The Moral Imperative

Contemplation

The notion of a moral imperative to guide action is not a new concept. For German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), human understanding of pure reason was the basis for a moral code defining subsequent action. Long before that, holy books from world religions were proposing a course of action focussed on the moral integrity of leaders who sacrificed for the betterment of others. Yet, the story of those consumed by greed and the quest for power is equally pervasive. John Dashwood’s promise to his dying father to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is quickly replaced by greed acceptable according to English law of the time. Mr. Potter in the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” released in 1946, demonstrates a more intense avarice and quest for power. Charles Dickens sent us all clear message on who we should be in his 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. Theodore “Dr. Seuss, Giesel gave us a reminder in the 1957 publication of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ron Howard and Jim Carrey hammered the message home in the film version released in 2000. We know better but we’re not doing better.

Over the past week, we have watched in awe as political leaders have demonstrated a popular culture apparently bereft of morals and ethics. We sat riveted to the news and witnessed example after example of people spouting the rhetoric of a moral purpose who in fact were clinging to the relics of power and privilege. It brought me right back to the 1989 when I was riveted to the television watching Chinese tanks driving over pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Every social justice bone in my body believed that we were at a turning point. The Amnesty International quest to shine a light and expose injustice was playing out. We, as a collective society, would no longer be able to turn away and feign unawareness. Now people would be ready to start the work of creating a just society with a foundation of respect for human rights. I realized this was not the case when China did not even lose most favoured trading status with the United States. We are at another important point in our history. We are witnessing people ignoring COVID-19 rules designed to stop the spread of a global pandemic, perpetuating privilege, undermining the democratic process, ignoring legal obligations and fair process, and turning away from promises to family and friends. Are we looking at the fall of an empire, a failed experiment in democracy, or the possibility of reaching out to grasp the moral imperative required to create a socially just world?

I was privileged to be teaching in a Grade 6 classroom the day after U.S Congress was stormed and desecrated.  For the first hour of the day, the questions and perceptions of 11-year-old students directed the learning.  These kids wanted to talk about politics, democracy, communism, racism, anti-racism, slavery, the Civil War in the United States, Hitler’s legacy of neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter, environmental practices, the oil and gas industry, the differences between the perception of guns in Canada and the United States, and the impact of Trump’s words.  Lots of big ideas.  When an idea began to resonate, a hand shot into the air or tentatively went up.  These kids represented what we need on a global scale.  A willingness to think.  A willingness to consider possibilities.  A willingness to think in terms of fairness and social justice.  For the kids in this room, there was no question that logical consequences are in order for poor choices.

A moral code has already been defined. Ethical requirements are articulated. Social justice has been defined and written down. The issue is how we as individuals live our lives that acknowledges a moral imperative. Individuals in leadership positions should be held to a higher standard. Trump has provided the most recent example of the power of words by a person in a leadership position to disenfranchise, to disrespect, to undermine, and to invoke violence and lawlessness of those with power, privilege and entitlement. However, it is not just people in leadership positions who are required to hold themselves to account.

As individuals, we need be hold ourselves to account for our behaviour and how we live or disregard our own moral code. I used to equate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs with the development of morals and ethics. My assumption was that self-actualization required moral and ethical development. It required attention only after basic requirements for food, safety, love and belonging, and esteem were in place. Now I think that the metaphor of weaving better describes our moral and ethical development. The warp threads are the foundational components of who we are, and the weft threads are the experiences. It is a particularly apt metaphor for me because I use to love to weave. I just wasn’t that good at it. I would pull the weft thread tighter and tighter. The result was a piece of weaving that got narrower and narrower until someone intervened to help me loosen the threads and allow the warp threads to assume their parallel structure. The quality of the fabric was a reflection of those stationary threads and the constantly moving thread. There are many examples of people who begin their lives with a strong sense of integrity that is eroded over time.

For those of you who spend a lot of time with children, you will have noticed the quest for fairness and logical consequences for poor choices. As a principal who spends a lot of time outside on the playground with kids, there is little reticence of even the youngest students to let me know who is not playing fair, who I need to talk to, who I need time-out, or whose parents I need to phone. In conversations with students about poor choices they have made, invariably the harshest consequences come from the students. The question “How do you think that made … feel?” frequently prompts tears. Empathy is alive and well on our elementary playgrounds. As is a willingness to accept responsibility for choices.

The ability to empathize seems to dissolve into the atmosphere along with curiosity as students move through the system.  For some of us, we may be our own best whipping posts, or have reflective practices built into our lives that keep us honest.  For others, there is a quest to step away from assuming responsibility for our own poor choices.  This seems to be most common when a polarized stance is adopted.  Us and them.  An unwillingness or inability to consider another stance or position or feelings. 

To keep ourselves open to learning, we need to value pluralism and the importance of diverse voices and perspectives. It is possible to have a strong identity with commonalities and still maintain different culture or values or beliefs. As a Canadian, I am lucky to live with people from many different places, spaces, and experiences. However, that privilege brings with it a responsibility to listen and learn from the experiences of other Canadians and question a system where some voices are amplified, and others are silenced. My study of history, political science, and my father taught me to articulate my ideas loud and proud. Time, my friends and family taught me that some of my earlier conclusions and strongly articulated ideas were just wrong. It happens. Ideas change if minds are open. If you are ever wondering if you are straying from your moral compass and acting with integrity, and don’t have someone who will tell you, find a kid in elementary school. They will have no difficulty putting you back on track. If we expect moral integrity from others, we need to live it ourselves.

Christmas Joy Trounces COVID Bah! Humbug!

Reading Corner Extraordinaire

“How 2020!” is the much uttered refrain these days.  It was the response when my oven door crumbled at my feet on Christmas Eve.  It was the response to the intrusion of all “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinners” (Dickens, p. 2) aspiring to snuff out carols calling for comfort and joy.  Yet in the face of an out and out battle with the global pandemic seemingly in the lead at times, Christmas Joy wins. 

My older sister has taken the hit for the family, in assuming the role of Florence Nightingale. There is no doubt that all health care workers deserve our utmost appreciation and praise during COVID. However I cannot imagine being a hospice nurse in Baytown, Texas. Hospice nurses at the best times warrant a special place in heaven. The patience and kindness of the nurses at St. Michael’s Hospice when my Mom was dying will remain with me always. However a whole new layer of responsibility is added by a global pandemic, on top of what is already a job that most of us couldn’t handle on the best of days. However, Debbie carries with her a sense of purpose and responsibility. And still sends me some of the best gifs of the day! Positively inspirational. I must admit though, I feel like I dodged a bullet when Santa gave the Nancy Nurse doll to Debbie, and the Baby First Step doll to me, on that Christmas of our formative years, long, long ago. Whew!

Another inspiration has been my lifelong friend, Alison. Both of us are lovers of Christmas and believers in spreading Christmas joy. I could only manage it on a very immediate level this year. In my immediate reach. Beyond that it has been a stretch. But Alison has held tight to her wings and the dream of Christmas jot, including the Christmas letter that reflects her love and pride in all of her family. And the gift that I never imagined I needed. Yet my crafty string of Christmas lights and lights to go in that special bottle of Lambrusco from my kids on Mother’s Day. Of course, it would make the perfect reading area! Who knew? Other than Alison. It gives me great faith in future possibilities. The pervasive image for this school principal at this point in time, is a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

What the COVID restrictions have done is slow down the pace of the holidays.  I will reach that goal of reading 100 books in 2020.  It is possible for me to sleep past 6 am.  I can find time to write everyday and exercise. There has been time to connect with friends, neighbours, and family members via phone calls, messenger, social media and en route.  From work.  From back in the burbs.  From university.  High school, And even elementary school.  To pause over losses of loved ones.  To celebrate happy memories we’ve been lucky to share. To do the present drop off.  To be there for people when it matters.  To connect in ways that in other times would have been unfathomable.  

The feeling of space and time also allows time for reflection and creativity to emerge. Like my colleagues, I started the holiday exhausted and in high gear at the same time. Yet with some down time, I am gobsmacked by the challenges thrown our way and our ability to support one another as we run the gauntlet of COVID-19. Colleagues have stepped up to support each other in a multitide of ways that will be remembered for a lifetime. My daughter and her partner are tucked away safely in Taiwan where they have COVID management under wraps. Our son is close by and his business continues to thrive despite COVID. Brad and I have rediscovered boardgames. Scrooge would be right in his assessment of COVID-19 as a Bah! Humbug! However, in the big picture, Christmas joy emerges victorious!

Shattering 2020

Everything bad in 2020 is directly attributed to COVID-19. Destructive forces conspire to make the year, the very worst it can possibly be. Unanticipated injustice is to be expected in 2020. And yet the response begins with shock and awe and plays out in a variety of very typical or perhaps universal responses.

The very best Christmas Eves of my life have included two things.  A heartfelt Christmas Eve Church service that crystallizes all of the very most important things in life.  And the Annual Diaz Christmas Eve Party complete with an abundance of love, joy, dancing, sangria and roast pork.  This year the only element within my control was the food, so I called my favourite Cuban chef, Armando Sr., for the trade secrets for the perfect roasted pork shoulder. 

My perfected sourdough bread was baked.  I grabbed the handle to open the oven and baste the pork.  The glass door of my very modern, high end oven crumbled around my feet.  Shock. Awe. Memories of the other shattering experiences in my life. 

My mother had finally saved enough money to replace her first car.  The white Maverick had served our family well.  She had learned to drive on it at 30.  She had taught my older sister and my cousin to drive on it, then averted an ulcer by sending me to driving school.  I had gotten to the point where the rattling from multiple areas of the car made it hard to hear the radio and certainly hard for me to exercise my personally perceived, cool persona.  The burgundy and white Sunbird changed all that.  Fresh off the lot, with the brand-new car smell and gleaming in the sun.  I convinced my mother that I was a very experienced driver – a year of driving under my belt in a mere two months!  Windows down.  Radio up.   I picked up Vikki.  Of course, we needed to cruise a little before we headed to the tennis courts.  We spotted our friend, Karen, and picked her up.  Vikki pulled the door closed and the back window shattered.  Completely gone.  Nothing to see.  When I finally got up the nerve to go home and tell my Mom, the response was not unanticipated.  TEARS.  Lots and lots of tears.

Fast forward many years to our house in the suburbs.  I wanted vertical blinds so I could hot tub in peace with my friends.  My very meticulous husband did what is common for me, but a rarity for him.  He dropped the screwdriver during the task.  It just nicked the bottom right corner of the sliding door but triggered a much bigger reaction.  I had time to call the kids to witness science in action, as the entire door shattered.  My husband was furious.

Christmas Eve 2020.  I’m not entirely certain what triggered the shattering of the oven door.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it.  Did the screw in the handle come loose?  Did that happen when the door shattered, and I let it slam shut?  What is certain is there was shock.  There was awe.  Then there was uncontrollable laughter.  Of course, this would punctuate Christmas Eve and provide another illustration of how bad 2020 has really been.  My experience with shattering glass, parallels the universal experience with this pandemic.  Tears.  Anger.  Incredulousness.  And an overwhelming desire for the year to just end already! 

The Best or Worst Versions of Ourselves?

With the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are witnessing extreme versions of people. Some people take Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice to “Be Kind” to heart. We see examples of people choosing to be the best version of themselves and acting with generosity and kindness. Then there are the other people who unleash a nastiness and vitriol that we only saw hints of in past interactions. The ongoing conversation has become, do difficult times reveal the actual predisposition of a person or does it reveal of lack of coping skills?

What do people see when they look at you?

Since the beginning of civilization, there are examples of people who seek out those opportunities to dominate others.  The motivations have ranged from selfishness, jealousy, insecurity, entitlement, sadism or fear of losing power.   We have historical relics such as the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, concentration camps and the documentation of slavery, as glaring examples of this.  With COVID-19, there are increased reports of family breakdown, abuse, separation, divorce, racism, and volatility in the community.   Last week, a Kitsilano resident assumed the responsibility for aggressively questioning people on the beach, where they were from and ordering them home to their own neighbourhood.  There is no shortage of examples of outrageous, opportunistic, and perhaps Machiavellian behaviour to warrant responses of anger, depression and dismay. 

Yet, the friendliness and kindness is palpable on a daily basis.  There are so many examples of generosity and kindness in person and online that have the capacity to fill our heart with gratitude.  The smiles, the friendly conversation, inspirational stories, and the commiserating over lines at stores are daily occurrences.  The 7 o’clock salute to thank health care workers has expanded from pots and pans to include percussion instruments, car and boat horns, sirens, and in some cases full bands.  In their lives, did these people receive good character education with an emphasis on moral justice, integrity, and kindness from friends, families, or teachers? 

In my heart of heart, I don’t believe in truly bad people who go out into the world with a mission to make other people miserable.  And yes, good people have bad days.  However, all of us are called on to make choices and are responsible for those choices.  The COVID-19 global pandemic will be one of those times when the measuring stick comes out to judge where we were as a civilization in 2020.  History will hold out the examples of the human capacity for greatness, or like Margaret Wheatley points out, the very clear indicators of the fall of yet another civilization.  We will be held responsible for how we raised up the voices of those in need of help and encouragement, and how we responded on a societal or individual level.   

Perspective is Everything

 

Rock Dove or Winged Rat?

Friday morning, I saw a fleeting reference to pigeons as “winged rats” as I was scrolling through Twitter.  On the drive home, I finally paused to consider why I found this so irritating.  The common pigeon, which apparently, we don’t all know and love, is also known as a rock pigeon or rock dove.  The reference to being a dove evokes a completely different persona than that of a rat.  How could this respect worthy bird be reduced to the stature of a rat, spreader of the bubonic plague?

Pigeons have a special place in my childhood.  I liked the cooing sound they made.  I liked that they made their nests in places you might not expect.  I liked that they had better manners than seagulls or Canadian geese.  I always assumed when I heard the song, “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, it was the appropriate was to treat pigeons.  My Grandpa Derksen (my father’s stepfather) adored pigeons and kept them in the backyard along with the chickens, a rooster, and a peacock, long after they sold the farm and moved to an Abbotsford house.  He loved the pigeons and he loved me.  I loved him and it was my duty to love his pigeons.

I also grew up with stories from my paternal Grandmother, who kept her four kids together in the midst of WWII in Germany before making her way to Canada in 1948.  One of the stories that stood out in my mind was that of the rats.  In the large warehouses where they sometimes found shelter, she would stay awake at night to shoo away the rats that would move closer in the dark night to nibble on the exposed body parts of her huddled family.  My cousin, Kevin, who was never thrilled with his much younger cousin tagging along to the “forbidden without adult supervision” beach across the road on Sundays, added to my horror of rats.

His words have always stuck with me. “You better be careful.  If you fall between those rocks, the rats will bite your foot off.  They we’ll all be in trouble!”  I was very careful.

I went home and searched for the Twitter post.  It turns out, @BirdNoteRadio was just employing a good attention-grabbing introduction to their post.  Phew!  We could agree on the merits of the common rock pigeon.  I followed them on Twitter.  Common agreement makes relationships so easy.

When I was living in the suburbs, one of my fellow Amnesty International group members, first introduced me to the fact that some people love rats.  She had many at home and would bring her favourite rat to Amnesty meetings and let it run around a sling on her neck.  It shouldn’t have been such a leap for me to embrace this practice.  I had loved other rodents – my cousin’s white mouse, my childhood gerbils, rabbits at my grand-parents, and my classroom guinea pigs.  Yet, old biases die hard.  I didn’t embrace rats along with my other rodent friends.

One night someone set fire to one of the portables of the school I was teaching at in Clearbrook.  I arrived to find a sopping wet, rat sitting in a puddle of water in his cage.  Ethical dilemma.  This was not a spreader of the bubonic plague but a well-loved classroom pet.  Contrary to every instinct in my body to walk away, I didn’t.  I changed the bedding.  Dried the rat.  Put him in a warm spot.  I cringed the entire time.

It is hard to change a perspective.  Dismissing other ideas is the path of least resistance.  Most often the “eureka” moment does not wipe away our entrenched understandings to be replaced by inspiration after the instantaneous flash of understanding.  Our background experiences  are often hard-wire and impact our responses long after the dawning of emerging understanding.  To formulate a new perspective, we may need to challenge an emotional response or challenge ideas that we have accepted unconditionally many times over.  The change requires an effort to want to be open to other possibilities.  An unwillingness to consider options frequently results in justifications and entrenchment.   There is still a bristling or cringing, but it comes from being incensed by the  audacity of having our ideas and motives questioned.  The greater the emotional investment in our own perspective, the greater the angst at hearing another perspective presented.  The corollary is an absence of critical thought and the absence of personal growth.

At the end of the day, the conversations that are the most memorable come from diverse perspectives.  Not just disagreement for  the entertainment of playing the role of the devil’s advocate.  Not just to be entertained by the novel response of someone intent on changing your mind with any tools of derision or insult at hand.  But the disagreement that comes from a well thought-out and a well-intentioned perspective of trying to create understanding.  This is the type of conversation that precipitates thought and is considered long after the initial conversation.  It is also the willingness to emerge beyond the “Yeah, but” that proliferates many of our conversations.  The possibility is a greater capacity for empathy and understanding.

Truth Matters in 2020

Tree of Life on Game 5 Ranch – Eastern Texas

The problem with telling lies, is it can easily become a lifelong habit.  The people I respect least in the world have spouted a litany of lies that obscure the concept of truth in their own minds.  And, as every wise grandmother, Shakespeare and popular fiction will tell you – lies always surface.

Plato’s notion of truth has been used by Christians for many generations to explain the existence of God, or the transcendence beyond the external world of the senses to greater illumination seen by the soul.  I am not discounting this greater notion of truth or dismissing the power of the concept, but it is not what I have been recently pondering about truth.  I have just been reflecting on the things that come out of our mouths that are verifiably true or false, and the subsequent justification that we provide.  Sometimes things are just true or false and nothing else.  Apparently, the term truth bearer describes this concept.

Aristotle defined truth as how we use logic and reason to decide how we act.  This seems to be the basis for the slippery slope that we exist on.  The rationale is usually to get ahead in an overwhelming competitive line or save face. In this case, anything and everything spouted can be provided as truth, as long as it is not verifiable as false or embraced as truth by those predisposed to accept it.  One example of this is padding a resume. Another example of this is the ramblings of a politician, prolific on Twitter, who has been able to identify with his supporters on some level that does not require verifiable truth.   Fake news abounds.  Verifiable truth is presented and dismissed as irrelevant.  Perhaps Kate Atkinson calls it in her book Transcription:  “People always sa[y] they [want] the truth, but really they [are] perfectly content with a facsimile.”

Another slippery slope has been the notion of “truth to self”.  Whereas I agree the notion that two people can experience similar situations and view them differently based on their background knowledge, I have also seen it used as a cop out.  If you are truly going to keep yourself accountable to the truth, you need to analyse the situation rather than simply justify your own perceptions.  Sometimes my feelings are hurt or my conclusions are wrong.  Yet sometimes when I analyse the situation, I am able to identify my own misreading of the cues or the egocentricism or the overt Machiavellian intent which can result in misunderstanding, manipulation and/or lies utilized to save face or further an agenda.  I am proposing that we hold ourselves accountable for our own rationale for lies, white or other, as well as our perceptions by reflecting rather than simply engaging in the process of justifying our initial responses.

As an elementary school principal, I frequently deal with students who have made inappropriate choices.  My philosophy is that no one is expected to be perfect and tomorrow is a new opportunity to make good choices, however it comes with some very basic caveats in dealing with the situation:

  1. Calm down first.

Take responsibility for using the strategies that work for you to self-calm and allow your brain to move beyond “flight or fight” mode and engage in problem solving.

2. Own your choices. Admit your mistakes.

Hiding behind justifications for inappropriate behaviour is not taking responsibility for the choices you made.

3. Ask yourself: “Is this who you want to be in the world?

4. Determine how you could have better handled the situation.

Come up with a plan of what you will do next time if a similar situation happens

5. Repair the relationship.

Admit your bad choice without excuses.  State clearly how you felt in the interaction and how you will handle a situation like that in the future.  Don’t expect forgiveness to be a right.  Now that you know better. Do better.

My students quickly learn that I have no tolerance for someone looking into my eyes and lying.  It diminishes both our relationship and his/her integrity. Khaled Hosseini states it best in The Kite Runner:  “When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth.”  A lie represents a second bad choice when it comes out of your mouth and you must begin the arduous and misguided process of justifying it to yourself.    I suppose my end goal us to reach kids to be the best version of themselves.

So yes, truth does matter.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, theologians, you and I are required to continue to grapple with the truth and celebrate it,  in order to preserve the best in each of us.  In the end we choose who we want to be in the world. We also choose the example we want our kids to live by. Live like truth matters. A valiant challenge for 2020.

 

 

 

Long Weekend Power Relax

Yes, I realize it sounds like the ultimate oxymoron BUT in the quest to cope with job stress, time is limited so strategizing is required.  This plan played out quite well for me on this Victoria Day long weekend. The weather cooperated and I am feeling grateful.

This may be the recipe… at least for me!

  1. Starting the weekend in a noisy, hip hop and happening hot spot like Local Bar and Grill.
  2. Finishing an entire book that I WANTED to read, as opposed to one I SHOULD read.  This requires reading in bed.  Curled up in a favourite chair.  In a great coffee shop (like 49th Parallel) with a sunny deck.
  3. Biking around the Stanley Park Seawall before the tourists have set out for the day.
  4. Breakfast at the perfect hole in the wall spot, yes called The Spot.
  5. Halsa Spa float in an ocean room.  Thanks for the introduction to this, Celia!
  6. Golfing.  Working out the angst on little white or fluorescent balls.  Soaking up the beautiful sounds and sights.
  7. Self designed Semperviva One day Yoga Retreat – Hatha in the am at the Sea Studio.  Restorative in the afternoon at the Kits Beach Studio.  Yin before bed at the Sun Studio.
  8. The promise of a good sleep 🙂
  9. Reaffirmation that there is life beyond work!

 

The Beauty of the Monster Within

The black poster with the gothic lettering did not come under my range of awareness until the third morning that I woke up and crept on to the deck waiting for Taipei to wake up.   The garden space has been created on the deck at the top of the 72 stairs and emerges to claim its place in the world of Taipei rooftops.  A haven of plants, birds and secrets.  The black poster asks “What kind of monster have I become”?  It is positioned beside a photo on the beach of a pre-pubescent girl on a beach with a cigarette handing out of her mouth.   The picture does not reflect all that is “sugar and spice and everything nice” but the survival of a young girl who has experienced loss, betrayal and anger.  The image is not one of innocence but of Paradise Lost.

Beyond the protected garden paradise emerges the dichotomy of the old and new of Taiwan.  Tiny green leaves emerge and begin their climb towards the heavens.   Two shiny, stainless steel  water tanks stand over the tenuously placed air conditioning systems and rusting out sheet metal, cracked tile and dirty brickwork.

Two pigeons take their place above a small area of red, clay roof tiles beyond and look down on me.  The bird choice of my not quite related, paternal grandfather brings the warm glow of having been loved unconditionally.  Only some people are able to celebrate the contradictory elements of innocence and respect the quest to emerge beyond mere survival.  He lived dichotomies and he could understand them.

Traffic in the background is a steady, predictable hum.  No blaring horns.  No sirens. No persistent car alarms.  Warbling birds and tiny chirps are different from the plaintive seagull calls and crow scoldings of my usual life, but somehow familiar and calming.  A persistent sweeping of the broom establishes a rhythm.  Exercise for a higher purpose.  Cleanliness.  Godliness.

There is no fengshui in my morning alcove.  It is a creation of the mind where the green astro-turf under the table, the collection of textured, patterned and coloured blankets over comfy couches, butterflied and dragonflied pillows, real and fake plants come together with curios to feed the imagination.  The space is not beyond the possibility of dark, twisty discoveries and fabrications.

On my flight to Taiwan, my viewing pleasure included the movie creation of Mary Shelley’s life.  Many were disbelieving that an eighteen year-old girl could have authored such a book as Frankenstein.  The bigger discovery is that the girl had already experienced such despair, disenfranchisement and had personal knowledge of the monster within by the time she was 18 years old.  The Frankenstein book was made possible by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet she loved, her own loving father, a disapproving step-mother and the havoc they wrought with her heart and mind.  Her strength was her ability to name her monster, chew on it and use it to make sense of her life.

The paint bucket with clean white paint drips emerges from a hiding place behind a couch.  The ability to put a fresh face on the less than clean and sparkly.  Imagine the possibility.  Re-created the sense of self you want to project.  Yet, is aware of the monster that lurks beneath the surface that is responsible for teaching us how to be resilient.

Barbie Celebrates International Women’s Day

Barbie, the iconic doll of my childhood, celebrated her 60th birthday this year on March 9th.  This celebration, a day after International Women’s Day, is cause to pause.  This is particularly the case for me.  I was well versed in the world of Barbie long before passionately embracing the quest for gender equity.  International Women’s Year was not declared and the March 8th day celebrated, until 1975.

The 1908 garment strike for better working conditions for women in the United States precipitated the first National Women’s Day in the United States in 1909.  The 1910 Socialist International Meeting in Copenhagen brought the quest for rights for women and suffrage to the international stage.  By 1911, the first International Women’s Day marked the right of women to vote, hold public office, work and participate in vocational training in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany.  It would take Nellie McClung and her Manitoba suffragists until 1918 to secure the vote for women in Canada and make it clearly understood that “nice women” did want the vote.  Susan B. Anthony would be hard at it, for another two years to secure the right for women to vote in the United States.

My sister had one of the first Barbies.  No bendy legs or moving wrists but a doll that brought the promise of the empowerment of being a grown-up who could make all her own decisions.  She was pretty and had flipped up hair like our mother.  Barbie liked nice outfits, shoes and accessorized, just like our mother, our aunts and our step mother.  Her store-bought clothes were expensive, so my grandmother would design and make clothes with the scraps of material from other sewing projects.  My grandpa made clothes chests for Barbie and Ken from wooden Japanese orange boxes.  My Barbie also had a car, so she was not limited in her travel.  My mother did not learn to drive and get her white, Maverick until the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  I knew a car meant freedom.  Barbie also had a carrying case so I could bring her with me to the park, the beach, houses of cousins, my friends and my father.  Her wide range of clothing allowed her to be dressed appropriately for any activity.

It was not until I went off to university and cut my feminist teeth that Barbie fell out of favour with me.  I baulked at the notion that society had limited expectations that women should look, act, and present in a deferential way or conform to the expectations of others.  By then the slam was no longer that of Manitoba Premier, R.P. Roblin, that “nice women don’t want the vote.”  It was the notion that a woman voicing her opinion was less than desirable.  A man could assert strong opinions and be celebrated as “assertive”.  A woman doing the same thing was labelled with “aggressive”.

As a teacher and a mother, I worried about helping young girls to find their voice and embrace the many opportunities open to them.  I bemoaned when my students wrote Barbie adventure stories, especially when I was framed as the Barbie or her friend.  I refused to buy my daughter a Barbie.  When all she wanted for Christmas was a Barbie, my friends rallied and bought her several “Go, Girl” dolls.  I loved them.  They came with a themed sports outfits and gear, had flat feet and looked athletic.  My daughter politely said thanks for the hiker, the soccer player, and the skier snowboarder dolls.  She was clearly not impressed with these dolls, although she loved participating in all of the activities.  She was thrilled with the one “real” Barbie from the Fashionista line, with long blonde hair and accessories.  She was delighted that my “retro” Barbie collection of clothes and shoes fit her so Barbie could have some variety in her outfits.

As generations of Barbies have emerged, so have the varieties of skin colours, abilities, and interests reflected.  There is the notion that little girls need to see themselves reflected in the doll.  I don’t refute this.  However, my experience is that of my daughter’s selection of “the doll” makes me wonder.  I mean the special doll that takes a significance beyond all others.  This is the doll elevated to a position of human status.  The doll that is cared about, nurtured and even her feelings worried about.  For my daughter, this was Ruby.  I even feel somewhat guilty referring to her in the past tense.  She was an ever-present member of the family who biked the Kettle Valley Railway with us, travelled to through Italy with us, saved our son from a concussion when he fell from the top bunk, and attended weddings with us.   Ruby is a Cabbage Patch doll with black skin, short curly hair and brown eyes.  The minute my daughter saw her in my friend’s garage, it was clear she was the one.  My friend, Jan, saw it immediately and gave her the doll.  At that time, Cabbage Patch dolls had seen their day. My fair skin daughter with long blonde hair and blue eyes did not see herself in the doll.  Yet, Ruby was the one who allowed learning that my daughter was ready to embraced.  She is the one doll that continues to reside in my cedar chest because she is too treasured to part with.

For me, I didn’t want a Barbie that looked like me.  I wanted a Barbie who could go out dancing, drive a car, wear nice clothes, walk-in grown-up shoes, and make her own decisions.  My frustration with the pace of my physical development wasn’t an issue with looking like Barbie.  It was an issue with my cousin, my sister, and my neighbours who looked older than me and could do things that I was not allowed to do.  It was people treating me like I wasn’t very smart because I was a pretty little girl with blonde ringlets, a shy demeanor and a goal to please.  Barbie was the one with the power in my world.  A power that I wanted.

My older sister and I both grew up to be fiercely independent.  Our mother, Barbara, chose a different path that most as that time, by choosing to leave a marriage that did not encompass the kind of respect and trust she wanted in a relationship.  She taught us that we deserved respect.  The financial challenges we lived with taught us the importance of getting a good education and being able to take care of ourselves.  Yet my Mom did look like Barbie and did defer to men in a way that women in the secretarial pool did in the 60’s and 70’s.  However, she was that person and a “steel magnolia” at the same time.  As little girls, we were able to identify where we were going and what we wanted to take with us.

Sixty million barbies are sold in 150 countries each year.  The “Go, Girls” dolls went out of business.  Clearly the Barbie appeal meets some desire of our girls.  Perhaps what Barbie provided for me was the opportunity to explore through play what I wanted to incorporate into my adult life.  For me that still includes reading and playing at the beach, working at my own job, me deciding, travel, as well as appropriate clothing, foot ware and accessories for any occasion.   I will be curious to see how Barbie contributes to opening up the possibilities our girls.  Clearly, she is not going away.  Happy International Women’s Day, Barbie.

Who are “Breakaway Learners”?

Sometimes, happenstance or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, just happens.

Subject line in my overly full email inbox reads:  A seemingly out of the blue email from a children’ book author based in US and living at UBC
The text:   Long story short, I am a visiting scholar at UBC through March 5th and passed your school many times.  I write children’s books — which I have read to thousands of children of all ages and stages (ideal range is 2nd — 5th grades)… Seeing and being in schools and working with children of all ages and stages is what I do — and having been a university president and senior advisor to the US Department of Education, I am ever of the view that the most important education is that which occurs early…  And, for the record, I attach a photo of myself and a short bio so you can see I am legit.  

My Response:   Is there a cost attached to this great offer?

The beginning of another beautiful relationship that started online!  Karen Gross did come to University Hill Elementary School to share her stories with our students.  She captivated both teachers and students alike.  She was aware of our outdoor school and environmental focus and arrived with her newest children’s book, Lady Lucy’s Dragon Quest, a story about droughts and saving land and crops with a strong female protagonist with a collaborative approach to problem solving.  Our Korean students were thrilled that Korean students were the illustrators, who are now in college and who continue to illustrate.
2.  plasticity references the permanent change that occurs in the institution itself in response to required changes
3.  pivoting right references supporting students in their ability to make short and long term decisions that will bring abut the most favourable outcome
4.  reciprocity  that extends beyond student willingness to share ideas and commit to agreements with staff listening and responding, to institutions being responsive to the ideas and needs of their changing populations
5.  belief in self by teachers and institutions stepping away from a deficit model of education to one that builds on strengths