Years ago, while I still lived in Vancouver, I came across the Italian translation of Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” online and sent it to my father.
He called as soon as the mail arrived. “Thank you for the nice poesia you sending, so beautiful.”
For a moment, I considered letting him think I wrote the poem. I wondered how bad it would be for my karma to be so low as to claim authorship. This mistaken identity situation happened once before by accident, when my parents wrongly assumed I had written our graduating drama class production—a little known play called Oedipus Rex. I was a member of the chorus, dressed in a black, hooded cloak with my face painted to look skeletal. I crawled around the auditorium stage in this harbinger of doom costume with eleven other teenage girls, mournfully yelling out “Plague!” and “Pestilence!” in unison. There was a fog machine pumping out misty smoke—a semblance of smog rolled out into the audience. My immigrant parents sat at the edge of a row in the middle of the crowd, completely bewildered and confused.
Driving home afterwards they were stone silent. When we stopped at a red light my father looked back over his shoulder and asked, “That’s the play you was writing?” He sounded alarmed.
“I no like,” said my mother.
“You guys think I wrote a show about a man who killed his father and married his mother?” “I really no like,” said my mother. “I no understand what’s happen.”
I had that very same thought watching the results of the American election unfold: I can’t understand what has happened. That fateful Tuesday, I woke up hopeful and my optimism grew as watched a live stream of men, women, and children lining up to pay homage to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite in Rochester, New York. A feminist activist at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement, she died fourteen years before most women got the vote in America. I was having a good day during a busy week—keeping up with marking, working on a lesson plan for a new class—all the while I smiled in anticipation of the future with a Madam President. I was brimming with excitement and ignored friends on social media who insisted the inept, incompetent opponent would win. I heard the rumblings and thought the idea was completely preposterous: most people would not pick a hate-speech fuelled fear-mongering fascist for a president.
That night, watching state after state go red, I called my father way past his eight o’clock bedtime. He was still up, watching the results.
I started crying and said, “What’s happening? WHAT IS HAPPENING?”
My dad said, “The people is crazy. I never was imagine they choosing this idiot. He’s a disgrace.”
In the aftermath, I vented, I ranted, and I wept. Clearly, I am not cut form the same cloth as Caesar. My father did his best to pacify my mounting concern, telling me I shouldn’t get so upset about these events I had no control over. He reminded me that he had always said the world was full of injustice, cruelty and unfairness. And he repeated the message I grew up hearing more than any other: “There’s nothing we can do.”
We argued. Okay, I argued and he listened, interrupting again and again with, “There’s nothing we can do. We’re not millionaires. We’re not politicians. We’re not people with power.”
“Democracy is burning,” I said at dinner three days after the calamity, “and you’re not helping.”
Every morning, every evening, one thought returned, ring through my synapses, pulsing through my heart: I don’t understand what is happening.
I looked at the Desiderata again, the poetic advice on living life from 1927. The stock market hadn’t crashed yet. Hitler was making an impression on the powers that wanted- to-be with his skill in public speaking; his fans found him inspiring and said he had a talent for being bombastic. Everyone believed it couldn’t happen again, “it” being another world war. There’s a line in the Desiderata that has always comforted me: “And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” In the travesty that is Trump’s election, the quote has ceased to offer solace.
2016, I decided, is the year I can of cially add Broken Heart Syndrome to my medical chart. (Yes, it’s a thing.) I feel my heart ache in the wake of the American election like it did when I got divorced, or when my father was sick in the hospital. During those sad and scary episodes of personal strife, the muscles that pumps blood through my body raced out of sync with its usual rhythm and felt like a broken internal metronome keeping time by measuring anxiety and worry—every beat felt like a thump against my rib cage.
In the days since Brexit and the American election, I asked myself many questions. The short list includes: Don’t people still have to study history in school? Would the Canadian election have gone the same way as our continental cousins if not for a photographer being present to witness a horror—the place where Canada-bound toddler Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore? What exactly does Kellie Leitch mean when she uses the term “anti- Canadian values”? When we discuss Canadian values, are we willing to shine a light in the darkness to acknowledge and bear witness to the suffering that has happened in this country with the brutality of the residential schools and the genocide of rst peoples? Are we not capable of doing more to make amends for the atrocities committed by our ancestors? Are the citizens of my hometown—the huge, diverse, good Toronto—really okay with carding? Are the citizens of the internet ne with women receiving death threats (and worse) for expressing an opinion on social media? Do Canadians think themselves immune from the problems currently destroying democracy south of the border, a parallel line drawn in the sand? How many times have I been asked where I’m from “originally” because my name doesn’t sound “Canadian”? Are people arguing that racism and misogyny can be measured in degrees like the weather? Do people seriously expect me to believe that denying basic human decency to all is acceptable on any level, for any reason?
Like I said, that’s my short list. My insomnia went to town last week. In fact, it stuck a feather in its cap and called this all baloney. I am, in the words of the Dixie Chicks, not ready to make nice or able to accept the “There’s nothing we can do” philosophy my father raised me with. There is plenty we can do. As ESL teachers, there is much we must do. Humanity took many blows this year and instructors everywhere are compelled to act. Teaching, we’ve all heard, is the profession that creates all others. The time has come for everyone to weigh in on the issue of basic human decency and respect being a fundamental right of all the people who share this earth home. Time marches on and there are too many who would dance us backward from the progress that has been made by our fragile, sensitive and sel sh species.
Listen, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to teach or even what to teach, I am relatively new to the profession myself. What I am saying is that many teachers changed the course of my life and made it in nitely better—through lesson plans, selected course readings, and compassion. I didn’t learn all the values I hold most dear (courage, empathy, generosity for a start) from my loved ones, and I know I am not alone in that experience. My mother did not want me to get an education and argued vehemently that I should stop attending school at age twelve. She would have deprived me (and many other women) of great joy and deep ful llment due to a breathtaking level of ignorance and misogyny.
The classroom has been my acropolis, my citadel, my arena for daring greatly and my shelter from the worldly storms. May schools continue to be a place of refuge for the weary, the timid and the brave with educators who cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
In this November of our souls, let’s remember the words of WWI veteran Harry Patch who called war “organised murder.” Let’s remember the words of Toni Morrison to her students: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Let’s remember the lesson in Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
Let’s remember to be enormously, tremendously considerate of each other in the days, weeks and months ahead. Let’s remember to celebrate all the love and generosity we have ever received by sharing, giving, and creating more love and generosity. Amplify and magnify every kindness that has been shown to you. Ignore the small hurts and betrayals in order to push us all forward, to ght the good ght.
Finally, let’s be careful out in the wild wide world; some people behave in ways that don’t honour the fundamental values of dignity for all. Some people have a broken moral compass. Some people aggressively ght progress and hold onto power by calling to the devils on our shoulders instead of addressing the better angels of our nature.
Let us remember to watch out for each other and keep each other safe from harm in the days, weeks and months ahead. It is the very least we teachers can do.