There is this song.

I have listened to it obsessively. Usually at night before I turn off the lights. As a remedy, as a tonic, as an anthem for the work I’m doing and the work I hope to do.

I’ve written about music and memory before (see here), but this is different. This is about now and the way this music spurs me on in the current social and political climate.

This song is a spark. A spark that is a component of the antidote we need in these dark times of hate, intolerance, and evil.

It’s from a movie I’ve never watched and perhaps there’s a risk in viewing only one four-minute segment from a feature-length film. This video is also now almost a year old. I only discovered it because of YouTube’s algorithmic operation. The same algorithms that have contributed to so much of the strife and misinformation that contaminate our news and information diets. 

The song is from the movie The Greatest Showman. “This Is Me” is sung by Keala Settle who plays Lettie Lutz in the movie (Annie Jones in real life), the Bearded Lady and one of P. T. Barnum’s original nineteenth century cast members. Leaving aside the nature of Barnum’s commercial project and even the commercial project from which this song is drawn, absorb the lyrics as you watch the video. 

As much as the words move me, there is magic in the choreography. It’s that magic that pulls me in — every time. That resonates in my heart. The earthiness of the stamping feet, the power of the arms punched into the air, the rhythmic staccato of the bodies swaying. It’s solid, it’s demanding, it’s asserting the right of these bodies to exist as they are in all spaces. In the light, not the dark, in amongst you and me. In amongst us all.

There’s that moment when the performers are suspended in air. They’ve transcended the chains of exclusion and the labels of derision to float above their cares and their worries, but the truth is in the thud of their landing. That landing on two feet. That is when they reclaim their place. The true power of their existence is in the human groundedness of their experience. 

And as much as I appreciate the beauty of the production values in this video, the version of the song that I treasure is this one.

Here, Keala Settle is not singing the song from the character’s perspective. As authentically as she might inhabit the character in the film, she is not Lettie Lutz. That is the masquerade.

In the workshop version, Settle embodies the song. She embodies the essence of the words, the heart of the matter. Here, she is singing her life story. She is reliving every struggle, every hurt, every joy, every triumph, and every hope. It’s that uncloaked look into who she is, who she is without adornment or disguise, that opens up the whole performance, hers and that of every other person in the room. You can see it in the ecstatic communion of their spirits and voices.

And the universality in the message of this song, the truth of it, is that we are all different. Our differences do not make us less than any other. They only do so when others associate difference with inferiority, with lack, with less-than. 

Unfortunately, it is also a truth that those with power and privilege have gained their rank through a long historical process of magnifying and demonizing difference. Manipulating fear to validate sacrificing others for profit and prestige. For control.

So, there’s a radical — if not revolutionary — message in this song despite the fact that it’s embedded in a cultural artefact that itself is a product of our systems and structures of consumerism and privilege.

And it is this.

I know that there’s a place for us

For we are glorious

Each and every one of us.

And don’t let them, those who benefit from the exploitation of difference, ever tell you differently.

If they do, fight back. 

Do not give them a platform to amplify and broadcast hateful messages.

Vote them out.

 

 

It was a very interesting day to hear Susan Lambert speak.

It was the day teachers throughout British Columbia were voting on whether or not to ratify a new collective agreement, one which fell short of expectations and which merely represented the achievable at this moment in time.

While it was a difficult deal for educators to accept, one of the most important achievements for the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) in the new agreement was the preservation of the integrity of their court case on class size and composition.

And Susan Lambert, who had other reasons for looking askance at the proposed agreement, knows how critically important that court case is for the future of public education in BC.

For those who may not know, Susan Lambert is the past president of the BCTF and a long time educator having started her teaching career in 1973/1974.  She is also an alumna of the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

And that’s how I happened to be in the audience to hear her speak.  She was addressing an education class at SFU, a class in which my nephew is enrolled.

World Peace

Yes, I have a nephew who is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree at SFU and whose long-term plan is to become an educator.

I not only support his choice, I celebrate it because no matter the hardship and the challenge, being a teacher, in my view, remains one of the most fundamentally important roles in society.

My nephew’s professor had invited Ms. Lambert to address his students and had told them guests were welcome.  When my nephew extended the invitation, I jumped at it: this was not an opportunity I was going to miss.

Why?

Because while I may not agree with Ms. Lambert on any number of issues, she is a passionate advocate for public education.  Not only that, but she is a firm believer in making the world a better place, particularly for those who are most disadvantaged in our economic system.

She is also someone worth listening to because of her experience in BC’s public education system and because of her commitment to advocacy.

At the beginning of her presentation, Ms. Lambert challenged the students to consider what their purpose was in becoming educators.  In other words, she wanted them to consider why it was they wanted to teach.  She asked them to consider the question because, as with any vocation or endeavour which we undertake, it is the meaning in what we do and the intent with which we do it that makes our choices purposeful and rewarding in good times and in bad.

I think this is particularly true in a profession such as teaching which is based on relationships and where doing one’s best is instrumental in helping others to achieve theirs.

As much as I appreciated Ms. Lambert’s challenge to the students, it was her summary of the purpose of education which crystallized why the fight for public education in British Columbia is so critical.

And it is simply this: a thriving and vibrant public education system is the essential ingredient for a civil society.

A just society.

An equitable society.

What greater purpose could there be but to work on behalf of a system which is the foundation to a better future for all citizens and not only those who can afford it?

In his English 104 lecture today at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Dr. Paul Matthew St. Pierre argued that our posts, tweets, texts, online articles, and other written forms of expression in the digital sphere are published works.

By publishing via these new media forms, we become authors and contributors to digital culture. I, for one, am grateful that technology has made this access to publication possible. In almost three years of writing for my  blog, I’ve been able to put forward opinions on a range of topics for consideration.

However, by publishing on my blog, I’m certain readers know the content of each article represents my own personal opinion albeit informed by my experience, my work, my position, and my reflections on what I may have read, seen, and heard.

In contrast, opinion pieces published in traditional mainstream media publications, such as The Vancouver Sun, are imbued with the aura of a journalistic standard even when they too are statements of personal opinion.  Even when marked with the label “Opinion”, as with today’s column by Shelley Fralic, this apparent legitimized authority can be problematic.

Greenwich Books

Why?

Simply put, because today’s contribution on the public education system by Ms. Fralic was poppycock.

The trouble with our schools is not spelled ESL as Ms. Fralic contends.  Rather than spotting an elephant in the room, she has spotted a mouse and while focused on the “wee … tim’rous beastie,” running across the room to escape, she’s missed the herd of elephants standing right behind her.

It is true that the number of English Language Learners (ELL, previously ESL) is rising in our classrooms, particularly in the Metro Vancouver area.  And it is true that more ELL students has contributed to greater complexities in terms of class composition.  But does Ms. Fralic — or anyone else for that matter — really believe that removing ELL students from our classrooms would somehow magically eliminate the issues we face?

It’s preposterous because the problem with our schools — the real elephant in the room — is the slow steady erosion of government support which has seen, based on court estimates, approximately $300 million per year kept out of the public education system.  That’s money which would have provided programs, resources, and services to all students including the help of specialist teachers.

And here’s the thing: the students who need the help of those specialists may be ELL students, and often they are not. Students arriving for kindergarten without adequate pre-literacy skills may be ELL students, and often they are not. The truth is obstacles to learning, whether speech impediments, learning disabilities, behavioural issues, or other, are not specific to any one culture or any one language.

Neither is poverty.

Neither is economic inequality.

And these are among the real obstacles to better functioning classrooms along with the lack of adequate community resources for all families, whether new to this country or not.

The reality is — as I witnessed in the school my child attended last year — a large number of ELL students introduces an amazing level of diversity into a school community.  The learning opportunities, with the exposure to a variety of cultures, are magnified. And the emphasis on inclusion introduces a depth of acceptance that is unparalleled.

That’s how we build understanding.  That’s how we build a society.  That’s how we build tolerance.

ELL students are the ones who will emerge from our public education system fluent in more than one language: an invaluable asset in our globalized world.

And, their multi-lingual, multi-cultural sensibility is one they will put to good use in making their contributions to Canada and to Canadian culture.

On December 6, Peter Fassbender, the provincial Minister of Education, spoke at the BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) Academy. It was the first time I had heard him in-person and I found his presentation to be coercive, if not threatening.  His central argument seemed to be that in these uncertain economic times Boards of Education must make hard decisions or else face the consequences.  I’m still trying to decipher his meaning.

Afterwards, in one of those characteristic quick chats you have at events such as these, another Trustee said to me she felt Minister Fassbender sounded more like the Minister for Small Business and Trade than the Minister of Education. Then she said this: “If you can’t count on the Minister of Education, then who can you count on?  Who will fight for public education?”

Why?

Victoria Parliament

Because although there are many passionate advocates who fight for the public education system, decision-making power rests at the table in front of cabinet Ministers and the Premier.  And while they may believe in the importance of education, they seem to disavow any notion that the public education system is underfunded or that we have reached a point where school districts are unable to cover additional costs without directly affecting programs and services.

With that in mind, here’s the speech I wish the Minister had delivered to the assembly after Teresa Rezansoff, the President of BCSTA, had welcomed him to the podium and after he had acknowledged our presence on traditional territories.

“Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you today.

When Rod Allen makes his presentation on changes to the BC curriculum, he may tell you that many young people lose their first job because they aren’t able to collaborate well with others.  You also know that when we talk about 21st century learning we often focus on collaboration as one of the key skills we want our young people to develop.  And you know, as well as I do, that we need to model the skills we want to teach.  So, as Minister of Education, I plan to do just that.  Over the next four years, I’ll do my very best to ensure that the governance of the public education system in BC is pursued on a collaborative basis.

That’s why I want to start off by thanking you.  I want to thank each and every Board for funding the recent wage settlement with support staff.  Not only is it incumbent upon us to recognize their hard work with gratitude, it’s important to be able to compensate their efforts with fair wage increases.  But I know it was tough to make the necessary adjustments to your budgets and your operational plans and I’m sorry that we weren’t able to provide you with additional resources to cover this cost item.  That’s why I want you to know that the next settlement, the one we hope to arrive at with the BCTF in this round of bargaining, will be fully funded.  It will be fully funded because I know it would be unreasonable to expect the costs to come out of your budgets as they are currently structured.

With regard to the BCTF, let me say how pleased I am at the tenor of dialogue we’ve been able to establish with Jim Iker and his team at the BCTF since my appointment as Minister of Education.  Our relationship is off to a good start and I look forward to continuing to build on that strength. But bargaining is tough.  It’s not easy.  But let me assure you that while our goal in bargaining is to secure a long-term contract, we also are focused on providing a fair deal.  We want a long-term solution to ensure labour peace for students and their families, and to allow the amazing educators we have in this province to focus on the new curriculum, the changes in graduation requirements we hope to introduce, and the new approaches to assessment which will enhance student learning.  In other words, we want to make sure that the energies of our educators are directed to the work that they do and not the need to fight with us.  That’s collaboration.  The end result may be a 10-year deal; it may be something else. We won’t let go of our desire for a long-term solution, but we want our partners to know that our public commitment to a particular time frame will not trump our willingness to bargain in good faith and to secure a fair settlement.

Allow me to make another quick note about bargaining.  We will be bringing down legislation in February which will detail a new bargaining structure for the public education sector.  The input you’ve provided with regard to what that may look like is very much appreciated.  And let me say this:  whatever that new structure will look like, it will not, in anyway, compromise the role and status of locally elected school boards.  Having locally elected school boards means that local issues can be dealt with in a way that is sensitive to the needs and the wants of each individual community.  That makes all the difference to the way public education is delivered at the local level and that’s a point that I’ll be stressing during the core review process as well.

As you know, my cabinet colleague Bill Bennett is in charge of the core review and he is also the Minister of Energy and Mines.  Bill has said publicly that there will be no consideration for school districts when it comes to the recently announced BC Hydro rate increases.  I realize that increases of this magnitude have become necessary because of decisions made by previous governments and the way in which the government’s relationship with BC Hydro has been structured.  We’re working on that, but I want you to know that I plan to sit down with Bill as soon as possible and to push hard to see if there isn’t something we can do to mitigate the impact on you.  I need to do that because I know, as well as you do, that any additional costs to your districts without additional funding means an impact on programs and services.  And that’s not what we want.

It’s not what we want because even though your resources are stretched to the limit, you’ve done a fine job of making sure our young people are getting the education they need in order to be competitive. You can see that in the OECD PISA results released this week.  Isn’t it great how well our young British Columbians are doing compared to other students from around the world?  Together, we’ve done a wonderful job and we have to continue to build from this position of strength.  We cannot afford to be complacent; we cannot afford to neglect the system that has served us well and which is essential to the continued success of our young men and women.

And that’s why I want you to know that I am sensitive to your challenges.  I have read your letters, I have listened to you, and I have heard you. Funding is one of the key challenges facing our public education system because even though we may be spending more than ever before, costs have outpaced the level of funding provided. That won’t do. That’s just not good enough.

That’s why I want you to know that at the cabinet table I am demanding more for education.  Yes, I know times are uncertain.  Yes, I know the budget is stretched.  But I will make it clear to the Premier that if we continue to demand the best from our public education system, we must ensure that the public education system has the means by which to be the best.

Because, like you, I believe that a strong, vibrant public education system is integral to our democratic society.  We need jobs, we need a robust economy, but we also need to make sure our society is well-educated so we can maximize the potential of those jobs and that economy for all British Columbians.

Who will fight for public education?  I will and you will and this government will because education is a priority — for you, for me, for the children, for all of us, and for the future.

Thank you.”

In June 2013, a Grade 8 teacher invited me to participate in an event she had organized for her English class.

I accepted, with no qualms, to be a talking book. That is, an individual with whom students could converse.  A living book providing real-time dialogue.

On the day of the event, each living book was guided to a different spot in the Rockridge library. The students, in small groups of five or six, rotated from one station to the next on a timed basis.  They had spent time preparing for their roles as interviewers and the evidence of how much time their teacher had spent helping them get ready was clear.

Many of the questions they asked me focused on education.

“Is high school the best years of our lives?”  One of my favourite questions, to which I answered, “No.” In my view, I explained, high school may be a pinnacle of experience for some, but it was not necessarily so for all.  It hadn’t been for me.  

Ambleside Sunset

One young woman asked for my advice on how best to prepare for university. I didn’t mind this question the first time it was asked, but by the second or third time it was broached, I’d had enough.  I suggested that since they were only in Grade 8 they may be better served by focusing on what they had to do now.  They had time to agonize over the rest.

There was one question which resonated with me the most.  I remember it as “what do you think is the purpose of education?”  but in her thank you letter the young woman who’d posed the question wrote it down as “what makes you so passionate about education?”  The exact form of the question doesn’t matter because it was her interpretation which has made this into a cherished memory. 

“Your answer shocked me.  It was not an answer that I expected.  You are not passionate about education because you think it makes people smart for a better job in the future, that was what I expected.  Instead, you said that education makes us better people. … This is a moral that I will carry with me for my upcoming school years.”

And I do; I believe that education is about making each of us better.  

That’s why the chorus for choice in the public education system sometimes rings false.  Because those who sing that chorus the loudest are trying to draw a straight line from their children’s education, even as far back as kindergarten and earlier, to success in their lives as adults. There are connections and correlations between the two, but I believe we do a disservice to our young people when we present life as a simple equation of “if you do this, then you will get, or you will be, this”. 

Life is complex and nuanced.

Life doesn’t always unroll in a straight line.

And that can be a shock. 

And in the face of a shock like that, sometimes all we have to rely on is being the best person we can be.