Lifelong learner

It has been 20 years since I graduated from university, ready to take a swing at journalism.

I thought about going back to school the moment my newspaper closed its doors, but then I got a job offer and shelved the idea. I was busy. I had two kids, a career, a partner. School was expensive, and unnecessary. And it would take time that I simply didn’t have.

And then it happened — life became complicated — and within that mad mess, there was a crushing moment that compelled me to look into the mirror and look really hard at the woman staring back.

What I saw was a woman who had been rushing around supporting and uplifting others for over a decade, gradually being crushed by the weight of it.

What I saw was a woman carrying around an empty bucket, having used everything she had to fill up the buckets of those around her. There was nothing left, and a sizeable crack in the bottom.

I’m alone more now than I have been in a decade. My children are outside, or they’re at their friend’s houses. They’re reading in their rooms, or playing independently.

Having a moment to catch my breath should be exciting, but it’s terrifying.

I’d been using the labels of “mother,” and “wife,” as an excuse. Those labels precluded “professional,” and made “student” seem impossible.

Days later, I voiced my idea outloud for the first time.

“I think I’d like to go back to school and get my masters degree,” I told my husband.

He nodded, said it was a great idea.

So I tried it out with my best friend.

“I think I’d like to go back to school.”

She sighed deeply through the phone: “Thank God! I’m so glad. Where are you going to go? What are you going to do it in? When do you need to apply? How many reference letters will you need? When does it start? Are you going to do course-based or thesis?”

I almost hung up. I hadn’t even started and already it sounded hard.

But I did the research, explored program options, timelines and costs. I made a trip to the bank; I ordered transcripts.

And then I told my boss: “I think I’d like to go back to school to get my masters degree.”

And he responded with a smile: “Figure out what you need, and we’ll do what we can to support you.”

I needed letters, and when I asked, people wrote them. And they were perfect. I’ve printed them off and tucked them away in my nightstand. I read them sometimes. They’re about a woman who is smart, and accomplished, and professional, and thorough, and funny, and insightful. She sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to meet her.

I needed time, and they agreed. I needed a little bit of money, and they provided what they could.

I started my first three courses last week, and I feel like I’m drowning — like I’ve just arrived in a new country that seems sort of familiar, but everyone speaks a different language, and I’m just faking it, hoping that at some point it’ll all begin to make sense.

I’m excited to start and terrified to fail. I’ve already learned so many new things, and am quickly realizing how much I don’t understand.

I’m meeting new people, and they’re so much smarter than me.

I’m being brave and it’s uncomfortable. When I lay awake at night I think about how much easier it might have been if I’d just kept my mouth shut. If I’d never said the words out loud. If I’d kept my dream a secret.

But then the sun comes up. And I’m one day closer to finishing. I’m one day closer to convocation, and I’m one day closer to meeting that woman that my references describe in their letters.

Three girls

I might have been four or five.

It was raining, and had probably been raining for days. It was a Saturday and my brother had a soccer game at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, BC. This would have been in the early 1980s.

We arrived, my brother joined his team, my mom joined the parents on the sidelines, and I joined the other siblings on the playground.

There was a slide — one of those huge, skyscraper-sized metal ones that would have taken my short legs three straight minutes of climbing before reaching the summit. You’d never find these slides on a modern playground, but back then we took risks.

I don’t remember the ascent, nor do I remember pausing and wondering how foolish I’d look if I just shimmied back down. I don’t remember sailing along this metal ramp to the bottom, either.

But I remember the finale — my blue jean-wearing butt splashed straight into a mulch-filled puddle. It was my trademark move at this age; one I’d repeat many more times before nailing the landing.

I don’t recall trudging over to my mom, rubber boots squelching full of dirty mud puddle. I don’t remember how itchy I must have felt as the mulch jabbed and poked my legs inside my soggy jeans.

I don’t remember my mom shaking her head, sighing, and looking at her watch to see how much time was left in the game. I don’t know if she considered just pulling my brother out of the game and taking us both home.

I don’t recall her hand on my shivering back, ushering me inside the huge red and white school, or if she spoke to a grown up when she arrived, or what they might have said.

I remember walking downstairs, though, and entering a big, carpeted room. I remember that the curtains were orange and drawn and that the light filtering through gave everything an odd, ginger glow. There were three girls in the room, and they seemed old to me, but were probably only 13 or 14. They all had long dark hair and they smiled at us.

I don’t remember wedging myself behind my mom’s legs and peeking around them. But I suspect I might have done just that.

I know my mom spoke to the girls; she must have — my mom speaks to everyone whether they want to hear what she has to say or not. I don’t know what she said, but they must have come to an agreement, because one moment my mom was there and the next she was gone, and I was alone with the girls in the orange-tinted room.

There was a couch, and I sat on it wet jeans and all, scootching my butt into its deepest corner. I must have put my hands over my face, because I remember how the room looked through fingers. I probably cried. I did that a lot at four or five, so it seems probable.

The girls took turns leaning in and talking to me. And they had scarves, so many scarves. There was a bottomless drawer in my grandma’s bedroom full of flimsy rainbows that my cousin and I would dig through and twine around our necks, heads, wrists, and waists.

The girls had these scarves, too, and they whipped them around their faces, behind their heads, and they reached forward, tickling the hands in front of my face, trying to coax them away. They were laughing, and telling stories. I listened, rapt, and terrified. These were scary stories. I stopped crying at some point, but continued to shiver — perhaps it was cold, more likely it was fear. They told scary stories through delicate scarves until my mom came to collect me.

We would have clambered into the big green Jeep with the wooden side panels and made the short drive home. I would have undressed and maybe even jumped into a rare mid-morning bath to get the mulch off my skin. My mom, I presume, did laundry.

We would have had lunch, of that I’m sure, but whether my mom continued on with chores while my brother, sister and I played, or whether she put up her feet and read a book, I can’t say, but I hope she did the latter.

I rarely thought about those three girls; the ones who didn’t get to go home with their families after the game. Or about all the other children who wouldn’t spend lazy Saturdays playing, having baths, being cared for, nurtured, loved, included.

But I think about them now, and often; now that I have children of my own.

I got to go home that day. I got to go home every single day. I can still go home today if I want.

And I don’t know how to reconcile that.

St. Mary’s was the last functioning residential school in Canada, and closed in 1985.