It seems like a surreal experience. It was the Winter of 2008. I was living in Vancouver, completing my Masters in Counselling Psychology, wondering if it was really the right career choice for me as I was working in the education system with “at-risk” youth. I put at-risk in quotation marks because it’s terminology that I have a hard time wrapping my head around sometimes. The fact is, the youth I work with and have been working with for over 10 years are at-risk – they’re not only at risk of, but they’re living a life surrounded by addictions, suicide, abuse, mental health issues, and more. To put it more broadly, they’re at risk of and living a life of unhappiness. The reason I have a hard time with the terminology is because, with the right tools, these same youth also demonstrate tremendous resiliency every single day and the implications of the categorization is of no service to them in creating a sense of self-worth and optimism in regards to their futures.
During the fall season leading up to that winter of 2008, I felt a sudden urge for drastic change and it came with a sense of emergency as though it was my last chance to do something completely outside of my comfort zone and challenge everything I knew about the world (not at all unlike me for those who know me). What if life gets ahead of me and I never have an opportunity to put my life on hold again? Even more dramatic was the thought of “what if I die tomorrow? I want to see and do more in this world before I do”. I started researching opportunities abroad. I was offered a year long volunteer placement in Rwanda or Uganda with an organization called Right to Play. Within a week of getting the acceptance call and telling Right to Play that I wanted a few days to think about it, a friend of mine who was doing some engineering work a few hours outside of Vancouver phoned me to say that the Native reserve, which occupied the land on which her work site was built, had been without a high school teacher for two months and they were in dire need of someone with my qualifications. The reserve was 50 kilometers down a logging road, completely off the grid in a valley that was what I consider a natural majesty – tall powerful mountains, a green glacial river, and eagles soaring above.
Within a month, I had left everything behind, turned down Africa, took a leave of absence from school, quit my job, bought a pick up truck, and was the new high school teacher to 11 students in one of Canada’s most deprived communities. Ironically, it was less than two hours away from the Whistler-Blackcomb Resort. Looking back on the experience, my older and wiser self would have given me the advice to think the move through and take a close look at what it was I was looking for rather than making an impulsive decision based on a belief that it was up to me to save the world. I had worked with Aboriginal youth in Northern Ontario for three summers prior and told myself I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. At that time, I knew in my gut that it was what I was meant to do. I actually had no idea what I was getting myself into. I lasted three months and my experience of life on the reserve as the only white girl (white person, actually) is one I will never forget. My plan had been to stay indefinitely. I refrain from saying too much about what I went through, because the truth is that I have no idea what the truth was – what was real and what was perceived; what was in my head and what was fact. What I do know is that by the third month, I was sleeping with a knife under my bed, a walky-talky on my night-stand (there were no phone lines), and my keys ready in case I needed to jump in my truck and drive myself to safety. I was functioning on barely any sleep and I had taken on the additional responsibilities of driving the bus to pick up the kids in the morning, teaching all subjects to all high school grade levels, cooking lunch for 30, and staying after hours to run some activities for the kids. It was a combination of my over-ambitious “I have to do it all myself” personality and the reality that no one else was going to do it if I didn’t. If I didn’t drive the bus, the kids didn’t get to school. If I didn’t make lunch, they didn’t eat. If I didn’t stay after school, there was no after-school programming. Every choice became a moral dilemma. The stress took it’s toll on me and I unconsciously (but probably somewhat purposely) sabotaged it. I cracked, packed my entire house within one hour with the help of some of the trusted friends I had made, and I left. The students went back to being teacher-less. I… well, I went back to a season of crew bossing on a tree planting contract because it was the only thing I had at my finger tips that would save me from falling apart. I needed to be surrounded by people and in a context that was so far from what I had just experienced.
I highly recommend watching the video I am sharing which was put out by the National Film Board about the housing crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation. The community I lived on was NOT Attawapiskat, in case this leads to any confusion. The video did reach me, however, as a reminder of what that winter on the BC reserve was like. I recommend watching it with a very open mind and to recognize the multiple and complex layers of dual responsibility in the reality that exists in the conflict between First Nations Communities and the rest of Canada today. I can’t say any ill about the people of the community in which I lived in. They’ve been through more than many of you reading this post could imagine. Some of those people became very dear to me. I can’t say that the corruption that I perceived was real, because I simply don’t know and don’t have any facts. What I can say is that I got the experience of being completely outside of my comfort zone that I had been looking for. I got to see a side to a national debate that not many will ever come to truly understand, including myself.
The story about my tattoo is that when I left the reserve, I was ready to give up on everything that I had worked toward so far. I came to question all of my beliefs about human resiliency and I wondered if it would ever be possible for anyone like those who lived in that community to overcome the kind of social barriers I had witnessed. I guess you could say that I completely lost my whole sense of self. In the end, that loss of sense of self gave me the ground work to build a new sense of self back up again. It forced me to recognize the importance of self-care and to understand the concept of putting the oxygen mask on your own face before assisting another. When I came back from the season of planting, I re-aligned myself with my what my values had always been. Youth work and social work were my passions and there was nothing other than the pursuit of the career I had begun that would allow me to grow from where I’d come. Like sticking a post-it to my forehead, I tattooed the word inspire on my arm. That way, I didn’t have to look in the mirror for the reminder that this was my life’s mission: Always create inspiration, be inspiring, seek inspiration from others and when that’s lacking, change something. Whenever I lose myself, I have something very simple to come back to and the fact that it’s on my arm, visible to others, brings a sense of accountability along with the message I give to myself.