Let me tell you a story of three people whose stories have tangled. The tangle didn’t last for whole chapters at a time. There’s a paragraph here, or a line there where one story sort of snags another, sometimes jarring the storyline right out of kilter. In the case of these three the result was something better, something good – a plot twist of the most glorious kind. If you are a doubter, a cynic, an unbeliever in your potential to make a difference for other people, to change the world for better, to be a hero in a small wee but ginormous way, please: you most of all need to read on. And if you are already convinced that people are well worth the time and energy and hassle it takes to get past their individual miseries, then you will have no trouble sinking into such a story as this. Just follow me as I try to unravel this and piece it back together for you.
If I close my eyes and just rest my mind I can see the classroom then. It was an odd shape, kind of a weird trapezoidal thing made of cinder brick painted a ridiculous homicidal orange. My desk was on the far end from the door, by the windows. There were tables with computers – one of the very few classrooms at the time that had them. I had these newfangled computers and across the hall students clacked away on electric typewriters, the teacher walking up and down the aisles, calling out strings of letters and reminding students to not look at their hands. So this story starts that long ago. Though, once you get to the end of the story you may reflect and think that the story could not have started there. It must have had another beginning, but that’s not a part of this telling. It might, however, be the point of the story.
R came in and dropped his binders on one of the center tables, his bones crumpling into a chair, his head flopping over his arms in front of him. He became inanimate. I knew what the issue was. What at least some of the issues were. He hated school. R’s father wanted for R what all fathers want for their boys: to be successful. To be upright. To work hard, and to meet challenges head on and to overpower adversity and, by the fierce strength of their determination, to triumph over difficulties and to exceed everyone’s expectations. To make their dads proud. What dad doesn’t want that? R’s dad was a successful man. A linear thinker. A rational person. A proud community member. But R? R was his mother’s son: an artist, a creator, a dreamer and a drifter, full of impulses and drives that I don’t think any kid understands at sixteen. I don’t think Dad quite understood that either. There’s one issue.
I may have sighed. “Rough day, R?” Likely R ignored me. Teachers get ignored a lot.
R was working his was through grade ten math. Grade ten math. At that time it was the most failed subject in the province. The curricular gap between the last year of elementary math and the first year of high school algebra was a stretch for a lot of kids. For R it was a sort of hell. Incomprehensible. His math teacher was also in this corner of the school. She and I had spoken at length together with the counsellor about R. They were frustrated, not with R so much, but they’d run out of ideas. It was R’s third time in grade ten math. Could I help? Would I take him in for some tutorials and see what some extra help would do for the lad? “Sure. Of course.” That was my job. High school special education and tutorial services.
“R. We can’t get anything done if you’re falling asleep. Sit up. Give your head a shake. Let’s see what you’re working on.”
What R was working on was issue number three: an assortment of indulgences, escapes really, that left him hung over and exhausted. Eyes barely able to focus he’d lift his head. Sighing like the entire galaxy was expiring he’d shove his binder off his text and find some page or another with foreign symbols and ideas that made no sense. We’d begin. Well, I’d begin. R sort of faked his way through those hours. I don’t know where his head was but his heart had quit.
I don’t remember much more. I remember that when he smiled I had to smile too. He sucked smiles out of people. Something maybe about his wit. But this I do remember: a kid in a jean jacket, charging down the hall towards the main doors, face purpled with emotion. I grabbed the edge of his jacket. “R. …. R! Where are you going?” Did he shake me off? Did he shrug and pull away? I can’t remember but I do know that we ended up together in one of the conference rooms just off the library.
“I quit. I’m done. I’m dropping out.”
“Okay, R. Alright, you can do that. But let’s make a re-entry plan. Do you have a paper?” He pulled one out of a binder, shredding the neat hole punches. I remember a much used up pencil badly in need of sharpening.
“What do you want, R? For your life? Where do you want to be in five years?”
He wasn’t a stupid boy. He was smart. Thoughtful. Introspective. He had steady eye contact and a straight up answer. “Emily Carr. I want to study art at Emily Carr; make films.”
I’d never heard of the place but he seemed so certain he couldn’t have possibly made that up. “Alright.” I wrote on the top of the page, Emily Carr. “And what do you need to do to get into Emily Carr?”
He knew. He’d done his homework. He knew what he had to do: submit an application and art portfolio. I wrote that down next beneath. “Are there requirements?”
“Grade 12 diploma.”
Silence for a heartbeat.
“So you need your grade ten math?” Shadows grew on his face – I could see hope struggle with defeat right there. He was quitting again. He shifted to get up. “No, R! Not yet. We’re going to get this on paper.” I waited and he set himself down on the edge of the chair. I was losing him fast. I wrote quickly, Grade 12 diploma. He didn’t even look.
“So, R. You can quit school now. You can leave and get a job. Go do something else. But to get to Emily Carr you need to finish high school. There are a lot of ways to do that. When you’re ready again to try, go back to school.” His hand, reaching out across the table, closed around the paper, crumpled it, shoved it into his pocket. He was gone.
I remember not having time to get my breath back. I had students making demands – tangling with kids’ storylines on their way out of the system is not scheduled into teachers’ timetables – I had a job to do. That moment passed.
I was telling this story, this coil of stories, to a friend of mine, another teacher, and at this point she said, “I’m sorry, I just have to rant! Right there! Right there, you saved that kid! And does anyone know this?? Does anyone see what we do, how we put ourselves out there? That wasn’t your job! It’s not your job to intervene like that and take those few seconds to parent and counsel that kid. But you did. It’s not on your contract. I wish someone knew about the real work teachers do. It has nothing to do with curriculum!!” Is that how she phrased it? I can’t remember. But though her point is somewhat true, it isn’t entirely true. Lots of what we do has to do with curriculum. Just not always provincial curriculum or standards or practises. Creating plot twists for kids on their way out is part of many teachers’ personal curriculum. It’s a secret curriculum which has as its primary targeted outcome this: change lives. The curriculum is poorly constructed though and gives very little indication of how exactly that is to be accomplished. The Secret Curriculum doesn’t care how it gets done; only that it gets done.
Anyhow, the stories don’t remotely end there. You’ve only met two characters. Character #3 stumbles into this story many chapters later. You’ll have to read on.
I’m in a new school on the other side of the city. My classroom is square, whitewashed cinder brick, desks in rows, no computers. Big big windows overlooking a slough. No longer in special education, I have my very first ever middle years grade eight classroom, the position I dreamed of when I got my B.Ed. I don’t remember what course I was teaching or what time of day or even of the year it was. The phone rang. I answered. I had a phone call but they couldn’t transfer and could I go down to the office – it was long distance and I needed to take it.
I was impatient. It was a long walk – my room was the very last one in the corner of the school most remote from the office. The secretary indicated I should take the call in the next room and so I picked up the phone: “Hello?”
“Hello? Mrs. G? It’s R.”
Hmmmm. The voice was very low. I had no idea. “I’m sorry….?
I had had a sort of nickname for him, and had said it in this sing songy way – his name had a rhythm of its own – it begged for poetic interpretation. He imitated me. There was that wit. A smile flashed across my memory. A smile crept upon my face. He did it again – pulled out a smile where there hadn’t been one a moment before.
“I just wanted to let you know that I got into Emily Carr. I have the acceptance letter here. And I’m clean too. I’ve been clean for over a year now. And I’m going to study art at Emily Carr.”
“Clean for a year? Wow. Good for you!”
“I haven’t even called my parents yet. I wanted you to know. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
I don’t know what else I said.
I may have drifted, floated to my classroom way down the hallways at the other end of the school. There were other students there, waiting for me to get back to work. Okay, probably not. Probably they weren’t waiting for me to return. Likely they were hoping I wouldn’t return. But there they were and I had no time to reflect on this call. I had work to do. Lessons to teach. A provincial curriculum demanding my attention.
You know, schools come and go. Teachers go through about a hundred students a semester, give or take a dozen or so. There is no end to stories and demands and stuff to do.
School #5: I’m at school number five. Evenings are often spent marking papers. Researching units. Preparing lessons. Revising assignments. Submitting paperwork. So I was at my computer one evening and using Facebook as a procrastination device. I get a Friend Invite. From R. I smile. I accept. Soon after I hear from him via “message”. He is in a nearby city, attending university. He graduated from Emily Carr; got a job making films, I think. Worked in the industry for a few years and took off to travel the world. Ended up in Bangkok teaching art there. Loved it. Teaching art. Came back to get a Bachelor of Education, specializing in Art. Getting his second post secondary degree. The boy who needed three tries to get through grade ten math. The kid in the jean jacket whose eyes were rarely clear. The one who dropped out of school. Going back to school so he could work in schools. Teaching art. That was an awesome evening. I took a few minutes to reflect on that.
There aren’t lots of evenings like these. There are lots of stories like this one, perhaps, but they are secret. No one hears about them. No one knows. I think that’s why I have to tell you this story. So someone can know that teachers make a difference; that teachers have many heroic moments. Maybe this story is mostly for teachers? So teachers know that they make a difference. Because this story isn’t mine, really, or R’s. This story replays over and over and over in schools everywhere.
A few years later. I’m still at school #5. Teaching grade nine English. And the principal knocks on the door to introduce a new student. A girl. She shines! Bright smile. Bright eyes. Something springy about her. First impressions often stick in my mind. J.
I think I remember where she sat, just to my left at the front of the room – another square of whitewashed cinder brick, stashed again into the farthest gable in the building – a hot stuffy room with an air conditioner fastened into a window with untreated plywood. It made a horrible racket. Either we heard each other in discussion while we suffocated in the heat, or we could actually breathe but without any relational context. I had tables instead of desks. I remember she was alert. Attentive. Interested. Wanting to learn. She had learned stuff before coming too. She had random knowledge – could infer when other students were stumped. She drew upon information that was stored in the recesses of her vast cranium and she pulled ideas together and articulated her thoughts so simply that anyone would think, “Well, of course. There could be no other explanation.” I think I loved her from the moment she spoke her first words.
But she wasn’t there much. She missed vast chunks of school. She had, um, issues. A few issues. Anxiety being the mainest one. Crippling horrible anxiety that kept her from coming out of her house for weeks at a stretch. Or, at least, it kept her from school for weeks at a stretch. And then, like a bright ray through a solid overcast, there she’d be again, smiling all shy, like she’d been scheduled for that day all along and she was just keeping her appointments. Sometimes she’d ask what she needed to do to catch up. And then she’d be gone again. Lessons and assignments and whole units would go by before I’d see her again. I can’t remember how much work she actually did that year. I remember that the work she did do was stellar and showed a huge amount of potential. Did she even progress to the next grade? Probably. R repeated his grade ten math three times, but promotion policies had changed quite a bit by the time J came along. I can’t remember her report card. We would have conferred about her at the end of the year, as we did with all grade nine students. I can’t remember the discussion.
What I do remember is thinking about her. Frequently. J. …. J? Where are you?
The next year I was assigned to new courses and new students. I think that was the year I changed rooms. It was a huge promotion – the big room with all the bulletin boards and real walls! No prison cell cinder brick!! And big bright windows overlooking giant trees with a view of sky and park and rooftops and ravens’ wings! That year I did not see J all year. She wasn’t in any of my classes. Was she registered at our school at all? But sometimes I would hear or see something that would remind me of her brightness and I would wonder how she was doing.
Also that year, I think it was that year…. anyhow, I got a message in my Facebook inbox. From R. He was preparing for his internship. He was ready to make this city his home. He’d faced his demons; he’d tackled his skeletons; he’d travelled the world and toured his soul and was ready to settle down. He chose the place where he grew up. And could he intern in my classroom? I smiled. He was a little bit of a suck-up. “I want to learn to be the best teacher under the best teacher. Will you be my co-op for my internship?” By now I had been teaching for over two decades. I knew I was not the “best” teacher. In fact, I was/am skeptical that there is even such a beast as a “best” teacher. I may have screwed up my face at the idea. This was classic R. Even at whatever his age was – he must be near 30 by now! Even at that age he was still dreaming and indulging his fantasies. But yes, “Yes, R. You make the arrangements and you can intern in my class. I’d be honoured.”
And so it happened that R came to my school and walked into my classroom and put his books down on his desk, dropped his canvas rucksack, and sat in his chair, upright and focussed and intent on being the best he could be. Intent on making school his career. I think I’m still a little stunned to think of it.
But J. What about J? Sometime around then – was it the year R was interning? Before then? Maybe after. But sometime I came down a hall and saw a jean jacket going the other way – it had personal touches on it – black lace maybe stitched across the back? A backpack that was certainly not bought at Walmart – it had way too much personality. Hair out of control, coloured – purple, maybe? Blue? Could have been green. J had come back to school. Did we exchange smiles? I may have said, “Hey! Welcome back! Are you in any of my classes this year?” And she was! Creative Writing! She was flipping brilliant. Her eyes danced from the back of the room where she hid, and she didn’t say much or contribute unless we turned to her. Sometimes an idea would grab her imagination and her face would light up slowly from the inside out until she kind of sparkled. Slow smiles tugged up one corner of her mouth. She still missed days at a stretch, but I bet she was there 2/3, maybe 3/4 of the time! Her work was always conceived with the idea that she could finish it at home if she didn’t make it back to class. But it was fun, full of colour and juxtaposition. For one assignment she created a blog – the blog that Marie Antoinette would have written, had she lived now, in a technological world as a teenage girl engaged to a prince she’d never met nor cared for. J had images, or poems maybe, lyrics perhaps that she’d dragged off the internet, as well as ones she spun, like an imp spinning gold from flax. The blog had sections and pages – each with a new spin on an old, tired idea. It was fresh, plucked right off the vine. Very J.
Soon J was involved in school events. She let out the secret that she could DJ and was asked to DJ a school dance, becoming the students’ pick for DJ for the rest of her stay at the school – the Student Leadership Council even agreed to pay her for it! She stayed long hours after school with the art teacher who had received a grant to create a mosaic that would dress up the north face of the school. J became the pseudo art advisor when the art teacher was absent: J knew which colours of which mosaic part fit into which part of the two-story high design. J instructed others on the technique of cementing the half-inch square tiles onto the substrate. And in her spare time she created her own art – portraits and abstracts, paintings and sketches, textiles both functional and not so much. She had carved out a little niche for herself, and not just that, but had made herself an integral part of her environment. Like, she wasn’t attaching herself to her context, as though she was an appendage; she was actively revising her context to match her Self. Impressive.
Meanwhile, R had a great internship. He found he really belonged on the other side of the equation (pardon the math jargon!) – teacher instead of student – and he could reflect on educational practise like no one’s business, as though he’d been there, where the students are who can’t pick their heads off their desks. He still slouched over onto his desk when he was bored. I have a picture of him bent over, at the front of the class leading the lesson, head in his hands, eyes blurring over, this time from exhaustion, having stayed up all night but this time working overtime to nail his internship. He said, not just once or twice, that he was there to learn and it’s only four months and he was going to do whatever it took to be his best. And here he was, trying to teach a lesson that he himself found boring! Makes me smile. Again. He still made the most direct eye contact when he became impassioned about a topic. Still had acerbic wit. He still dreamed and he did not think in a linear fashion and he used his emotions to drive him towards his goals. But he had become a person who was proud of himself, a person whose determination to succeed had been and was continuing to be his tutor. In the end he was hired to teach art when the “mosaic” teacher took a leave. R teaches art and drama and inspiration at my school. We are colleagues on staff together. He has become Mr. P.
This past year was J’s grade 12 year. She rejected the branding of mega organizations, designing her own shirt for We Day (I think it was for We Day? Maybe it was for Pink Shirt Anti Bullying Day?) – continuing to express herself through art. She DJ’d the dances. She took a university prep class, stretching her academic self, often referencing ideas and information that was well beyond the shores of high school and explaining them in straightforward terms, like it couldn’t be any more simple. She coloured her hair differently regularly. She wore race track checkered sneakers with black pleated skirts. Her lips were often coloured black, or ruby-red. She smiled.
And she studied art under Mr. P. Teachers started requesting her art pieces, asking her to sign them “because, you know, when you’re famous I can say I’ve got a signed original!”. She spent hours and hours and hours in the art rooms, even taking over a spare room off in the basement to store and organize her art pieces. I went down there once to find her or one of her cronies and wow! The walls were covered with textiles and canvases and bits and pieces of things that I didn’t understand. It was a visual feast. Dizzying. I had to slow down to orient myself! J came to school and made gobs of friends and found herself and created art.
By the end of grade twelve J was strong. She nonchalantly held a key position in the student body. She had a group of friends who valued her. She had a maturity that came from having overcome adversity, from knowing what it means to be down and to get up again. She had that quality of being able to hold popularity loosely, as though she knew to enjoy what gifts came to her today because Wisdom told her that every tomorrow holds new experiences, each one its own treasure.
And then came the day she was accepted into the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. No one ever has seen any other one ever look so satisfied and content and deeply happy.
J walked across the stage at her high school graduation ceremony like she owned the platform. She accepted her certificate, awarded to her by the principal of the school. And when her name was called to receive the award for the student who has overcome great difficulties to achieve great things, and I got to hand over her bursary and certificate, I can’t say who was more happy: she or me. I wanted so much to hug her, but there were hundreds of people watching the girl with crippling anxiety who couldn’t come to school and I didn’t want to block their view of her. J was resplendent at the Grand March in a stunning, poppy red gown with two of her besties on her arms. It was a party just to watch!
But the best is yet to come. The stories are more tangled yet.
The day after graduation is a frenzy of paperwork for teachers: report cards, and filing, and phone calls, and forms. I was sitting at my laptop in serious Detail Distress when Mr. P popped his head into my room. “Can I talk to you?”
I was thrilled. Any distraction to get me away from the war zone on my computer screen.
He came in, explaining that it’s come full circle.
“What you did for me. The reason I became a teacher.” He handed me a card. “This is what makes all the stuff we do worthwhile.”
I opened it and raised my eyes, asking permission to read it. “Yes! Yes, read it.” He was pacing the floor beside me.
There was no salutary address. The writer just began, very simply:
I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’d be doing after grad if it weren’t for this year. I would probably be applying for a full time retail job or creating some fantasy scheme to escape this city. In short, I’d most likely be unhappy with where my life was headed.
But, I don’t live in that sad and strange alternate reality, and although I’m still working that retail job, I’m going to do what I’ve dreamt of as an angsty pop-punk teenager; I’m moving away and pursuing what I love. and although I’d love to be an egotistical maniac (as per usual) and say I did this on my own,
I have you to thank for a large portion of the path my life is about to take. I’m not exactly sure where I’d go, or what I’d do after Wednesday, If you weren’t my teacher this year. But I know for a fact, I wouldn’t be in the same position I am now. I probably wouldn’t have even mustered up enough courage to apply to Emily Carr.
So, from the core of my possibly existant soul, thank you so much for being the supportive, genuine, and sometime forgetful person you are.
You keep telling me “don’t forget the little people” and from your inflection I can’t help but think that you’re including yourself in that. But I just hope/want you to know, that you’re not just a little person in my life. and I’m not exactly sure if I’m the first person you’ve helped like this, but I’m sure I won’t be the last.
So, just one last time, thank you so much for everything. From the studio, to the heart to hearts, it’s all meant a lot to me, even if it didn’t seem like it did that much at the time. I honestly don’t think I could write enough thank you’s to actually amount to how thankful I am.
I looked up at Mr. P. He was emotional. He was deeply moved. I said, “Do you know what this means?” though I was sure he did. “You’ve paid it forward.”
There. That’s the end of the story. Except it isn’t the end, just like the beginning of this one didn’t start at the true beginning. Lots of stories happen every day and we never know where they start or end. We only get to know the few chapters, or pages, or paragraphs that twist through our own stories.
Oh, what a tangle of glorious stories we weave when we practice to believe.