The Place That Is Supposed to Be Safe
She pulled out a large sheet of paper and stuck it on the wall. Skin on the back of her hand rippled down to her wrist. The cane she used to prop herself up when she walked was leaning against the desk.
The assignment was simple: students had to uncover their cultural heritage. She went around the room one-by-one asking students to declare where their families came from. One country per line, with a check mark for every repetition. England, Wales, Scotland, the countries that occupied the greatest amount of space; a common occurrence across the French immersion classrooms of the burgeoning four- and five-bedroom community. Her eyes drifted to me and I mumbled, “Greece and Bermuda.”
She backed away from the wall, still holding the marker in her hand. Turning to her students, she declared, “I am from Kanata.”
How can she be from Kanata? I wondered. That is not a country. Kanata was a sprawling suburb in the west end of Ottawa undergoing massive development. Many of the homes were still under construction so I knew she was too old to be from there.
Madame Leclerc, a stout woman with a voice that bellowed across the classroom, belonged to a group of people called the Haudenosaunee, which the French renamed the “Iroquois.” They were one of the many peoples who lived in Canada—before it was Canada. She explained that in her language, “Kanata” meant village. Unlike her students, who could trace our ancestors to places outside the country’s borders, she knew only one land.
It was the first time someone explained Canada was not just a place; Canada was also a time. It was impossible to draw a start date, showing when the land began. But the beginning of Canada was clear. It was the year someone from another place decided that is what the land should be called.
She was my first Indigenous teacher, and the first Indigenous person I ever met. Before her, no one said there was a difference between people who were from Canada and people who were from somewhere else. Isolated in the affluent community twenty-five kilometres east of downtown Ottawa, I learned there were two main people in Canada: those who spoke English and those who spoke French. My community was unique, it was one of the few places in Ontario with many people who spoke French.
This was the first year we had a designated class for history. Madame Leclerc chopped up the text like an editor, striving to create the most accurate and interesting story, crossing out verbs in past tense and replacing them with the present tense. Indigenous peoples, she insisted, were not people who once lived, they were people who still existed—even if we did not see them. With the assistance of inserted photocopied pages from books we had never read, she recounted a story.
It was the late nineteenth century and European settlement was soaring. The government was pushing First Nations peoples into designated territory. The government called these areas reserves, land set aside for people who lived before Canada. Then people came, she said, and took their children to pensions. A pension was a school only for Indigenous children. A place where lessons focused on rubbing out Indigenous culture and replacing it with something British or French—something Canadian. That way, the government could turn them into apples: red on the outside, white on the inside. The children were not just taken, they were kidnapped.
Kidnapped to go to school? I thought. Weird. I wanted to ask why people with brown skin were called red. I wanted to ask why First Nations children had to be forced to go to school and why they did not have their own schools. I wanted to ask what was wrong with Indigenous culture, why it needed to be changed. But Madame Leclerc was in the middle of a lesson and was not ready to be interrupted.
She closed the book, loose papers still hanging out of the edges, and laid it on her desk. I started to raise my hand when she walked back to the front of the room. She pointed her index finger to the ceiling like a preacher ready to start a sermon.
Her uncle grew up in a pension. Every time he tried to speak his language, teachers pierced the sides of his tongue. She stuck out her tongue and pressed her fingers against it.
He never spoke his language again.
She looked at the floor, as if in search of something she would not find. Her grandfather had suffered a stroke. Lying on his hospital bed, he started speaking his language again. It was the first time she saw her father cry. Within the walls of a government-sanctioned institution, they had recovered something that was stolen from them.
Because of the treatment Indigenous children suffered at these pensions, Madame Leclerc said, many returned home and could not transition back into their families. Some never returned; others were ignored by their communities. They were angry at their treatment. Some began drinking alcohol to deal with their pain. When they were adults and had children of their own, many copied their school treatment at home. For the first time, she said, children in Indigenous families were beaten. Madame Leclerc described this as a pattern, a pattern of abuse.
During quiet reading time, I was hunched over an open textbook like all the other students. Madame Leclerc approached my seat. Her palm squarely on the desk, time had etched stories into the creases of her sixty-three-year-old skin. She leaned over and ran her finger under the words, Many Indigenous children suffered at these pensions, underlining a meaning not evident. I cocked my left eyebrow and lifted my chin towards her. Her eyes were steady, her eyebrows slightly raised. I looked down at the page; I saw only black letters arranged neatly next to each other.
The wall knocked against my elbow each time my arm drifted too far from the centre of the desk. Muscles in my hand ached from gripping the pen too tightly. Once again, I had done something to annoy my grade six teacher and once again found myself with an in-school suspension. It had only been fifteen minutes and I was already tired of completing the worksheet. It was mandatory to fill out a worksheet answering questions about the “infraction” I had committed. In this case, it was defiance: the one word whose dictionary definition I had written so many times I could quote it without looking. Each time I was sent to her, the vice-principal shoved the same worksheet in my hands and escorted me to the alternative learning centre, where all “bad kids” served their in-school suspensions. A student on an in-school suspension was not an active participant at school. I was confined to that room all day, including recesses and lunch hour. I did not have access to any of the teacher’s lessons from that day, so I tried to do what homework I could.
I had started to become familiar with the cubicle in the far corner of the room. The pencil markings I drew on the desk two weeks before were still there. Whenever the teacher demanded I do something without asking the same of other students and I disobeyed, she waltzed to the intercom in our classroom. She spoke loud enough for other students to hear and look up from their work, “I’m sending Miss Wright down to the office.” I placed my pencil on the desk, pushed in the chair, and began the stroll to the front of the school. Looking down at the grey tiles waxed that morning, I focused on my steps to avoid making eye contact with teachers in the classrooms I passed; they all knew where I was going.
Grade six was a bad year; the bullying got worse. I had become accustomed to jokes about my brown skin. “You look like a piece of poo,” a red-headed girl once snapped back during an argument.
I started puberty, and my mother bought me my first bra. My hips grew five inches, but I kept my ten-year-old waist. I had to buy pants that were a size five even though I was a size two, so there was enough space for my butt. The gap at the back of my pants was wide enough to fit a fist between the waistband and the bottom of my spine. It was my mother’s idea to fasten the sides of my pants with safety pins; the pins kept fabric in place and were not damaged by the washing machine.
I was the only Black girl in the class, and my body became the most visible object in the room. It transformed into a touchable museum exhibit, where students explored their curiosities: How many pencils could they slide into my thick curls before I noticed? Why did my hair bounce back when they tugged on it? In gym class, I clenched the muscles in my butt whenever I was standing so that when students threw basketballs at it, they would not have the satisfaction of seeing it jiggle.
The teacher, a round woman with a pudgy face, stayed silent. I preferred her silence to the giggles she sometimes made under her breath. I was a “bad kid” and found few allies. Every time I came back from the alternative learning centre, I had to reintegrate into class. Students watched as I walked to my desk and slid into the chair. Like a prisoner returning at the end of a sentence, they knew where I had been.
One day I was sick and went to the nurse’s office; my brother and I traded strep throat for almost a year until our doctor urged us to use different hand towels and toothpaste. That day, Madame Leclerc came to visit. I was in the last class before she retired and she sometimes visited her former students to say hello. My back hunched forward in the chair, a half-glass of flat ginger ale in my hand, when she walked in. She pulled up a chair, leaned back, and folded her arms. “So, how are things these days?” she said, her lips pursed as if she already knew the answer.
“Oh really?” She leaned forward so her eyes were directly in front of mine. I scrunched my hands under my chin, my elbows dug into the table. I stared into the ginger ale as the last bubble fizzed. “I hear you have been getting in trouble a lot.”
I bit my bottom lip before I summoned up the courage to respond. “Yes.”
She sighed. I expected her to give me a lecture about how important it was to listen to my teachers. “I know it is not easy. But you cannot learn if you are not in class. You are too smart to waste your time in that room.” She got up from the chair and told me to keep studying hard.
I watched her walk out of the room. Barely taller than I was, her forceful demeanour garnered respect from students and teachers. A strict disciplinarian, she could silence any noisy room with a shout of a single word, “three!” I could not understand why she was not upset.
A law that was supposed to change everything. I looked at the cliché in the opening line and was convinced I would bomb the assignment. It had been a few years since the government enacted the Safe Schools Act and my grade ten teacher demanded we learn about it. A very important law, she called it. I read through the opening passages and knew exactly what it was supposed to do: weed out the bad kids and suspend them. Sure, that will make schools safe, I thought, chuckling to myself. Safe for who?
I had another assignment on my mind: English. The teacher insisted we learn how to formulate an argument and deliver it in front of people. It would help us in our future lives, she said. Twirling her fingers through her long black hair, she instructed us to write a rant.
I sat on my bed with three torn pages out of the yellow notebook where I often wrote my thoughts; “safe schools” could wait. The blank pages sought the companionship of ink from the pen resting on the comforter. What would people think if I did this? But I knew it didn’t matter. I was tired. Of the jokes, the insults, the stupid stereotypes that made no sense. I was angry and I wanted to prod them into anger, too. I grabbed the pen and scratched the topic at the top of the page. The tip forced its way through the paper and onto the book I was using as a writing surface when I underlined the title: racism.
There is no such thing as reverse-racism, my hand scribbled in a fury of barely legible words. I wanted to attack the ridiculous response I often heard when I complained to teachers and friends about unfair treatment. I looked down at the two-page paragraph and scoffed, this will really get them going.
I stood at the front of the classroom, staring at students in the second row. They have no idea what’s about to happen, I thought, a grin plastered across my face. I shifted between the page and my classmates as I spoke each line. My voice grew louder when I got to the part on reverse-racism. A blonde-haired girl in the front row bit into her fingernails and peered at the floor. Perhaps she thought my presentation was payback for not skipping over the word nigger when it was her turn to read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud. When I finished my speech, students looked at each other, not knowing whether it was okay to clap. I walked to my seat, my chin parallel to the floor, and leaned back into the chair. I didn’t look towards the teacher’s desk; her opinion didn’t matter. She told us to write a rant, so I ranted.
We got our results. I got an A and a simple comment: great passion. Apparently, I was good at being angry.
I flipped the page, hoping it would give me the right answer. Fewer things were more boring than memorizing how to calculate the standard deviation for data sets. Why did I buy this notebook with such tiny squares? I can’t write this small. I picked up the calculator and pounded through each equation.
“Angela,” the teacher called across the silent classroom, “the principal wants to see you.”
Snickers rose from chairs behind me. I knew exactly what she wanted to discuss, and preferred to continue the math problems. I tossed the textbook, notebook, and calculator in my backpack and headed to the office.
It was only two months until graduation, but she wasn’t going to make this easy. When I walked into her office, Ben was already sitting there. His dirty blonde hair peeked under the red baseball cap he always wore; as though toques weren’t readily available in Canada during the winter months. He looked at me as I sat down, smirking.
The principal swiveled in her chair and leaned in towards us. “Ben tells me you had an argument and said some nasty things to him on the bus this morning,” she said.
I rolled my eyes, still thinking about standard deviations. “Yes, I told him to shut the fuck up.”
Her eyes widened as though she had seen the ghost of her dead mother. I suppose she thought her administrative position protected her from such language.
“Because I’m so tired.” I let out a huge sigh, and my shoulders dropped into the back of the chair. “I don’t care about him.” I folded my arms and sunk my hands under my armpits. “He hangs out with those white supremacists and I know what they say about Black people, they’ve been bothering us all—”
“But I know what it’s like to be discriminated against,” he interjected. “I’m Italian and kids used to make fun of me because I had curly hair.”
The principal stuck her hand in front of his face and he recoiled into his chair. “That is not quite the same thing. It is important to understand that slurs used to insult Black people are not the same as being made fun of because you have curly hair,” she said.
I looked at her and blinked four times before I realized she was serious. It was the first time she had shown any concern for Black students. When a white student who was part of the crew of white supremacists on campus showed up to a dance with SKIN HEAD emblazoned on his shirt, she was unfazed by his drunken threats to go after Black students.
My thoughts filled the void of silence as I remembered every slight from the past year. The many times a white supremacist bumped me while I was reaching into my locker, each time white supremacists used the word “nic-nack,” like we didn’t know it was a stand-in for nigger. The wad of spit that flew out of a white supremacist’s mouth and landed on my friend’s cheek. I closed my eyes to prevent tears from forming. When I opened my eyes, all the frustrations converged on the tip of my tongue and I blurted out, “You don’t know how hard it is to be a minority. We get so little supp—”
“What do you mean? Black people are not minorities,” the principal said. “There are plenty of Black people at this school. The real problem is that you self-segregate yourselves.”
My shoulders fell forward, and I clasped my hands between my thighs. There was so much to say, but it was pointless. I knew the name of every Black student in that high school. I made a list in the fall when I was trying to solicit support for Black History Month. Out of one thousand students, twenty were Black; twenty too many, apparently.
I saw her lips move, but didn’t hear anything. It was time for me to go. The matter was settled; she wasn’t going to discipline me for cursing on a school bus.
I threw my backpack onto my shoulders and walked out of the office. I turned to walk to the classroom, but went outside instead. The breeze brushed against my face and I felt the weight of the textbook on my shoulders. I sat on the ledge; my back couldn’t stay straight and I slouched forward, elbows on my knees. Looking at the ground, I thought about Madame Leclerc. I wondered if she still returned to school to visit even though all her former students were gone. Did she walk through the hallways, remembering the stories that were imprinted into the crinkles in her skin? Did her children ever learn her native language? I looked out at the parking lot, hoping I would see her striding towards the building. I wanted her to sit on the stone ledge next to me. To lean forward with her eyes directly in front of mine and tell me, tell me she understood.
Angela Wright is a writer and performance artist based in Toronto. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly. She also works in politics and her political commentary has appeared in Maclean’s, Toronto Star, CBC Opinion, Montreal Gazette, Torontoist, and Overland Literary Journal. Connect with her on twitter @angewrig
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