Sharon Lee started teaching grade 2/3 in Grassy Narrows First Nation in September 2017. Before going North with Teach For Canada, she taught in Toronto, Vancouver, China and Korea. Sharon completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education at Queen’s University. Sharon is a published poet, originally from Barrie, Ontario.
Teaching in Grassy Narrows First Nation, I’m stronger. Yes, physically stronger (a month ago I did my first ever chin-up), but I’m talking more about the mental game. Because everything is a mental game – about perception and perspective. Holding this knowledge close is what has kept me here. I’m learning about mental management, about actively cultivating how I perceive my situation. In other words, I’m learning to lean on the brighter side.
Doing so isn’t easy. There is ample pain and disarray here. Enough to drive outsiders away (when you hear about high teacher turnover rates on Native reserves, it’s true). There is of course the lingering trauma caused by the sickening events of colonization, but there’s more. In Grassy Narrows, there’s the poisoning of the 1960s and 70s, when a paper mill upstream from the community dumped 9000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, thereby poisoning the fish and the people, and decimating the local economy heavily dependent on fishing tourism at that time. These events have of course brought much darkness, and yet, there is much light.
Light emanates from the children. They are the ones who have given me what I call my “supernova memories.” Why supernova? Because a supernova is a star that suddenly becomes brighter because of a catastrophic explosion; in other words, a star that becomes brighter amidst – and because of – the chaos. My supernova memories are comprised of my bright children, who have risen from difficult contexts. They are the ones who brighten my mental perception.
When the distress, the angst, the exhaustion try taking over, I access my supernova memories: Like the time Patience ran into class clutching a handful of purple flowers she had picked for me during morning recess. Or the time Caleb, eyes sparkling, exclaimed, “Magic IS real!” after seeing the disintegrated shell of an egg immersed in vinegar during a science experiment. Or the time Zookie’s shyness evaporated as she volunteered to read a eulogy at our ceremony for Jake, our pet fish. Or the time Honey’s face contorted to a look of equal parts horror and intrigue as Mr. Bones, our mangled class skeleton, was rolled into our classroom. Or the time Reese, after six months together, verbalized my name for the first time.
These memories reinforce what is of utmost importance. Yes, my kids drive me nuts too, but their love and laughter triumph. They teach me that love is stronger than pain. I’m learning all this and more while living and teaching in Grassy Narrows. To wrap up my thoughts, I’ll share a poem I wrote, inspired by two students in my class. I consider it no mere coincidence that they are named after two virtues essential to being a teacher in a First Nation. It’s called Hope and Patience:
Hope is a girl in my class.
She has big cherry eyes and hair
the colour of chocolate milk.
Her smile is a slice of watermelon –
seedless, mostly gums.
When she sees one seedy tooth growing out,
she grins and shouts,
Welcome to the world!
Hope likes roaming the room,
moving in circles on our coyote carpet,
over the cardinal directions.
When I ask her if she’s tired, she simply smiles
then farts. She cackles at her bum’s joke
then keeps traveling the world.
One day, Hope’s mom calls in:
Hope has hurt her ankle,
so Hope will be gone awhile.
But what will we do without Hope?
Then Patience struts in.
Clutching her bag of everlasting pistachios,
she stakes herself on the classroom carpet.
She chews steadily,
wearing her signature smile – the stubborn one.
This means Patience will be here a while,
until Hope returns.