Yep, it’s a test.
I love being from Canada
“Goodnight”, four of us, in turn, each politely say to Elmer, our driver, as we make our way from the aisle of the typical yellow school bus, down the 3 steps and onto the frozen driveway of our farmyard. We have about an hour before dark, I think, as we walk into the house, drop our book-bags, and rush off to change into our ski clothes. Minutes later, my younger brother, Brian, and I are in the porch colouring sticky wax onto the skis we had found in the rafters of the garage, left behind by our dad’s aunt and uncle, the previous owners of the property. We have made this our after-school ritual this winter, corking smooth the wax and clipping the toes of our cross-country boots into the 3-pin bindings, clicking them down with our poles.
First skiing west out of the yard to the little rise in the field across from the house, then turning south, we gain slight speed before tapering off again, finding a rhythm, trying to out-do each other. Stronger than me, Brian often takes the lead, and I let him, for breaking blown-in trail is difficult work. When he tires, I take a turn in front as we kick and glide down the old, snow-covered road towards the quarter my dad calls ‘the homestead’. Reaching that corner, we instead enter into the adjacent ‘school section’. A barb-wired fence makes the threshold of that place clumsy for us and our skis, but, once we manage to straighten up again, we are rewarded with the sight of the path through the trembling aspen stands. Rarely, just around a bend, we might see a deer dart off the path like they know my brother will become a hunter in his adulthood. Every day we go a little bit further, exploring, with our dog, Coal, panting behind us. Climbing up and racing down as many hills as we can find, my breath fogs up my glasses and I realize the fading light urges us to turn towards home.
Rushing to get back in time for supper, we make it to the yard but it’s already dark. We can see Mom‘s silhouette back-lit at the kitchen window, putting the final touches on the supper table. Hurrying in, we stomp off the snow and remove our winter clothes, faces pink and breath steaming. In my body, if not yet in my mind, I know, in this moment, that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. The environment is not totally separate from me. I am shaped by it and also shape it.
And so, when I consider ‘the environment’ and what it means to me, I instantly feel the desire to ski. It’s that itch to be outside, on that long track that I share with the deer and others. It implies home-places, a connection to the more-than-human. It’s a yearning to cross paths with the moose once again, the one that I’ve seen a few times before in the bush I now frequent; to hold my breath as I watch her, both of us with a little bit of fear perhaps, graceful and majestic in her gait as she leaves me to my swishing. I’m also reminded of my tendency to romanticize my relationship with the Earth, to write things like this (from 2010):
a winter day’s delight: a poem for the solstice.
hoar frost on dormant trees
pristine snow banks settle under my skis
soft late-morning white light bursts into blue-afternoon
then the sun shines a promise of tonight’s full moon
Being romantic feels nice, but also makes me wonder more broadly about (my) connections to place and nature. What could this mean for me, as I allow myself to question my fondest attachments towards unsettling myself? Who gets to cross-country ski… and furthermore, as some of my teachers have asked me, who gets to do this work? Perhaps this will continue to be some of the questions that sit with me as I clip in and take to the trails once more, saying a “goodnight” greeting to the moose, to the moon, to my fondest attachments.
On a mid-summer, warm, yellow day, we moved the heavy, wooden, dining room furniture – a china cabinet with upper glass doors and bottom cupboard storage; a free-standing counter my mom calls ‘the buffet’; and the large, double-leaf family table – into the attached garage of the then peeling, pale-lemon sided, built-in-1981-but-not-yet-renovated, bungalow. I was on another extended visit at my parents’ farm, surrounded by slightly rolling prairie-parkland, home for summer holidays. Both teachers, mom and I had decided we had time that year to refresh the old set. With white dust-masks strapped to our faces, the elastic against our cheeks, we applied a turpentine substance to the chipped, worn, grey-tan surfaces. The potent odor permeated our masks as we painted it on quickly, waiting for it to bubble the old paint before we could scrape off the strange color choice from the 60s.
Several decades ago, these pieces were featured in my maternal grandparents’ dining room, where my brother and I sometimes whiled away long summer afternoons in the cool of the house with Monopoly competitions and multiple games-of-Life. Just across that grassy farmyard where we lived, my grandparents’ house seemed full of curious things. In addition to a quiet place for board games, that old house where my mom grew up was like a museum to us. My grandparents had partially moved to the city, but sometimes came back to the farm for a few days during seeding or harvest times and so everything was left as if they just went to town for the day, everything ‘in its place’. I don’t recall asking permission to explore the house: looking in kitchen drawers and cupboards for stale snacks; finding interesting trinkets in our mom’s and, especially, our aunt’s childhood bedrooms; sneaking rancid, salted peanuts from the red-glass pedestal bowl on the buffet; stealing into the master bedroom to touch the golden, tasseled bed covers; smelling the hard, cracked ivory soap in the bathroom next to the light pink tub; or, like mice, picking off hardened icing from my parents’ styrofoam-tiered, keepsake wedding cake. To me, the dining room seemed to be the center of that museum-house. Its table was much more formal than the chrome, kitchen one, and had an air about it that seemed reserved for special, family occasions – Christian feast meals like Christmas and Easter. We played there anyway, but often I sort of tip-toed through that room, hushed and reverent. Maybe it was because of the way the furniture seemed to sit so patiently, the chair seats padded with horse hair and covered with metallic-flecked, fading, magenta fabric, waiting for the next big family gathering.
That house didn’t host any more of those holiday moments, but, when my parents moved us across the province to another farm, this one a mile from where my dad grew up, they brought that dining room set along. At that table, throughout my teenaged years, we ate supper together nearly everyday, the horse hair eventually wearing through the material and poking all six of us in the legs until the chairs were forced to retire, by order of my mom. However, she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. For years they hid in crooks and corners of the bungalow, long after we sanded and refinished the larger pieces in the cement floor garage. Eventually, I worked out a scheme to refurbish the chairs and re-instate them to their rightful places. Only five of the six were found, the chair with arms (meant for the head of the table) had disappeared into the crevices, broken and lost, but not forgotten. The re-claimed five became a Christmas gift for my parents, a secret we covered with blankets, instead of wrapping, and placed near the long-needled pine tree with colored lights. Restored and mostly together again, re-storied each time we sit around the table for special family moments, playing cards, sharing food, squeezing in more and more of us on motley chairs mixed with the freshened originals, that dining room set re-centers us, for there, together, we are home.
I grew up thinking of myself as a farm-girl. I’ve lived in southern Saskatchewan my entire life, and am from a farm near Kelliher, about an hour north of Fort Qu’appelle. I feel like I belong in this place, that being a prairie-girl is part of my identity and had a part in producing who I was and am as a student and a teacher. For instance, being a good girl who did what her parents asked (most of the time), and received praise for it, filtered into my schooling experiences. I had a really lovely childhood, and was mostly a happy and obedient kid. Also, I was (and am) a good student, partly because doing what the teacher asked and then getting good grades made me feel good, just like at home. I think this also contributed to the kind of teacher I became and am becoming.
At first, I think, all I really wanted was to teach students who were like me – comfortably middle-class, white, farm kids who also tried hard to do well in school. And, for the most part, I did. School seemed safe to me. Math was my major, and it also seemed safe – there were right answers, I thought, and I could know what they were and how to get them. I suppose I have a tendency to be a little naive or innocent, and very much wanted everything to be that straightforward. Mostly, I was able to believe that it was. I believed that students should learn from their mistakes, so that if they got a question wrong on a quiz, they could work on it later and hopefully come to a better understanding of where they’d went wrong. In this way, they would then know how to do it right the next time. This is partly how I thought learning worked – I liked to keep it quite simple. Yet, I remember a moment, during my second year of teaching, marking grade 10 math tests in the staff work room at SHHS in Yorkton, and surprisingly questioning this process and its affects on one’s identity.
Somehow, I suddenly felt uncomfortable – if a student was “good”, and did what I expected, and learned from their mistakes, wouldn’t this process then make all previous marks from earlier assessments inaccurate? That is, it wouldn’t really reflect what they now know! And, since I was always a good student, I was thoroughly attached to how marks could say something about what kind of person you were. So, I felt like this was a bit of a crisis! Up until then, I thought marking math was pretty simple, cut & dry, easy & obviously objective. But all of a sudden it occurred to me that this could be a flawed system! I hadn’t yet let myself seriously question the arbitrary nature of grading. Wait a minute, though, teaching (math) isn’t supposed to be complicated! Is it?! There had been other moments, earlier on in my career, when I had found teaching to be difficult, but I think this was one of the first instances where I couldn’t find an answer that I could cherish as “right”.
I remember asking a more experienced teacher about what they thought of this issue… They tried to reassure me that they believed marks are like little snapshots of what a student knows at a particular time, and that it can help show growth or tell a story even, but that an overall grade is not actually a “true” reflection of what they know.
But, then, I wondered if this meant that students’ identities, and mine included, have little to do with marks. This definitely upset that foundation of safety and goodness that I had built around what I thought about myself and school. What if marks don’t actually tell who a person is? What if getting good grades doesn’t really represent what I know or don’t know?! I couldn’t really shake this feeling of the ground shifting ever so slightly. In a way, my prairie-good-girl, teacher self felt a little shattered or at least quite confused. However, it didn’t cause me to do anything different yet, I tried to continue on as usual, holding on as tightly as I could to teaching and learning as a simple thing. Still, in the wee corners of my consciousness, though I rarely let myself think about it, I wondered if teaching and learning and schooling and curriculum and assessment were all much more complicated than I wanted to admit.
However, now, much more than straightforwardness, curriculum as complicated has become one of my favourite things to think and talk (and write) about. I’m especially interested in how little moments like this, of questioning ourselves and our lives might help us to think differently about who we are as teachers, or becoming-teachers, or students or prairie-girls or whoever we have come to believe ourselves to be. I totally enjoy considering the complexity of our schooled selves and what school makes possible and impossible. I have found that complicating my stories and myself is much more interesting than trying to keep it simple. What if I can be otherwise, other than a good-prairie-girl who likes to be right. Instead, can I be someone who is okay with feeling a little shaken or shattered or unsettled or uncomfortable when considering my identity and what it means to teach and learn? I think that letting in a bit of ambiguity with these kinds of conversations and questioning is part of the process of potentially becoming unsettled.