Erica O’Reilly has taught grade 6 in Sandy Lake First Nation for the last two years. Originally from Ottawa, Erica completed a Bachelor of Arts at York University and a Bachelor of Education at Queen’s University.
I’ve always thought that life could be even more magical, fun, and enjoyable if it played out like a Broadway musical. For me, musicals have always had a way of poetically connecting emotions of the human experience to the musicality of our hearts. So, I wasn’t surprised that one spring evening a few weeks ago, perched on my favourite spot on the couch, peering out at the twinkling stars dancing in the night sky over Sandy Lake, that my heart would recall the following lyrics from the musical WICKED:
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
“For Good”, Glinda, WICKED The Musical
With the end of my second and last year of teaching in Sandy Lake fast approaching, I struggled to find the words to express (and digest) the multitude of emotions I was experiencing. However, the lyrics from For Good, aligned me with the incredible feelings of love, gratitude, and appreciation that I have experienced over the past two years living, working, and playing in Sandy Lake First Nation. I must admit there were some tears shed but I just think of them as my heart’s musical introduction to what I hope to share with you here.
A few weeks later, and listening to that song on repeat, my brain has had time to catch up to my heart. My hope is to share with you the greatest lessons I have learned from some of the most beautiful children, from a stunningly beautiful part of Canada, with the words that capture the music of my heart.
I stand here; gazing up at the same sky with a new set of eyes.
Heart filled with an abundance of love and gratitude for the steps that have lead me through this path.
The sun glistens and gleams between the billowing bark.
The wind whistles, as the dancing leaves whisper secrets I have always known.
“A Moment”, by Erica O’Reilly
One of the greatest gifts of living in Sandy Lake is being so close to nature. This call to live in Northern Ontario’s boreal forest has been incredibly healing. Coming from the cacophony of traffic, construction, and subway cars, living in Toronto for eight years, I felt the need to get away from the city and the desire to reconnect with nature; to quiet my mind and soothe my soul.
And while there is fascinating research in favour of how trees talk and have their own heart beat, the simple fact is that they are living organisms. My time here has shown me the incredible therapeutic powers of standing beneath these great beings.
Working as a teacher, there are some days that are easier than others. On those challenging days, as I walked home beneath the canopy of my coniferous and deciduous friends, I likened their presence to a good conversation with a bipedal (human) companion. If I took the time to appreciate standing amidst them and made the choice to let go of the stress, the fear, the noise of my mind and to instead simply inhale/exhale the fresh air, I could reconnect with the present moment. This is where the healing happens. When we choose to lean into love and faith knowing that who we are, where we are, in this moment is enough. Nature has an astonishing poetic way of reminding us of how we are both insignificant and intrinsically connected to this planet when we consider the expansiveness of the universe.
With this knowledge, I have a greater appreciation for the land that we live on and the beings that we share it with. I am grateful and appreciative for Mother Earth and how she provides, protects, and supports us all. In moving forward, I feel a greater stewardship to honouring, respecting, and preserving her for future generations. For we only have one planet, one life, and one opportunity to support our global home.
I dance among your branches.
And sing the song of your soul,
for I have uncovered the secret:
we are of the same soil.
“Of The Trees”, Erica O’Reilly
How does one even begin to try and describe the hope, vibrancy, hilarity, strength, and resiliency that my students have brought into my life over the past two years? While these words come close, they don’t quite capture the love and light I have experienced daily for the past two years.
My students, who I lovingly refer to as “my crew”, have taught me that it is a gift to be around them every day, because there is always joy, love and laughter to be shared – if you’re open to it.
When I think about the tear-filled, joyous belly laughs we have shared this year alone, from the not so “promising” effects of eating too many Halloween chocolate bars, to the correct pronunciation of summer windstorms in Arizona called haboobs (pronounced həˈbo͞ob; the mispronunciation of the first letter was quite hilarious to us), my students have taught me the incredible importance of play.
As teachers, let alone adults, it is so easy to get caught up in the daily grind of administration, curriculum expectations, and endless to-dos that we can easily forget the joy of play. My students have taught me more than how to be a good teacher. They have taught me how to be a playful child of life. They have taught me to truly enjoy, relish, and celebrate the small moments by letting go and saying: “Yes! Let’s play!” and “Woohoo! We’re making mistakes!”
Whether it was during our morning run on a slippery or snow covered soccer field, enjoying the benefits of whip cream facials, stacking cups as a team, playing with baby chicks, reading with our Kindergarten reading buddies, making salt flour decorations, blowing Easter eggs, competing in Minute-to-Win-It Competitions with pen pals, dramatically singing “Alive/Awake/Alert”, racing outside, or simply enjoying each other’s company over breakfast, we have made space to find joy, laughter, and play in our classroom every day.
In doing so, I’ve learned how quickly my heart can be filled with joy (even on those rough mornings) when the classroom is filled with children’s laughter. I have learned that my students look out for me, just as much as I look out for them – especially if someone’s launching a whip cream pie at my face and ends up inside my ear. They have given me the space to share my playful, childlike nature and embraced me. If they only knew that they have been my greatest teachers. For this, I will be forever grateful.
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
“For Good”, Elphaba, WICKED The Musical
So you see, at this point in the journey, as I begin to close one chapter and excitedly anticipate the unfolding of a new one, my heart is torn. Torn between the sadness of saying good-bye to this community, to the 46 beautiful souls who have changed my own over the last two years, and to a home I have grown to love as my own. I’m unsure whether I’ve said the right things, if I’ve said too much or too little, if I’ve done all that I can. I wonder if I’ve left a positive impact on their hearts, as they’ve filled my own.
However, I am ever more grounded in the knowledge that these kids’ love and acceptance has opened my heart to indescribable amounts of love or them, for myself, and for the future children I will encounter.
Thanks to the love of these two classes, I have learned to be kind and patient with myself. I have celebrated my strengths and embraced my weaknesses. I have learned how to stand strong in my presence, in support of others. The greatest lesson of all: I’ve learned that the heart is never wrong. Everything in life is happening for us, not to us, because we are all on this journey together. My time in Sandy Lake has taught me, that we are called into each other’s lives to love and support each other; to give or to receive a lesson; to give or receive love. And while our presence in each other’s lives may not be permanent, like ships passing in the night, we carry the love and lessons learned and give them forward to the next people we meet along our journey.
I can say with utmost faith that there are no mistakes or coincidences in life. I believe we are called in service to love and lift each other up, and to celebrate this wonderful gift we’ve all been given: life.
As I wrap up my time here, in this blog, in this community, in this chapter, I can say with humble confidence that I have been changed for the better. And my advice to those taking the time to read this, is to always, always listen to your heart. For that voice, that draw, that intuition, that call to honour and love is greater than your own.
Maybe our children choose us/ To be our greatest gifts/ Out creative co-conspirators/ And our most influential teachers
“Knowledge Keepers”, Erica O’Reilly
Miigweetch to the children and community of Sandy Lake First Nation.