reflected on my life and what has brought me to
this point I was able to remember the people who have been there for me.
I remember one lady in particular whose small gesture made such a difference
for me. I had just started in a new school during my grade one year. We
moved into the area approximately three weeks after school started. Unfortunately
most of the groups of friends had already been established and being the
quiet, shy child that I was I could not seem to find a way to be included.
Many a recess was spent sitting on the side watching all the kids playing
with each other and feeling very alone and very much an outsider. Those
short 15 minute time slots were the longest minutes of my life. Fortunately,
after a period of time my grade one teacher recognized what was going
on for me and she started coming out during recess and sitting and talking
with me. Perhaps what I remember most about those visits was that she
always brought out two pieces of fruit. One, an apple she ate and the
other, a pear she gave to me. I'll never forget the taste of those pears.
I had never had one before and didn't know what it was. To this day I
love pears and when I think back on the important moments of my life that
first pear by far is the most important. The very first time she handed
me a piece of fruit I made a conscience decision to be a teacher. Her
kind, caring, supportive nature has always been a model for the kind of
teacher I've wanted to be. The exclusion I felt as a person is something
I have never wanted another child to feel so I put a lot of energy into
helping my students be supportive and inclusive of each other. As I watched
my students look after each other around that table I realized that they
really did care about each other, accept each other and enjoy each other.
We were indeed connected in many ways.
Empowering relationships develop over time and it takes time for
participants to recognize the value that the relationship holds. Empowering
relationships involve feelings of 'connectedness' that are developed
in situations of equality, caring, and mutual purpose and intention
(Hogan, Cited in Connelly & Clandinin,1990: 4.)
It was interesting to notice the change in behaviour as soon as the meal
was over and the presentations and speeches began. The focus of the evening
was on 14 young people between the ages of 16 and 24. These young people
were being honoured for their personal efforts in a variety of categories.
The eight categories included: Academic, Artistic, Cultural, Community/Volunteer,
Athletic, Personal Achievement, Business/Entrepreneurial, and Traditional
Employment. Each category was introduced, the winner briefly described
and then asked to come up and accept their award. The youth was wrapped
in a traditional star blanket and given a trophy designed by a First Nations
artist. At this point in time the young person was given a few minutes
to speak to the crowd.
From the moment the MC's began discussing the first recipient there was
an immediate change in the atmosphere at our table. Prior to this we had
finished our meals and my students had wandered off to find people they
knew, have the smoke they so desperately craved, or try to introduce themselves
to someone they wanted to know. As soon as the speaking began all of my
students returned and turned their attention to the stage. With the excellent
seating we had our view of the recipients could not have been better.
Those students whose seats did not allow them a clear view shifted and
repositioned themselves so that they could see perfectly. I couldn't help
but think about how attentive they were. I think I've seen that look before
in our classes but not nearly as intense as it was on this night. And
I'm quite sure there are few others in their lives that have seen it at
The silence was deafening! Where minutes before there had been joking,
laughing, conversation, physical movement, now there was only concentration
and silence. As recipient after recipient came up to accept an award and
talk about their lives and achievements my students sat in silence and
awe. For me what was perhaps most amazing was the way they seemed connected
to each person on the stage. They sat focused, physically leaning forward,
attentive. Almost trying to grab each word as it exited the speakers mouth.
Nodding in agreement when the speakers spoke of their plans for the future.
The feelings around that table were astounding. It was the past, present,
and future all rolled into one moment in time. Like a snapshot, I felt
like something huge had been captured and I wanted to hold it forever.
I could see my students thinking about themselves in comparison to the
speakers. Not in ways like I could never be like that but rather in ways
like, Yeah, I've done that or I could do that.
Certainly the silence did not last all the way through, not the least
bit surprising for any of us who spend time with children. But the conversations
changed. Even the volume was different. Where previously the volume was
loud now it was but a whisper. Two heads quickly coming together short
whispers barely captured. Something was happening here. Something that
counted a lot and I felt a strong need to capture. As I watched all that
was happening I started to think about how connected my students were.
They were listening, concentrating, so focused and it was at this time
that I realized why. It was the stories of each person's lives that they
were so connected to. The story of who they were and how they got to that
stage receiving that kind of recognition in front of so many people. The
stories of both hardship and support. The look of appreciation, gratefulness
and joy on each recipients face was remarkable. They spoke of the struggles
they had endured and overcome, of the people they cared for and who had
cared for them, of the dreams they had and achieved and the dreams they
now hold for their futures. It was magical!
"We need to figure out who can make it tonight
and who cannot."
We share our meanings with each other in the hope that the meanings
of one person's story will help others seek and find the meanings
of theirs (Bissex, 1988: xx).
Narratives captured, stories swirling around us. Lives intertwined. I
heard my students lives on that stage. I heard my life on that stage.
The stories the award recipients shared connected us all in our past,
our present, and our futures. It was a reminder of the stories we have
already shared, the stories we have created together, and the stories
we will create. All of these stories which will be told by many, many
times in the future were there in those moments for each of us.
Narrative is the study of how humans make meaning of experience by
endlessly telling and retelling stories about themselves that both
refigure the past and create purpose in the future (Connelly &
Clandinin, 1988: xx).
After that evening things changed for all of us as a group. I have always
believed that the 'whole' person counts. In whatever choices I have made
on a daily basis with different students I have always been willing to
listen and take into consideration other factors in their lives. When
I started teaching Native Awareness I believed very strongly in following
a Medicine Wheel approach which allowed for balance within all of our
experiences. The medicine wheel is an ancient symbol well-known in North
American Native cultures. The parts which comprise the whole person are
represented on the wheel as the spiritual, the emotional, the physical
and the intellectual. These four aspects are placed on the wheel in relation
to the four directions. The eastern direction is spiritual, the southern
direction is emotional, the western direction is physical and the northern
direction is intellectual. As a group our sharing has always been done
in a circle. The circle is an image for the whole, oneness and unity.
It allows for balance and equality.
After our evening I came to realize that although I felt we were following
a medicine wheel approach my students had not yet necessarily understood
and incorporated that same approach to the depth that I had. The evening
of the awards banquet incorporated all four aspects of the medicine wheel
and reached out to and into all of the young people there. As I observed
my students that night I was afforded the opportunity to have a glimpse
of who is/was underneath the individual that I was shown on a regular
day within our classroom and school environment. We walk in our lives
everyday multi-layered and how we share and expose our layers are often
very dependent on with whom we are with and connected to at any particular
instant of our day. We often know what our days look like and what people
expect of us. How we will be viewed and how we have been viewed is often
predictable. Our history prepares us for each day and each relationship
and like a comfortable shoe we can get up and be who we are perceived
as with little risk to ourselves. There is safety and survival in this.
What happens for those students whose 'safe' walk on a daily continual
basis does not allow them to see other opportunities. What is my role
I believe that it is my job to allow them to see what their world may
include. Not because they should change their paths but rather so they
have a choice. We tell students to take academic courses and take the
highest level possible to as not to close any doors. What doors are closed
for these students as they move safely through their day, their life?
The change after our evening together was not a drastic change. In fact
for someone looking in they may not even have noticed it. It was more
of a change in depth to what we were sharing as a group. Suddenly when
one member spoke they spoke with more honesty and sincerity. They were
more willing to tell the story behind the story. They asked questions
of each other that encouraged more sharing and they were more willing
to answer those questions. It was almost like a shift in relationship
from a hierarchial structure of separate individuals to a linear connected
entity. This was certainly true within our classroom when we met but it
also became true when our paths crossed outside of the class in the hallways,
the school yard, the community. Where before we may have waved and said
hello and moved on, we now stop to express our pleasure at the unexpected
opportunity to connect. this is expressed in the gestures, the comments,
the expressions in many different ways but for all of us it is very evident.
What did that evening do for myself as a teacher? It allowed me to recognize
where my students were really coming from and where they may be yearning
to go to. It allowed me to truly understand how time is not a reality
when we carry our past, present and future within ourselves on our daily
journey. An elder once told me that time is irrelevant and non-existent.
I walked away from that conversation thinking how on earth can I possibly
teach all the courses I do and work with the all of the students in a
way that is beneficial to all if I don't balance my time properly and
teach them to do the same. How can I possibly exist in a successful way
on a daily basis given the job I do and the responsibility I have to all
of the people in the many different aspects of my life if I adopted the
belief that time is irrelevant and non- existent. That for me was an impossible
concept and I could dismiss it because it was coming from someone who
could not possible understand what it was like to be a teacher and professional.
When I look now at my students and their lives, how we are connected
and intertwined I realize that within that medicine wheel perspective
time IS irrelevant. Who we are, where we have come from, what we choose
today and where we will go is all within us. When we interact as individuals
we share that with each other and we leave that gift of sharing to be
carried with those we connect to. We are interrelated and therefore both
connected and dependent on each other. When we understand the depth of
this relationship we become better able to connect and support each other.
The most important aspect of teaching to me is the relationship with the
individuals I am fortunate to spend time with.
The evening of the aboriginal awards banquet has allowed us to understand
each other in a much deeper way. To see how we are connected through experience,
beliefs, and trusts. To realize how we support and nurture each other
as we take those necessary risks which will allow us to become that which
we value and choose for ourselves. As a person it has allowed me to know
and work with an amazing group of young people in ways that I never would
have imagined when I first started teaching some eight years ago.
Bissex, Glenda 1988 On Learning and Not Learning from
Teaching. Language Arts, 65(8): 771.
Connelly, Michael & Jean Clandinin 1988 Teachers as
Curriculum Planners: Narratives of Experience. Toronto: OISE Press.
Hogan, P. 1990 A Community of Teacher Researchers: A Story
of Empowerment. Cited in Connelly, Michael & Jean Clandinin 1990 Stories
of Experience and Narrative Inquiry. Educational Researcher, June-July: