This time as the engine stops on the aircraft I step out into the autumn sun with different concerns than 34 years ago but with somewhat of the same anticipation and excitement. Opistigone (my Cree nickname-white hair) has returned!
And what a return! It has rained which is late in the season and the muck is everywhere. A muck enveloped truck stops, the window opens and the driver says, “Are you Keith Brown?”
Mr. Brown, do you remember me? Wonderful and scary words as your brain searches for the 16 year old hiding within the 48 year old in front of you, but the eyes and the voices are the same and I have never more valued my memory as names, nicknames, old hair styles and Cree rolled off my tongue.
Louise Spence Monroe, had put the word out and former students appeared as if by magic from the classrooms in the school. They were now the teachers, the teaching assistants, the social worker and the cleaning staff. They brought their children and some their grandchildren to meet me. In the late 70’s cameras were a rarity in Oxford House and camera phones had not been invented so for many students the many photos I had taken as well as the year books were their first time to look into their past. And the community poured into the school to meet the past. We laughed, we reconnected and for me it was emotional and magical.
What of my worries and dread of the tragedies yet to be revealed? Here again, Louise was my data base. She knew every detail of everyone since 1980 and she, in a quiet way, shared the stories. Kathy married Howard, Johnny hasn’t changed, Nellie still plays volleyball and the stories, the positive stories, poured out. Of approximately 35 students in my homerooms, two, one of whom I would not have predicted as I thought I knew them well, has in the lingo of the community, turned to drink and now lives in Thompson and the other young lady on the tough streets of Winnipeg. Two tragedies but my students have beat the odds of young people growing up on a northern reserve. Against tremendous challenges and against the all too often quoted stats, many went to university, all I met are employed and still in Oxford House.
In those days, to stay in high school and to actually finish and go on to higher study was a rarity. My crabs had dared to crawl or fight their way out of the bucket. I listened to a talk on crabs in the bucker as educator, entrepreneur and professional comedienne Candy Palmater, a Mi’kmaw, spoke to high school students from Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia in this case) a few months ago. Candy had the students’ total attention as she spoke about her journey to finish school, play varsity sports and to stand as her class Valedictorian in Law School and how she had to be a crab who crawled out of the bucket. She spoke of how “friends” might be happy with you when you are one of the crabs-doing what they are doing and sharing the same dreams, but when you aspire for more some of the “friends” or even as Candy suggests family members may not be very supportive of seeing the crabs crawl out of their bucket. Her message was/is inspirational and it took me back to Oxford House with my grade eleven’s telling them they could have a different life, they could be the teachers and nurses and accountants and electricians. They could crawl out of the bucket.
To see so many of them who did and have built a much better life for themselves and their children was wonderful and satisfying to see on that Northern Manitoba isolated reserve. To see the students at the convention centre in Membertou riveted to Candy and her message, you just knew we had crabs who were already on their way out of their buckets. They will be a group to follow as they shatter stereotypes and smash through bucket after bucket.