Reflecting on Canadian Literary Culture

A Blog by Janine Fleming for ENGL 470A

A “Clueyness” About Exclusion (2.2)

Write a short story (600 – 1000 words) that describes your sense of home; write about the values and the stories that you use to connect yourself to, and to identify your sense of home.

Stick figure putting Clue box back in the closet - clueyness

Photo Credit: Urban, Tim. Clueyness. Web.

This entry is partially inspired by a recent posting by Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why. Entitled “Clueyness”, Tim Urban’s post tells a story of exaggerated empathy or “clueyness”. His story got me thinking about how themes of exclusion and inclusion have shaped my sense of home… And from this line of thinking came the following story:

During elementary school, I was the only white girl in most of my classes. I never thought about race or ethnicity as reasons to treat other kids differently. In fact—I don’t think I thought about it at all. I never thought about what I should wear to school or how I should do my hair. During this time, my thoughts were consumed devising strategies for trading my mom’s homemade-baked-goods for my friends’ fruit-by-the-foot or for being the first outside during recess in order to secure the best spot for jump-rope.

Photo Credit: Lake Whales Charter Schools. Photo #2. 10 March 2011. Web.

At the time, my best friend was my next door neighbour: a girl a couple years older than me named Farah. Her and her family were new to town, having just moved to Canada. I don’t remember what country she was from—I guess it just wasn’t important to me at the time. We spent our afternoons playing in the backyard, swimming in her family’s hot tub, and collecting ants and other bugs for our growing terrarium.

But, in grade four, my father got a promotion. It meant uprooting our entire family and moving to New Fairfield, Connecticut. My parents’ realtor had convinced them New Fairfield was a great place to raise kids. New Fairfield boasted top-rated public schools, access to green space, reasonable taxes, and a manageable commute to White Plains, in New York (where my dad worked). My parents invested tremendous effort convincing me to be excited for my new school and the opportunity I would have to make new friends.

So, on my first day of school, armed with a brand new backpack, some super-hip Nike running shoes and my favourite jogging suit—a sweatshirt with a cat on it and matching sweat pants—I skipped off to school, where, for the first time in my life, I would know the pain of exclusion.

danielle-coming-home

Photo Credit: Mundy, Karen. 10 Sept. 2009. Web.

When I finally found my class, I noticed all of the kids were wearing jeans (a restrictive fabric I had always avoided), no one was wearing running shoes, and instead of cats, their sweaters were emblazoned with words like “Gap” and “Abercrombie & Fitch”. I felt confused and out of place…Why would kids be advertising a giant hole in the ground, and what kind of a person names their kids Abercrombie or Fitch?

The morning announcements were heralded by a call for everyone to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But, as a Canadian, I didn’t know the American Pledge of Allegiance. When the teacher noticed I wasn’t joining in, she pulled me aside. She chastised me for disrespecting “our” nation’s flag and insulting “our” forefathers. When I tried to explain that I was Canadian, she “shushed” me and told me to “Go sit down!”

Photo Credit: Viaimmob_gegfewf. Pledge of Allegiance Classroom. 7 May 2016. Web.

Soon after, the teacher announced there was going to be a skills test and asked us to take out our “number two” pencils. I had never heard of a no.2 pencil, so, naturally, I assumed she was kidding. Being the clever 8-year-old that I was, I figured I could win back her affections with a little joke. I took a magic marker out of my pencil case and scribed “2” on my pink sparkle pencil [you know…the kind with a see-through plastic casing and lead cartridges that you take out of the bottom and put back in the top?]. When the teacher came by to deliver my Scantron sheet, I showed her my pencil, laughing at my own hilarity. But, to my dismay, the teacher was NOT amused. She sent me straight to the principal’s office for “giving her lip”. I rushed out of the classroom in tears.

My first day at my new school, and I had already alienated myself. I didn’t fit in. And spoiler alert: I never really did.

Looking back now, any outside observer would have guessed that the new school in New Fairfield, populated by other upper-middle-class-white kids, would be a better “fit” for me than the visibly diverse and over-populated school in Markham, Ontario. But, in New Fairfield, I felt more out of place than a penguin in the Sahara.

Photo Credit: Hoed. Lonely Penguin No.1. Web.

The experience of not fitting in was traumatic for me. For decades after this, I spent my energy just trying to blend in. But in recent years, I’ve realized how harmful this is—and not just to my own identity. Reflecting on these stories from my childhood has made me more determined to live a life of inclusion. Let me explain…

Watching the videos from What I Learned in Class Today, I was struck by how many stories of discrimination and exclusion occur in the context of the classroom. As an ESL instructor, and aspiring High School teacher, I’ve seen firsthand the power of inclusive and exclusive attitudes and behaviours in the classroom. I strongly believe that being a model of inclusion can change the stories that are told in our communities.

Unfortunately, when you are told the same story over and over, you start to believe it. The story begins to change you. It changes how you present yourself and how you interact with others. It changes what you believe about yourself and your self-worth. When we are told over and over that we “don’t belong”, we will eventually start living like it.

For so many years, Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis have been told “you don’t belong”. And it isn’t just Canada’s indigenous peoples. These messages have been told to countless individuals and groups. (I will not stop to make an itemized list—it will only perpetuate an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality).

Experiencing exclusion nearly broke me. So when I see others experiencing exclusion, it breaks my heart. But, it isn’t pity that I’m feeling. I feel genuine pain for the heritage of exclusion that I have inherited as a Canadian, and as a member of the human race.

I believe that my sense of home is strongly influenced by my sense of inclusion or exclusion. I feel at home when I feel belonging and acceptance; when I feel that my stories are heard and respected; when I feel a sense of inclusion.

I wonder if this is the key. I wonder… If as we listen to the stories of others, can this form an environment of inclusion? Can we create home simply by listening?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Works Cited

What I Learned In Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom. Dir. Karrmen Crey and Amy Perreault. First Nations Studies Program, University of British Columbia, 2007. Web. 29 May 2016.

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