Anne M. Smith-Nochasak:
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“The kids would probably shock most of her teachers’ college contemporaries, if the lack of resources did not send them marching back to the plane. The children realized that they were a stepping stone in someone’s career, to be used and discarded and forgotten. Therefore, they planned to shock, to probe out the weaknesses and find if a heart beat there for them, a heart that would care for them and be there for them and accept them and love them as all children, especially stepping-stone children, deserve to be loved. Only then would something called curriculum begin to matter. Love us first as we are, they were pleading, in all our rejection, in all our brokenness. Love that in us, and be with us. Then, we can begin.”
-A Canoer of Shorelines, p. 31
When I started teaching in isolated locations, teaching jobs were few and far between. We sent applications everywhere, and occasionally had interviews. Parts of the North were inundated with resumes; these offered amazing benefits packages and opportunities for development. Some of us wound up in the places with the smaller benefits packages – the places with long term boil-water advisories, the occasional episode of raw sewage backing across the floor outside one’s apartment door, perhaps a need to boost someone out the window to come around and force the portable door…..
We regarded these situations as temporary. We were going to have the brand new three bedroom bungalow overlooking the lake, a broad road winding down to the state of the art school. We had dreams. This was a stop-over.
A stepping stone.
Many of us did move on. I moved on.
I went back, however, not because I like thawing snow to wash my hair, but because the “smaller benefits packages” places had true benefits. We were part of the community there. When a community member died, the staff turned out to cook. When I was broken, the community comforted me. When I needed direction as a teacher, they guided me. There were chances and second chances. There was openness, and there was joy. I am sure that was true in the other places, too, but there we really felt it.
Some looked past the children to the “opportunities of the future.” Those who looked and saw these children here and now had unlimited opportunities in the present. The hand of welcome was always there; we had only to receive it. For some of us, this was a slow learning process.
Today, there are more openings for teachers. If a teacher arrives in an isolated community, it is usually by choice. It is not a “stepping stone” move.
Today, many of the teachers are born to the community or to its culture. The teacher is often a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, a parent, grandparent, or a friend of the family. These teachers know their students – their hopes and their fears, their pain and their joy. The children can look up to these teachers, for they can become them. These teachers also have a capacity to embed cultural awareness and joy into every aspect of the lesson. And their students learn!
No stepping stones here, unless you need them to cross the creek on a field trip.
Last week, the remains of 215 children were discovered in a mass grave at the residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia. I have toured the museum. I have walked the grounds. I have seen the wall of graduation photos, the empty eyes that stared into nothing on their graduation day. They were dressed up in graduation attire, but their eyes held no joy.
What had these eyes beheld? The stories come, and they cut deep.
As the horrors resurface for the survivors, I am given a glimpse into their world. And that glimpse is more than I can bear. I have friends who tell the stories, and I cannot bear it. Yet they must. They do not have that chpice.
I have to turn away, and gaze at a photo of two graduates I know, hair tossing back and mouths wide with laughter, for this is what a graduation should be. I have to believe that we have gone beyond stepping stones to annihilation of a culture and stepping stones to a personal future, to stepping stones only to cross the creek on a field trip.
I celebrate the educators who are emerging to teach and to heal their People.