That’s one good story, that one. (Thomas King, from his work of the same name)
It began with five students who sat on the floor outside my classroom every morning, waiting for me to unlock the door. George*, a storyteller in his forties with a cigarette-roughened laugh, was usually entertaining Cheyenne and Melissa, who giggled behind their hands. Jackson, a tall, slim kid barely out of his teens, his hair combed back into a long, thin braid, sat slightly apart from them, reading a different book every few days. Linda was either issuing off-to-school, cell phone directives to her children, or scribbling notes on a to-do list in her daytimer. When I appeared, they scrambled to their feet, filed to the back of the room, opened their binders, and fell silent, waiting for me to begin the day’s “Prep for High School Literature” lesson.
It was their silence that began to worry me. I thought I had created a classroom atmosphere that welcomed all my students to participate. I’d chosen reading selections that featured adult characters and the complexities of adult life. I’d provided lots of opportunities to discuss what we read. I’d been careful to listen to the students’ responses, and not to make my literary interpretations the “correct” ones. Many of the students had taken a while to find their voices, but most were now participating in our discussions. George, Cheyenne, Melissa, Jackson, and Linda were not.
I knew that all five had ticked off the optional “First Nations/Metis/Inuit” box on their registration forms, so I made an appointment with the Aboriginal student coordinator to ask for advice. She listened thoughtfully to my concerns.
“I wonder if you’re worrying for nothing, Pam. Some of our people prefer to learn by watching and listening. Just because they’re not saying anything doesn’t mean they’re not interested in what’s going on. They’re showing up every day, right? That should tell you they’re getting something out of your class.”
This way of looking at student engagement was new to me, and it partially soothed my worry. But as I walked back to my office, I still wondered if I was doing everything I could to offer these five students the chance to be part of our literary conversations.
A few days later, still puzzling, I ran across an article that talked about the importance of including multicultural literature in a literacy program . I’d read lots of similar articles, but when I got to a sentence that said, “Everyone wants to see themselves in what they read,” I had a sudden realization: Not a single selection I’d chosen for my class was written by an Aboriginal author. Nowhere did a First Nations, Metis, or Inuit character deal with a dilemma. Could it be that the five students weren’t talking because what they were reading wasn’t speaking to them?
I was embarrassed to realize that, even with a degree in literature, I only knew one Aboriginal author – poet Marilyn Dumont. I’d heard her give a reading several years before, and I still remembered the flow of her words, the fire of her delivery. One trip to the public library later, and I had her book A Really Good Brown Girl in hand, ready for my next morning’s lesson.
I told the students what I’d been able to find out about Dumont – that she had been born and raised in Alberta, that she was of Cree/Metis descent, that she was related to Gabriel Dumont. I introduced them to three words they’d need to know to understand the poem I’d chosen: treaty guy, naughahyde, and mooniyaw. I said that I’d read the poem to them, even though as a non-Metis woman, my voice wasn’t ideally suited to the poem’s content. Then, with a glance towards the back of the room, I said I was looking forward to the insights that some of them might be able to offer about the poem’s meaning. I cleared my throat and began:
Leather and Naughahyde**
So, I’m having coffee with this treaty guy from up north and we’re
laughing at how crazy the ‘mooniyaw’ are in the city and the con-
versation comes around to where I’m from, as it does in under-
ground languages, in the oblique way itdoes to find out someone’s
status without actually asking, and knowing this, I say I’m Metis
like it’s an apology and he says, ‘mmh,’ like he forgives me, like
he’s got a big heart and mine’s pumping diluted blood and his voice
has sounded well-fed up till this point, but now it goes thin like
he’s across the room taking another look and when he returns he’s
got ‘this look,’ that says he’s leather and I’m naughahyde.
“Well, if you ask me, this woman needs some serious personal development classes.” Linda’s voice. “I’m Metis, and I never apologize to anybody for it.”
“Oh, come on, Linda.” Melissa from across the aisle. “You know this happens all the time. Treaty guys always think they’re better than us, like they’re the genuine article and we’re not. Right, George?”
No response, except from Cheyenne. “What bugs me is how we’re all fighting about who’s more important. Why can’t we all just get along?”
“Hey, you guys.” Paramjeet, cranked around from the front of the room. “This sounds kind of like the caste system we have in my country. Some people won’t even talk to people who aren’t as high status as they are.”
It’s been more than ten years since this small but mighty poem flung open doors for my students – and for me. It launched me on a learning path that I`m still following – to better understand Canada’s First Peoples through Indigenous words, visuals, and the performing arts. In the coming weeks, I hope you`ll accompany me on that road. It`s been a fascinating journey so far, and I can just about guarantee that you`ll hear more than a few good stories.
*The students’ names are pseudonyms.
**This poem is reprinted by permission of the author. You can hear Marilyn Dumont read a selection of poems from A Really Good Brown Girl at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW93BoeGQ-I . Leather and naugaahyde starts at the 12:00 mark.