Walking to school I see pink tape ribbon in the trees, marking something. I snap a ditch picture of what's left of my van from the day I hit the school bus not this winter but last. Some tease me that the accident was the real incentive behind walking to work. I drink warm morning from my favorite blue polka dot mug. I post pages 28-34 from my 2006 Thesis: Blue Eyes Remembering Toward Anti-Racist Pedagogy.
Coming to the Page
I have imagined, what if this research was to begin tonight, and I was to sit down and journal: a story within a story; a found poem; a memory-work. I struggle with this remembering, on-demand, so to speak. In this angst, I ask, what is the story unfolding?
A white, woman English teacher, after living five years off-reserve, still tilts her ear toward raced conversations unfolding in staffrooms, classrooms and street corners. She often thinks back to her five years on-reserve, where many of her theories and ways of being in the world were tested. She wonders, what did I believe back then? What did I accomplish? What did I learn? What can I still learn?
She also knows writers often turn to third person to keep subjects at a distance, to better observe, so the writer hopes. She also knows that the “I” is never far beneath the surface.
Last September she… I helped host the Prairie Horizon’s Conference for CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers). My writing group was to meet Sunday evening, after the conference. I had not revised or added anything new to my second novel. Rather, I typed two mini-chapters from my Blue Eyes journals that I kept the last year I was teaching in the north. The idea of using these first person vignettes of my cross-culture experience in some aspect of my thesis had been in the back of my mind for five years, and had also been crossed off the list as many times as was forwarded. I photocopied three sets (and one for my principal, on a whim) and off to the conference I flew.
At the registration table my friend asked if I’d brought anything to read at the open mike. No, I thought. I didn’t even bring my manuscript for my novel to be published with Orca in the fall. Later that day I skimmed my unedited Blue Eyes chapters, “The Relativity of Manners” and “Delivering Report Cards.” Maybe the latter had some story that might be interesting. It might be the only non-fiction of its type.
“Sheena Koops,” the open mike facilitator called.
“Crap,” I said. My face warms. There was a little laughter. Why did I need to say that? I grabbed for my pages and walked to the front. Beginning, emerging and established writers (and even an editor or two) from across
Western Canada and stared back. I looked at the clock, eyeing the five-minute mark, and began reading. Ontario
Delivering Report Cards
Sheena reads. At least twice a year, the teachers deliver report cards to the students’ homes. This report card session, I was busily organizing according to who lives where on the reserve. I called for help, and soon two girls were placing the envelopes all over my desk in piles representing the different areas of town: down the hill, in the middle, at the edge, by the lake.
Sheena worries. I took a breath and looked into the audience. Two women, new to the conference, a First Nations mother and daughter, originally from the Carlyle area, seemed interested in my words. I wondered, are they thinking who is she, a white woman, having stories from the reserve as though she knows what she’s talking about.
Sheena writes. If I didn’t identify race here, would an “unmarked” mother and daughter be assumed white?
I read and I worried. (I write and I worry.)
Sheena reads. We came to one house where a young man leaned out an open window. I wasn’t sure if he was one of my storefront students, because some on my list I had only met once or twice. My student found the right envelope and walked it to the window.
In my teacher voice, I said, “Come back to school soon.”
The young man nodded.
I said, “You are always welcome to come to storefront anytime. Come back and work hard and you can get into grade ten.”
He nodded again.
The young woman with me spoke to him in Dene and then they laughed.
As we walked away, I said, “What was that about?”
She laughed again. “He didn’t know what you were talking about. He just nodded his head, but he didn’t know what you meant.”
Sheena remembers. The longer I read the quicker I spoke, realizing I might not get to the end before the five-minute guard stood over my shoulder.
Sheena reads. Part of the fun of delivering report cards is to peek into each student’s home life. One of the first generalizations I made of the reserve, from a quasi-insider’s perspective, was that everyone is a neat freak. The first smell, which greets you at the door, is bleach, pine sol, or laundry soap. The second generalization is that people love to decorate. One of my student’s houses is called the flower house because artificial flowers overflow like an Amazonian jungle as you walk into the kitchen and living room.
Sheena remembers. Now, I only had a minute: the timing guard stood and advanced toward me. I really wanted to get some closure for my audience. Closure for me.
Sheena reads. The second time I delivered report cards, one of my grade nine girls took me on her skidoo. At first she couldn’t start it, and I was afraid that we’d have to walk again, and I was really looking forward to a skidoo ride. But, she revved the skidoo to life and we headed out.
After about the fifth house, she said, “You drive now.”
I resisted, not having driven a skidoo since I was in grade six.
Finally, she insisted, and I sat in the driver’s seat. I drove, inching along, to the next house. When I returned from delivering the report card, she was back in the driver’s seat.
Sheena remembers. My guard was on my shoulder. My time was up. I continued reading to the end of the last story, despite this peer-intimidation.
Sheena reads. We nodded as our colleague, a woman from the community, told us a story about how her mother saw a raven drop meat in front of her on the day after her father died. Then she told us that her mother had recently told her daughter, “I haven’t looked in a mirror since 1986.”
Sheena remembers. I looked up. One minute over. There were polite claps? I wish they knew why I included the last two lines. Guess you had to be there. I returned to listening to others read. I empathized with each who dared the risk of writing-out-loud.
White woman teacher
Marching through reserve
Return to school
He didn’t understand
What you were saying
We need to be educated
How and why
We are not being
On my shoulder
Is this your
Sheena remembers. Later that evening, the two women, who I had visited with originally as their “conference buddy” said that they liked my piece. I told them I was relieved because I often worry what First Nations people think of me as a white person voicing such things.
What I’ve heard…
Sheena remembers. The elder of the two said, “You’re likely kinder than we would be.” Then we had a discussion about the diversity of First Nations people.
I told them that I’ve heard that Cree and Inuit people think that the Dene people are rude.
Who am I to say this?
I want to eat my words.
She says, “That must be why we get along with the Dene people. We are straightforward, too.”
Even later that evening an editor asked me, “So what’s happening with that work?” I told him I was considering using it for both my master’s thesis and a book as well. He didn’t think I should pursue both at once. He wondered, what’s the thread that unites your story?
I said, “I don’t know.” But, as I continued to talk in this frame of mind, I stumbled into story after story of being befriended by an elder, who was deaf, so I had to just listen and show my understanding by nods, smiles, and hand gestures. He had shown me pictures of his grandparents and said, “You should get a pen and paper.” He had held my hands as I was ready to go and said, “I don’t think I’ll see you again. You were just like a sister to me.”
Getting choked up, I told the editor. “He was one of the first elders I met. I was walking up heart attack hill, which was all sand and about 45 degrees, carrying six bags of first-paycheck-groceries as well as my six-month-old daughter. He said, ‘You’re very strong.’ He patted my daughter’s red head and laughed. It wasn’t until later I learned that this is a compliment given to a Dene woman: strength.”
This editor said, “There’s your story.”
I said, “I don’t want to go there. I’m not sure if the relationship was proper. I was never sure if people thought I was disrespectful.”
He said, “A story takes its characters places they don’t want to go, then gets them out of there. Your relationship with this elder is the thread.”
On Sunday evening, after the exhaustion of the weekend was beginning to lift, I met with my writing group to critique our various pieces. They – a teacher, a professor, and a stay-at-home computer scientist – read my second excerpt from my Blue Eyes journals.