I wonder if we have ever considered that our willingness to share from exposed places is what connects us in experience to others? If we do not share stories of vulnerability, share moments of weakness, share the things we consider our failures, share perceived inadequacies or share areas in which we feel insufficient, how will others ever know that they are not alone? Know that there are common experiences known to human kind of which we can speak, can cry, can maybe even laugh? How will we ever learn to accept and live beyond the sorrow, searching always for the joy? How will we ever experience the power of forgiveness?
Our stories are what connect us.
Let me tell you a story.
I grew up in the heart of the Annapolis Valley, a small rural farming community known for its potatoes and apple orchards. My community was aptly named Melvern Square, a squared-off corridor that was also firmly tethered by four anchors: farming, family, community and faith. My father was one of many pastors called to minister in this area, ensuring that I lived my life firmly fixed within the public’s eye, on first name basis with most everyone I’d meet. This reality served to both enable and impede my personal growth and development by times, as anyone who has had parents as visible figureheads in the community can attest to.
It was an idyllic life in some ways. But difficult in other ways. We were often strapped financially, but we got by. I remember trips to the country store— a one room building with wide wooden clapboards filling in the floor space, glass candy jars containing five-cent goodies lining the back wall. When the front door was cracked even so much as an inch, an old-fashioned bell signalled both your appearance and your exit, ensuring you would never peruse the ice cream freezer or chip rack anonymously. Our house was sandwiched between the community center on the right and my father’s little brown country church on the left. Behind our property was the community pond for skating on in the winter and avoiding in the summer, as we all speculated that alligators or other forms of creepy-crawlies might live in there. Across the street was the consolidated school housing grades 1-6: a school which I never had the privilege of attending.
The school I attended was a private institution located in a neighboring community. When I started school in primary, I quickly realized that my life was not what it had seemed to be. I immediately became the “other”: teased for my different religious affiliation, tortured for my family connection, belittled for my appearance. Separated for my difference. I was disconnected from the other children in many ways, and I soon came to understand the term “white trash” and its unflattering connotations, as that is what I began to feel I was while in this school. Like a piece of rubbish— unloved and undesirable.
My schooling experience was thus one in which oppression was very obvious. This same private school I attended later came to be exposed regarding “issues” of a very serious, abusive nature. These privately held secrets of the school leaders and administration came to be ‘outed’ in a very visible way via news media when I was in high school. When I now see images of residential schools, it brings to mind sordid mental pictures of what that time of life was like for both me and my classmates. That experience has forever changed the way I look at education.
So then, as long as I have been a student, I have been interested in ethics of care in classrooms. As I did not have the privilege of being exposed to ethics of care in most of my formative years of schooling, I now spend my life advocating for these pedagogies of love and care along with the foundational rights that I believe all people— young and old, are worthy of receiving and deserve to experience as a basic human right. We all deserve this kind of love and attentive care by virtue of our humanity (Gard, 2014).
Let me tell another story.
As a child, I felt so insecure. So unattractive, so unappealing. That day of which I am about to tell—still etched in my memory, that day I wore a yellow dress. We were all walking to the fire station for a field trip, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. I remember getting inside the big, red truck, and looking all around the fire station. A day up to this point that was mostly insignificant for its events, beyond this bare-bones description. But it was the walk back that will forever be imprinted in my memory.
I was just a little girl. Facing some cruel childhood bullies. Was this the day pivotal in my desire to know about the power of care in transforming lives?
Or was it the countless other days of enduring taunting, teasing, ridicule and scorn? Of living with put downs and mockery? What was it that made me care so much about the underdog? What caused me to care so much about people?
And still another story.
Why is it that the adults in our lives still have power over us even as we ourselves have now become adults? There are adults in my life still—to this day: that I feel beholden to protect and shelter. Even though they have grievously hurt me. Even though what harm was done was more than injurious to my spirit and psyche. Why? Is it that even for them I offer a form of care?
But why is it, on the other hand, that we as adults think we have that power over children: power to influence them to even resist the urges of their own conscience. Telling them what is right or wrong, when in their hearts they already know. “This is not okay.”
A little girl told “not to tell”. Left to deal with these feelings on her own until she was an adult herself. Until she could face the monsters face on. WHY?
These run-on, ramblings—they form the foundation for some of my untold stories.
But now for a story with a happy ending.
It was the fall of my Grade 12 year, the year I remember as ‘The Move’. My father— having been relocated in his job as the pastor to a small country church, packed up alongside his wife our meagre family possessions, and then moved all that, along with four children (minus me) over the course of a weekend. It sometimes takes a weekend to unravel a family. At other times, it just takes a moment.
I alone remained behind in our community, determined that I wouldn’t be trading in all I had known and loved for something new and less desirable. Sixteen is a brazen age. It is old enough to know that you can’t leave behind thirteen years worth of childhood memories, leave behind home, leave behind life; and it’s old enough to physically stay behind, watching the rest go. Yet it is not quite old enough to know exactly how to pull it all off. My parents in their wisdom allowed me the choice to remain back, so long as
I chose to live with a family friend, staying with someone they trusted. But I was on my own when it came to paying rent and looking after essentials. I agreed to their terms and so it was decided— I would stay. But the day they pulled out from the driveway of our first family home, moving van loaded up with my childhood toys, my bed and dresser, van full to the brim with my four younger siblings and weeping mother: that is a day that will forever be imprinted on my memory.
I lasted until the following Monday evening when I finally caved, coming to my senses as well as to the bittersweet realization that at sixteen, I still needed to be with my family. I needed to go ‘home’, whatever that meant now. And so, there was a scramble— a gathering of my own small assemblage of life possessions followed by a drive from one province to another. Which is to say, I found a way to reunite with my family a few days later (as bittersweet as that reunion might have felt in those earliest of moments).
The move crushed me— left me feeling as if the bottom had fallen out from my world. And it left me to cope with the difficult task of ‘starting over’, starting fresh at a time in life when one should be celebrating the finish line.
I found myself in a brand new high school, a strange place to find yourself when you are young, ‘in love’ and at what you think is the pinnacle of your school career. Starting over was humbling. Perhaps it was what I needed, although I wouldn’t have said so then. I went from knowing everyone to knowing no one. I went from being part of a crowd, to feeling outside the crowd. I went from having a presence to feeling invisible. At the time, I would have readily admitted it was my worst sixteen year-old nightmare come true, but somehow I managed to pull things together enough to make it work. I made a few friends, did well in my classes and tried to keep up on the news from my former school and friendship circle— places and people I identified in my heart as representing my real home.
But it was still hard, incredibly so.
There were a few classes in the new school that I did enjoy, especially one subject taught by Mr. D. A funny, earnest man, he infused life into the classroom with his stories, his wealth of knowledge and his love of all things chemistry. I can’t remember at what point in the semester he called me down to his classroom for a chat, but I will never forget the care and concern in his voice.
Somehow, he had seen me there in the back row of his classroom, hiding underneath a veil of resentment, shadowed by fear and insecurity; not the least of which, feeling angry that my life had been interrupted. In spite of it all, he made a point of looking past the image so as to connect with me as a person, letting me know that I had potential and possibility, showing me that he saw the best in me at a time in my life when I couldn’t see the best in my circumstances.
Mr. D. was unforgettable. Was it the chemistry lessons he delivered? The curriculum outcomes he covered? Was it his vast knowledge and seemingly infinite understanding that I remember? What was it, exactly, that forever etched his impression on my memory? What I remember now—now that I am a teacher myself, was his care: his smile, his laughter, his enthusiasm. And I remember that when I was in his class, I wasn’t invisible any longer.
And all because he saw me
For me, I care about care so very much because I have felt both the presence as well as the absence of care. In knowing care as experienced through a child’s embrace, a mother’s love— through a friend’s loyalty, through a teacher’s support, a husband’s touch: I am now better equipped to sense the absence of such when I find it missing from my life. There have certainly been days in which I have felt isolated, uncared-for, and unloved. Those were days in which I searched for care and found that it eluded me. Seeking what I could not find brought me eventually to a place of willingness to be the change I so desperately needed in my own life. While I have come to believe that care is our innate right as human beings, sometimes we must choose to be the care-giver at the on-set, so as to experience the benefits of care as might be felt within our own hearts and souls in the process. To care, that is, to be cared for and to care for one another, these processes of human interaction primarily are what define our purpose towards each other, individual living with individual.
Hand to hand, heart to heart.