Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Little Harsh?

When you come from another province and start teaching in Quebec, you have to do a few things to earn your full citizenship (just as a teacher, for now). One of these things is to complete a probationary period overseen by your school principal. This includes a few meetings, creating a portfolio, and two observations. A probationary teacher is assessed on 120 different criteria which fall under 12 competencies. Just as Quebec moves towards a more holistic philosophy towards teaching students, the education ministry has made evaluation a more convoluted and confusing process, even for teachers.

Last year, I finished my probation, and passed my evaluations, basically with flying colours. My principal had very few criticisms of my teaching, and, having never taught in a primary class, I'm sure she felt a little under-qualified to do so (this is speculation). However, she mentioned that sometimes, I can be "a little harsh" with my students. I prefer to say that I treat them like adults, and am very direct with them. Nevertheless, I'm a sensitive guy, so I've spent a lot of time reflecting on her comment (I've of course ignored all of the good things she had to say).

This past week, we had parent-teacher interviews. The parents of one of my students came into my classroom. The father shot a look at his wife when they entered and she let him pass, then turned, and shut the door. The student is not the strongest in the school, so I thought that perhaps they were anticipating hearing bad comments from me and didn't want anyone to hear. This was not the case.

They sat down, and I broke down their daughter's grades for them. When I was finished, I said that she was, for the most part, a polite and enjoyable student to teach, to which the father responded, "Look, James, I know my daughter can be a smart mouth, and that she's very sensitive. But one time this fall, she came home during school hours and just shut her door. That wasn't like her to be missing school (very true), so I went in and asked her what happened. She told me that there was this time when you thought she swore at you, when she didn't (also true), and ever since then you've been treating her differently. I asked her to give me an example, and she told me that once she was in your class when you were watching a video and you told her that she was talking to much and that if she didn't be quiet you were going to kick her out of school."

"Now, I support everyone who comes up here, nurses, construction workers, teachers, and police, but I can't support someone who says they can kick my daughter out of school."

"Let me tell you what I remember," I replied. "Your daughter was speaking in my class. I warned her, and she continued, so I said 'You have a choice, you can be quiet, or leave.' She left. I followed her into the hall and told her that leaving was just like skipping, and that she would have a detention if she walked out. She kept going."

"I'm not here to kick anyone out of school. That's not part of my job, and I'm also not here to make students feel bad. But, they're not allowed to talk out of turn in my class."

That night, after the parents left, I began thinking to myself. I had been completely caught off guard by the father's concerns. I thought that the student and I had a pretty enjoyable relationship. The principal's remarks began to resonate in my head. Perhaps I had been "a little harsh" with her.

What really got to me was the last thing he said. "Look, I support everyone who comes up here but..." This was really a slap in the face. It was as if he said "I like everyone who comes her, but not you, qalunaat." I thought about it increasingly throughout the evening, and brought my concerns up to Sophie.

She basically laughed it off and said that the student had arrived home in the middle of the day when she was supposed to be at school, only to find her dad there asking her tough questions. She made up the best story she could.

My mind was not at ease. A few weeks ago, we had a guest who happened to have been in the school when there had been a very loud and embarrassing misunderstanding between the principal and a parent. He is married to an Inuk, and has been around the schools in Nunavik a long time, and he cautioned that we have to constantly remember that the Inuit speak English as their second or third language. "They speak less English than we think they do," he had warned me.

Perhaps the message had been lost in translation. Maybe she thought I had threatened to kick her out of school. Maybe I was being "a little harsh" with her. Despite Sophie's always sound advice, I went to school the next morning intent on being a little more sensitive to this girl's situation.

She gets one-on-one help during one of the classes, and I noticed that she had forgotten her workbook. So, after getting the rest of the class in motion, I brought her book down to her. At recess, she came into class as I was speaking to another teacher and handed me her workbook. I smiled, and she opened her mouth. I thought she was going to say "thank you". Instead, she burped in my face. I could tell that she hadn't really meant to, and she looked a little embarrassed. Yet, she didn't turn away, or try to stop her extended belch. I laughed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Visitor

Because there is not very much room at the overpriced hotels in town, we tend to get visitors every year. What normally happens is the principal of the school will get a call from some company, government agency, or from the school board asking if any of the teachers will house someone for a couple of days. The principal then either takes the visitor in, or farms him/her out to one of the teachers. The teachers are compensated more than adequately for their troubles.

We have housed engineers, surveyors, nutritionists, other teachers, psychologists, students, and so on. We enjoy doing so not only for the money, but because we basically lack unfamiliar stimulation, and it's nice to have someone new to talk to. We've certainly had some interesting guests in our house. Some of them we've contacted after going South, and will continue to do so even after we've left for good. This September, we had a remarkable visit from a wonderful man.

A few days after the MSO concert in Kangiqsujuaq, we received a telephone call from a man in Kuujjuaq. Sophie spoke briefly with him, and then hung up the phone. She asked me if we wanted to have a visitor in our house. My eyes turned into those reels from slot machines, and both stopped on the $$ sign. A bell went off.

"Uhh, yeah."

She then explained what she meant. There was an artist in Kuujjuaq who was doing portraits of Inuit in Nunavik, and wanted to visit a smaller village than Kuujjuaq. He could not afford to stay at the hotel (at $260/night), and he had run into one of our friends who happened to be in Kuujjuaq working as the photographer on the OSM Nunavik tour.

Sophie had asked him if he had encountered any suspicion from the people in Kuujjuaq.

"No," he replied. "I am very lucky. When people see my portraits, they think I'm a magician."

At first, to tell you the truth, I thought he was being a bit pretentious, but after I met him, I knew that he was genuine.

The next day, he arrived on the plane and hitched a ride into the village. That's when we met Pierre Lussier. A bearded man in his early sixties, Pierre greeted us with a smile as we helped him bring his gear into the house.

The day after he arrived, Sophie began to introduce him to the people at the school. He made a couple of portraits of people who worked there and spoke to the staff. One of the teachers asked him, "How long do you plan to stay?"

"Oh, not long," he replied. "Only about ten days."

"TEN DAYS?" I thought to myself when I heard about this. "Wow, that's a long time to have someone in your house. I think I'll tell him that he can't stay ten days."

But I didn't. Pierre was nothing but a pleasant guest. He did the dishes, babysat Noah, and even washed the f*&#ing floor! In the evenings, we had dinner amongst stimulating conversation, mostly about Pierre. He's a modest man; it was difficult to get stories out of him, but we insisted. He told us about when he moved with his wife and four daughters to Italy, when he met Emilda Marcos, and when he went to Vietnam as a tourist during the Vietnam War.

During the day, he drew portraits of elders, adults, and children in town. He also found the time to draw a couple of landscapes. Sophie worked tirelessly as his agent, finding people for him to draw, and taking photographs of his portraits to give to the models. He did encounter some suspicion from elders and others, but for the most part, people were very receptive. Indeed, when even one of the most cautious saw the finished product, her suspicions melted away, and she let Pierre work his magic. Here is a sample:

The second night that Pierre was here, I looked at one of his drawings, and my own suspicions melted away as well. I spoke with Pierre, and he said that he didn't know how he could repay us for our hospitality. I said I had an idea.

A little over a week later, we brought Pierre to the airport, and as he left, we all had tears in our eyes.


Sunday, November 02, 2008


I remember going around from house to house as a child on October 31st in Northern Alberta. More than a few times, the first real snow of the year came down that night, and it was often bitterly cold. Memory however, is a funny thing, and now it seems that it was the same every year. We would dress up in our costumes and either try to put our winter clothes over top of our disguise and hope for the neighbourhood's sympathy, or comically stretch our costumes to fit over our ski pants and coats.

Of all of the places we visited year after year, the dentist, Dr. Cysz's house, was easily the most memorable. We would often go there first to make sure we got a full-size Oh Henry! bar each. Even then, we knew what he was doing was pretty evil and crazy, but we didn't care.

Just as memorable was going home with my sister, taking our pillowcases and emptying our booty out onto the floor. I would meticulously divide it up into different categories, then plan to ration it until Christmas, shortly before eating a quarter of my ration and making myself nauseous. Amongst all of the caramels, Twizzlers, chocolate and rockets, without fail there would be something that would stand out: a lonely apple. I could never place who gave us the apple; after all an apple is no Oh Henry!. "Assholes," I remember thinking.

This year, I became that asshole. We gave out apples to each of the hundred or so kids who came to our door. So far, no one has thrown one back at our house (knock on wood). It's not that I'm against the tradition of giving sweets to kids once a year. I don't want to rob any child of her special night where she can gorge herself on chocolate and sugar that she collected herself. The problem is sadly, that apples are much more special here than candy. Kids' diet here, by and large, is horrible. And they have the teeth to show it. Not a week goes by that at least a few of my students has to leave my class because of a toothache.

"James, can I go, and take my test tomorrow?"
"I have a toothache. How would you like to take a test with a toothache?"

I have many students who have already lost some of their teeth. It is absolutely and completely depressing. Imagine how losing two or three of your front teeth would affect your self-esteem?

When I came back this year, I ran into one of my local friends. A guy of about forty years, he is a real Inuk. Hunts, fishes, races dog sleds, the whole deal. He stopped me on the side of the road the day after I arrived, and offered me his hand, welcoming me back to Kangiqsujuaq.

"Hi, How was your summer?" I asked.
"Good, but I lost a tooth." He replied, hiding his smile with his lips. This normally confident man's smile was one of his defining features, and now he struggled to hide his shame.

Now, imagine a thirteen-year-old.

So, we decided to give apples. Next year, if we are here again, we'll make something home made, like cookies or muffins, and dole them out at Hallowe'en. Although the situation with the diet and teeth of the kids is pretty depressing, it is possible to give out home-made treats at Hallowe'en. In the South, you would be hard-pressed to find one parent (I could be wrong) would let his kids eat something made by someone else. Sadly, I think most people would rather give their kids the guaranteed poison that comes in nice, commercial wrappers than expose their kids to the infinitesimal risk that that urban myth of a razor blade in an apple or poisoned cookies might actually come true. Sometimes city life can be depressing too.

Anyway, the trick-or-treating was over promptly at seven o'clock (It's dark at four). Sophie and I got Noah into his costume, and we headed to the Hallowe'en concert, a fundraiser for the Secondary V trip to Scotland, or Italy and Greece (we're not exactly sure yet). We walked up to the Qaggiq (the local gym) and entered to hear someone screaming "DIE!!! DIE!!!"

It was just the band. We took off our shoes and added them to the huge pile of sneakers and boots that accompanies any function at the Qaggiq. Everyone who enters must take off their shoes and leave them in a very small, not very well-lit entrance. It makes for some interesting chaos at the end of every event.

The band who played, named Samati (I don't know what that means) is comprised of some of the Secondary V students who are raising money for the trip. It was their first show, they have no drummer, and the whole ensemble doesn't yet know all of the songs, but they had the courage to get up in front of basically everyone they know, and play Rage Against the Machine and Metallica songs in their second or third language.

The secondary five kids have been surprisingly motivated about this trip. I was originally very hesitant about helping them with their project. Sayard, one of the other secondary teachers at the school, approached me in late-August or early-September and asked me if I wanted to be part of the project. I was skeptical. In the South, such a trip would involve a lot of organisation by the teachers (right mom?), some fundraising, and a large payment offered up by the parents.

Here, the parents are not expected to pay for their kids' travel (although we did get one fifteen hundred dollar donation). There are government organisations and companies who often come to the aid of the students. I wanted to make sure that she and I would not be the ones doing all of the work organising and fundraising while the students did nothing.

We tested them with a bake sale. After one minor slip, the kids pulled it off. Then they pulled off another. Next, the residence director offered to do a couple of take-out meals, at which the students worked very hard. The two nights pulled in about $1400 (there is no restaurant here, so people jump at the chance to eat someone else's cooking). Finally, the kids organised and executed the concert which involved the music, games, an iPod raffle, and a snack bar. It was impressive. All told, the concert brought in another $1400. They were all on fire, and they are full of other ideas. I've decided that it's time I hold up my end of the bargain and write some letters asking the government agencies and companies to kick in some coin.

As Sophie, Noah and I were leaving, one of the students was confronting her drunk ex-boyfriend at the door. She wants to be a cop. She showed her skills in dealing with a drunken idiot. I stood there and supported her while she took whatever he was dishing out in Inuttitut. It did not sound pleasant.

He then looked over at me and asked, "What the fuck are you staring at?"
"Excuse me?"
"What's your fucking problem?"
"Well, you're drunk and you should leave."
" I was just talking to her."
"Yeah, but this is her fundraiser and she wants you to leave."
"Okay, why don't you fucking come outside then?!"

Yeah, right, just let me look for my shoes.
He left without further incident.


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