Experience, Stories, Identity

My family chose the same summer vacation spot for 25 straight years. It was right on Okanagan Lake and for two weeks we would rent a tiny cabin along with fifteen other families. During this time, it would not be inaccurate to describe my twin brother and I as amphibious: We spent many hours of each day swimming, windsurfing, waterskiing, paddling and snorkelling. Okanagan Lake is known for many things but snorkelling is not one of them; there was little to see beyond a muddy bottom and the odd carp which would immediately dart away when approached. But each day, we spent hours snorkelling usually in search of the golf balls our friends would drive into the water. Sometimes, we were contracted to find a lost pair of sunglasses.

Despite a delusional fear of sharks, I developed an extraordinary comfort with water. It may be that my dad was an Olympic swimmer or it may be that my brothers and I grew up on Okanagen Lake and within reach of Howe Sound, my experiences as a child have had a profound influence on how I live my life: where I have chosen to live, who I choose to spend time with, and my understanding of my interests and abilities.

I share this because my experiences as a youth have shaped my identity. The stories of my childhood that I tell myself, and others, help me understand who I am and what I believe in. Our experiences become the stories we tell and our stories shape our identity.

For several years now, BICS, along with all other BC public schools, has created an Aboriginal Education School Plan. The plan’s purpose is to ensure our school, including each of our classrooms and the culture of our school generally, is a welcoming space for aboriginal students and also provides programming – both in content and approach to learning – that teaches students about the First Peoples of Canada. As West Vancouver Schools are on the traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh stelmexw (Squamish People), there is a particular emphasis on learning about the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation).

Our plans have often focused on storytelling and that is the case again this year. One of the First People’s Principles of Learning is that, “learning is embedded in memory, history and story,” so this seems like a natural focus. Another principle of learning is that “learning involves exploration of one’s identity,” and so, our focus for our 2015-2016 Aboriginal Education Plan is for students to create and share stories with others that relate to their identity.

It is our hope that through composing personal stories, in the form of writings, illustrations, dances, or some other medium, students will come to understand three key ideas.

First, that our experiences become the stories we tell ourselves. Second, that our stories, along with our sense of belonging and place, shape our identity. And finally, that some people have the courage to share their stories with others while other people have the courage to carry their stories alone.

Students will likely have little difficulty pulling events from their past that they think are likely to affect the rest of their lives: witnessing a Sea Lion off the coast of Tunstall Bay is likely to encourage a student to look for something similar each time they look into the ocean. When a moment like that happens, a nature lover is “born” or transformed. A student may wish to create a story about their experience performing in our school’s upcoming Winter concert, and perhaps developing an identity as a performer.

And of course personal stories of experience often connect with something bigger. The opportunities we are privileged with often relate to the cultures we belong to.  This aligns with the new curriculum’s Personal and Social Competency. The Competency notes, “Students who have a positive personal and cultural identity value their personal and cultural narratives, and understand how these shape their identity.” A goal of this Competency is therefore that students understand how personal and cultural narratives shape their identity.

The last understanding I noted, “That some people have the courage to share their stories with others and other people have courage to hold their stories alone,” relates in particular to the residential school system. For decades, many survivors of residential schools carried their stories alone, or shared them with just a few people. Others tried to share but often found unwelcome audiences. In recent years, more and more people are willing to share their stories – with families, with friends, and even publicly. It is truly a remarkable act of courage to do so.

Our hope is that through developing sensitivity to the difficulties in telling personal stories, our students become a receptive audience to learning more, when developmentally ready, about the residential school system. As young children, they are ready to learn a little of the experiences that children of the same age experienced not so long ago. But learning about residential schools will be a long journey and our goal is for students to become reflective members in that journey.

And all of us, storytellers and story receivers, have been shaped through the years, subtly but profoundly, by what we have not experienced. I personally have never experienced hunger, or disconnection from my family or my culture. I will continue to reflect on how this has shaped who I am and how I think of myself in the world. Storytelling – writing my own stories and listening to others– will help.  We are grateful to work with members of the Squamish Nation and members of the community of Bowen Island in doing so.

 

The BICS Aboriginal Education Plan is here.

Significance

The following post was shared at BICS’ Remembrance Day Ceremony – November 10, 2015.

The brain is always trying to determine the significance of everything we sense.

Is what we see important enough to process, think about and respond to? Or is it unimportant and an unnecessary distraction?

In the mountains, we try to determine how big and far away the peaks are. Closer to home, people wonder, or immediately panic, when considering the significance of a spider lurking in the sink. Is it a threat? And if so, how big a threat?

In World War One, 1914-1918, many historians suggest that Canadians who were thinking of joining the war effort in Europe underestimated the significance of this war. They knew it was important but didn’t know how long the fighting would last, or how vicious the fighting would be: increasingly vicious on land in the form of trenches, tanks and machine guns; on sea in the form of well-armed ships; and for the first time in history, the sky with airplanes and poisonous gases.

After the experience of World War One, people had a greater understanding of the significance of the terrifying and vicious forms of fighting. But soldiers still volunteered to join the effort of World War II, fighting in many regions of the world, risking injury, death and the fear of being treated most cruelly if captured.

And today, more than 100 years since the start of World War One, all of us in this ceremony try to understand the significance of these events. All across our country, Canadians take time and make the effort to remember those from the World Wars, and wars and conflicts since, who have joined the Canadian Military and risked their lives to defend the rights and freedoms which Canada considers fundamental to all human beings: freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

I feel it is the duty of all Canadians to learn about and try to understand the sacrifices and efforts of Canadian soldiers. If they lived it, surely the least the rest of us can do is to learn about their efforts, to try to understand the significance of what people went through to defend freedom.

This is no easy task. It is challenging to comprehend the significance of the wars; the enormity of it all is truly hard to grasp.

Historians estimate that over sixty million people were killed in World War Two. Sixty million people. That was 3% of the world’s population at that time, meaning three out of every one hundred people died.

While our brains can do the math, I’m not sure our hearts have the capacity to truly understand that number. When you read of stories, and the Diary of Anne Frank is one many students will read in high school, and learn about an individual, their hopes and dreams, who they loved and who loved them, it is obvious the loss of one person is immense. It is truly staggering then to think of the 60 million people as individuals; individuals who had brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and children who loved them.

The two world wars are of course sinking deeper into history. There are fewer storytellers to keep the history alive, but there is an incredible amount of literature on the world wars that has been written and continues to be written as well as some very powerful films. So while there may be fewer storytellers, there need not be fewer readers, listeners and viewers.

So let our ceremony of remembrance, and day of remembrance tomorrow, be purposeful in remembering the sacrifices of those who have served in Canada’s military and also a celebration of our country. Canada, like all countries, is not without faults, but we are incredibly privileged to live in a country where our freedoms are recognized and protected. They are valued so dearly that many Canadians have the courage and commitment needed to risk and sacrifice all to defend these values for their fellow Canadians and others around the world.

Take some time to remember and think of the significance of what was fought for that we now as Canadians benefit from: Freedoms of conscience and of religion, and that all Canadians are equal before and under the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age or mental or physical disability. We must not underestimate the significance of these freedoms and rights and the immense sacrifices that have secured them.