Day 4: Looking Forward

Today was not nearly as long of a day as the past two days of training.

This morning, a few of the teams (ours included) shared some of their day plans for camp.  We also had a presentation about Duty to Report by a woman from Tikinagan Child and Family Services.  It was a pretty straightforward presentation, but one comment really caught my attention.  A lot of the questions that came up after the presentation seemed to be about how to recognize signs of abuse in children.  It was easy to tell that the conversation was entering uncomfortable territory and one of the Northern counsellors finally jumped in with a reminder that we are not going into these communities to look for abuse.  This may not seem like a profound comment, but it was for me.  It is interesting (and troubling) to think about the way that we subconsciously internalize a lot of the information that is presented in the news about First Nations communities.  Unfortunately, more often than not, this information is negative.  This really reinforced the importance of going into this experience with an open mind and no expectation of what my summer will be like.  I am going to Fort Albany to work with kids and support their literacy development.  Beyond that, I want the experience to unfold however it does and I want to be open to learning as much as I can.

After a brief presentation about safety protocols, we were joined for lunch by Chief Stan Beardy, the Ontario Regional Chief.  The elder who welcomed us to training on the first day gave a blessing at the beginning and the Chief spoke after we had eaten.  He was very appreciative of the program and raised a lot of very though provoking points about First Nations communities in Ontario.  However, there is one point that he made that has really resonated with me:

“This is not just a summer job for you.  This will help shape the quality of life in Canada for the future.”

Now, I realize that my selection of this quote may appear to be self-aggrandizing, but I can assure you that this is not what he meant.  The Chief spoke a lot about the relationship between Canada and First Nations People (especially given the Supreme Court ruling that had come out of British Columbia earlier in the day) and made note of the fact that we are at a crucial point for determining what the future will look like for First Nations communities in Ontario.  By establishing partnerships and empowering children, we have the ability to help improve the relationship between Canada and First Nations communities across the country.

The afternoon consisted of one final presentation on behaviour management and then we were given our flight information.  I will be on a chartered flight to the James Bay region along with the teams heading to Attawapiskat and Peawanuk (this will hopefully mean that it is okay for my luggage to be a little over the 35 pound weight limit).  We will be leaving campus at 10am and considering that some other groups are leaving at 5:45am, I think we really lucked out!

Now I just returned from sitting by the water on campus and watching the sunset.  Most of the other groups are spending some time together tonight, but my teammate went out to meet a friend for the evening.  I sat outside my residence for a little while but decided to go for a walk instead.  To be honest, I have been enjoying the solitude tonight and it is so quiet and peaceful here that I just couldn’t waste the sunset.

Goodnight Lakehead.  Fort Albany, here I come!

Lakehead Sunset 2

Day 3: Training, Planning, and Running

Today was our second day of training.  It was another full day, but at least the weather was much nicer than yesterday!

This morning, we reviewed our Reporting and Admin binders.  This was a very helpful session because it gave us a much clearer picture of what we are responsible for and how the logistics of camp work.  We also received resource binders that are filled with a lot of great ideas for camp activities that have proven successful in the past.

Our morning training also included a presentation about some traditional First Nations teachings, beliefs, and ceremonies.  This is one area that I know very little about and has been responsible for some of the nervousness that has accompanied my decision to head North for the summer, so I am glad that this was covered in some capacity.  I know that we only scratched the surface of the topic and that these things will be different from one community to another, but I really appreciated a chance to learn more about traditional First Nations teachings.

In the afternoon, we had a presentation by a representative from Right to Play.  There are some communities in which they also run camps for Aboriginal youth and they have partnered with Frontier College to provide combined programming.  Unfortunately, Fort Albany is not one of the communities that they are working in this summer, but it was still interesting to hear about how the two programs have worked together in the past.

Our day of training ended with a presentation by the Early Literacy Lead from Mushkegowuk Council about literacy development and camp planning.  We were given a chance to work in groups and use backwards design to develop some ideas for activities in different areas that we might want to implement at camp.  It was exciting to actually think about different things that we can do with the camp program, especially because we have a lot of freedom to determine how things run throughout the summer.  It was also great to hear some of the ideas that other groups came up with… I definitely took a lot of notes!

After dinner, my teammate and I spent some time coming up with camp plans (we were asked to come up with three days worth of planning for homework to be presented tomorrow).  We worked really well together and came up with a lot of different ideas.  It is hard not to get too carried away with programming for camp before we have a chance to get to know the kids that we are working with.  That being said, it is nice to know that we have a good supply of ideas to pull from as we go along.

We also had a chance to chat with the woman from Mushkegowuk Council because she currently lives in Fort Albany.  Since we do not have a Northern Counsellor to talk to, she gave us a ton of information about the community and answered a lot of our questions.  She will be spending at least one week there during our camp program and promised to spend some time with us at camp.  She also offered to bring up snacks or anything else that we might need from Moosonee when she comes – we might just have to take her up on that offer!

Once we finished planning for the evening, I went for a run by myself down to the waterfront.  I figured that since I have never been to Thunder Bay before and am not quite sure when I will be here again (Frontier College used to host a debrief session in Thunder Bay at the end of the summer, but it sounds like that is not happening this year), I might as well take some time to explore.  It was a gorgeous night, so after I ran down to the waterfront, I stopped for a little while to walk around and take some pictures.

Thunder Bay Waterfront
I took my time and ran back to campus by weaving my way through some different side streets to get a feel of what Thunder Bay is like.  I made it back to Lakehead just in time to watch the sunset over campus.

Lakehead Sunset
When I got back to the residences, a few of the other counsellors were sitting outside and doing some planning, so I sat with them for a while until the bugs finally drove us inside.

Only two more sleeps until we fly out!

Day 2: Getting Started

Today we got started with our first day of training.  It was a bit of a long day, especially considering that the weather was quite gloomy and we spent most of the day sitting in a dimly lit auditorium.  That being said, it was nice to finally start learning more about our roles and responsibilities as camp counsellors and details of the communities that we will be living and working in.

Our morning began with a welcome from an elder from a nearby community.  We were then given an overview the camp program, which was interesting because I really do not know all that much about Frontier College or the origins of the Aboriginal Summer Reading Camp.  While the program was started by former Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman in 2005, the current Lieutenant Governor, David Onley, has continued to support the program.  However, as of this year, Frontier College has assumed stewardship of the program which means that they are responsible for funding of the project in its entirety.  As a program that costs upward of one million dollars, that is no small undertaking.  More information about supporting the program can be found here.

We also learned about the scope and growth of the program.  This year, camp will be running in 26 different communities (unfortunately two communities had to cancel last-minute because of issues in the community).  The total number of camps being run varies from year to year.  It began with a small pilot project of five camps and has grown to as high as around 40 camps a few years ago.  The four-person team dedicated to running this program out of Thunder Bay are incredibly dedicated and it was great to hear them talk about the growth of the program.

We also learned about some of the core values that are the foundation of all of the work that Frontier College does with the Aboriginal Summer Reading Camp program.  Their main priority is establishing a partnership with each community that they work in.  Camps operate in these communities because the community has invited Frontier College in to facilitate the program and in no way are these programs imposed on any community.  This partnership is enhanced by the fact that Northern Counsellors from the various communities are actively recruited to work as part of the camp team in different communities.

After learning a lot about the program itself, the rest of the day consisted of a variety of different training sessions.  These include a question and answer session with returning counsellors, a presentation by a woman from One Laptop Per Child Canada (an initiative that aims to enhance education for Aboriginal youth through the use of technology), and a discussion about the importance of literacy and fostering a love of reading and writing in children from an early age.  Along with this last topic came a discussion about unique ways to incorporate elements of natural literacy into the camp program rather than making camp seem like school for the kids.  I am looking forward to being creative and finding fun ways of incorporating elements of literacy development into the camp program!

After dinner, I decided to make a trip to pick up some other items that I realized might be useful since our last trip out yesterday afternoon.  I thought that I had looked up a Shoppers Drug Mart close to campus, but I must have had my directions wrong because there was nothing there when I arrived.  Instead, I ended up retracing my steps back to campus and then walking to one that we had gone to yesterday.   The weather was not very cooperative with my adventure and I got rained on, but I suppose I should get used to dealing with the elements before the summer gets started.

We also found out today that we do not have a Northern Counsellor joining us from Fort Albany, so there will just be two of us running camp there this summer.  It would be nice to have someone from the community to help us learn more about the community and connect us with different resources throughout the summer, but we will just have to do our best to meet people and ask questions when we arrive.  It will definitely be an adventure!

Day 1: A New Adventure

Considering that I am not much of a morning person, I was quite proud of how early I woke up this morning.  I wanted to give myself enough time to get ready, eat breakfast, and make sure that I was not forgetting anything important (although I had closed my suitcase before bed and refused to let myself open it again because I knew that I would only end up stressing about whether or not to add or remove anything).

After saying goodbye to my aunt, uncle, and cousins (I will probably miss my three-year-old sidekick the most), my parents and sister drove me downtown to catch the ferry.  I had never flown out of the Toronto Island Airport before today, so this was a pretty exciting experience for me.  The ferry ride was ridiculously short (it will be nice when they finish building the underwater walkway) and my experience at the airport was fantastic.  It was nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of a major international airport.  Plus, the free tea and snacks were a nice bonus too!

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but today was the start of an eight week adventure for me in Northern Ontario.  I will be working with Frontier College as a Camp Counsellor with the Lieutenant Governor’s Summer Aboriginal Reading Camp.  After a week of Training in Thunder Bay, I will be flying into the First Nations community of Fort Albany for a seven-week stay.  This is an experience that I have been looking forward to for a very long time and, despite feeling a mix of nervous and excited, I am really looking forward to living and working in a new environment for the summer.  I have no expectation about what the experience will be like, but I know that I am going to learn a lot.

After some time by myself in the airport lounge (I somehow managed to spill my tea on at least three different occasions), I met up with my teammate and two other people who are also participating in the program.  It was nice to finally chat with a group of people in the same situation as me and it was reassuring to hear that a lot of us shared the same feelings and had the same questions about the experience.

Finally, we said our goodbyes to the Toronto skyline and boarded the plane!

Toronto Skyline
I sat beside another girl with Frontier College on the plane and the trip went by relatively quickly.  Before I knew it, we were descending towards Thunder Bay.  It is hard to describe feeling that I had when I l first looked out of the window as we were landing.  In many ways, this was one moment when the reality of what I am doing really started to sink in.  In that moment I also felt a strong sense of release and freedom.  I have been craving adventure and space for a while now and I certainly hope to find these things (among many others) this summer.

We were met at the airport by three Frontier College staff who helped us load our things into a truck and drove us to Lakehead University.  It seems to be a nice campus and I hope to do some more exploring while I am here.  We were assigned rooms in townhouse-style residences with other members of our teams (as of right now there are only two of us assigned to Fort Albany, but we are not entirely sure if others will be joining us).  The five of us who had flown in on the same flight seemed to be the only ones who had arrived yet, so we did some exploring off-campus and got ourselves some lunch.  We also made a few stops to pick up things that we had forgotten, including food that we had all been too worried about trying to pack but was beginning to seem pretty essential.

By the time we returned to campus for dinner, most of the other counsellors had arrived.  I had a chance to chat with a returning counsellor who worked in Fort Albany a few summers ago, which was really nice.  Afterwards, we had the night to ourselves and I just spent some time meeting a few of the other counsellors and getting settled in.

It has been a long day of travelling and I am looking forward to meeting everyone and getting started with training tomorrow morning!

Courage Is Like a Muscle

I started running last summer.

Okay, so that statement may not be entirely accurate.  I was a big fan of the 800m during my elementary school track and field days.  I went through phases of early morning runs before volleyball or rowing practices during high school.  I also had my fair share of “this is it” attempts at running regularly during my undergrad (admittedly, these were usually disguised attempts to avoid studying or writing papers).  But all of these sporadic attempts had turned running into something glorified for me.  Running was not something that I wanted to do as a way of staying healthy or expending built-up energy, but rather something that I wanted to do just because I wanted to be the type of person who was a runner.  I was missing the point.

Now, allow me to correct my original statement: I actually started running consistently last summer.  But this time, it was not just because I wanted to be a runner.  It was because I needed to run.

In a blog post last year, I wrote the phrase, “I find myself alternating between holding back tears and resisting the urge to walk outside and sprint down the street as fast as I possibly can.”  There was no hyperbole in that statement.  I meant every word of it.  I was allowing thoughts, ideas, and emotions to become trapped inside of me and struggled to find a way to let them go.  Both emotionally and physically, I knew that I needed to start moving to release the pressure.

But even after I hit the point where I knew that I needed to run, it took me a long time to get started.  It began with setting an alarm much earlier than I knew I would ever be able to get out of bed with the hopes that I would wake up in the morning with a superhuman amount of willpower.  But that was not much more than false hope.  I then resigned myself to that fact that evening runs would be more appropriate and woke up each morning with a renewed enthusiasm for the run that I would go on when I got home from a busy day.  But I always seemed to find a thousand things that needed to be done instead of running.  My next step involved coming home, eating dinner, putting on shorts and a t-shirt, and sitting on my living room couch while The National aired on the TV in the background.  But my adoration for the voice of Peter Mansbridge gave me yet another reason to avoid letting my feet hit the pavement outside.

You see, all other explanations aside, I was afraid.  I was not a runner (in so many senses of the word).  It was easier to pretend that I could just start running marathons than risk taking a few strides down the block only to realize that the muscles in my legs could only carry me so far.  In some ways, it was also easier to cling to the thoughts, ideas, and emotions that I had been holding hostage for so long than risk letting go and running in a new direction.

One day, I was flipping through my book of quotes (the one that I started back as a 14-year-old and continue to add to on a regular basis) and came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:

“Courage is like a muscle.  We strengthen it with use.” – Ruth Gordon

These words hit me like a ton of bricks.  And after I let them hit me, I scrawled them on a piece of paper and taped them to my wall.

Courage Wall Quote
And not long after that, I started running.

I started each run with the lyrics of Brave by Sara Bareilles blasting through my headphones and ended each run to the lyrics of Start Over by The Afters. (I will save an explanation of my attachment to the lyrics of these songs for another day, but if you have never spent a late night staring up at the sky and listening to nothing but your heartbeat and the lyrics of these songs, I strongly suggest that you give it a try.)

Running became a way for me to create space for whatever I needed to create space for on any given day.  Some days I needed to focus my energy on setting and working towards a new goal for myself.  Some days I needed to sort through thoughts and ideas that couldn’t be sorted surrounded by the chaos of a busy subway car.  And some days I just needed to run as fast as I could for as long as I could because, well, I just needed to.

I find it hard to explain to others why I am emotionally attached to running, but this is why: Courage really is like a muscle and I needed to start running to figure that out.  Strengthening your muscles has a powerful way of reminding you just how much courage you have hidden inside of you.  But that courage needs exercise too.  Box it up or refuse to acknowledge it and it seems to disappear.  But find the courage to do something as small as go for a run a few times each week and each step might just bring you a little bit closer to learning something more about yourself.

I ran a 5km race last September…

Toronto 5k - Group Photo
After a winter of not running very often because of a sore knee, I ran 10km in May for the first time in my life…

Sporting Life 10k - Group Photo
And I still do my best to run as often as I can.

Whether or not these are particularly grand accomplishments for others, they are significant to me.  I proved to myself that I could commit to trying something new and that I could follow through on that promise.  I also proved to myself that I could become stronger (in more ways than one).  And I did not do these things just because I wanted to be a runner, but because I recognized that I needed to take a step forward and I listened to the voice inside of me that told me that I had the courage to start moving.

I was not (nor am I now) an expert runner, but the great thing about running is that you can measure success in ways that are meaningful to you.  Sometimes I run to cover a certain distance, sometimes I run to beat a previous time, and sometimes I run to give myself space to think.  But regardless of why you run, the most important step is finding the courage to take the first one.  After that, all you have to do is keep moving.

The Only Story That Matters

It is safe to say that I watch a lot of TED Talks. I follow them on Twitter, subscribe to the podcast, and have a TED app on my phone. I love the opportunities that they provide to explore new ideas, be introduced to different ways of thinking, or just listen to someone else vocalize their personal feelings in a way that I can relate to.

There are some talks that hold a special place in my memory and I reference them often – just ask me about Ken Robinson’s approach to education, Brené Brown’s discussion about what it means to be truly vulnerable, or Susan Cain’s perspective on the power of introverts. But more often than I would like to admit, I will allow a particular talk to resonate with me only to then scroll through the online transcript for the correct wording of my favourite quote(s), tweet a link to the video, and let it fade from my memory.

However, I am not sure that any recent talk has resonated with me in quite the way that this one has…

Ash Beckham: We’re all hiding something. Let’s find the courage to open up

This talk was sent to me a few weeks ago and, to be honest, I have lost track of how many times I have watched it since then. With each view, I discover a new phrase or idea that strikes a chord deep within me and reminds me of an experience in my own life.

Now, my intention in sharing this talk is certainly not to detail my own personal experiences with difficult conversations, nor do I want to re-state the obvious messages that Ash Beckham presents. But I do want to suggest that more of us should take these words to heart:

“At some point in our lives, we all live in closets. And they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.”

What if more of us were able to embrace this wonderful idea that opening ourselves to difficult conversations – with ourselves, loved ones, co-workers, or maybe even complete strangers – might allow us to shed some of the fear, mistrust, and discontent that plagues our daily lives? And what if we were able to realize that while it may seem easier to distract ourselves from having those difficult conversations, it is incredibly exhausting to walk through life trying to hide the thoughts, ideas, or actions that most deserve to be shared with the world?

Well, I certainly do not have the answers to these questions. But I do know that, regardless of what our hard conversations involve, sometimes it is just too exhausting to be anything but honest. And at the end of the day, it helps to remember that “the only story that matters is the one that you want to write”.

Beautiful Disasters

I had some time off from work for March Break this week, so I decided to make a long-overdue trip home to Midland.  As usual, I walked through the door on Monday and immediately carried my suitcase up the stairs and into the room that was once painted an obnoxious shade of lime green.  I glanced around to see if my parents had changed much since my last visit home and then let my attention settle on the pile of papers that were waiting for me on the desk.  My eyes scanned the many Visa statements, pieces of junk mail, belated birthday cards, and magazines that had accumulated since my last visit before settling on a small stack of old pictures that my parents had recently found.  I began flipping through the collection and stumbled across this photo of myself (circa the early 90s)…

Toddler Nicole                                                                        #classy

Once I finished laughing to myself, I quickly snapped a picture with my phone and texted it to my sister with the caption, “I am going to take this as proof that my life has always been a bit of a disaster.”  We spent some time poking fun at the attitude that I supposedly had as a toddler (my family attributes this to the attention that comes with being the first grandchild) while I glanced through the rest of the photos.  I eventually placed my “disaster” photo on top of the pile and pushed the small stack of pictures to the side of my desk.

While I haven’t looked through that stack of photos again anytime in the past five days, I have glanced at the photo on the top of the pile and laughed to myself more than a few times.  After all, it really does make me look like a little disaster of a toddler.  But yesterday, I caught myself wondering exactly what I had meant by the caption that I chose to attach to the photo when sharing it.  Why did I feel the need to describe my life as a disaster?  Was I just making a joke or was there something more to it?  What was it about the mess in the picture that I instantly connected to my life at this moment?

Well, I immediately began pointing to aspects of my life that would help to explain this comment away – unpaid debt, a year of unemployment, complicated relationships, my willingness to change career paths every three days – and I thought I had justified my original comment.  But then I began prodding beyond the surface of these explanations and challenged myself to be a little more honest about my feelings.  And as it turns out, when I stopped hiding behind some imaginary construct that was telling me that life is supposed to be perfect and worry-free, I actually couldn’t come up with any valid reasons to call my life a disaster.  All of the things that I had originally identified as difficult aspects of my life certainly don’t make me a disaster.  They simply make me human.

And here’s the thing about being human…

It’s not easy.

Love.  Relationships.  Money.  Careers.  These things are hard.  Really, really hard.  And there is no rule book designed to help us out along the way.  So we learn our lessons by trying and failing, hurting and being hurt, falling down and doing our best to get back up.  Life is messy, but it is meant to be that way.  So instead of feeling the need to qualify away the difficult stuff with silly captions, perhaps we should spend some time knee-deep in the messes that make up our lives each day and recognize that we have a lot to learn from them.

The things that challenge us are not peripheral to our lives.  They are part of our lives.  And there is a lot to be learned from letting ourselves be okay with those feelings of disaster sometimes.  It may be easier to focus only on making the difficult stuff disappear, but I also believe that it is important to consider the deeper meaning of the feelings that keep us up at night, make our eyes water in the middle of a crowded subway, or make us want to take a deep breath and scream at the top of our lungs.  Because treating all of the messy things in life as obstacles that we simply need to push through in order to start really living only serves to undermine the fact that we are all imperfect humans just trying to find our way.

There may not be an easy answer to the many “disasters” that we all face each day, but perhaps a small part of finding our way involves looking around at the important people in our lives and making a small promise to be imperfectly human together.  And whether that means watching a toddler spill a bowl of peanuts across the living room floor or struggling together through moments of difficult and honest emotions, I think that can be a pretty beautiful thing.

Thinking in Bed

I recently celebrated a birthday and gifts from my family included three wonderful children’s books.  It is no secret that I love reading children’s literature (possibly more than I enjoy reading “grown-up” books) and these three books have been great additions to my collection.  Among them is a book of poetry for children entitled Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee.  While I usually enjoy the simplicity of lessons presented in children’s books, I found one poem in this collection to be particularly compelling as a lesson for people of all ages:

Thinking in Bed

I’m thinking in bed,
‘Cause I can’t get out
Till I learn how to think
What I’m thinking about;
What I’m thinking about
Is a person to be—
A sort of a person
Who feels like me.

I might still be Alice,
Excepting I’m not.
And Snoopy is super,
But not when it’s hot;
I couldn’t be Piglet,
I don’t think I’m Pooh,
I know I’m not Daddy
And I can’t be you.

My breakfast is waiting.
My clothes are all out,
But what was that thing
I was thinking about?
I’ll never get up
If I lie here all day;
But I still haven’t thought,
So I’ll just have to stay.

If I was a Grinch
I expect I would know.
I might have been Batman,
But I don’t think so.
There’s so many people
I don’t seem to be—
I guess I’ll just have to
Get up and be me.

Now, we all tend to take things from literature that we can most relate to in our own lives and we find comfort in words that describe our personal experiences in ways that we are unable to.  In the words of this poem, I find a powerful image of someone being stuck as a result of spending too much time thinking about where to start.  I sense feelings of wanting to have it all figured out and wanting to get it right.  And with that being said, I certainly understand why this poem has resonated so strongly with me.

It was not long ago that I wrote about graduating Teacher’s College and the uncertainty that was sure to follow.  A lot has changed since then, but the uncertainty is still there and it is sometimes easy to feel like I am running out of time to figure things out.  Anytime that I sarcastically comment that turning 26 somehow qualifies me for seniors discounts or that I should start considering my retirement options, my friends and family are quick to sweep in with reassuring narratives about their own lives that inevitably end with statements like “you have your whole life ahead of you” or “I had no idea what I was doing when I was your age”.  While I could sarcastically argue that it is impossible for a 26-year-old to have their whole life ahead of them, I certainly do not dispute their claims.  Deep down, I know that there is no external standard that should define the person that I am or the things that I do at any given point in my life.  I also know that I am not and never will be a completely finished person.

But, every once in a while, I let my own sarcasm get the best of me.  I know that I am not the only person who struggles with the challenge of defending myself against constant feelings that I am somehow supposed to have it all figured out by now.  We inadvertently create these narratives for ourselves in the way that we talk about the future.  If you had asked 13-year-old Nicole what she would be doing when she was 26, the answer would have involved some combination of being a journalist, researcher, philanthropist, wife, physiotherapist, police officer, teacher, and mother.  I grew up being told that I could be and would be the best at whatever I wanted to do.  It was great.  I had the world at my feet.  I felt empowered.

But with that empowerment and those big dreams comes a lot of pressure.  And it is sometimes easier to hide in the safety of doing nothing than walk out into the world and take a risk.  Personally, I tend to paralyze myself by feeling like I need to know exactly where I want to end up before trying something.  But, in the meantime, I stop taking chances because I fear that I may miss out on the one thing that I am supposed to be doing.  I realize that this may sound convoluted because, well, it is a pretty convoluted thought.  But simply put, it is sometimes just easier to stay in bed thinking about all of the people that I could be or the things that I could do than challenging myself to risk being or doing any of those things.

A friend once told me that the best way to deal with uncertainty is to embrace it and just allow your future to feel like a black hole.  And he was right.  But there is an important next step that is sometimes easy to forget about…

You eventually have to start moving.

Thinking in bed or staring at a black hole can only last for so long.  It is one thing to allow the future to be uncertain, but when that alarm goes off or you reach the edge of the black hole, it does not accomplish much to stare at the future in fear.  There comes a point when you need to take that next step.  And it might not be easy.  And you might go in the wrong direction for a while.  And you might just learn that there is more than one right answer.  But maybe focusing less on needing to have it all figured out is what allows us to open ourselves to learning from experience and discovering what it means to live meaningful lives surrounded by the people, places, and things that we care most about.

So, here is a challenge to myself and anyone else who might be feeling a little bit stuck in any aspect of life right now:  As childish as it may sound, listen to the words of this poem.  Take the time that you need to embrace the idea of uncertainty and think things through.  But don’t forget to get up, get out of bed, and put your feet on the ground.  You may not know exactly what you are doing or where you are going, but failing to start moving will only ensure that you never figure it out.  And you might just be missing out on a great adventure.

“Just in case you need it…”

Last night, I found myself waiting at the bus stop near my house in the bitter cold.  My hood was up, my head was down, and the only thought on my mind was whether or not it was worth it to slide my gloves off for long enough to check the arrival time of the next bus on my phone.

There was a man standing beside me who, while wearing a winter coat and hat, was visibly much colder than I was.  He paced back and forth in front of me and I kept my head down, still anxiously counting down the minutes until the next bus would arrive.  We eventually made eye-contact and I could tell that he was going to start talking to me. Admittedly, I was dreading the prospect of a conversation with a stranger in the cold (it is much easier to avoid the wind when you are staring at your shoes), but I did my best to smile politely and reply when he told me that the cold weather warning in Toronto had been lifted not long ago.  He continued pacing and I quickly returned to looking down at my feet.

A few minutes later, this man approached me again, returning to the topic of the cold weather warning in the city.  This time, he asked me whether or not I thought that the people who issue cold weather warnings ever have to spend much time out in the cold actually feeling what it is like to be outside for extended periods of time.  Once again, I smiled politely and replied.  But this time, I was in less of a hurry to go back to staring at the ground.  This man just wanted to chat and I was beginning to realize that there was no harm in that.

Our conversation continued over the next few minutes as we bounced to a few different topics, including recent lottery winners and what we might do if we were lucky enough to win the next Lotto 649 draw.  But finally, the bus pulled up and we parted ways to find empty seats.  My focus shifted back to how cold my hands and feet were and whether or not I was going to be on time to meet my friends downtown.

As the bus pulled into the subway station, this man stood up and walked towards the back exit of the bus where I was sitting.  He looked up at me, looked down into the bag that he was holding, and handed me a small package of tissues.

“Just in case you need it,” he said.

He sheepishly looked back down into his bag and mentioned that he had just picked up a bunch of these packages from the store and that I might need one given how cold it has been outside lately.  And with that, he exited the bus, walked into the station, and disappeared down the subway platform.

With the pack of tissues in hand, I boarded the train and felt almost completely overwhelmed by this seemingly insignificant act of kindness and moment of real human connection with someone who, just a few minutes before, I had been doing my best to ignore.  I took a seat on the train, pulled out my phone, and immediately began typing.  What I wrote was a point-form version of everything that I have shared here so far.  There was something about this moment that struck a chord with me and I desperately wanted to figure out what it was.  I thought that running through the moments of this encounter might help me to process my own reaction and maybe learn something at the same time.

Now, I realize that many people may shrug this off as an insignificant encounter or wonder why I felt the need to document this experience in such detail.  I mean, this is certainly not the first time that I have chatted with a total stranger on the bus or subway.  So, why exactly was I so overwhelmed by this short conversation and a small pack of tissues?

I have since decided against trying too hard to extract some sort of lesson from this experience that would allow me to retell the story with a well-packaged moral and purpose.  I have also decided against being too self-conscious of the fact that this interaction struck a chord with me in the profound way that it did.  Instead, I simply want to share this as an example of what I consider to be a moment of true human connection in a world where it is all too easy to feel disconnected.

Others may or may not take something from this.  To be honest, it really does not matter to me.  It could be that this is just my way of saying thank you to the man who forced me to look up from my feet and start looking at the world around me just a little bit differently.  Or perhaps I just needed to write this to remind myself that it is okay to be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of genuine human connection sometimes.  In the end, maybe this is just my way of reaching out to anyone reading this who could use a similar reminder.  If you happen to be one of these people, then this is for you… just in case you need it.

288 Days Later

Exactly 288 days ago, I started a journey at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.  Yesterday, I had the chance to walk across the stage at Convocation Hall with my Bachelor of Education degree in hand.

As I was doing some cleaning a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a notebook that I purchased during my first week of classes in September.  The cover is tea-stained and somewhat crumpled, but the first five pages are filled to the margins with writing.

The content of this notebook speaks for itself and, although I have never shared this with anyone before, today feels like a fitting occasion to revisit the words on those pages.

Here is the unedited text from that notebook:

September 11, 2012

Today is an absolutely gorgeous day in Toronto and I have been wandering around the UofT campus for the past hour and a half.  Actually, I consider it to be exploring more than wandering, mostly because it is quite neat to be able to see and discover places that I have never seen or discovered before.  Now I’ve found myself a spot on the patio outside the Arts and Science building, staring at a blank page in a blank notebook, not really knowing what to do with it, but also having an overwhelming feeling that I need to do something with it.

I stopped at the bookstore to buy this notebook because I left my English class this morning with my brain full of a thousand different thoughts and feeling almost embarrassingly excited and optimistic about my year ahead at OISE.  I’ve tried this whole keeping a journal thing before, but with very little success.  I’m almost convinced that this is because, for better or for worse, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and writing your thoughts on paper (and in ink) doesn’t leave much room for going back to fix spelling mistakes or reorganizing your thoughts afterwards to make sure they follow a somewhat logical train of thought.  That being said, I think a large part of me is starting to realize that there can be value in my thoughts, ideas, or perspectives, even if they are not perfect.  I’m not saying that I fully believe that about myself just yet, but I’m hoping that giving this journal a try will help me with that.  I want to use these pages to help me unpack the year ahead at OISE and what is going on around me in general.

Anyway, back to the real reason that I was inspired to sit down and write anything at all in the first place – OISE.  I’ve really only experienced Orientation Day and two classes, but I already feel more comfortable and at home in the classroom than I ever did during my undergrad at Western.  That’s not to say that my time at Western was not worthwhile or that I didn’t enjoy it, because I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything in the world, nor would I do anything differently if given the chance.  I think what I mean is that there is something to be said about the feeling that comes from knowing that you are getting something tangible out of the classroom and that you are a valuable member of a community.

I spent the majority of my time during undergrad thinking that my classes (for the most part) were interesting, but there were very few times that I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”  This is partially because I invested myself in extra-curricular activities more than school and partially because I never really had a plan for what I wanted to do with all this Biology and English knowledge after the exams were over and I had to enter “the real world” – but also because I never really trusted that I had anything to contribute to the classroom or felt like I had the opportunity to share my thoughts, hear from others, or really engage with whatever subject matter I was learning.

Within the first five minutes of hearing the OISE Dean speak on Orientation Day last week, I felt at home.  She didn’t necessarily say anything terribly profound, but just listening to her talk about the value of a good classroom teacher made me want to do everything possible to become one, because I finally felt like I had/have something to offer, as well as a lot to gain from my time at Teacher’s College this year.

Sitting in my TES class on Orientation Day and for our first class yesterday made me feel even more comfortable here.  I can’t remember the last time I was in a classroom setting and got to introduce myself personally or listen to others do the same.  I can’t remember the last time I really participated in class or small-group discussions and really learned from listening to the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of those around me.  I can’t remember the last time I put up my hand in class and felt validated by an instructors’ response.  None of this is to say that I have suddenly become arrogant or overly-confident (because I certainly hope that is not the case), but more to say that I finally feel comfortable just being me inside a classroom.

In my class this morning, I had a quick conversation with a girl about why she was excited about being in Teacher’s College.  Her answer was simple: “Because it feels like something that I can actually do.  I’m not going to quit.”  This resonated with me not because I have necessarily tried and failed at a lot of different things in terms of my academics or future career, but because it also perfectly describes how I feel after having felt a little lost throughout my post-secondary education.  Not only do I feel like I can do this, but also that I want to do this.

I can only hope that I’m not just looking at the year ahead through rose-coloured glasses for the time being and that this embarrassing amount of excitement isn’t just a passing feeling.  It’s a pretty cool feeling to be content with where you are and comfortable being who you are.

Admittedly, I never wrote in that notebook again.  That being said, I think the many binders, notebooks, and scrap pieces of paper currently stacked in my room are a testament to the fact that I have tried my best to “unpack” every moment of my experience this year in some way or another.  While it is safe to say that some of that “embarrassing amount of excitement” has worn off, I certainly do not need to look far to be reminded of why I began this journey in the first place.

When I walked through the doors of OISE for the first time in September, I expected to learn about how to be a teacher.  I expected to learn about the curriculum, lesson planning, and classroom management.  But this past year has turned out to be about so much more than just these things.  I have had the incredible opportunity to be part of a community of people dedicated to making education equitable and accessible.  I have been challenged to confront my personal biases and my identity as a teacher.  I have also learned more than I ever expected to learn about my own views of teaching and learning.

And while the past eight months have been filled with a lot of professional growth, I have also learned a great deal about myself personally.  I let myself fail harder this year than I have in a long time.  I learned how to admit when I was in over my head and I let myself be okay with not having all of the answers.  These were not easy lessons to learn, but I consider them to be among my most valued accomplishments.

I walked off the stage yesterday not knowing what I will be walking into next.  But I also walked off the stage knowing that there are a lot of opportunities in front of me at the moment and that it is up to me to make the most of them.  I think I always felt as though yesterday was supposed to be a destination – that one spot on the horizon that I had been looking forward to since the day that I made my decision to become a teacher.  But when I woke up yesterday, I realized that the act of walking across the stage was just another part of the journey.  I am far from being done with learning and growing, and I know that being a teacher is going to mean many different things throughout my life.  I may not know what I am going to see when I look back on my life 288 days from now, but I am trying to believe that this is just what makes the journey exciting.