By Jenifer Barsky, Cariboo Hill Secondary
When I was a student in school, I used to dread those assignments where my teachers would ask me to explore my cultural or ethnic heritage. They’d ask us to share details of our ancestors’ past: birthplace, languages, traditions, dress. I would cringe at the thought of reporting out to my classmates that my grandfather had been born in North Vancouver, the exact city where I currently resided. He spoke English. He ate turkey at Christmas and hid chocolate eggs for his three daughters at Easter. He wore collared work shirts and Levis.
I would marvel at my peers’ ancestry. My friends would come to school, posters in hand, and speak of aunts and uncles who were born in places I’d rarely heard of: Trinidad and Tobago, Senegal, Ukraine, Indonesia. They spoke many languages and celebrated holidays and traditions not listed on the calendar on my kitchen wall. They wore saris, turbans and kilts. I envied how exotic their lives seemed, compared to my tiny, localized experience.
Despite my feelings of inadequacy related to my ancestry, I had always appreciated the stories my grandparents told me, of living through the Depression, fighting in the Second World War, and raising children in the 50s. My Nana would recall going to school in flour sack dresses, with sugar sandwiches packed for lunch. Through the stories of her childhood, I learned about resilience and hope. My Grandpa G spoke of the summers he spent as a fisherman in Prince Rupert. Through his tales, I learned to love and respect the ocean and to remain persistent even in the face of defeat.
My involvement in “Stronger Together,” the Aboriginal Learning Team reminded me of the power of story to connect people to each other and teach important lessons. It reminded me that the history of our families, and their experiences, pushes us to heal, and forgive, and be inspired.
I created an English 10 unit, focused on ancestry and designed to teach personal narrative writing. The texts in the unit – poems, short fiction, and informational text – all related to family. We read a poem called “In Service,” about the sacrifices made by a generation of African American women, so that their children could have better lives. We read a personal narrative called “Fish Cheeks,” about how the traditions of our ancestors don’t always align with our own desires. We read a poem called “Forgiving my Father” and recognized that, though we often inherit admirable qualities from our parents, sometimes we also inherit their pain, their suffering, their mistakes.
In the middle of the unit, Karla Gamble, the Aboriginal Resource Teacher, visited my classroom and presented to my students on family crests and totems in First Nations communities. Through story and images, Karla shared of her own life with my grade 10s, explaining much about the value of family and community among the First Nations. [pic of Karla in class] She guided us through the drawing of a raven, and then students created an ancestral image of their own, which they painted onto a ceramic tile. Each tile symbolized aspects of the student’s family, ethnicity, and/or religion, using shape, colour and design. Students chose their symbols carefully, and worked painstakingly to create pieces they took pride in. [pic of hand working on tile]
One student drew the Ying Yang, turning one side into a sunrise and the other into a sunset. He wrote of how the image represented his family here, and his family in the Philippines – while one awakes, the other rests. He stated that despite their geographical divide, they possess a harmony, and balance, just as the Ying Yang implies. [pic of tile] Another student painted the background of his tile black, but then painted over it with yellow. In his words, “The black represents the pain and suffering of my ancestors, but the yellow covers the black, because they overcame the hard times and became farmers. The yellow is for the wheat they grew. When wheat is ready to harvest, it becomes a bright yellow.”
Now, my students are beginning to write their own stories, the stories of their ancestors. I have read about a grandfather who was a surgeon in Afghanistan, a grandmother who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Scotland. I have read about a father who survived a typhoon in the Philippines, a mother who has raised five children, alone. My students write with passion, with love, with vigour. They want to share with me, and their peers, stories of these people they come from. The words pour out onto the pages, because they know these stories. They have lived them.
I went to hear Richard Wagamese speak a few years ago. He spoke of the writing process, and storytelling in general. He said that stories live in every one of us, we just have to find them, and then tell them. We did. And we are.