reflections on the unexpected – 2017

It’s the time of year where people reflect on their year and for some reason, I’m feeling the need to join in.

Perhaps it’s because my longest held ‘big goal’ was achieved.

Or more likely, it’s because of the things which happened which were unexpected.

Let’s get the big goal out-of-the-way:

I received my Honours Degree in Anthropology from McMaster University, 37 years after I began. I walked across the stage and that was it. Bucket list item number one, check.

And I was happy, even gleeful that June day cause I was truly proud of myself. I did it up right. Done and done.

The last year of university was not golden, though. I had a terrible first semester course with a prof who believed that talking for three hours and using outdated research and technology was sufficient. It was not. I did not learn anything and my final mark proved it.

My second semester was amazing and included one of my favourite and inspiring courses: art history. Sadly, as I was working full-time, I could not fully relish in my final months. I was resentful of my divided attention, even though it was my choice to ‘do it all’. Immediately upon graduation, I wanted to go back and do it again, or more likely, do more.

Which brings me to a somewhat unexpected decision: not to do my masters, at least not yet. I was sure that I would jump back in as soon as possible. Head back to full time university in 2018. As the months wore on, I decided I was not ready to make that commitment. The moment I sent an email declining the opportunity to apply, I felt relieved. That’s when I knew it was the right, albeit unexpected, decision.

In 2017, I had also decided to stop working for the school board. For about 10 years, I had a goal to successfully apply for a job in professional development, a job that is one of a rare few at a higher level of pay and responsibility for teaching assistants. In 2016, I got the job. At first, I thought my displeasure in the role was that I was still in university and was torn between the two worlds. I started off on the wrong foot as my predecessor had not trained me properly (or at all really). My office was isolated from others whereas I had spent the last two years in a sea of people all the time – and the previous 12 years in classroom settings, full of activity and people and interactions.

I was disillusioned, dismayed and distraught. Once I accepted that I didn’t love the job, or even like it some days, I knew that the opportunity needed to be given to someone else, someone who truly wanted the job. So, I resigned – another unexpected decision.

At 55, you’d think I had things figured out, but I really got to know myself this year. As someone who has walked several half marathons, I am familiar with the concept of training, but this year, I took my training very seriously. I strictly followed the training schedule for my November race including a ridiculously hot 21 km walk in Florida in late October.

The night before the race, I set out my schedule for how I wanted to walk the race and I initially kept to the schedule. As I wrote previously I came up short of my goal, but only by a smidgen (as in two minutes). As I reflected on the race I was able to clearly see – embody really – the results of negative self talk. This was an unexpected, but critical, realization.

Shortly before my race, I had begun to work with a personal trainer. I knew that cardio work was only half the battle for my health and fitness, especially as I head to the upper range of my 50s. I needed to take seriously the idea of strength training. I did well with the trainer, having someone nag me and take me through my paces. (I often said I hated my trainer and loved the feeling of having trained!).

One day, though, I decided I would only feel successful if I could do it on my own. I spoke with my trainer and he developed a three-day a week program for me. In the weeks since then, I have surprised myself by only missing one day and that was due to weather. One other bad weather day, I used weights I have at home.

I have a long history of giving up physical activity when things get tough and I don’t actually like to work out. I really like how I feel after – a lot. I like how much stronger I feel overall. I have been surprised by how I have found ways to work around obstacles to my training rather than ways to avoid it – totally unexpected.

I asked for hiking poles for Christmas because of another surprising thing that happened this year: I have fallen in love with hiking. Not days long hikes, but several hours at a time. I like hiking with people, I like hiking alone. I like being in nature, even when it’s cold.

Surprise.

So, the year that has been unexpected has challenged me, surprised me and made me content with life. And has made me pretty keen to see what’s up ahead.

Stay tuned.

Feedback as a gift

I was at a great workshop a while back and one of the presenters talked about how you can take feedback as a negative or as a gift.

The comment got my brain reflecting on my experiences at McMaster, partly because feedback is a big part of being a university student.

Being a university student was a gift; a multilayered, surprising, challenging, amazing gift.

So there’s feedback. When I first began, I took feedback hard. In the lower year classes, feedback was often a mark only. There are hundreds of students in each class and if there are no teaching assistants doing the marking (and even if there are), there simply is not enough time to give in-depth, meaningful feedback to all students. Even in some of the upper year classes, I did not receive significant feedback. I found it hard to get a mark and not know what I did right or wrong to deserve that mark. I was clamoring for more.

Then life and readings and assignments took over, and I moved on.

When I hit my final year, some events occurred that opened my mind. I had done an independent study and received an excellent mark. I felt good about the mark because I had worked really hard and the prof is someone whose work I really respect. I was confident he did not hand out marks.

During the feedback session, the prof spoke for more than 30 minutes about all the things he disagreed with, that he didn’t like or that I had wrong. As we headed towards 45 minutes of this, I stood up and said I had to go. Not because I had anywhere to go, but I had to stop hearing criticism. It was soul crushing.

Maybe he did hand out marks?

I was enrolled in one of his courses that fall and I paid closer attention to how he worked – how he gave feedback. It was months before I realized what had actually happened: despite being having come to an invalid conclusion in my study, I had presented a really strong argument for my perspective. Being wrong is not always “wrong”.

The second example of my shift in feedback came when I handed in a proposal for a final course project and the prof – a different and equally brilliant prof – told me I was headed down the wrong path and directed me to a pivotal article. That reading allowed me to crystallize my thoughts and my direction. I ended up with my highest mark in university on that paper because I was able to improve when I opened myself up to the feedback (and the feedback was truly constructive).

And then, there’s the gift part.

I went back to university to complete my degree, to have the piece of paper that I somehow thought I was not complete without. The gift of those 3 years is that the paper is nothing compared to the moments and the learning and the relationships and the vision I have of myself. Everyday was life-changing, even when I was too tired or too stressed to see that.

It is like every experience of university was a type of feedback. It helped me realign my thinking and my being.

It’s not only about the lessons learned. The people I was surrounded by helped me by allowing me to bounce ideas around and have them share their worldviews. They made it impossible for me to see anything in the world in black and white ever again.

I am so lucky to have had that gift, those moments, those experiences. The paper I got is not my trophy – although it is a beauty.

It is those moments culminating in the shifted way of being; that is what remains and what matters in the end.

Decision to try

Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”  JFK

As this year winds down, we tend to reflect. 2017 will always be the year I graduated from university, a long term goal achieved.

Without question, I am so glad that I decided to try – to try to finish my degree that I started in 1980 and to try to be as immersed in the experience as possible.

I have difficulty remembering where my head was at when I began, why I ever wondered if I should try.

I cannot even begin to fathom what my life would have been like without this experience.

I am getting to know myself within the new framework of the knowledge and experiences of my three years in university. Other than the first years of being a mom, nothing has changed me more than this.

One thing that I do know is that I want to give more – spend time giving back. I always knew I was fortunate; going back to school has shown me the depth of my privilege. I have deeply missed volunteering.

For the past several months, since I stopped working full time, I have been focused on regaining a foothold in the world of volunteering and also spending time dedicated to the part of me that got neglected while in school – the physical part. My new sense of accomplishment comes from hitting the gym and exceeding what I think I can achieve. It’s not as fun as university, but it does give me a keen sense of accomplishment.

In the New Year, I will return to McMaster and work one day a week on a research project. It’s an incredible opportunity and a way to keep my connection to a favourite “home away from home”.

Sometimes you wonder if your memories of an event or experience are true. Lately, I’ve been converting old videos into digital files and am frequently reminded of the joy that we did get to experience with our kids because we decided to try to build a family.

Looking back at my grad photos, it’s pretty evident that I was truly glad I made that second big decision to try.

 

growing up with my imagination

A neighbour recommended The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna. The book is highly visual and, as with many self help genre books, promises to take you to that quintessential moment – “oh right, that’s what I am supposed to do with my life!”

I spent a lot of my early motherhood years reading self help books, trying to figure out how to do the thing that, once I let it happen naturally, well, happened naturally.

After dropping out of the world of work for two years to pursue my degree, followed by a year of hellish work/school juggling (resulting in early retirement), I struggled to figure out everything. “What’s next?” didn’t even begin to cover it. I had a lot of big life stuff already handled. Still, I was a bit adrift. The years of a direction, a schedule and goals were suddenly not before me.

I read the book. I wanted to rush to the end and find my passion (as the subtitle suggested I would) and then follow it.

Instead, I discovered something else.

One of the activities is to look back and ask: “What were you like as a child?”

I took a bunch of sticky notes and wrote down things I remembered. Of course I wrote “Chatty” (seriously, every single report card had that comment).

The one that stuck HARD was “alone with my imagination”. I guess the idea of remembering being alone could be construed as sad, but that wasn’t it.

I was happy to be with my imagination. I loved to make up stories and adventures. When life felt scary, I had an escape.

I had grown up with a self published story book in my mind. I frequently accessed it at night, after my light went out. I would turn the pages in my mind and pick the story, written by me. Sometimes, I’d edit it, but mostly just let it unfold as is.

I remember reading Harriet the Spy and then spending weeks wandering my neighbourhood with notebook in hand, making observations and then conjuring up stories about the things I saw. I loved that sense of self-produced adventure.

I don’t know if the secret to my “must” or passion is inside this learning; I do know that two great realizations came:

  • I love my imagination: what it can do and the great comfort it has always been
  • I was a pretty cool kid

I know what and who made me stop writing and making up stories, but the last few years of growth and self-care have taught me – the big bad wolf can’t scare me anymore.

So, excuse me – I’m off to observe the world and see where my imagination takes me today.

#dontteachlikegord

I am baffled about the recent spate of hashtags telling educators, specifically during ‘Treaty Recognition Week’, to #teachlikegord.

This is not intended as an insult to Gord Downey; he recognized that his social status and impending death allowed him to focus people’s short attention spans on issues affecting Indigenous people in Canada. Good on him.

I never thought he was an expert on Indigenous issues. Downey was using the last days of his life to learn and bring attention to issues of significant importance.

I have begun following a wide variety of people on social media, from all around the world and Canada. Sound bites, whether they are 140 or 280 characters, are not enough to help me learn in depth information about issues. Yet, I am finding that having a variety of people, from wide ranging backgrounds, saying similar things, makes me uneasy, a sure sign that I need to go looking for more information.

To try to combat the ignorance I possess about my own country and its history, my education involves reading literature and opinion pieces and pretty much anything written by people who do not come from the same place that I do – and by place I am talking not just geographic, but also who have had different experiences due to economics, structural injustices, ancestry, religion, politics – all things which have not impeded my life in any significant way.

Biggest need: to LISTEN.

The #metoo movement (second movement?) helped me: having people listen to my story and acknowledge that I suffered made a difference. Even if those people cannot take away my pain, or change my narrative, having an opportunity to open up the dialogue made a big difference.

So how can I take that experience and move forward?

I have an ongoing awareness of my ignorance on many big issues; a kind of ignorance that comes from being insulated by privilege. I grew up without a lot of money, but I never went hungry. I always had clean water and clean clothes and a solid roof.

I never had to worry that by going outside my home community to a different high school could mean I had a higher chance of being murdered.

I cannot imagine. So I have to listen because I do believe (cliche alert), if I am not part of the solution, I will remain part of the problem.

I do not know what to do to make a difference.

I am not going #teachlikegord. I am going to keep listening to the voices who have first hand experience and keep learning the lessons they want to share.

 

Hear. Ignore. 

“Do you have kids?” Societal label: mom

“What do you do for a living?” Societal label: valued/not valued 

I used to work in special education (teaching assistant).  People always said, it’s takes a special kind of person to do that job. Special, maybe. Well paid, definitely not (not valuable).

I took two years off work to go to university (student, later learner) and then worked full time and went to university part time (crazy).

I raised my children from home for many years (stay-at-home mom). My husband does the cooking (failed housewife).

I am presently not working for money (unemployed).

I am busy, doing things all day long (aspiring writer. volunteer. support for elderly family members. engaged in self-care. half-marathoner. queen of laundry. friend. wife. mom. Netflix connoisseur. reader. citizen.)

Without a tidy label, society cannot put me into a box and without that box, I don’t fit. If I cannot say – justify really – how I contribute to the world in a way which fits society’s labels, do I matter? 

Labels/boxes/descriptors/narrow categories: Small impact for me and my life. Big contributor to societal discord. 

If people cannot label you, they cannot decide if they have common ground with you (us/them).  But, if they can label you and decide you do not have common ground with them and their beliefs (threatening) they can ignore you (marginalized), or belittle you (harassed), or overthrow you (colonized) – ‘other’ you.

Labels do not bring people together.

Canada 150 celebrations did not unite people, did not make people know what it means to be Canadian. It bubbled up to the surface – for those who paid attention – that Canada was a label imposed on a place by those who came after and labelled those who were already here as ‘other’, ‘not like us’. Not valued.

Consider this: when people walk down the street and mentally label someone as homeless, the label allows society to walk by, negating and ignoring the other ways that the person is/has been in the world: father, mother, brother, sister, human. 

The current state of the world has made ‘othering’ a full time job for those in power (president, dictator, supreme leader) and a spectator sport which has brought greater division and less common ground (left/right/extremism). 

I do not know how society can move beyond labels, specifically labels that discount, displace and demean. It takes time and work and effort. 

And if that label gives/implies/affords power (white, male, heterosexual), what motivation is there to move past the simplistic categorization one has been socialized to employ?  

Should we start small, with dropping the labeling of people in our day-to-day lives, so that we retrain our brains to think deeply? Think about who we are and who the people we live and work with actually are, beyond the labels society has given them?

Hear the story. Ignore the label. 

(The photo with this post is the cover of The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss. I discovered it attached to an article about the book by Raelke Grimmer. Moss writes crime novels. The problem, it seems, is that Moss began working originally as a “model”. She has been accused of not writing her own successful novels because, as some people seem to believe, a model could never write intelligent works…”she continues to be defined by dualistic cultural labels”.)

We need a hero

Volunteering during a Halloween walk with students from the local school reminded me what a community of excited learners looks like: happy and engaged.

I asked one of the students why he chose Superman as his costume. “He’s a hero. He helps people.”

Special education students and educators need a hero.

Or at the very least a champion for the cause.

Although special education has been in the news lately, the media has a short attention span and seems to prefer the sensationalized aspects.

Yes, Educational Assistants and other spec ed educators get hurt doing their jobs. That’s the day-to-day reality.

Yes, parents have a right to address their concerns and advocate for their children. They deserve the platform to speak out.

These issues are not new nor are they the only important aspects that media should be investigating.

Those are the consequences not the antecedent.

We need a media outlet to care enough to look past the outcomes of a neglected system and look for the root causes.

We need a politician who cares about some of the most vulnerable members of society, students with special needs.

We need a public who demands more from the government than misguided economic belt-tightening and a whole lot less finger-pointing.

We need a hero.

What is the (educational) tipping point? It might be here. 

There are some significant issues in education in Ontario – and many other jurisdictions – that are alarming and make me wonder – what is the tipping point? When does the whole thing fall off the rails?

Some people feel we have surpassed that point and now educate their children in privately funded institutions. I understand that motivation: we withdrew one of our children from the public system for two years back in the mid 1990s. I believed then, as I do now, in public education; I had a second child remain within the system. I was concerned solely about the specialized program my son was in and felt unsure that it was meeting his educational needs at that time.

So, yeah, I get it. I understand the motivation to do what you think is best for your children. The difference is where the blame lies. 

For many people, especially over the past 5 to 7 years, the blame has sat on the shoulders of the educators. Not the Boards, not the government, but the educators. I disagreed then and I continue to disagree now.

Let’s look at one recent example: the Education Minister for 2013-2016, Liz Sandals, did not appear to respect educators and she made this clear time and time again in the media. Sandals portrayed herself as a politician who was ‘fiscally responsible’ and interested in ‘advocating for children’. By hitting those two talking points again and again for those three years, Sandals framed her actions as stewardship and those who opposed her, those “greedy educators”, as fiscally irresponsible and opposed to doing what’s best for students. 

In reality, the provincial government had made significant and costly financial errors (think: AirOrnge, cancelled gas plants, and e-Health for starters).

Many in the public soaked up Sandals diversionary tactic and educators became the cause of woes beyond the educational system – they were responsible for the entire provincial deficit. It was a good tactic only because it worked not because there was any truth to it. 

Educators have not lowered their standards of what they expect of themselves when it comes to being front line advocates for students. Educators want to deliver the best education to their students. The Ministry has increased curriculum demands while pulling services. The influx of students with higher needs – including mental health care issues like anxiety or depression – is increasing. The money is not.

Yes, in each negotiation educators ask for more money for salaries; just like every other working person, educators need to keep at or ahead of inflationary costs of items in order to actively contribute to the economy.

More telling, though, is the fact educators are asking for funding for their students. School Board trustees and administrators are asking for more funding. The government says that Boards are given adequate funding and they (the Boards) determine where the money goes. 

Again, the Ministey is playing “divert the focus”. Boards cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear or create funding for programs with inadequate funds. 

Funding to school boards has increased over the years. That does not mean, as the Fraser Institute implies in an 2016 article, that the money is wasted; it means that the system was historically underfunded and the government is playing catch up and not nearly fast enough.

If the adequate money is in the system, where is it? Why is it that in that same period of increased spending, special needs teaching assistants are assigned more students with more significant needs? 

Why is there not enough itinerant teachers in the system to support teachers and other educators to deliver education to the students with special needs? 

Why is the wait list for psychoeducational testing (the testing that helps to create the road map for educators and families to support people with specialized learning needs) getting longer and longer every year?

Every single corner of the system is cutting back – every employee group is being pinched. 

What is the factor will completely hobble education? And why do we need to careen over the edge before real action is taken? 

Freedom to create

Lately I have been reading works by people who are finding the courage and the space in their lives to follow their interests, passions and dreams.

The other day a piece popped into my inbox from Jon Chiang, a freelance film maker. In addition to his film work, Jon creates a weekly newsletter with links to interesting content and musings on his freelance journey. This week, Jon’s newsletter talked about chasing freedom.

What struck me is that Jon never talks about making money; instead he prioritizes spending time fully engaged in his life and relationships, then making work decisions based on those priorities. His work, the outcome of his work/life balance philosophy, is exceptional.  

I have spent time with Jon; he is a thoughtful and kind human. He is present and humble and sincere. His intentionality around his move into freelancing is part and parcel of who he is. 

What stuck with me as I finished the article was that Jon’s vision is where my head space is or at least where it is headed.  I too am deeply breathing in this moment, where I actively control the act of prioritizing. 

It is an unfamiliar state of being. 

I have turned my focus inward of late in hopes that it will help me be more effective when I am facing and acting ‘outward’ – in the volunteer and work roles that I am engaging in. I am re-evaluating long held values and beliefs, a process that began as my children were growing up and questioning our world. That process has now become second nature after my university adventure caused my brain to explode daily due to the fracturing and destruction of many past ways of thinking. 

I am fully cognizant of the gift of time I have been afforded to ‘work on myself’. This privilege was striking the other night. 

I was at an event with former co-workers, exceptional women working in special education. I spoke to people who have spent the fall being kicked and bitten, who have more students to support and educate than ever and who sometimes feel incapable of doing what is expected and needed from them daily in the way that they want to. 

There are no moments for themselves, self reflection or choosing daily priorities. 

••••••••••

Yesterday on CBC I was listening to Out in the Open. The episode was called Double-Edged and was an exploration of why people find it difficult to feel happy in a sustained way: why it feels so bad to feel good. I thought about my exchanges with my former coworkers and the concept of owning my happiness; where does guilt fit in? 

The tight wire act of drinking in joy without drowning others. 

•••••••••••

Going to university taught me to be open to the world and ideas; drawing all the threads together is the purpose of this blog. 

Thanks for wandering through the process with me. 

One last note: Jon Chiang has an exceptional short film, Lion, which is a both a Short Film Festival Selection and Best Canadian Short Award nominee at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival for 2017. Check it out along with other films by Jon  (available on his blog). 

Choosing your hashtag. Or not. 

There are once again several high profile sexual assault cases grabbing headlines these past few weeks. For some people, it is a “watershed moment” – a time of hope that in this #metoo moment, opening up a dialogue will give affected women strength and others the knowledge to support all women.

If someone chose to utilize the hashtag #metoo, they were making a brave personal choice. For those who chose not to utilize the hashtag, they were also making a brave personal choice; as some on social media have pointed out – no victim owes the world her story.

••••••••••

The question is surfacing, as always, about why women did not speak out before now. One part of the answer is the wider public: consider your social media networks and see possible weapons of revictimization – from those spaces can come opinions and comments and accusations. People commenting – on this latest round of sexualized power abuses or the hashtags or previous stories – may not be speaking directly to specific women but the words can affect all women.

This detracts from the perpetrators and focuses blame back on the victims. 

Deciding to talk about your experience is like standing on a cliff, with dark and unknown depths in the waters below.

Personally, I hate to swim without full knowledge of what’s in the water.

The seemingly inherent belief that everyone has a right to an opinion about other people’s lives is one of the reasons that a victim may not come forward. The details of your assault may lead people to know who you are. You fear you will be talked about. You fear you will be judged.

It’s like having an IED inside your mind, waiting for that thing, that trigger, knowing that an explosion of memories and pain will follow.

Given the volume of statements out there, it’s amazing it took this long but my tipping point was a comment (made by a woman): if the women didn’t want to come forward for themselves they should have done it to ensure that no one else was victimized.

Really?? You think that’s a helpful thing to say?

Okay. Lesson #2 – to become a victim sometimes means that everything else stands still. You go into survival mode.

And once other people are known to have become subsequent victims, the initial victims often do blame themselves. If you are questioning why they never came forward, you definitely will never be able to understand how the guilt of subsequent abuse preys on the minds and hearts of the first victims.

No one has the right to add to that guilt.

••••••••••

When I was finally able to stand up in court and tell my story, more than 20 years after the fact, I was relieved. I was proud of my strength.

As I left the courthouse, with three other victims, I was confronted on the steps of the courthouse by a man who had sat through my testimony. He asked: why didn’t you just tell someone?

I was 12 years old when the assaults started. But I am not certain that if I had been 22 or 52, I would have been any better prepared to step up and speak out.

I could barely breathe or eat or sleep; how could I do the thing you – some stranger – think I should have done.

#screwyou

••••••••••

It should be an inherent belief that, as a community of people who care for others, we not judge or second guess why people make specific choices about disclosure. The road from victim to survivor is a harrowing one and outsiders’ judgments further impede the healing process. 

One way to be an advocate is to support women’s choices – disclosure/non-disclosure/#metoo/silence – all are her choice. 

••••••••••

I withheld publishing this post for a long time.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hahn. 

Shame and fear of judgment: #mystory.