what is it you do?

I’ve written three different blog posts today and don’t feel ready to publish any of them – could be because I worked on (someone else’s) taxes all afternoon and I’m just tapped out. Or it could be the rain.

But I have wanted to explain my work at McMaster so here goes:

It’s kind of hard to explain – but basically an archeology professor of mine is doing a long-term study on commemorative practices in cemeteries in Cambridgeshire, England. In order to do that, he needs a really big database to be able to make comparisons and figure out what are the motivators for people to commemorate, what are the patterns (do rich people do a type of commemoration and then others follow?), what are the economic factors, do people commemorate children or marginalized people (people from asylums, or workhouses) – he needs data.

I don’t get to do actual on the ground work in England. And no, I don’t dig up dead people. Not even close. I like cemeteries and I like the stories they tell, but don’t put me near bones. No thank you.

The work (done by other research assistants and me) involves taking burial data from the various parish records in Cambridgeshire and filling in commemoration information as well as occupations and other census data for the people buried. In the period we are investigating (1845-1925), the occupation of the head of the household, usually a man, is how everyone within that household is defined.

We look into genealogy sources (Ancestry being our most utilized) and graveyard sites. We have a success rate of finding occupation and other records of well over 85% for most of these parishes.

As a person who likes to make up stories, there is a significant amount of possibilities for storylines – with entire family stories written out over the decades. As the prof once said, you see the birth and the death of many people in that 80-year period.

Most parishes average about 350 burials in that 80-year time span so you get a bit of variety in the work, going between inputting of data and the internet research.

Yesterday, I completed a parish which had 6700 burials in that 80 year period meaning at times there would have been a burial every 2-3 days! It took me two months of work (about 21 hours per week) to complete. It hurt my brain to be doing relatively the same thing for days on end.

Upside: we are creating a database that will help support researchers beyond this project as well as the prof who hired me. This thought has been a good motivator in the depths of the repetitive nature these past few months.

So, not sure about next steps – discussions about what happens when my contract is up (in 10 days) have not taken place. It might be time for a bit of space between me and that computer, or that could just be the ridiculously big chunk of research talking!

 

It is about the students

Déjà vu all over again – the government and the education sector, butting up against one another and the government whipping anger with a media frenzy (and way too many standing ovations). People working in education will be made out as money grabbing and our elected representatives will not only feed that negativity and misinformation, but they will do everything possible to come out as good leaders, stating it’s all for the greater economic good.

What a load of propaganda.

I know about fiscal restraint. I worked in special education for 15 years and was at the top of my pay grid and took home less than $35,000 a year. 

Yup. You read that right. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, there is no talk about more/less money because we are not negotiating yet. 

Right now, RIGHT NOW, the protests are about the cuts, about the threats of cuts, about the pile of damage being created by decisions being made by the government. 

The government started on the wrong foot by cutting out curriculum development which would have increased Indigenous content – curriculum changes set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The debacle that is, was, and continues to be funding for children with autism is part of the protests. 

Increasing class sizes, having students take e-learning courses – and don’t even get me started about the health curriculum. 

The government says teachers are promoting dissention with students and using classroom bulletin boards as places of anti-government information sharing. 

If the term ‘fake news’ was not so overused, I’d use it here. 

There are so many issues to protest, but RIGHT NOW, salaries is not one of them. 

When it comes to fiscal restraint, the Ford government has not actually been practicing what they preach. 

Buck a beer? License plate redos? “Open for business” signage? Stickers to agitate against carbon tax?

And then there are the salaries of friends and associates in jobs that either didn’t previously exist or were at lower salaries previously: $348,000 to a health care advisor; $140,000 for a formerly part-time position as EQAO chair; $350,000 for a trade representative. And then there are folks who are in senior positions after being part of the Ford team in various capacities: Ontario Energy Board appointee, $197,000 and chair of Public Accountants Council for $166,666.

These inflated “dollars for supporters of Ford” would make an incredible difference in the lives of students in Ontario. Money that would allow for more speech and language support, autism intervenors (cause given new policies and money shuffling, we are definitely going to need more specialists), and specialized equipment within schools.

What about the senior students, those with learning needs who do not have the depth of programs they need to prepare them for the world beyond the education system? Their programs have been cut and their support diminished because special education has been underfunded for years. And years. And years, first by the Liberals, now by the current government.

Another way in which this government is failing is that they keep announcing funding as if it’s new – slapping a ‘new and improved’ label on already existing, lower than needed, funding. And people are being fooled into believing it, because they want to believe their vote for this government was the right one. 

Wrong. 

Special education students are capable and want to contribute in whatever way they can to society – but they need the foundations to do that and they need those programs to last through the end of their final year of school (and beyond).

I worked in special needs and behaviour from 2003 until 2018. I value the work of all the members of our education system, but special needs is what I know and therefore the reality of that work is what I can best speak to. Special education means working with the most vulnerable members of the system and of society – children with physical, intellectual and mental health issues. We are the people who, along with the teaching teams, deliver education to students who need more – perhaps it’s personal care, or curriculum support or behaviour management. Everyday, members of that employee group are faced with unimaginable stress and incredible types of successes.

Let me focus on the stress aspects: We feed students who cannot do it themselves. We change diapers, clothing and sanitary pads, often lifting students the size of grown men and women. We can be kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, spit on, urinated on, have feces or furniture or pretty much anything thrown at us. I have worn protective gear to minimize the chances of injury, which makes it harder to move around. In addition to this physical abuse, we also can be subjected to verbal abuse. Personally, I have had all of these things happen to me, including being hit so hard in the face that I fell to the ground. I have visited the emergency department of my local hospital on more than one occasion for myself, in addition to accompanying students with seizures and other medical conditions.

When you pull money out of the system, more of these tasks are put onto fewer workers. People think their child will have one on one support. 

Those days are long gone. Student supports are prioritized by categories such as safety and personal care, not by educational needs. 

The more money pulled out of the system, the less time front line workers and teachers have to teach students the skills which allow them to be successful, to not have levels of frustration that can cause them to act out in aggressive and violent ways – skills that allow ALL students to be included in schools and their communities in meaningful ways.

And that violence? It is experienced by all students and staff who are present when it occurs.

Appropriate funding needs to be in place in order to make school a place where students can learn and grow; it should not be about warehousing children and youth with special needs.

That is my greatest fear when I think about their future. 

And guess what? When I was dealing with out of control students, or otherwise doing my job, you know who was standing right next to me? The teaching staff. Early childhood educators. Other teaching assistants. My principal. All are at risk every day and they need to know that their government is behind them.

When the government make claims in the media that it’s about the money, they are right.

There is a component about being compensated for the work we do and for the injuries we sustain doing that work. 

That is not the issue RIGHT NOW. 

The bigger, RIGHT NOW issue is that people (students, staff, parents, Boards) are angry about the government not properly funding the education system.

I want to tell this government, as I tried to tell the last one, walk a mile in the shoes of those teachers and education workers you talk about in such negative ways. You would love aspects of your job. You would be exhausted and inspired.

And you would be devastated that your government undermines you both on a personal and on a professional level.

You would be more than devastated to see amazing students not get the chance to succeed because your government felt it was important to support personally motivated projects over supporting students. 

No matter how you spin it, this is the reality: the government has chosen other priorities in front of the future of Ontario. That future includes the children and the people who are educating and shaping them every single day.

For education workers, teachers, administrators, communities and families, RIGHT NOW AND ALWAYS  

IT IS ABOUT THE STUDENTS. 

 

 

watching the world go by

Last fall, we went down to one car. This has meant a shift in my lifestyle from car dependence to walking/transit independence.

It may seem I have those descriptors backwards, but I do not.

I do plan my life much more carefully now, but I feel more stress free taking transit. I feel more reliant on myself, which I know is the complete opposite to how most people feel when they give up their car.

I am actually less rushed; I often did not give myself sufficient time to travel when I drove. Now, I make sure that I give myself more than ample time to get from point A to point B, especially during the winter or taking the subway (sorry TTC, but your reliability is not very, well, reliable).

Each work day, I take a GO train and then a GO bus to McMaster. There are the ‘regulars’ in the morning; the man who waits in a shelter with me at the GO station – he works outside doing roofing. We have a chat each morning and it’s amazing what can be summarized about life in 3-5 minutes.

On the train, there are not a lot of people going out of the city towards Hamilton, but there’s the guy whose already on the train when I embark; he’s always got a big coffee and when, on occasion, a friend gets on the train, it’s apparent he also has a very big voice (to hell with the Quiet Zone signs).

There’s a girl on the mid level and she’s always asleep when I board. One day I thought I might have to follow the directions of the ‘customer service ambassador’ who says to “give a little shake if you see a fellow passenger sleeping”. Fortunately the girl woke up on her own.

Of course, the train ride is always made interesting by that one special customer service ambassador who thanks us for “choo-choo-choosing GO” just before we leave the train at Aldershot.

Coming back home is a little busier, especially if there’s a hockey, baseball, TFC or basketball game. The Quiet Zone (the upper level of the GO during rush hour) is completely shot to hell then. Little kids are super excited to be going to the game which is completely endearing.

There may be a wee bit of alcohol involved in the small clusters of other groups heading to the game which makes for some interesting overhead conversations (and absolutely no reading accomplished).

That, though, is one of the great joys of transit: overhead conversations. I guess in polite society, we should pretend we don’t listen to other people’s conversations – and honestly, I don’t always WANT to hear people’s conversations – but I mostly find it interesting. In the writing course I took recently, it was recommended that we eavesdrop to help us learn how to write dialogue for our fiction pieces.

That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

What’s really interesting to me is that when I take the GO train from Toronto to Mississauga on Fridays (after my writing workshop), there is NO TALKING at all in the Quiet Zone; people police others. I have seen many people remind others about the Quiet Zone and seen it escalate beyond polite reminders.

The subway (and the streetcar maybe too) are the best for people watching. I find it fascinating to watch how people interact with each other: men towards women; men towards other men; everyone toward people with disabilities or otherwise marginalized; how people behave toward the elderly; interactions (overt and hidden) between people of different races – you name it, take two stops on any subway and you will see it play out.

I have taken some of my commuting time to acknowledge my own prejudices and try to unpack them. When someone is fidgety and agitated, am I concerned for them or me? Is the concern for me stem from the fact they are unkempt? Because their skin colour is something other than white? What if it was a white man in a business suit?

It’s not always a comfortable answer, but the questions are pretty damn important to consider.

Another large portion of my time is spent observing people – like the man who was reading over a woman’s shoulder and, fortunately (I guess), was a faster reader than her, so he was never left behind. I wonder if he went and bought the book?

Next to the reader was a woman who was taking frequent, long swigs out of a bottle. Not a bottle in a brown paper bag. A large bottle of dark rum (straight up) that she took out during pauses in doing crosswords in a little booklet.

Generally, people on transit are friendly or, more often, neutral. I smile, usually people smile back. I greet the drivers, they say hello back. I’ve been offered a seat by young(er) people on more than one occasion. I’m never sure how I feel about that – it’s lovely and sweet, but am I really that old? I tried to decline once and the young man said his mother would be very upset if he was sitting and I was standing. So now I sit when a seat is offered.

I’m not sure, but maybe these people will help me create truer characters in future writing.

“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” he said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization – that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.”  – Booth Tarkington

this floor: memory lane

The other day I was on a crowded elevator and someone asked me to hit the button for their floor. Another person asked for a different floor. Then the occupants started joking about how I was an elevator operator. The usual discomfort of close quarters with strangers evaporated.

Funny thing, I once was an elevator operator.

My first job out of high school was working an old elevator at Eaton’s in downtown Calgary. I had a strict (white shirt, black slacks, white gloves) dress code.

third floor, children’s clothing, women’s washrooms”

After a few months, I was moved to the information desk. Eaton’s had decided to automate the elevator.

I had quite a few jobs as a young person, starting with a paper route at 11 (that photo? me at 11). Delivering papers in Calgary at 5 a.m. in the winter was absolutely not a good time. Sometimes I could drag my brother out with me, but he was well into teenage-hood by then, so that was rare.

When I was 14, I had a job working at Sears in the hardware department.

I was part of something called the Teen Council: a group of girls of every size who would “model” the latest “fashion” twice a year. I say “model” because we basically walked an elevated aisle in the mall, and “fashion” because Sears was not exactly leading edge. Basically an animated catalogue for teen girls.

Every Teen Council member also worked in the store and the assignments seemed to be given out based on size: the girls representing size 0 and 2 worked in jewellery and lingerie.

As the girl representing size 14 teens, I was deemed suitable for hardware – which if you’ve ever seen me wield a hammer, you would know was not the wisest choice.

Best part of the gig (she says sarcastically), they had HUGE photos of us placed at an entrance, laid out, you got it, according to size. The size 16 girl and I were on an opposite wall to the others – almost as if we needed more room.

I definitely enjoyed the sound of my feet walking away from that job.

I once filled in for a friend at her job during summer vacation. She worked in a floral shop which also carried household items, like placemats and cloth napkins. I was given free rein to rearrange displays to my heart’s content. I did/do not have any designer flare, but I loved creating little place settings using all one colour but different patterns. Or putting teddy bears in big chairs with tea cups and funny hats.

The job I treasured in those years was babysitting. I played Barbies and board games and coloured and sang songs for days. My mom had lots of friends with small children and there was never a holiday season that I was not busy every night. Summer afternoons were spent pushing kids on swings and catching them on slides.

In the evenings, I loved the fully stocked pantries and fridges and the bookshelves full of novels. My absolute favourite place to babysit had an incredibly rich library of show tune vinyl. And I am pretty sure I wore out their copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Trouble Water.

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled
water
I will ease your mind

I’ll never tire of hanging out with small humans, playing dress up or looking at clouds or, most especially, reading out loud.

 

 

let me hold this memory with gentle hands…

Let me hold this memory with gentle hands, the moment the room erupted with joy and love, the moment they lay you, my first-born, on my chest.

The fears of unknown futures and anguish of weeks of  bed rest – gone. You were beautiful and noisy and healthy. The relief was complete.

You changed my life forever, in ways of wonder and joy.

You had made quite an entrance, with people coming and going and layers of schedules meaning double the staff and it was chaotic and noisy and then, everyone, you included, were gone. And all I could think of was I needed you. We had not been apart in more than eight months.

The years ahead were ones in which I wondered and doubted and faltered; everything was new, and I forgot too often to listen to my heart. I wanted to recapture that moment, when they lay you on my chest, and I knew exactly what to do.

When I think of that memory, the memory I hold with gentle hands, I am propelled forward, when you turned the world around back to me, and emboldened me to find a new path of joy and fulfillment. You encouraged me with your loving, gentle heart.

*

Let me hold this memory with gentle hands, the moment you, my baby girl, lay within my arms, newly born.

Your appearance in the world was slow and fast. Ten hours of labour, too few minutes of pushing for the doctor to ‘glove up’. I wanted to see your eyes, but you were not quite ready to greet the world.

You came to us with very little sound, very little effort. You slept and cooed and stretched in the new space of the world. That moment was opposite to the future. Everything ahead was noisy and wonderful and arguments and hugs and baking and colouring. Haircuts with craft scissors. Books and bobby pins. Your smiles and other spontaneous, exuberant expressions of joy.

When I think of that memory, that first day memory which I hold with gentle hands, it was not until last August at your wedding when the world stood that still again.

I felt your breath when you were born, up against my cheek as I pulled you close.

I felt your breath as you walked down the aisle, up against the love surrounding you.

*

These are the memories I hold of my children, with gentle hands and an open heart.

 

end of the beginning

Today signals the end of my first writing course through U of T. When I began, I decided I would see how this one went before deciding to sign up for another.

I signed up for two courses for the spring. Obviously it went well.

It’s not about marks here; you get a pass/fail. It went well because I started down a path with guidance. I have walked the writing path many times throughout my life – writing stories and poems. I have often worked through issues by writing, but usually came up short to really working past anything. I continued to be stuck.

This course has been good in keeping my hand moving and my writing and understanding of the craft has improved.

What more could I ask for?

Coupled with this has been the time I spend at my writing sanctuary run by a wonderful collective every Friday afternoon. This is a workspace tucked in a storefront on the Danforth. I had to do an errand a couple of weeks ago on a Friday which put me two hours away by bus and subway – but it was completely worth the effort to carve out a few hours of silence and writing.

This wonderful group, Firefly Creative Writing also have a subscription service where they send you a monthly snail mail package full of inspiration and activities. My response to this month’s ‘play’ activity is above.

When I gift myself the time and space to follow this writing dream, I’m never sorry.

I decided to unearth my voice and my stories and the paths I’ve chosen have been fruitful and rewarding.

I cannot help but reflect back on my dream to return to university. That was the same pathway, and it was different. It’s the same because I wanted to do both for as long as I can remember.

The difference was that I had to prove something to myself by returning to university. I had to prove I was capable of doing academic, intellectual, tough, demanding work and not give up. Honestly, I often think I could have done courses like that forever, with regularly scheduled breaks, of course!

Then I started to write and take courses and focus on that, and I know I’m on the right path and it is a path that is much richer and productive because of the university experience.

The other way the two experiences – writing courses and university courses – are the same is that I never knew what I would do with my degree when I was done (other than put it on the shelf over the television where it remains to this day). I don’t know where this writing adventure is taking me. I have a fiction idea I am writing small pieces about and may put them all together. I have loads of nonfiction things I have written over the years and more in my head.

I do not know where I am headed.

So today is the end of the beginning. Let’s just see where it goes.

 

Undermining resiliency

Every day, it’s something new and, most often, detrimental coming from the Ontario Education Minister. It’s hard to keep up with what’s happening in education in Ontario, but to date, I cannot think of anything that’s been done in the true interests of students. I understand that education is a heavy draw on the financial makeup of a province. That being said, it does not even make good business sense to make cuts which will end up crippling the system. This is a poor business model and an even worse social program model. (I cannot even touch the issues around funding for autism programs. It will have absolutely devastating effects on children and families.)

The Education Minister yesterday, on a CBC morning program, stated that making high school classrooms bigger would make students more resilient.

High school classrooms – all classrooms – are not the place to download the mental health skill development for resiliency while also making significant cuts in both supports and funding.

What parents, teachers, industry specialists or university educators specifically said, increase teacher to student ratios so students are better prepared for university and the world? Is it like the ‘sex ed’ consultations where in reality a small number of people were opposed to concepts like consent, but the Government said the majority wanted it out?

Maybe people who believe in 1960s education models – where kids come to school, learn by rote and had significantly fewer pressures, distractions, and expectations than today’s students – also believe that schools should be solving all the woes of the world while providing exemplary education using limited resources. (That was a time when teachers gave the strap regularly – hopefully that’s not part of the next announcement.)

Again, I encourage the Minister (and anyone else making these decisions) to spend time in a classroom. Work in it. Spend a week, a month, a year.

Teachers do everything they can to create environments which nurture independence and build resiliency in students.  Classrooms are currently dealing with huge differentials: in learning abilities and disabilities; mental health strengths and areas for development; family dynamics; economic variability and instability; and a host of other impactful factors.

Ask any school social worker, teacher or counsellor and there are a significant amount of circumstances which can thwart the growth of resiliency. As parents, we are instrumental in the growth of resiliency and we also need to accept that being a helicopter/snowplow parent (guilty) is counterproductive to this concept.

The Government has a responsiblity in the mental health of all citizens. They need to lead, not chase after savings in the budget without fully understanding the trickle down impacts. They need to stop speaking off the cuff and making statements that are unfounded or based on facts. When children are surrounded by a 24 hour news cycle in which the elected leaders are not leading with any conviction or substance, this negatively impacts resiliency.

We all play a part in building environments to set up student success and the place where students spend the bulk of their waking hours – schools – should be supported and funded. The decision to increase classroom sizes will have the opposite effect to building resiliency and coping skills. And, if history is any indication, the blame will be also be downloaded onto teachers and schools.