Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jennifer James speak at the Opening Day celebration for our school district.
Held at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Theatre, the event drew over 500 teachers, administrators, staff, trustees, partner-representatives, and parent-representatives to join in honouring 20-year employees, to hear from the Board Chair and the Superintendent, to learn from a distinguished speaker, and to be moved — in my case to tears — by a slideshow presentation with highlights from the past year.
In her presentation, Dr. James masterfully outlined the cultural shifts we’re experiencing and the challenges they present particularly to educators. In relating her vision, her experience, and her understanding, Dr. James also shared details of personal issues she’s contending with today and some she had to overcome as a child.
As the theatre emptied and the exuberant buzz faded, I thanked Dr. James and commended her on being so candid about her family life. “Well,” she said after a pause, “education is personal.”
And it is.
Because our educational experiences stay with us, shape us, and guide us as we negotiate our daily lives, our relationships, and our careers. For Dr. James, her education included interactions with a Grade 4 teacher she “hated” and a high school teacher she adored. The former dismissed her, penalized her, and undercut her self-esteem. The latter noticed her, cared about her, and took action to ensure that she made it to college despite her difficult family situation.
Her story inspired me to reflect on one of my own.
It was 1974 and we’d just settled in West Vancouver after moving back to Canada from Lebanon.
I knew no one.
I was moving from an all-girls school where we wore uniforms every day to a mixed gender school where student outfits tended mostly to jeans sporting gaping holes.
On the first day of Grade 8, I missed the bus.
I snagged a ride from my father after traipsing back home.
Having reached Hillside Secondary, I made my way into a buzzing school gym of 1,200 students arrayed along the bleachers.
Darting curious glances here and there, I sat through the roll call which ended without my name being called.
So after arriving late, after the anxiety of missing the bus, after feeling as if I’d never find my way, I was escorted to Mrs. Haagen’s classroom, Division 82.
And as the last one in, in my plaid-skirted dress with white knee high socks and black patent shoes, I was awarded an undesirable front row seat inspiring a chorus of “A-reema, a-reema, a-rrrreeemmma” from the boys in the back which would haunt me as the year progressed.
It sucked and I believe the ramifications are with me still.
But it’s important to share our stories, positive or negative, because education is personal.
And to all those students facing their first day of school this week, I wish you the very best in your personal journey and, above all, I wish you kindness.
Because as Dr. James also said, education is at the core of civilization and the heart of that is kindness.