Life is story, and stories hold truths. We can learn so much if we’re able to listen.
The following vignettes are based on events that occurred during the 2020-2021 academic year, a pandemic year that called me and so many others to “pivot” to teaching and learning completely online. I hope that these stories serve as a reminder of the many ways that our human connections move through our screens and through us.
“I’m Proud of You”
I sip my coffee, waiting for a student to join our virtual meeting. Ding! Ding! I click to admit. One of my cats jumps in my lap as she’s joining; his tail wraps around my neck. A fluffy orange scarf. “Morning!” I say, rearranging my little helper so he’s comfortable in my lap. “Hey Jess.” She looks tired. Her voice is thin, lacking energy. Her skin is pale, hair dishevelled. I scan the room behind her. Unmade bed. Dirty dishes on the dresser. Drawers open, a few clothes peaking out. I take a sip of coffee then ask, “What’s up?”
“Who’s this?” she asks, referring to the cat. We talked about pets for a while. I meet her puppy. I go get my other cat and together we marvel at his obesity. We swap fur-baby stories. At one point, I put my hand close to my camera to show her the scar my pet hamster gave me decades ago. We joke about being “foster fails.” We have an easy rapport, but there’s a heaviness too. She’s laughing, but it’s forced, thin.
Eventually, she says, “I wanted to talk about my paper.”
But she doesn’t. Instead, she tells me about her life. About how she moved out at sixteen because her parents were both on destructive paths. She shares details. I nod and sip my coffee. She tells me that she’s the first in her family to go to college, that she’s with a good person who loves her. Whose family loves her. She says it’s the first time she’s been a part of a healthy family dynamic. The first time she’s witnessed encouraging parents. My heart sinks. I keep listening. And caffeinating. I tell my eyebrows not to make those furrow lines that my mum calls “my elevens.” I watch myself in the Zoom window. Stay neutral. Use validating phrases. Stop taking so many sips of coffee. Don’t be drawing comparisons with your own life. Listen. Listen.
I ignore my inner voice and tell her about my mum. How, like her, my mum sought to break the cycle. How, at seventeen, she got kicked out of the house for getting pregnant with me. How she moved hundreds of kilometres away to finish out her pregnancy at Bethesda Centre for Unwed Mothers. “Justin Bieber’s mum went there too,” I add. She offers a fragile smile and a slight nod. I explain that my mum finished high school through correspondence courses and evening classes, carting me in my stroller and her acoustic guitar with her on the city bus. I share how eventually, my mum went on to complete two college diplomas and found meaningful work in the developmental sector, helping others. “I see my mum’s story in yours,” I said. “Do you?”
She nods again, with a bit more vigour this time and shares more about her life, about her dreams and ambitions, her path. She pauses and says quietly, “The trouble is… drugs keep killing people I care about. My cousin died of an overdose last night. We were close. He’s my friend. Well, was…” she takes a deep breath. “I think I failed my math test.”
I’m surprised she’s talked about her math test; I’m her English teacher. My mind runs a quick race. It’s midterm, so that was probably an important test. Drugs keep killing her loved ones? I think of the many crosses lined up in my city’s downtown core. A memorial to those lost to addiction. The crosses seem to multiply daily. I imagine her standing in front of one, alone.
I offer my condolences. It sounds canned, trite. I choose honesty. “I’m not sure what to say, other than I’m so, so sorry.” She continues to share, telling me that an hour after she found out she’d lost her cousin to an opioid overdose, she attempted to write the midterm exam in her math course. She says she doesn’t want any special treatment. She wants to be like any other student, but she fears she didn’t do well on the test. “Now what should I do?” she asks.
I say what I hope are the right things. Encourage her to self-advocate with the right people. Ask how I can help. We keep talking. I find myself sharing more of my story with her. Time passes. As we’re wrapping up, I pause, then awkwardly say, “I’m not sure how to say this… It might be kind of dorky, and I know we haven’t known each other that long… but… I just want to tell you that I’m really proud of you. For taking this path, for working through all this stuff. I can’t imagine how difficult it’s been, but you’re making a life for yourself, you’re making it happen. You’re grieving, but through your grief, you’re still trying to get it all done. That’s really amazing. Really… brave.”
I wish I had better words. I want to acknowledge how profoundly inspiring her commitment to her future self is.
She puts her hood up over her head, way up so that it’s almost covering her eyes and says, “Oh I’m not good with the feels…. But, I don’t think it’s dorky. I never heard ‘I’m proud of you’ growing up.” We sit together for a few more moments, simply being in each other’s company.
We never do talk about her paper.
“That’s Not Your Job”
My employer is offering a virtual training session. It’s the first day of a two-day online course. The facilitator has just finished a mini-lecture on active listening strategies. Now he’s unceremoniously launched us into breakout rooms “to discuss.” I find it jarring to be blasted through virtual space and plunked into a random “room” with random people. I wait for others to join, smile and exhale when I see a friend is in my group. Then I feel a sinking sensation when I see a certain person pop into the space. Interruptor.
Interruptor is a manager whom I strongly dislike. I am biased toward this person. I can FEEL my bias towards this person in the way my hands and jaw clench when his name appears on my screen. I’ve had negative interactions with him in the past. While I’m grateful that we aren’t grouped together in person, I also feel my interest in the training fading away. What if I just quit and blame a bad internet connection…I hover my mouse over the “leave meeting” button, but think better of it.
I stick around despite my discomfort. As the group gets situated, I remember how earlier in the day, Interruptor held to his nickname, several times. He only interrupted females though. I kept track. I was mid-sentence when he unmuted, spoke over me, dismissed what I was saying, then moved the conversation along to something he deemed more important. The facilitator did not correct him.
I remembered how the blood moved up into my face. My heart did an angry BOOM BOOM beat as I glared at his little Zoom square. I hit my mute button in frustration, then texted my friend who was also on the call. I texted angry stuff that shouldn’t be repeated. She joked and calmed me down. But I still felt embarrassed. Silenced. And now here he is again, in this Zoom room that feels incredibly small. I wonder if I could turn my camera off. The facilitator said not to unless it was an emergency. Does this count? I feel that to him, it would not count. So I keep the camera on, and I sit there. Silent. Awkward. Defensive.
I try some of the positive self-talk the facilitator lectured about earlier in the day. “Interrupting happens on Zoom,” I tell myself. “It’s not always intentional. It’s not all about YOU.”
I pick up my phone and text a friend who isn’t in the session. “Have you ever had an issue with ______?” My friend texts back almost immediately. “YES. I almost went to HR about him last summer…” She goes on to provide a colourful description of this particular person, and how he’s disrespected her in the past with his characteristic interrupting. She makes me smile, even though our gossip feels childish. Is childish. Anishinaabe Elders often advise us to avoid gossip. When we put negative thoughts out into the world, they go to that person. Negative thoughts can come back to us too. I know this, but the gossiping reassures me. It feels good.
Though I’m having a hard time reframing my mindset, I tell myself I should at least put my phone down and pay attention. I do. Another male manager is sharing a story. Despite this person going on at length, Interruptor just smiles and nods along. He does not unmute. Eventually, Interruptor, our self-appointed breakout room facilitator, asks “Would any of the faculty in the room like to share their perspectives?”
I wait. Nobody speaks. So, eventually, begrudgingly, I do. I take a deep breath and unmute. Picking at my cuticles off-screen, I start talking about the challenge of listening to so many students’ stories, stories of suffering, of grief and loss, of real hardships that I don’t feel equipped to assist them with. I explain how I find myself talking about these students during dinner time, thinking about them before I fall asleep at night. I’m surprised that I’m feeling a bit emotional, opening up in this way. The folks in the room are nodding.
“WELL, that’s not your job to offer counselling sessions,” Interruptor interrupts.
I see my own Zoom video projected back at me. My mouth is hanging open, mid-sentence. I let out a long, tired breath as he starts talking about on-campus resources and 1-800 numbers to deflect students to. Off-camera, one of my cuticles starts to bleed.
“Excuse me,” I hear the words before I think them. Oh no. “Would you please let me finish talking?” I see Interruptor roll his Zoom eyes as he mutes himself.
I have so much I want to say, but my words have slipped away.
“It Finally Feels Safe”
I’m meeting with a student over Zoom. She’s fallen behind in one of my online courses and wants to connect to get back on track. I’ve got the course and her grade report open on one screen, and Zoom open on another.
I smile at her when she joins. “Aanii! What’s going on?”
We talk about the latest lockdown and what a rollercoaster it’s all been. I notice she’s quick to laugh. She has a childlike giggle that sounds almost like birdsong, even though I’m pretty sure she’s my age or older. Her hair is dark with a strip of indigo blue running through it. There’s a traditional painting hanging behind her as she sits on her couch. I comment on how beautiful it is, and she tells me it’s actually a blanket. She takes it down and holds it up to the camera so I can get a better look.
She folds and refolds the blanket as she tells me this is her third time attempting college. I hear noises in the background, little voices, and she says, “One sec.” She leaves her camera and mic on but disappears off-screen. I hear some chatter, some banging noises, and then she’s back in the camera frame again. “Sorry! Little scuffle over a toy happening here!” she says, laughing, then continues telling me her story.
She shares that when she first left her home community things didn’t go well for her and she fell into a rough crowd. “I flunked out,” she says. “But I knew I could do better.” I nod. We talk about how life paths are rarely ever straight lines. She nods then tells me about her kids, three beautiful Ojibwe Anishinaabe children who are currently all at home doing virtual school.
“They’re listening to me right now,” she says and laughs her sing-song giggle.
“I bet they love hearing your compliments,” I say with a smile.
I think about my friends who are both teachers and parents, about the struggles they’ve been sharing on Facebook. The impossibilities of working full-time while parenting full-time, all the while doing their best to cope with the existential crises of the pandemic. I quip, “It must be hard for you to be a full-time student, parent, AND I.T. support!”
Her smile disappears. She pauses, then says, “Actually…. It’s been so great having them all home with me. Their father is abusive. We left last year. Honestly, I’ve been so scared that he’s going to steal them from school. It finally feels safe, having them all here with me…” she gestures off-screen, toward her kids who I imagine are laying on their tummies or sitting on tiny kid-sized chairs, maybe colouring or listening to their teachers through headphones.
She says quietly, almost to herself, “Kinda funny eh, to finally feel safe in the middle of a pandemic?”
Neither of us laugh.
“Just Woke Shit”
For the past several semesters, I’ve been designing and facilitating an asynchronous online course titled Truth and Reconciliation. In the course, students take a sustained, in-depth look at the residential school system in Canada. I introduce concepts such as settler colonialism, terra nullius, the Doctrine of Discovery, intergenerational trauma. We listen to stories shared by Survivors and their families. We watch archival footage. We learn about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and critically examine the progress (lack of progress) on the 94 Calls to Action. We learn, reflect, research, share, celebrate the good work, criticize the lip service and assumptions.
Teaching this course is very humbling. At this point, I’ve put so much of myself into it, and through several iterations, with the guidance of many helpers, including hundreds of learners who’ve passed through, I’ve made improvements and feel it’s in a good place, always though, with space to do better.
The final assessment in the course is a free writing (or free talking, should students wish to audio-record) exercise that invites students to reflect on their experiences, to think about what they’ve learned, and what they hope to remember long into the future. These submissions are often incredibly inspiring and energizing for me. Through their sharing, students tell me that the course is working, and I’m grateful for the reassurance. They also leave me with a lot to think about in terms of future improvements, additions, clarifications.
I was sitting in my little makeshift at-home office, reading and listening to these final reflections, sipping a tea, and feeling pretty good about myself as an educator. Then I came across a submission that popped off the screen and slapped me right across the face.
The submission basically read:
I hated this course.
What’s the point of learning this stuff? Nothing can be changed. We can’t right these wrongs, and anyway, it isn’t our fault. All this course and stuff like it does is promote negativity. It’s US versus THEM and this woke shit is tired. It’s just creating more division from years gone by. People just love to point fingers. Then when it happens to them, they just do it right back.
Blink. Swallow. Deep breath in.
I wrote, “Meegwetch for sharing your perspectives” then slammed my laptop shut for the day.
“You’re a Good Kwe”
I teach an online course that centers around critical thinking. Last term, I was loaded with a blended delivery, meaning I got to spend an hour with students synchronously, via Zoom, and the remainder of the course activities took place asynchronously, through our learning management system and other online spaces.
I wanted to problematize the Eurocentric assumptions underpinning “critical thinking skills,” and so early in the semester, we started talking and learning about how worldview and culture impact our ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world. I approached one of our Elders on campus, Nokomis, and told her about the course and my goals. I offered semaa and asked if she would join us for a virtual guest lecture.
She agreed to share her teachings of Mino Bimaadiziwin, the ways of being and stories that help Anishinaabe people live a Good Life. I prepared my students for her visit several weeks before she joined us. It was important to me that the students in the course, who were primarily non-Indigenous, appreciate the Sacred nature of these teachings and principles. That they understood what it meant to be in ceremony with an Elder, even if that ceremony was taking place via Zoom.
One of the students in the course required all Zoom classes to be recorded, as per her official Accommodation from our on-campus Accessibility office. I told Nokomis about this, and she was fine with being recorded for this purpose.
Day of, Nokomis logged on, checked her mic, and immediately immersed us in her beautiful teachings. She smudged, prayed in Anishinaabemowin, sang a traditional song, and shared the principles of Mino Bimaadiziwin. She kindly invited student questions, which resulted in a wonderful exchange. She is so generous in sharing her wisdom. As the class wrapped, I felt warm and hopeful. “Chi-meegwetch, Tech-Enabled Nokomis!” I said as we were logging off. She laughed a big belly laugh, and that made me feel good. That night, I prepared some gifts for Nokomis. I brought them to the next Full Moon Ceremony and offered my gratitude. She gave me a big hug.
A few weeks later, a faculty member instant messaged me through Zoom chat. “Hey Jess,” she said, “I heard Nokomis did a teaching for your class recently. Can I have the link to the recording?”
I started to type a response but hesitated. The hairs on the back of my neck woke up. I moved my fingers away from the keys. I didn’t know how to answer.
Instead, I telephoned Nokomis, who was just about to head out for her daily walk. I explained the request, how it made me uncertain, and that I was calling her to make sure it was okay before I shared the link. My voice sounded sheepish. I felt flustered.
After a short pause, she said “No. You asked in a good way. You offered semaa. She didn’t, and I don’t wish for that recording to be shared in this way.”
We talked for a little bit longer. At the end of the call she said, “It was right that you called me Jess. You’re a good kwe.”
I sucked in a deep breath as I hung up the phone. Nokomis thinks I’m a good kwe… I’m still contemplating what that means to this day.
“Wichita Do Ya”
Full-time employees at my college can take any for-credit course for $20, plus the cost of course materials. I asked a friend and faculty colleague if she’d be comfortable with me joining her course. “Sure, but do you have time for that?” she asked. “I’ll make time,” I said. “Well, I just hope it’s worth your $20!” she joked.
She and I often talk at length about Indigenous education, about the challenges that come with teaching courses that some students are resistant to, the micro and macro aggressions, the imposter syndrome and constant feelings of self-doubt. We swap stories and resources daily. We attend webinars together, virtually, keeping up a lively backchannel and sharing recordings with each other when one can’t make it. We’ve sat in ceremony together. “I heard your voice tonight,” she said after our first Full Moon Ceremony. We’ve crafted together, paddled, hiked, swam, snacked. One time, we watched a mother bear and her three cubs grazing in a field not far from us. It was beautiful and spiritual, especially for my friend who is mukwa dodem.
As we learned about each other and got more comfortable, we shared stories about our families and our Algonquin heritage. There are intersections and overlaps between our stories, our friendship, our ancestors. At times, it feels like we were compelled by greater forces to find each other, to get to know each other, to learn together and lean on each other, just as our relatives did before us.
Now, I’m a student in her online course. I trust her, so in my course assessments, I get personal. I try to make deep connections between what she is teaching us and what my family has lived through. It deepens our friendship. The example she sets makes me a better educator.
On the very last day of the semester, my friend conducts a Closing Circle via Zoom. She’s lit a smudge. I do too. It feels weird for me. Usually, I turn all of my electronics off to smudge, but I can roll with it. I turn my camera off so that I can ground myself and find some balance.
My friend explains how the end of the semester can feel like a rushing river, blowing us around in an out-of-control way. I think about this first pandemic year, the raw moments I’ve shared with students, my self-doubts and constant questioning. She explains how choppy waters eventually calm down. “Hold onto that knowledge,” she says. I think about how grateful I am for my safety and health, for my family and friends who love me, for the chickadees that fed from my hand all winter, for all my relations. I remind myself to be grateful for a good job that is fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. I exhale and feel my body relaxing.
My friend picks up a ceremonial shaker and introduces the Water Song. She sings it for us.
Her voice is strong and steady.
I close my eyes and hear the harmony. Though I’m muted, I quietly sing along.