Bedtime stories at the Fort Hope radio station
The local radio station door slammed open. In ran Jeremy, books wedged in his elbow, declaring, in nothing short of a scream, "I'm heeeeeere, Ms. Sarah!"
He plunked himself down in the plastic chair as if he did this for a living. Today, however, was his first day. It was his idea to be here. He showed up just as the radio show "Bedtime Stories" had begun.
Jeremy grabbed the microphone. "Helloooooo Eabametoong, Just filling in for good friend Peter here."
I chuckled. Peter had popped into the radio station only a few times before moving to Thunder Bay.
Jeremy paused to chomp on some blueberries, "Yep, just going to read some stories. Mmmm, blueberries. Want some? Haa, I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I'm on the radio."
I was deeply impressed with Jeremy's courage to read to all of Eabametoong, but I quickly realized that it was close to nine o'clock and that this 8 year old should be in bed listening to bedtime stories. My ultimate goal for this show was to keep students awake during the day and calm at night. These are students who may not have access to books at home or who crave a calm place to read in crowded homes.
The show also acted as a platform for elders to share stories and preserve their culture.
The elders would bead moccasins and take turns at the mic. I learned from them about growing up on the trap lines. They told me how they tied their babies to their backs with a tikinagun while they hunted moose. They spoke about making snowshoes with moose hide. They talked about the current lack of storytelling in homes and their concern about the loss of their language.
And then one spoke about the trauma of being literally picked up by government officials in the bush as a child and taken to a residential school hours from their home. She explained that her parents didn't know where she was for months, and spoke about returning home years later.
The word trauma does not begin to describe what many of the elders experienced in residential school. It does not describe the emptiness of the parents who lost their children; the physical and emotional brutality the young students faced. Nor does it explain the feeling of being completely stripped of their culture and human rights.
Almost every child in Eabametoong has ties to a residential school survivor.
It took me months of reflection, running, and tears to genuinely grasp the meaning of vicarious trauma and how it presents itself in the classroom. Essentially, it refers to the deep sympathy connected to someone experiencing traumatic stress. This came in waves as I listened to elders and students and reflected on their stories.
With this sense of sympathy, came the motivation to build relationships and develop trust. And with this trust came a higher responsibility to deal with the information that students revealed to me.
The feelings came easily. But they ate me alive.
In my first year, I felt deeply for my student who was so hurt and angry that the elementary wing had to be on lockdown so she could safely, but violently have her breakdown without the other children seeing.
After school, I watched another of my students stare longingly out the window and throw pencils as I asked him to draw five parts of himself he loved.
I began to mildly desensitize myself in order to cope. This confused and ultimately hurt me. But if I hadn't, I would have burned out mentally; it would have been difficult to keep teaching. As a non-local teacher, I had the privilege to make this choice or even leave at any time.
Alongside these challenges, I read cards that said "you rock at empathy!" that my class made for a good friend. My students went from from learning to write sentences to turning out fascinating stories. They screamed, "I love me." They grew together as a community.
Outside teachers have had an impact. Leslie Campbell and Candi Chin-Sang started the first girls' hockey team. Keith Reinhart led the baseball team in winning two tournaments. Alicia Dobbelsteyn created a system for teaching students with high behavioural needs and integrated them into the regular classroom.
In the last few years, locals started a detox centre, which brought the community out of a state of emergency. A local teacher brought traditional drumming back into the school. Valerie Oshag began the first youth council. Rudy Waboose is now managing a new community garden.
The trauma in Eabametoong is not going anywhere. There's still no potable water, a shortage of mental health support, issues around educational funding.
But nestled in this, is a lot to be proud of. There is a foundation of hope woven into the smiles in Eabametoong. This dichotomy of optimism against the despair and helplessness consistently left me feeling both driven and yet deeply frustrated. I felt guilty about not being able to reach students, and also inspired by their growth.
And so I sit here with Jeremy at the radio station. Books held in our hands, Jeremy is ecstatic to read to the community and have his voice heard. Elders come in eager to share their histories and strength. Children race by on their bicycles, chasing the last of the sun. And when our time comes to a close, I whisper gently into the microphone:
"Good night Eabametoong."
Sarah first went to Fort Hope through a program called Teach for Canada.