For more than a decade, Tania White bounced between temporary jobs and watched as her peers moved on without her.
She dropped out of high school before completing Grade 9 after a tumultuous run with mainstream and alternative school systems.
As early as kindergarten, White struggled in the classroom. Her kindergarten teachers noticed that “something was wrong” almost immediately, her mother, Fran Frazier said.
But they couldn’t give the worried mother more details.
White was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in elementary school, failed two grades but was pushed forward to high school, began smoking marijuana and ultimately dropped out before completing Grade 9.
If it wasn’t for the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre’s Essential Skills program, White, now 25, might still be waitressing without a high school education.
“This program was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she told about 300 at the Leaders in Literacy Awards Thursday morning.
It was a warm tribute to the Indian Centre, serendipitously timed to coincide with National Aboriginal Day.
White — whose father is Onondagan — shared her story with teachers and literacy students gathered in the Hamilton Convention Centre, while many First Nations members busily prepared for a day of Aboriginal festivities at City Hall across the street.
White said she has gone “from kindergarten level” to nearly completing high school in only six months.
“She just went zoom,” said Aili Childs, the HRIC’s main literacy tutor. “She got really good marks.”
This was a stark contrast to her earlier experiences in other alternative schools, where she couldn’t keep herself motivated enough to attend, she said.
But the Indian Centre’s approach “makes you keep going back,” White said.
“You feel like you belong there,” she said of learning within the all-Aboriginal space. That she shared a cultural background with her teachers and classmates may be why she has been able to excel this time around.
Growing up, White was the only Aboriginal person in her household. Her troubled father returned to Six Nations and left his daughter to be raised in an all-white household by her non-Native mother.
Frazier had hoped her daughter would grow up with better Aboriginal role models, she said, but that wasn’t the case until White stepped into HRIC.
“At the Indian school,” Frazier said, “[White] was with people she could excel with or fail with, and it wouldn’t make her less of a person … It was the most non-threatening environment.”
“And it’s a lot of fun,” White said of the Indian Centre’s programming. “I’m learning about my culture.”
In other class settings, White was left “feeling defeated before I even got started.”
Other programs felt too rigid, she said. White appreciated that the Indian Centre is flexible with scheduling. HRIC staff let their adult learners choose their own work hours.
“I have to show my progress,” she said smiling, “but I don’t have to attend every day.”
Canada's Aboriginal peoples have the lowest literacy rates in the country, according to the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition.
Yet White was the only Aboriginal student to speak at the Adult Basic Education Association event, which featured six diverse students from a variety of educational upgrading programs.
Executive Director Leah Morris introduced each student to the audience of breakfast diners before each spoke. They took turns sharing their experience going back to school as an adult, including overcoming obstacles to their learning such as mental illness, drug addiction and other hurdles. And each spoke to a need for flexible and supportive programming.
For White, her victory seems to have come from finding the HRIC. Yet despite her great successes, she looks forward to leaving.
“I just can’t wait to be finally finished school,” White said after the speeches. “I can’t wait to be 30.”
White’s tongue ring exposed itself when she laughed.
“By that point I’ll be finished college, I can get a job and I can have my best years.”