We talk a lot about white privilege, but it is a little more discomforting to broach a discussion on white poverty. Somehow it hits closer to home.
I grew up in the heart of the Annapolis Valley, a small rural farming community known for its potatoes and apple orchards. My community was aptly named Melvern Square, as it was a squared off corridor firmly anchored by three pillars: family, community and faith. My father was one of two pastors called to minister in this area, ensuring that I lived my life firmly fixed within the public’s eye- on first name basis with most everyone I’d meet.
It was an idyllic life in ways. We were poor but we got by. I remember trips to the country store- a one room building with wide wooden clapboards filling in the floor space, glass candy jars containing five cent goodies lining the back wall. When the front door was cracked even so much as an inch, an old-fashioned bell signalled both your appearance and your exit, ensuring you would never peruse the ice cream freezer or chip rack anonymously. Our house was sandwiched between the community center on the right and my father’s little brown country church on the left. Behind our property was the community pond for skating on in the winter and avoiding in the summer- as we all speculated that alligators or other forms of creepy-crawlies might live in there. Across the street was the consolidated school housing grades 1-6- a school which I never had the privilege of attending.
The school I attended was a private institution located in a neighboring community. When I entered the educational milieu, I quickly realized that my life was not what it had seemed to be. I became the “other”- teased for my different religious affiliation, tortured for my family connection, belittled for my appearance. Separated for my difference. I was disconnected in many ways. And I soon came to understand the term “white trash” and its unflattering connotations, as that is what I began to feel I was while in this school. Trash. Unloved and undesirable.
My schooling experience was thus one in which oppression was very visible. This same private school I attended later came to be exposed regarding “issues” of a very serious, abusive nature. These privately held secrets of the upper echelon came to be outed in a very visible way via news media when I was in high school. When I now see images of residential schools, it brings to mind sordid mental pictures of what that time of life was like for both me and my classmates. That experience has forever changed the way I look at education.
So then. As long as I have been a student, I have been interested in ethics of care in classrooms. As I did not have the privilege of being exposed to ethics of care in most of my formative years of schooling, I now spend my life advocating for these pedagogies of love and care along with the foundational rights that I believe all people- young and old- are worthy of receiving and deserve to experience as a basic human right. By virtue of their humanity.
One of the specific memories I have as a student took place when I was in Grade 7, attending this same school mentioned above. A young man in Grade 10, who had been having a particularly difficult time in his life, went around one day after school saying good-bye to everyone he could see in the hallway. It struck me as strange that he would seek me out, as I was quite a bit younger than him and outside his social circle. That night, as I would come to discover, he drove his car into a wooded area and shot himself in the head. This was my first exposure to suicide.
Rather than taking time to counsel us in our grief and confusion, the teachers at this school used this opportunity to shame us, telling us how this boy, and thus his classmates, were heading down the wrong path and needed to get things straightened out. It was one of the most poignant memories of my schooling. I can still hear the judgemental voice of the female teacher stating that the deceased Donnie* had obviously been in the wrong. And I will never, ever forget that mental picture of him the day before he died, his face resolute: epitomized by soft spoken words and a calm demeanor.
Although there are many layers to this story that I could pursue at length, my experiences as a student living through a deficit of care in my schooling, along with the many, many others of my classmates who echo this sentiment, has convinced me that care is the absolute number one priority of educators in the classroom. We are educating students for academic learning, yes. But I trust we are first and foremost developing caring, compassionate human beings in the form of both students and teachers who will live empathically together in an interconnected, interdependent world. As an educator, this is fundamental to my practice.
I believe that when people learn to care, their learning is enhanced and their growth is furthered. Students and teachers are all the better for the care they have cultivated, and I am not alone in holding this belief. Miller (2010) cites Nel Noddings’ work as being premiere in the encouragement of educators in fostering this care ethic. Noddings suggests that educators pursue caring as one of their main goals in schooling and education, teaching students to learn to care for themselves, others and the environment as well as to care for ideas and learning (Miller, 2010, p. 63). Noddings has laid out a very systematic, comprehensive approach to caring that entails teachers be clear and unapologetic in their goal: “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving and lovable people” (Noddings in Miller, 2010, p.64). I can attest to this belief as there have been many, many share with me their convictions about care through my blog. I have heard from people all over the world writing in response to my viral blog on what students remember most about teachers, and they almost unanimously state the same: what students remember most about their teachers is that they care.
We are a culmination of our past and present experiences- and the breadth and depth of these same experiences will hopefully lead to a brighter, more positive future as we learn, share and grow. Maya Angelou’s words ring clear: when we know better, we do better. I trust that this statement will always be the truth on which my life is lived and that my legacy will always be characterized by both care and love.