There’s this saying I pull out every now and then to describe my profession’s lack of immediate feedback / immediate reinforcement: Teachers plant seeds for trees which will never give us shade. This can be such a selfless gig – and one must have a great deal of faith that the lessons we teach, the children we love, and the thoughts we inspire will one day make our students, our community, and our world better. On Friday, I was witness to a teacher whose former student returned the gifts of love, inspiration, and education. In an already emotional activity, this interaction was informative and overpowering. In a room filled with strangers, I wept cathartic tears – temporarily blurring my perspective, allowing another to inform a new focus.
On Friday, I participated in the Blanket Exercise. This activity was developed by KAIROS (a multi-denominational organization of Christian churches in Canada) to review 500 years of history in just an hour and a half.
My Blanket Exercise experience was facilitated by a handful of grade 12 students from Churchill High School. I was one of seventy people in this exercise – about forty teachers participated alongside what I presume to have been a grade 9 class. I knew three other people.
The activity begins with participants taking a seat in a circle around a dozen or so blankets – some with medicines, stones, stuffed animals, and other items resembling artifacts of Indigenous ways of life. On our chairs were buttons, scrolls, and cards. On my chair was an Ojibway button and an orange card. There were also Cree, Oji-Cree, Beothuk, Dene, Inuit, and Metis buttons. In addition to the buttons, about half of the seats had cards and/or scrolls which were read aloud at specified points during the exercise.
We were then invited to stand on the blankets, to pick up the artifacts, examine them, and trade them. The facilitators narrated 500 years of history over the next hour, pausing at times to take more land (folding blankets in), asking those with certain cards to leave the blankets and return to their seats – representing the disease, famine, and destruction of lives and potential. When the Principal of my final practicum school was asked to sit down, he passed me a stone upon which a medicine wheel was painted next to the word “truth.” Vinh said “I pass this to you, keep the truth alive.”
While the facilitators kept the activity going, there were times when we were asked to pause and reflect on stolen lands, languages, cultures, and peoples – I rubbed the stone in those moments of silence. I thought of my Grandfather, an Indian Affairs agent – and I rubbed the stone. I thought of Clearwater Lake – and I rubbed the stone. I thought of the Elm Bark Beetle – and I rubbed the stone. I thought of how much I want to be a father, and I imagined the pain of having children taken from me – and I rubbed the stone. I thought of my privilege – and I rubbed the stone. I tried to both receive these truths as well as to impart as many of my own truths as I could.
As an orange card holder, I was a residential school student who was shunned by the community upon my return. Having no common language to describe the abuses and mistreatment, I was able to survive in only the most base physical sense.
After the activity, we all participated in a sharing circle… and the stone I’d been holding onto and focusing all of my thoughts into was selected as the talking object. The student facilitators shared their own journeys, their family experiences, their fears, and their dreams. The inspiration I’ll draw from their courage will serve me well for a long time.
Some adults shared thanks, other shared their feelings, and others shared little – choosing instead to listen. Then, sitting directly across me in the circle was a woman, about my age, who looked to be a spicy Thai meal away from labour – and she shared the most beautiful things:
She talked about how her child will be born into this process of healing and recovery – acknowledging that generational problems will need generational solutions. She identified one of the grade 12 facilitators as one of her students that she had taught in grade 3 – in her first year teaching. The girl is Indigenous, and when in grade 3 – she had asked the teacher tough questions about Indigenous issues. This now-pregnant teacher was lucky enough to be in a position where her student was now teaching her. She knew that taking the time to answer this inquisitive grade 3 student honestly and openly allowed her to grow into the knowledgeable, strong facilitator that she is. She was receiving shade from a tree she helped plant.
So today, after my family gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving, I am reflective. I am so thankful for the privilege I have to learn about my responsibilities and honoured with the charge to carry out those duties. I am thankful for the many students who show me that my lessons, love, and inspiration are not wasted on them. I am thankful for being able to call this beautiful Treaty 1 land my home. I am thankful for students who do not represent the hopes of our future – rather the opportunities of our present. Today, teaching is as rewarding a job as I could ever imagine… and I am thankful for that.