Fighting for the Underdog: Why I Wrote ‘Essie Wants an Education’

Story ideas come from everywhere. Mine are no exception. I    was listening to the CBC one afternoon and heard a program on the Romas (Gypsies) of an Eastern European country. I wish I remembered which country but I do remember that Roma children who were eager to attend school and get an education were treated unfairly. They were not allowed to take the academic classes, were assessed differently due to the prejudices of teachers and faced discrimination within the school system. One principal wanted to put a stop to that but even he came upon resistance as parents pulled their children from that school to avoid mixing with the Roma children. They were afraid their own children might get diseases. This is an all too familiar tale to anyone who followed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s where Caucasian Americans wanted to segregate their children from African Americans. Seeing the footage of that brave girl who wanted to go to the newly de-segregated school in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, makes me cringe with embarrassment. Imagine that we humans do this to each other! I also remember hearing a story of long ago where a white teacher who taught black kids said he was surprised that they were as bright and willing to learn as white kids. It made him realize that black kids were not unintelligent and slow to learn as he’d previously thought. On a much lighter note, I then saw a squirrel staring into the classroom at my child’s elementary school in Mississauga, Ontario. Maybe it’s my vivid imagination but I’m sure I saw a wistful look in that squirrel’s eyes as it cocked its head to the side as if trying to listen to the teacher. So there’s the story. A squirrel wants an education. The parents (humans) think that a squirrel has no place in school. How can a squirrel want or need an education? Surely they are not smart enough. This book is kid friendly and funny but the message is clear. We may not look alike or be alike but everyone deserves an education.

Blogging and Social Media vs Writing a Book

Want people to know about your book? Get on Social Media

I went to a workshop on blogging today. I thought it was going to be about how to blog without embarrassing myself. Apparently not. It was about the importance of social media and blogging as a marketing too. It was about using social media to get oneself out there and advertising one’s books. I’m still old school. I wish the advertising of books was left solely to the publisher but this is not the case. One of my about-to-be-published writer friends said his publisher recommended he start a blog about his book. He was stymied, wondering how to start. Another about-to-be-published writer friend said he retired early to avoid the new technology coming into his workplace. He’s in his sixties and feels that doing what was recommended by the presenter, is a full time job and a job he wanted to avoid in the first place. He wants to write, not be on social media.

I have a hard enough time finishing my book without the extra work of social media. It still feels alien to me. I remember when cell phones first came out and people walked around with them talking loudly about work, feeling important, rich and cool. I thought even back then, “You’re a modern day slave. Your boss always knows where you are and what you are doing. He/she can always contact you. Creepy!” And now, it’s totally normal to advertise our every whereabout, private or otherwise. There’s still a part of me that rebels against this, that craves the privacy of being totally unreachable. (Until my friend, let’s call her Katrina, told me, “You have to have your phone on you and on all the time. You’re the emergency contact for my child. What use is it if you don’t charge it? Carry it? Know where to find it?)

But back to social media. It feels like I’m putting myself in the spotlight, bragging even. This comes so naturally to some and as loud as I am at work where I know my colleagues well and feel comfortable, it feels strange and awkward for me to be tweeting about books, putting images on Pinterest, blogging twice a week at least (or so I was told). The presenter, my new editor, was asked if she slept. “No,” she replied.

I, on the other hand, happen to love sleeping. And what about good old fashioned TV watching? Will there be any time to do anything else? What about the time to write my book? The presenter gave me my answer. Get used to social media because it works and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s how books and authors get recognized. So I’m going to be blogging once a week. But please don’t hold me to that. I can’t promise anything.

 

I’m A Lot Happier

I’m a lot happier these days and nothing has changed. I still live in the same small house, have the same job, get annoyed at the same things and have the same old irritating habits like my penchant for misplacing anything important: passports, taxes, work papers, keys and my glasses. I’m a lot happier because each day I wake up (I still groan as I pry myself from under the sheets) feels like a gift. It started when my friend died of cancer at 49 leaving her children and her life behind. I got to know her well only at the end having known her not so well for over ten years. When I helped clear out her condo, it felt, as another friend so aptly said, someone pressed the stop button on her life, while she was in mid-sentence. It wasn’t like clearing out an elderly person’s house. I felt her presence so acutely as if she was going to walk in and continue her life, as if she would just pick up where she left off. It felt unfinished: her work papers, newly bought groceries, freshly painted children’s room.

I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know someone who has died of cancer and unfortunately, the longer we live, the more likely we are to know more and more people who pass this way. I don’t know what my end will be and perhaps it’s morbid to think about, but thinking about it and realizing it could happen any day makes me really want to enjoy every day. It has made me hug a lot more, give more compliments and be grateful that I’ve woken up yet again, something I’ve always taken for granted. Better yet, it’s made me do some things that I’ve put off like writing a will, telling people how they’ve made a difference in my life, and working harder on my new book. Sure the other side may be way better, free of pain and sorrow and all the hard stuff that’s on this side. But I really like this side. It’s what I know and at times, it’s a lot of fun so I want to stay here for awhile, for as long as I can. That’s why tomorrow morning when I, night owl and sleep lover, get up far too early and start that tedious morning routine, I’m going to be very happy, because once again, I’ve woken up to a new day.

One of the best things I’ve ever done

I wanted to surprise my first born with a gift before she went off to university so I bought a blank journal at Walmart and started writing to her a year before she had to go. I figured a year would give me plenty of time to complete it. Sometimes I didn’t know what to write. Other times I had plenty to say. When we didn’t see eye to eye, I wrote about it, giving her my opinion. At times I wrote about my frustrations with life but most times I wrote about how proud I was of her. I wrote about my regrets of the past and my aspirations for the future. I bared my soul.

I didn’t finish the journal even though I tried to write almost every day. Handwriting takes a lot longer than typing but in this age of emails and texts, I wanted to go back to handwriting and I learned something about myself in the process. I had to think more to avoid making mistakes that couldn’t be deleted. I learned that actual handwriting gives me great joy, much more than typing on a keyboard. I learned that I write more honestly and more creatively when I put pen to paper. I don’t know why this is. I’ve read it’s because we process and synthesize information differently when we write than when we type. I just know that handwriting felt more authentic and enjoyable than if I’d done an online diary. Journalling made me remember how much I enjoyed this pastime of mine and how reading back through the pages of a journal brings back memories in great detail. Facebook posts are the opposite of authentic. Let’s face it. Everyone mostly posts the good stuff.

As for my daughter, she says she reads a little bit of my journal every day and it’s interesting to read my perspective on things. She says it makes her cry sometimes. She says she feels closer to me and she’s glad she has it. And the unfinished pages? Well, she says she’s going to write in them. I hope she shares her writing with me one day.

My First Child is About to Leave the Nest

The countdown is on. My eldest daughter leaves home for university in 37 days. I’m supposed to feel excited and proud. I am, but she’s my right hand, the organizer, the calm, logical antidote to my constant chaos. I can’t imagine every day life without her presence.

The separation from us, the family unit, started awhile ago, two years to be exact, when she wanted to go out all the time, choosing friends over family. I know this is a normal part of growing up and I remember my teenage years when the most important thing on my mind was the next party. Yet it feels like time is the wind sweeping me along. I can barely keep up, the years flying by so fast that I want to shout, ‘stop a minute. Let me catch my breath.’ The mirror shows me grey hairs and a few lines and I think in cliches. Just yesterday my daughter was born, eyes wide open taking in her new world. Just yesterday I was young, teaching her to ride a bike, watching her in swim class. We came to Canada just yesterday. She was five and she looked around on the way from the airport and said, “this country has no colour.”

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The Abyss of Imbecility

My student, when praising her son’s classmate’s artwork, said it was superb. Her grade three son said, “Don’t use that word. No one will understand. Just say nice, cool, or awesome.” She thought superb was an English word so she came to me to double check. Naturally I was horrified. The English language is so rich in vocabulary that to be left with only nice, cool or awesome is horrific. I know languages lose words and introduce new ones all the time but some of the words we are introducing, like lol and omg are hardly words at all. Then there are phrases like “dumbing down”, which means we are making ourselves less intelligent, stripping away any complexity so that the masses can understand. This process, now taking place in all arenas of society like language, music and entertainment, will simply ensure our rapid descent into the abyss of imbecility. We’ve become so informal, replacing our rich vocabulary with phrasal verbs and text language that it is no surprise that we are losing valuable words, knowledge and culture.

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Tenacity and perseverance – Lessons I learned from my 14 year old

IMG-20130720-00569My fourteen year old daughter bought herself a Mac laptop today. She saved for two years for it and she paid in cash. It wasn’t easy. During those two years she wondered if she should get a cheaper computer. She wanted clothes but she held out for the big prize. There were many times she could have given up. The look on her face as she handed over the hundred dollar bills was pride and when the staff congratulated her saying, “two years is a long time!”, her expression was sheer joy. I know she will care this computer and treasure it. After all, she knows the work she put in to get it: she babysat and saved almost every penny. It shows tenacity and perseverance.

     “How do you feel?” I asked her.

     “Great,” she said grinning. It made me think of all the times I have purchased things I wanted but I didn’t feel great. In fact, I felt burdened. Why? I put them on a credit card or financed them. Perhaps I did feel great with my purchase for about an hour, maybe a day the most. Then I felt worried about paying the bill before the interest got too high. I didn’t feel great at all, nor did I feel pride and joy. The reason is I didn’t earn those things.  I wanted to have them now.

     It’s one of the absurdities of our culture: we don’t earn what we have but we feel it’s okay to incur debt just to have the newest or the best of whatever is out there. We give in to this immaturity like a two year screaming “Now! Now!” and tell ourselves it’s okay because we are establishing credit. What we are in fact doing is becoming a slave to the banks and credit card companies and teaching our children that we are entitled  to have what we haven’t yet earned. It’s immature and stupid but we do it anyway because we think we’ll be happier because we get what we want. Tenacity and perseverance are qualities that have to be taught, nurtured and encouraged. We don’t acquire them when we get what we want immediately and all the time.

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Well, I want a new computer. Mine is old and the keys are stuck. Some aren’t even working. I’m a writer and I feel I should have it now. But today I learned a valuable lesson from my daughter. I’ll just have to get out the piggy bank and save for it. Hopefully I’ll have a new computer in a year. Maybe it will be sooner. Perhaps later. Tenacity and perseverance.

What’s in a name?

I had a guest speaker come to my class to talk about discrimination and stereotyping. She said when she came to Canada, and wasn’t getting any call backs from résumés she’d sent, she sought professional advice. The résumé expert strongly suggested that she take Jamaica out of her résumé completely. Sandals hotel chain could stay but Jamaica had to go. Once she took Jamaica out, the call backs started coming in. It then occurred to me that I’ve never sent a résumé with my name on it and got a callback. The jobs I’ve had have all been people who met me. My current employer saw me teaching. My previous employer met me and suggested I apply for the opening. Before that, someone referred me and so on. When I lived in Norway and applied for about sixty jobs with no call backs, I felt it might be my name but I didn’t think it would be like that in supposedly multicultural Canada. Apparently I’m wrong. Articles I’ve researched say that the popular names get the jobs, names like Sophia, Isabella, Emma, and Olivia will get the interview. Foreign names don’t even get called back as often as managers think they are immigrants and less likely to have the language skills required or managers are subconsciously biased. There is so much information on the net about Indians and Asians Anglosizing their names for success. Apparently  we also stereotype people with certain names. If you’re Abigail you’re intelligent, if you are Ruth, you are a leader, Ingrids are hard workers. If your name starts with A or B, you’re more likely to score A’s on tests, feminine names get traditionally female jobs and masculine names get traditionally male jobs. But what about Peta-Gaye? It’s a name I’ve only heard in Jamaica and  I’m tired of the blank stares I get when I say my name. It takes people awhile to wrap their tongues around it, linguistically speaking of course. I’ve even been told by another Peta-Gaye on Facebook that the correct pronunciation is Petta-Gaye instead of Peeta-Gaye. How clearly misinformed but what to do. So the next time I submit  my résumé, I think I’ll put my very common Anglo middle name, a name easily recognized by many cultures: Theresa, Therese, Thérèse. Whatever spin you put on it, it clearly says normal and saintly. Perhaps saintly and normal enough to get the job!

 

“Thank you. I did it with your help.”

For teachers, it’s delightful when a past student calls to say, “thank you. I did it with your help.” As a teacher of English as a second language, I got that call from a past student today. She’d done an interview and got a job, not just any job but one in her field with a good salary. This is the goal of most of my students. They come from all over the world only to find out that their degrees and diplomas mean nothing, that extra schooling is required, that no professional jobs are available and as silly as it sounds, they must have Canadian experience before they can get a job. It can be most disheartening.

I remember my past student well. She shed tears when I asked her to do a presentation, saying that she had always been very shy. I coaxed and encouraged, refusing to let her return to her seat and told her that the first few times I did readings, my legs were shaking. I had a good rapport with her as I do with all my students. This could be because I’ve walked in their shoes. I remember my years in Norway, learning the language, sending out at least fifty résumés and getting no response, and feeling like no one around me understood my homesickness and culture shock. I didn’t stay. I felt that there were greener pastures elsewhere.  But, for many of my students, there are no greener pastures and the pastures here that are supposed to be green are white, cold and frozen. There’s no other choice but here. Many are determined to one day return to their native land.

About six years ago, I realized that if I ever returned to Jamaica to live, it wouldn’t be the home I’d left.  I’d be disillusioned. My children, completely Canadian now, probably wouldn’t follow me.  I realized that if I couldn’t be happy here, then chances are, I couldn’t be happy anywhere. These white pastures can be cold but there was one solution for me and that was to throw myself into life here without abandon. I joined a writing group, took up belly dancing, danced at work, released the fear, spoke my mind, went tobogganing, made lots of friends, etc. It’s about enjoying the pastures whether they are cold and icy or warm and green. Life is short and time goes fast so it’s the only way.

 

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. No statement was ever further from the truth than that one. Words can be more damaging than a dagger, scarring the soul with as much damage as a public stoning. I realize I’m a sensitive soul but in this past year, I’ve been lashed out at by family members for no other reason than their high stress level or their disgruntlement at something that had nothing to do with me. They got over it quickly since they unleashed their irritations at once but it left me with wounds that have taken a bit longer to heal. I realize we now live in a world of “get a thick skin” and a “deal with it” attitude where discourtesy abounds but there really is no excuse for bad behaviour and no amounts of sorry’s can make up for lashing out and losing your temper.  We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths and for our behaviour. Why is it that we are reserved and kind to strangers but we think we can treat the ones closest to us any way we choose? I’m not perfect and I too am guilty of this abhorrent practice. Even if we are forgiven and we forgive, something changes in our relationship with the lasher, like the changes a drop of water makes when it ripples in a pond. Sure the water settles after awhile but something has been altered. Perhaps we don’t respond as readily to emails or we don’t visit as much, perhaps we walk on eggshells and would rather not be around the person as often as we might have.  Perhaps we bottle it in until one day we explode and become the lasher. It’s become the new thing to say what we please, to get it all out. Well here’s a newsflash. It takes more courage, strength and dignity to be patient, courteous, gracious, kind and peaceful. Plus it’s the right thing to do. And it’s never okay to take out our frustrations on others, especially in front of other people, especially when it’s not warranted. Words are damaging. Hold your tongue. ‘Sorry’ doesn’t give you the license to do as you please.