This Is My Story

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.”

WHY?

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.

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To Tell My Story

Our life story—varied and diverse as sand grains on a wide-open sea shore. As vastly distinct as one individual crystalline snowflake. As precious as a ring made from the purest 24-karat gold. As valued and prized as a sparkling diamond to a gem-cutter. Our stories are so treasured and cherished to the Father. And in His eyes, our stories are worth telling. Are worth being shared one with another. Story after story after story.

Do we believe this truth?
“My Story”
If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go
And if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up
And if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine
— Mike Weaver

Sometimes we err in thinking that no one else could relate to the stories we might tell. These stories, we believe, are too rough, too complicated, too messy and chaotic. We err in thinking sometimes that these stories might be, on the opposite end of the spectrum— too simple, too plain. Nothing fancy. Just boring day-to-day. Or perhaps, we’ve come to think that our story is too full of details that no one would ever understand. They are too exhaustive and too fraught with connections that would derail our lives if those stories ever were told.

What is holding us back from telling our story?

Rachael Freed says, “From a legacy perspective, we tell our stories for ourselves and as a gift to future generations. How does telling our stories benefit us? We need to know and express our own stories. Difficulties arise not because we have a story, perhaps a very sad or painful story, but because we become attached to our stories and make them an essential part of our very selves.”

In sharing our stories, we come to realize, that while unique: we are not alone. While our stories are peculiar and particular to our own situation, they have connection to those around us. Not to take anything away from the uniqueness of the life they represent, but to add dimension and depth to our living because we share it with one another.

Solomon, the wisest human to ever live said in Ecclesiastes, “…there is no new thing under the sun.” No new story, just new people experiencing the stories from different vantage points and seeing with different perspectives. And yet: Jeremiah the prophet was told, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” The life that lives that story- each story that ever HAS been told and that ever WILL be told, is completely and wholly precious. Each life: unique, sacred and set apart for some greater purpose.

What life have you been given to live?
And are you living that life? Are you sharing your story?

If I should speak then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him

Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him

I am rushing through an enormous airport; rushing, because I realize that I have precious little time to make connecting flights and then to get through customs. Rushing so as to arrive intact and certified, where I need to be.

I am “that kind of rushing”.

I do not know yet that they have lost my luggage, that it was left behind. Do not know yet that they will be initiating the flight sequence before I arrive at the Gate. I don’t yet know that the loudspeaker will be calling my name as I buckle my shoes in Customs, in a distant part of a vast airport, don’t know that they will be stating that this is my last call to report for a flight I might not make. I don’t yet know that I will have to run for what will feel like miles with bags banging the sides of my legs. I don’t know what it will feel like to have all eyes on me as I am the final passenger to board a small plane headed for a place I have never before visited.

I don’t know all this yet.

But here is what I know.

I know that when I left the plane that brought me from PEI to Toronto, the first person I saw was a man named Gerard Gaudet. And he is husband to a woman named Corrie Gaudet. And Corrie is a woman who encourages me like no other, a woman who builds me up in spirit and in hope. And she, dear Corrie, has told me that she will be praying for me on this trip. That she will pray for me as I am traveling. Her, and many many others. So, when I see Gerard, I remember this, and it is a comfort.

It is a hope.

And perhaps that little physical reminder of ‘God With Us’ is what it took me to get from one end of the airport to the other, I do not know. Might never know.

But this I know for sure: to tell my stories is to share my hope. To tell my stories is to share my faith in life, in love and in living. Yes, to tell my story is to tell of Him.

This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long

When Teachers Tell Their Stories

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Teachers have powerful stories to share. There are stories of triumphs and stories of failures—stories of everyday authenticity lived out within the trenches. There are stories of heroism, stories of realism. Stories of hope and inspiration. Stories that have been shared with many and stories that have been shared with one. These stories might not be the same—they are as unique as the storytellers that create them, but they are there written on the hearts and embedded in the minds of teachers, many just waiting to be divulged for the very first time.

Narrative inquiry, within the field of qualitative research, is described by Bochner (2000) as being this:
“…stories that create the effect of reality, showing characters embedded in the complexities of lived moments of struggle, resisting the intrusions of chaos, disconnection, fragmentation, marginalization, and incoherence, trying to preserve or restore the continuity and coherence of life’s unity in the face of unexpected blows of fate that call one’s meanings and values into question (Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744).

Bochner (2000), while admittedly speaking directly about research practice, compels the reader (who may or may not be reading for the purpose of research) to consider the benefits of personal life writing: a genre that “activates subjectivity and compels emotional response” (Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744). Bochner (2000) asserts that personal stories are those that exist for offering lessons for further conversation, longing “to be used rather than analyzed; to be told and retold rather than theorized and settled…”(Ellis & Bochner in Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p.744). He makes the case for amplifying personal voices within the social sciences, but I believe that we must take this one step further, expanding the call for evocative personal narratives to be shared by teachers compelled to tell the stories that must be told.

Too often, the busyness of life and the hectic pace in which we as teachers live and carry out our calling, can serve to strip from us the energy it takes to sit down for half an hour and write introspectively, composing reflections and stories about our daily teaching practice. It might be an easy choice to make, at times, when the options are between taking a mental break or applying your mind and attention to further cerebral activity in the form of written composition. We all need ‘down-time’, especially in a profession that requires our bodies and minds, as well as our hearts. But the benefit of taking time to write at the end of a busy day (or in the early hours of the morning) is something we might do well to consider. It might even have the surprising benefit of rejuvenation and refreshment for weary minds. When teachers write reflectively for themselves, it helps to solidify in their own minds what they think and believe.

Enhancing this benefit, when teachers choose to share their views and thinking, opening their inner selves up by extending their ruminations to others, there are further advantages for those involved in reading as well. The community formed around shared interests, common goals, friendly banter, engaged discussion, illuminating thought and insightful opinion spurs others on professionally to be the best they are able to be in the moment in which they are living. Sharing written thoughts with others also serves to encourage and inspire, as documents and written accounts can be re-read again and again when needed most urgently.

In November 2011, I determined that writing as a practice was important for me as a useful exercise in examining my life— so much so, that I committed to writing almost every day. At the time, I was experiencing a fair amount of stress, experiencing a general lack of joy in my life. Suffice it to say: I was feeling rather discontented in both my personal and professional life. I found the writing I was doing in the carved out time slots I made for such throughout the days and evenings gave me pause for reflection regarding those circumstance and events that brought me angst. As I wrote, I felt a weight being lifted, and I would aver that I experienced healing— emotional, if not physical. Writing in this way was therapeutic, beneficial as a process of helping restore my body, mind and soul to a healthy constitution. It was beneficial for me in restoring my joy. As such, writing has been one of the most significant ways I maintain and provide self-care for my weary soul.

Due to a sense of renewed joy, I found the desire from within so as to continue the writing and introspective reflection. As I wrote, I began to share the stories and prose I was creating with those closest to me, my husband, children and immediate family members. Bouyed to carry on, by way of their response to my writing, I decided to start a an on-line journal in the form of a blog in the fall of 2011, where I have been found writing ever since, sharing this writing with a community of readers over 4600 strong. The name “Pursuit of a Joyful Life” was decided based on my desire for more joy in my life—something I felt others might also identify with in their own lives. Having made a decision to daily commitment to writing, along with finding an inner resolve and purpose to continue this endeavor, I embarked on a journey. A blog was now mine to foster and develop.

Unlike university course work or in-school professional development assignments, where the task is ‘reflection-on-demand’, I never feel externally coerced to write my personal blogs. This driving urge to record my thoughts has always been internally situated. I blog purely because I am compelled to write. I write for pleasure and for joy, thus the name for my blog— a title based on my own personal pursuit of a joyful life. Writing has been for me a cathartic process. It is an escape and a diversion— a means of healing and an opportunity. I did not always know I would be a teacher, but I always knew I would be a writer— it just took me time to discover the writer that was waiting within. Thirty-seven years of waiting to discover the words and stories that I held close to my heart, to be precise.

Even with a full-time teaching contract, this act of blogging has been an almost nightly routine I have been keeping to the past four years, writing both when I was feeling inspired as well as when I was not. It is not so much the message as the act that I believe has infused my teaching with hope and purpose. Writing about the funny, the frustrating, the disappointing and the inspiring parts of my profession has served to enable me in understanding the reason for my calling. I am a teacher because I care, and writing about my practice is just one more way to show that care for the educational community of which I am part. While some might say that I am a writer because I love to put words to paper, I know that I am a teacher because I care about people. Writing has been a means of exhibiting this heart-full care, and it is my preferred language of expression within my chosen profession. Writing is not something I do just for myself now, it is something I do for my students, my students’ parents, my colleagues, my professional partners as well as for the general public, sharing with them all what it means for me to be a teacher and carry out my life’s work. As such, writing is one of the most important aspects of my teaching.

To date, I have 510 posts published on my personal blog, with one blog piece receiving notable public acclamation. In December of 2013, I wrote that particular blog post as an encouraging letter to an anonymous teacher, a letter which I later published to my personal blog. Shortly after that, I decided to publish the blog article on the Huffington Post’s (Canadian Edition) on-line newspaper for which I am a regular contributor. Initially, the letter did not receive any interest, garnering few reads on both my blog and the Huffington Post’s online news feed, as recorded by the sidebar statistics for both. I soon forgot about this particular piece and continued writing about other topics and areas of interest. At the end of January 2014, something peculiar happened. I noticed one day that my blog, as featured on the Huffington Post, had a couple hundred views on it. Surprised, I called my husband over to have a look at this peculiar phenomenon, as every minute the stat figures would change to reflect new readers. This was a complete shock and surprise to see, as almost six weeks had transpired since the original piece had gone to press. Little would I have known then that those couple hundred of views would quickly grow to thousands, then to hundreds of thousands and eventually to well over two and a quarter million readers and counting, a little over a year and a half later.

The fact that this one blog piece on the topic of caring within teaching went viral has given me pause for reflection over the past months; reflection done on my writing, the topics of my writing, the focus of my blog and the purpose behind the messages I share. Why do I write? Who am I writing for? What message do I want to convey? And why is it important that I keep writing? In watching my blog following grow within the educational community, I have felt it prudent to provide more space for writing reflectively about teaching and educational issues. My blog continues to be a space where I can express myself freely, a place where I write about a variety of topics, but now with an overall focus on reflective introspection about the important role of care in my teaching practice. Critical theorists like hooks (1994) contend that forms of dialogue, like writing and blogging, can be a means for teachers to challenge a system within which they often feel powerless to question face-to-face. Freire (1970) perhaps laid the foundations for this kind of dialogue to be possible. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire asserts that “it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it…Dialogue is thus an existential necessity” (Freire, 1970, p. 88). I have then felt the inner urging to create a space where I could dialogue on issues that speak to the heart. That place where I passionately dialogue is here, my blog.

My place for pursuing the joy in life.