Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Day Sixty-Three: Inadequate Shield

I stand next to my husband who is having a conversation with our principal, Cathy, outside the office.

She turns to me. "Doesn't he have amazing ideas? How do you keep up?"

"Mostly, she just laughs at me," Michael says.

They are talking about art, creativity, ideas.

"I haven't even told her about my latest idea," Michael says. He begins to describe a room that would have lasers and as people walk through the installation, music plays, given the varying length of the rays as changed by people walking through the room.

Cathy asks questions to clarify.

"That would be great, right after the living room ceiling is patched and..."

"The septic is fixed," says Cathy.

"Exactly," I say.

"Ah, come on," says Michael. "Just imagine a room with lasers..."

We go deeper into the conversation, and pretty soon, I'm rehashing my summer's tiff with Michael, that he doesn't go honest enough into his art, plays it safe, never vulnerable, and if he'd only do morning pages, his life would be transformed.

"Why does it have to be writing," Cathy says.

"Do you really want to go here," I say, pointing my finger back and forth between Michael and me.

"I'm just in this for the fun," says Cathy, laughing.

Michael and I duke it out a little more, with Cathy supervising, then she looks at me. "I'm just going to play devil's advocate." She pauses.

"So, you're speaking for Michael," I say.

We belly laugh, then talk some more -- playfully, passionate, serious -- and it's kind of like that time Michael and I went for marriage counselling, and afterwards I had told my brother, "You know, that counsellor was pretty hard on me."

"Do you think?" my brother had said.

"Is he supportive of your walks, your writing, your art?" Cathy says.

"Yes," I say.

"And are there some practical things that you're ignoring?" she says.

Period four bell rings, and we are all called separate ways.

I look around my classroom. I have five of Michael's pictures, and he has stolen two more from my walls. I take pictures of his artwork, then I walk into the hallway, past the staff room, past the office, past the library, past the culture room, past the janitor room, and turn into his art classroom. He has the lights off and is showing a clip from the internet of flight patterns over New York. I stand in the doorway, listening, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. He is lecturing on abstract art, and if the kids hadn't known this spiral, electronic image was flight patterns, what would they think it was. I walk quietly behind the kids, turn the flash on, and take a picture of his spraypaints, then his acrylic he took from our living room, then the watercolour he finished a couple weekends ago at a workshop.

"Mrs. Koops is being a spy," he interrupts himself, then continues the lecture.

I turn and smile, then snap, the flash my answer. I walk toward an easel at the far side of his dark room and snap a picture of His work "Inadequate Shield". I've hung this picture in my classroom for three or four years now. It's a picture of Michael holding our third daughter in his arms. There is a scull at his back, which he has acknowledged by turning his head into a profile pose. Everything is black and white, except for the red coat he has put on Arwen, her bare feet hanging below. When he first finished it, I wouldn't even let him have it in the house.

"Get that out of my house," I'd said. "How dare you invite evil like that, dare evil like that, and put that red Schindler coat on our baby. How dare you?"

He'd kept the picture at his storefront school where he taught kids who were right out of the school box. I'd see the image when I went to visit, and I would look at it, and then put it out of my mind. One day, while in the middle of an oppression unit, I visited Michael's school, located downtown, about a three minute walk from the school. I held the picture up, and read the artist remarks taped to the bottom.

"Inadequate Shield" by Michael Koops

"This work is in response to the movie Schindler's List. I watched this movie and was so overwhelmed by the horror of the Warsaw Ghetto. When we talk about the 'horror of war', it is a general statement that indicates war is horrible. However, my 'horror' was more personal because the little girl in the red coat was the same age as my daughter. The horror for me was that no matter what I was willing to do, I could not save that little girl. I would be unable to save my little girl. The truth of that moment, the truth of the girl in the little red coat is that parents are inadequate as shields against death. I cannot fully protect my daughter from the evils of life."

"I am even more humbled by the fact that people have tried to protect their children from the 'horrors' that they face. This was true in World War II and this is true today. We must realize that there are parents who are trying to protect their children from 'horrors' like war, poverty, death, racism, and hate. They are trying, but they know that we are all 'Inadequate Shields.'"

I took the picture back to my classroom, that day, and I've had it ever since. I've used it on exams as a viewing exercise. It's been a conversation opener with many students. I often tell them the story of how much I hated the picture, and that I now have it on my wall to interrupt my privilege, to break my heart, to remind me that people, right in our community, are trying to shield their children, and I need to join the line of protection.

So this is my confessional tonight. My husband is an artist. He doesn't have to do morning pages. He is more supportive of my art than I am of his. Sometimes I'm one of the bozos who warns and criticizes his creativity. Sometimes I'm the voice of the "blurt" rather than "affirmation." I'd really like him to fix the ceiling, but if that's a trade-off for his art, I'll keep the art and live with the patches.

Hope you're happy, Cathy. One more confession, I'm a little happier, too.

Day Sixty-Three: November 30th Pictures featuring Artwork by Michael Koops

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Day Sixty-Two: Romeo and Juliet and the Three Day Road

Wrapped together, a knot of white, one lover dies as the other comes to life, only to die again. The burgundy curtains drop. The music resumes, cast bowing to polite clapping. I'm sitting in the third balcony as Romeo and Juliet run from the curtains, immortal. The audience stands and claps and claps and claps. My hands are sore, my arms ache, my eyes droop.

"That was the longest clap ever," says one of the girls from the book club.

"Was it ten minutes?" says another.

"At least five."

I'm a parent-teacher-volunteer-driver tonight as Moira and her friends re-live the Moscow Ballet at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina. The girls in my cousin's van sing along to Z99 on the radio as I drive home.

"Sorry for ignoring you," says my shotgun rider.

"No. I'm happy in my own little world," I say.

I'm home after eleven and I'm a comic grump. Michael and Moira laugh at me. I have only three chapters left in Three Day Road. My eyes are focusing in and out, but I keep reading. Xavier, Little Bird Dancer, is dying on the third day. Elijah's ghost is haunting. The war is still raging. Eyes are blurring the words. Must. Find. Out. What. Happens. Niska, his auntie, is taking him deeper and deeper in the sweat. To live or to die, Niska says, is his choice now. She lays down to dream his dreams. Niska's last words, "By tomorrow we'll be home."

I wake this morning and sleep walk to school. As I cross the tracks in the dark, going or coming, I'm not sure now, I remember how Romeo and Juliet are still alive. And Little Bird Dancer, Oniimowi Pineshish, is still dancing on page 362, just like Keat's lovers from "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are "forever panting, forever young." And how Sandy Pinay Schindler told my students that when she went to school, she learned the names of all the Kings and Queens of England, and about the Treaty of Versailles, and how funny would it have been if her parents had phoned up the school to complain about Shakespeare in the classroom, so really, a little Canadian treaty teaching is long overdue. And maybe I am walking home in the dark, but my heart is light remembering Romeo, Juliet, Xavier, Niska, Shakespeare and Keats who said it best, " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Day Sixty-Two: November 29th Pictures

Monday, November 28, 2011

Day Sixty-One: Just Keep Walking

I'm wearing all black -- leggings, socks, running shirt, sweater, ski pants -- around the house. It's 6:50am. I open my ripped, burgundy backpack and stuff my blue and black lunch bag with the Treaty 4 Education Conference logo of four arrows dividing a circle into four parts: Elders, School, Community, Family. I lace up my hikers and pull on my turquoise parka, flipping the faux-fur hood over my head so I can slip on the orange reflector vest. I take my bag of shoes, tartan and black jacket on a hanger, and red suitcase to the Envoy: my week's clothing. With a black toque and blue, woolen mitts, I start down the hill at 7:11am.

The morning is black enough that I can see the stars clearly. I'm glad that it is not slippery like the cement pad was beside the Envoy. Only two vehicles pass me from behind, and I meet one by the time my phone buzzes 7:30am at the bridge. There is wind, but I carry my mittens because I'm too warm.

My black clothing, back pack, mittens is not all I carry. My heart is heavy for my girlfriend whose world has crumbled; for my student, Raelee, who had to move; for my coffee plan that has failed; for those soldiers from World War I in Three Day Road who slipped in and out of my dreams last night as they slipped in and out of trenches and rubble and church towers, sniping, scouting, killing. One of the fictional Anishinabe men said something like, Over here, we're heroes, but when we go home they'll just treat us like crap.

Reminds me of what Sandy Piany-Schindler told us about First Nations Veterans who were some of the most successful advocates for First Nations treaty rights. When they were serving in the war, in Europe, they were free, fighting for freedom, but when they returned, they were still bound by the Indian Act, the Pass and Permit system.

If I could, I'd just keep walking this morning.

Day Sixty-One: November 28th Pictures

Friday, November 25, 2011

Day Sixty: Honour Song

This story was published in Sister Triangle Magazine (2010).

Honour Song

I looked out my classroom window at the canvass teepee erected in our green outdoor courtyard. Earlier that week we’d celebrated the teepee raising by hosting a traditional feast. The elementary students and my colleagues from next door joined our high school in the gymnasium. We sat on coats or blankets, the men and boys on one side, the women and girls (in our long skirts or shawls wrapped around our waists) on the other. Each of us was asked to bring our own cutlery and plastic containers to help take away the leftovers. Many of our young men as well as male teachers and other male guests served us – row by row – stew, bannock, fruit and other tasty treats. Elders sat by one wall in a central location. Before we ate, there were speeches and prayers.

Looking back into my classroom, I handed out a worksheet called “Teepee Teachings” to my grade ten students. My students and I were similar to the overall school’s population, 60-70% First Nations students taught primarily by white staff. As had been explained earlier by the gentleman assisting with the teepee raising, each pole on the teepee has a theme: happiness, love, faith, kinship, cleanliness, thankfulness, sharing, strength, good childrearing, hope, obedience, respect, humility, ultimate protection, and balance. I said, “Everyone choose one of the teachings and make a poster.” In the next two days we made a border near the ceiling, circling my classroom, displaying these powerful words.

We have a tradition in our high school. On Mondays we play O’Canada over the intercom; on Fridays we play an Honour Song. The Honour Song has First Nations drumming and singing. We ask our students to stand for both of these songs. I sing along with O’Canada (usually by myself…afterall, I teach COOL high school kids). At first, I didn’t know what to do during the nearly four minute Honour Song. Then it hit me: I can pray. I began using the teepee teachings as a guide to my prayer during the Honour Song. I shared my strategy with my students who were receptive to the idea as a way to help focus during the song.

At the end of last year, sitting in my classroom, surrounded by these teachings, I received an essay on the final exam by a grade eleven girl who dances pow wow. I remember tears streaming down my face as she explained that she prays as she dances. She explained that many of the elders are also praying as people are dancing. I reflected on my own childhood memory of Mom and Dad taking me to pow wows and how the drumbeat comforts me still today. How rich to realize that I am welcome to bring my prayers alongside First Nations prayers, and perhaps my comfort comes from answered prayers, offered on my behalf.

A few weeks ago I got “caught” in the school office during the Honour Song. It was awkward, the two secretaries, the driver instructor, me, and a couple parents, all standing, listening to the drumming and singing. Then I remembered, I can pray. I closed my eyes and followed the words posted around my classroom, the words of the teepee, and I asked my Creator to help me bring these words to life for my students that day as we were heading out on the land for a field trip which is part of a project incorporating Treaty Teachings about the land and the Arts. When the singing was over, my head and heart were focused on my students and their needs. Our tour began with an elder’s prayer at the Standing Buffalo, Buffalo pasture. At the end of our visit, we gathered in the Standing Buffalo gym and again the elder spoke to our students, emphasizing the importance of their spirituality, noting that one day things will be difficult, and that they will need to know how to pray.

I remember emails shared back and forth before the feast. My colleague, who is a Christian as am I, was afraid of attending the feast because she might compromise her faith. I’d encouraged her that our white society had spent much of our country’s history trying to teach and shape First Nations people, to most often oppressive ends. I encouraged that as believers, we need to now be learners and listeners if we are going to be part of the healing necessary for both of our races. She ended up attending the feast and was glad that she had.

If there is anything I am learning, living and working in Fort Qu’Appelle for the past eight years, it’s that prayer is something that transcends culture. Prayer seems to be part of humanity’s DNA. Just today I received an email from a colleague who asked the entire staff to keep her son, who has cancer, in our prayers. At the beginning of our school year, Mike Pinay, an elder addressed our entire school division. He said, “Have you ever been in a hen house?” He paused, then said, “That’s what it sounded like while I was waiting back stage.” The audience, over 1000 teachers strong, who had been visiting feverishly, laughed and then quieted. He spoke briefly of the importance of teachers, the trust we are given to care for children, the call to doing things “in a good way”, and then he bowed his head and lead us in prayer.

Post Script:

Social Justice is elusive. All major institutions such as jails, hospitals, and schools, are keenly aware of inequities; however, schools are in the best position to make a difference in the lives of individuals, especially those at risk. Education can interrupt cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, powerlessness, and poor health.

As schools take on more opportunity for equity, it will challenge us as teachers. Whereas many institutions, including schools, shy away from spirituality, those of us who would be inclusive of First Nations needs within our school situation must entertain that spirituality is part of a balanced existence. Even prayer may be part of a school setting.

Schools are not just factories where information is pumped into students’ brains. Schools are places where society can grow. I am proud to be part of a staff, here at Bert Fox Community High School, who are making a systemic difference in the lives of students: for both those who would be successful anywhere and those who need every chance they can get in a world that is stacked against them.

Day Sixty: November 25th Pictures