Seven minus four: School children tried by fire

What many Inuit children have had to go through has been nothing short of trial by fire: a school system that did not reflect their reality.


Special to Nunatsiaq News

OTTAWA — She was doing it again.

This time, she had my little sister up in front of the classroom, yelling at the girl until she was turning flaming red in the face, wringing an answer out of her through the torture of an emotional thrashing.

It had been arithmetic all morning for all of us. By now, having absorbed some dark, pedagogic energy, the hyperventilating teacher had degraded into the likeness of a rabid hippopotamus. I had seen such spectacles before, of course, in those too-common times when she had failed to extract the “correct” answer from some unfortunate soul.

In retrospect, the problem — as I see it — might have been that she was trying to teach several grades simultaneously, or perhaps was overworked and suffered from a lack of organizational skills.

An excuse?

I have to be honest here. I don’t think, in all the years that I have attended school, that I have encountered one single, solitary teacher who did as much damage as that woman did.

Taught to be inferior

What had she been thinking, I wonder? Did she even care? I remember the Inuit children breaking down and crying when they didn’t understand what was required of them — when they wanted to please, yet couldn’t provide an answer because of the way in which it was requested of them. Nevertheless, they were portrayed as stupid, lazy, inferior.

On this day, the woman had targeted my sister. Although my sister was fairly outgoing, bright and cheerful, it was not a good idea to be confrontational with her — the girl had a temper (but, then again, so do I).

I remember sitting there, thinking that either the teacher was really insensitive or was simply unable to understand that her methods weren’t working.

There was a third possibility, as well — one that I was loathe to entertain, but it still called from the back of my brain, like an unwanted dog that insists upon following you around.

The thought was that there might be something wrong with the teacher’s mental health. Not that she was crazy, but only that she was… missing something, that she was… unhealthy. She would do things like bend over and repeat someone’s name:

“Louis, Louis, Louis…,” or, “Sammy, Sammy, Sammy…,” while at the same time hitting herself on the leg. Then she would let out an unhealthy rasp, throwing her hands up in the air. Often, the violence of this gesture sent paper scattering in all directions. None of us would even look at each other, let alone say or do anything.

Until one day.

I’ll never forget what happened. How could I? It was burned into my brain that day as vividly as a scorch left behind by the flash of ignited grease.

I don’t know if I have ever told my sister how proud I was of her. I don’t think I told her, because she had been very young and was just starting out in the school system.

The teacher had been making the girl erase every one of her math answers left on the board. No matter what answer my sister left, it was always mocked by the teacher — nothing could please her.

The teacher made it clear that these were not mistakes, but signs of stupidity, indications of ignorance that — like the way an animal may reveal to you its nature by leaving tracks behind it to read in the snow — was a sign of racial, or personal, inferiority.

My sister endured as much as any student had ever endured — at first. Then it continued, and continued, until it was obvious that my sister was deliberately being forbidden to take her seat in order to entertain the teacher — endlessly writing and erasing answer after answer — only so that her ego, the very core of a small child, could stand there, shamed and bared, for the rest of the class to witness.

Fighting back

Then, the breaking point. Without warning, my sister wheeled about. Her only weapon, ironically, was the very tool of her shame, the chalk eraser.

With a great cry, she hurled it at the teacher. She couldn’t miss. My father had made all of my siblings and myself practice stone-throwing, intended for hunting ptarmigan. But it was just as effective for hunting tyrannical teachers.

The eraser struck the teacher dead center, throwing up a great cloud of dust that seemed to conceal her for a moment. Then there was only silence as the dust cleared, revealing the shocked teacher standing there with great, ghostly patterns of white chalk from end to end of the itchy-looking wool sweater that she always wore.

In a sense, you could say these patterns might be considered my sister’s final mathematical solution, since she avoided math forever after.

Personally, it was not the throw (although it was a good one) that impressed me quite so much as my sister’s cry of defiance — such a roar originating from such a small girl. She might as well have been some predator’s cub, rather than a tiny human, and I’m sure that if she had possessed fangs, they would have been bared.

And I know it impressed everyone else as well, for not a word was said afterward, not by the students, nor even by the teacher herself. I seem to remember the class simply filing out in silence.

As proud as I was of my sister, the episode made me dread the rest of the year, for there was no getting away from this teacher. Surprisingly though, relations between us and this teacher were rather cold and quiet ever after. Perhaps the teacher had become afraid to push someone else too far, fearing that she might have more than a chalk eraser directed at her next time.

Myself? I made a point of trying never to bring attention to myself, for the teacher had revealed herself to be unstable. I neither excelled at nor failed any of my lessons with her.

I made sure there was never an opportunity to have direct eye contact with her, and even held my breath as she walked down the rows to check our work. I was as quiet as a mouse, even in the times when she sent us to do her morning dishes before classes began.

But I never ceased to wonder about her. Other adults, often priests or ministers, visited our school from time to time. Whenever such guests were present, the teacher was all sugar-and-spice, nothing but pleasant smiles as the guests lectured us on how much more wonderful Europe was than the Canadian Arctic, how there were so many cultures in the world, and how Inuit culture look primitive by comparison.

Weren’t we lucky that we had been saved by Europeans from our savage existence? And all throughout such lectures, our teacher projected nothing but than peace and stability.

So was she ever truly unstable? She seemed to curb her behaviour in the presence of other adults, especially parents.

But neither my sister nor myself ever regained an interest in math. It was an cursed subject after that, promising only more shame and abuse. In a sense, we feared it.

The good news was that the experience had brought us closer, and my admiration for my sister’s defiance — especially at such a young age — evoked from me great respect and loyalty toward her.

No one could say a bad word about her for quite a while after that, and no one touched her without incurring my wrath — not even the kids from other schools, many of whom hated us to such an extent that they hunted us after school hours, carrying as weapons old boards with nails in them. (Ah, the things parents never know about their childrens’ so-called “simple” school life.)

Yet there was no way that we or others could know that our chalk-befouled teacher amounted to only the beginning of the educational system and its horrors in store for Inuit students.

Egos under siege

The true battles — the really insidious ones — came later, in high school, and in college, as the system sought to grind down and rewrite our identities, our history, our culture, our language, the free and fundamental right to have a say in our own destiny.

And most importantly: to be free as Inuit — not as “the natives,” wards of the state, as though we were merely remnants of some bygone, prehistoric era, extinct, but too ignorant to realize it.

Granted, despite my complaints, there is nothing like being embattled, your ego under constant siege, for building a strong sense of self. Hard times develop character.

But what many Inuit children have had to go through has been nothing short of trial by fire: an school system that did not reflect their reality; being taught in a language different from that of their parents; being told that they are the inheritors of mere wretchedness; praying for and to a monarch who is nothing more than a name.

For the record: the final, greatest trial, is not what happens to yourself as you are abused, but watching what happens to those you love — your siblings — as they are gradually worn down until, tired of fighting, the light in their eyes gradually dims, flickers, and dies.

One day, I found and examined an old photo of our class, from one of the years when, admittedly, we had had an excellent teacher. Counting, I tallied the number of students in that class.

As though freezing water were suddenly trickling down my back, I came to the realization that less than half the people in that class had survived. The majority had fallen to alcoholism, drug abuse, accidental death, suicide.

And there is my sister today. I don’t know exactly what it was that eventually caused her to lose her light; what burden she had to carry that eventually got too heavy for her. I would like to say that she has had a good life, as I have seen her go through good times.

But, in some way, she has been a casualty in a battle that she never enlisted for. Maybe at some point she lost her roar. I would give anything to hear her spirit let out one more sound. I’m sure she has it in her somewhere. Even if it were a squeak.


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