“Teach her good, and she learn good. That’s your job.”

By Bonar A. (Sandy) Gow

In November, 1982 I was two months into my teaching career and struggling to “cover the curriculum” for a class of 33 grade four and five children. My school of about 250 students was located in a small village in northern British Columbia where almost one-third of the residents were aboriginal. The level of unemployment, alcoholism, family instability, and child and wife abuse among whites and non-whites was high. Teaching in this community was regarded by teachers throughout the district as something of a “challenge.” I was confident and eager, however, and I felt that I was coping quite well because, after all, I was adhering to the curriculum guides. But all that changed the day I met Arlene’s mom.

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon and I was working in my classroom at the far end of the school when I heard the P.A. click on. It was my principal.

In a low voice he said that a parent was coming down to see me. When I asked who, he commented casually: “Mrs. Yellow Eyes.” I had never seen her before. Then he paused and laughed. When I asked him what was so funny he replied: “She wanted to know where to find WABA-SEWA-TOWAH-KA, so I told her.” Just as the P.A. clicked off I heard a sound behind me and I turned around in time to see her shuffle through the doorway.

She wore a scarf over her head, a heavy, wool Salish sweater, blue jeans, and mukluks. She was short, a bit heavy, and her face lacked expression. I just knew that I was in for it.

She refused my offer of a chair and instead stood directly in front of me, staring into my face. I reacted by slipping into the standard teacher-parent confrontation style I learned in my methods course at university.

What transpired was not one of the high points of my two month teaching career.

Mrs. Yellow Eye’s Visit

TEACHER: (Cheery) “Good afternoon, Mrs. Yellow Eyes.”

MOTHER: (Angry tone of voice) “My Arlene. She ain’t happy here. Not like Keg River…”

TEACHER: (Uncertain tone in voice) “Oh, I see…ah, well, would you like to tell me about the problem?”

MOTHER: (Angry) “She ain’t happy, that one. She don’t like it here and she’s talkin’ ‘bout runnin’ off.”

TEACHER: (Expression of concern) “Well, that’s not good. What’s upsetting her?”

MOTHER: (Sad tone of voice) “She don’t like it here. She want to get goin’.”

TEACHER: (Puzzled) “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. What is it that she doesn’t like? She’s doing reasonably well. She’s made friends with Amber and Gail. And Sherry too. I don’t see what you’re getting at, Mrs. Yellow Eyes. Has someone hurt her feelings? Has she had disagreements with someone? Have I done something wrong?”

MOTHER: (Sad) “She just don’t like it here. In Keg River, she like school None of this bullshit. She want to be goin’ on me. Back to Keg..”

TEACHER: (Politely) “Well, I…what is the, ah, ‘bullshit’ you’re referring to?”

MOTHER: (Angry) “This school is bullshit. You got my Arlene here for almost three months now and you ain’t showin’ her nothing. It’s no good. That girl she gotta learn stuff and be smart. Like white kids here in (name of village).”

TEACHER: (Slightly annoyed) “Now, Mrs. Yellow Eyes, you’ll have to be specific. I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

MOTHER: (Angry): “You white teachers think white. You don’t know nothing. My Arlene, she is one smart girl. But you got her readin’ and writin’ things that are no good. She brung her big yellow book (basal reader) home last night and read me stories. Stupid stories. About white kids doin’ things she don’t know about. White kids and Indian kids are different. Indian kids got to learn ‘bout things to help get jobs. No jobs on our reservation. Ain’t no jobs in trappin’ now. Too many people on welfare or getting drunk. I don’t want that for my Arlene. She is one damned smart girl, this I tell you. But you whites don’t hear me. Not in Fort Nelson. Not in Fox Creek. This is true.”

TEACHER: (Hesitating. Looking for words.) “Yes, well, I suppose.” (Pause. Desperate tone).“Ah, perhaps I could have her tested by…”

MOTHER: (Angry) “She had your tests in Fort Nelson. Some guy showed me paper and told me she was dumb. That’s crazy. Arlene she run the trapline last year for Uncle Leo when he fall off his Ski Doo and wreck his leg. Not bad for a kid who was 10. She don’t need no tests. She need good teaching. And her ears. I yell at her lots. She had the puss run out of them. The doctor in town he say she broke them inside and can’t hear right. Like her brother Garrett and cousin Elsie. Lots of kids at Keg with bad ears. This is true.”

TEACHER: (Surprised) “Really? I see. Well…”

MOTHER: (Proudly) “My Arlene, she know how to set traps. Add skins up and take it away. Figure lots out. She damned smart. She read and fill unemployment form for dad. This is true. She tell me she try to tell this to you but you’re not hearin’ it. You and Mills (principal) there got a school for White kids. Teach her how to use the phone there. Tell her how to do things around White kids. She want to be friends with them but they laugh at her. They say: “You don’t know nothing cause you’re from Keg River. You’re bush. She cryin’ a lot at home. I don’t like this. You gotta do something.”

TEACHER: (Hesitating) “Yes…yes, I think I can see what you’re getting at, Mrs. Yellow Eyes.”

MOTHER: (Smiling. Enthusiastic.) “That’s good because Arlene, she want some friends. And to learn things. Nobody care what Indian kids learn, ‘cept at Keg, and that White man there, he smart. Very smart. He know what Indian kids learn good. That’s where Arlene, she learn how to read. And she teachin’ me and dad too.”

TEACHER: (Sympathetically) “Thanks for telling me this Mrs. Yellow Eyes; I’ll see what I can do about changing things for Arlene…and for the other kids too.”

MOTHER: (Smiling. Firmly) “Good. Teach Arlene lots of things so she know what to do and how to do. Arlene is good. Teach her good and she learn good. That’s your job.

Moments after she left the school I was sitting with my smiling principal, telling him about Mrs. Yellow Eyes. He listened and when I was finished he said to me: “Do you know what WABA-SEWA-TOWAH-KA means?”

I replied that I did not. He explained that it was Cree and that it translates as, “Rabbit with short (or small/flat) ears.” A rabbit with ears which are “long” (upright), he said, was a rabbit which was not only listening but hearing. A rabbit with “short” ears was a rabbit with its ears against its back, able to listen a bit but not really hearing. For Arlene’s mom I was a rabbit with short ears; listening but not hearing what her daughter was saying about the world of the classroom and the kids who surrounded her.

On the drive home I thought about what Arlene’s mom had said, particularly the phrase “teaching her good” because it was my job. She was right; it was my job, but I was not doing it and at least one child was experiencing the consequences. Instead I was plodding on through endless language arts, social studies, science, and art lessons, seldom pausing to challenge the assumptions underpinning what I was doing. On the rare occasion when I questioned the wisdom of what I was doing, I promptly proceeded to devalue my homegrown knowledge and to wilt in the face of the superior abilities of curriculum designers. How could something be unsuitable if an expert in curriculum design wrote it into the guide, I reasoned.

An aboriginal mom with little or no education — but a deep understanding of what an education should be all about — changed my view of myself and my children. In the early evening I sat at home and subjected everything I was doing in my classroom to a rigorous examination. In the end I was forced to recognize that I had to change my approach to children and learning.

Unlike many teachers, I had not achieved when in school; I had not learned to read until I was eight and by age 15 I had left school and entered the work force as a laborer. But I had ability and after three years in the Royal Canadian Navy I enrolled in a private school geared to the needs of motivated adults. Once in university I achieved at a high level, skipped the master’s level, and went directly on to a Ph.D., university teaching in Africa, and a dean’s position in a community college.

When I re-trained and entered the public school system, I did so with a measure of experience behind me. It was this experience and the critical incident with Arlene’s mom which shoved me in the direction of rethinking my approaches.

It began the next day. For the most part I shelved the curriculum guides and turned to the children, asking them outright what they felt young people their age should know in order to survive on a day-to-day basis. They responded positively. For example, the historical side of the fur trade took a back seat when we examined the fur trade today, and how it related to everyday life in the north. Learning how to snowshoe replaced some of our regular indoor activities. Basal readers were almost completely replaced by books the children brought in. They represented a wide variety of subjects, and comic books became acceptable reading material. Reading snowmobile repair manuals, recipes, and assembly instructions for toys and games came to occupy an important place in my classroom. Writing began to focus on personal experiences, hobbies, and “how to” booklets meant to be read by other children. Learning became something that you took out through the door with you at the end of the day and then into your home, to share with your family.

Transforming My Class

Arlene blossomed. By taking ownership of her curriculum, she bought into the world that had previously locked her out. Her shyness and frustration began to dissipate. Quietly she began to assert herself. She showed her classmates how to skin a beaver and how to prepare the hide for sale. This 10-year-old could make mukluks out of moose hide and was proud of her work.

When I formed a snowshoe club she raced the legs off of all of us. An untapped skill in volleyball developed and she mastered aerobics exercises with considerable grace. Most important of all, perhaps, she became an accomplished storyteller in the best of the Cree tradition, and in so doing she won the admiration of all of her classmates.

Once I had them reading and writing I had to keep their imaginations and enthusiasm alive, taking them beyond their own worlds. I had to push them. I had to pull them. I had to tease them. I had to be sly when I introduced new ideas and forms of writing and expression. From beavers to hot air balloons. From horses to geology. My stock phrases became, “Say, what about this book?” and, “Well, if you like it that much why don’t you write about it?” I wasn’t always successful but for the most part I had kids who were increasingly self-confident and willing to open up their minds to new ideas and intellectual challenges.

I had made a start. A small start. I wasn’t going to change the world but at least the seeds for change were in the ground.

Arlene and her mother disappeared when school closed in June and I never saw either of them again. But I remember them both, and as a teacher I try to keep mom’s message in mind. If I’m to “teach good” I have to be a rabbit with “long ears.” Like the Wabasso rabbit; check it out sometime and you will see what I mean. After all, “that’s your job,” isn’t it?

Bonar A. Gow is vice-president (Academic) at Concordia College in Edmonton,Alberta. This article is adapted from Our Schools/Our Selves,  a Canadian education journal, 1698 Gerrard St. E., Toronto, Ont. M4L 2B2.