From kindergarten to grade seven I was enrolled in a Catholic school.
When I tell people this snippet of my life they are surprised as they know me as an independent thinker, but even more surprised when I tell them my experiences there, are what shaped me into the Buddhist thinker I am today.
I was prompted to write this piece during a visit to my hometown in Northern British Columbia. My partner has now seen the places where I played, loved my family, and cried. I felt it was important for him to see these snapshots as we grow closer and aspire to have a family. I found myself painting a rosy picture, but somehow seeing my old school yard with rosy cheeked children playing like a flock of hens brought back a memory I wished to repress. Nothing is perfect, I know this, however one finds themselves feeling obligated to seek perfection. I know now that perfection is a unicorn that cannot be caught. So here I am in a moment of honesty and clarity.
Being at my parents country home, amidst the snow covered spruce and the chirping of gross—beaks is rather therapeutic. I find myself sitting here making peace with the past, and in writing this, I feel it is possible. I hope this piece will help others through their own experiences as well.
Forgiving The Walrus:
I remember the day well. All the kids were handed “Mad Minute” math sheets. These sheets contained problems to be completed in under a minute and you would share your score with the class after we each took a turn reading an answer.
To this day, the term “mad minute” can induce the anxiety I felt as a child.
I was a lover of language and art. Mathematics was a foreign language I could never understand. My heart would race when the minute started and I saw how much the others had done, while I randomly placed numbers to create an illusion of confidence. The teacher asked us in turn to provide answers and when they reached me I said in a meek and shakes voice “29?” and the class erupted in laughter. “No, the answer is 12, let’s move on.”
From that moment, and previous errors, they decided that I needed to go to learning assistance for math. They told me I wasn’t trying, and I was falling behind. Teachers were bewildered as I excelled in every other area, “but why was this a problem Alicia?”
The truth is, I did try, and my mind would switch numbers. It was like numerical dyslexia. I would try to picture numbers but all I saw was black. I couldn’t articulate this to the adults. When mother was told “she just isn’t trying,” I could feel my heart break. No one understood.
During math class, another teacher entered. Our names were called and we had to walk past all the “normal” kids and go to another room. I could feel their eyes on me as I walked past, red faced and head down. I never knew the silence could make our footsteps sound so loud. The teacher who came to collect us would be the very person I grew to hate.
He was an old British man. His hobbies were smoking a tobacco pipe, reading stuffy literature, and being involved in the church. His face and build reminded us of a walrus, and thus that is how I will refer to him to protect his identity. Mr. Walrus smelled terrible and his teeth were stained yellow. His beard was also tobacco stained and his suits were dated and unwashed.
He had no knowledge of learning disabilities or alternative teaching strategies. His temper was short and he was prone to yell. This was not the ideal candidate for children needing support, but due to it being a Catholic school the school district didn’t have a say. I was afraid of him from the beginning. Ever since I saw him on the playground in his old coat, supervising us while blowing tobacco smoke on us all.
His classroom was bare, with desks meant for children in grade one. The chalkboard was covered in old English poetry no child was interested in. It was drab, and the papers curled up on the bulletin board as they yellowed with age. Nothing changed in this room. There was no excitement for learning and I felt this place was a punishment.
When we arrived he ordered us to sit down. I recall telling him the desks were too small after working up the courage.
“You can bloody well fit in the desks, now sit!”
I wedged myself into the desk, my tummy pushed awkwardly against the top surface. It hurt. My knees hit the underbelly of the tiny trap. I knew then this wouldn’t be good. The classes that followed featured him sitting at his desk, and telling us just to “sit and figure it out.” There was no instruction or one—on—one. When we completed a problem he would make us come up to his desk with a stern: “come up.” I remember my hands trembling as the paper quivered. The smell of him worsening as I approached. Then, the answer would be wrong and the verbal abuse would begin.
“Why aren’t you trying?! Sit back down and figure it out! Then come back.”
I began to cry. Hot tears falling on my uniform blouse.
“Turn off the taps!”
I asked my mom to go to public school. There was one across the street and the kids there got to wear their own clothes. It didn’t happen. She didn’t know what was going on as the teachers never told her and I didn’t know that this was not acceptable. The days that followed were quite similar, some days much worse.
I saw children cry. He hit the desks with meter sticks, startling us with the loud crack he wished to lay upon us, children wet themselves from fear, and I could hear their confidence dying. I went into grade eight in public school and failed math because I was never taught anything. I felt so stupid and ended up in a “special” math class. Yet I skipped a year in French class and took advanced placement English.
(Note: This was not 1950, it was the 1990’s.)
What we were taught was religion.
We learned of Jesus and how we were to be like him. He would speak at church about Jesus and I wondered if Jesus thought what he was doing was acceptable. I felt like I was the bad one. Otherwise why would I be punished like this? Obviously, he knows more of this Jesus than I do, and thus he stands over us, meter stick in hand, with divine support behind him.
As an adult I realized he was simply an abuser, and I hated the Catholic Church for what they did to me. No one listened or saw us cry. No one noticed the lack of progress. To this day I have limited mathematical ability and see the supports children have now and wish I had the same.
I often pondered tracking him down and tearing a strip off of him. To see him feel pain and fear. However, I am doubtful that would of been successful as he is a very stubborn individual. I carried the pain, not knowing what to do. I carried my hatred of a church. It was a heavy load.
I found myself today wanting to let this burden go. To release this power an abuser had over me. How do you find this peace? Via lawsuits? Or angry letters?
In the end the only option I found was to forgive him, even though he has never apologized, and doesn’t recognize what happened. This was not easy. I decided that first I had to develop empathy for someone who hurt me so deeply.
Here is a man who goes to church every Sunday, and is trying to find answers. He misses the point every time.
(I am not a Christian, but I appreciate the teachings of this Jesus fellow when they are not distorted for political causes.) I myself have read many Buddhist texts and missed the point. I have also done things I regret that directly contradict what I have read. We are all learning to be better people, and sometimes we fail. By being angry at him I am yelling at him for failing, just as he had done to me, and not ending the cycle.
I visualized myself sitting at the desk as a larger person, as he approaches me with a list of things he’s done, hands shaking, and instead of teaching him a better way I scream hate in the same spirit. I don’t want to be that person. He at least taught me that without realizing it.
Later in my life, I worked with special needs individuals. I enjoyed it greatly. I got to be a support to them and when they struggled I learned to listen, really listen, as I know how it feels to not be able to articulate what one’s challenge is, but how wonderful it can feel when someone wants to work with you to figure it out. If this hadn’t happened, I would not of been able to touch the lives of others with challenges in a positive and genuine way.
He is now retired. All I can hope for is that the truth he seeks will come to him and change him for the better before his time in Samsara is done. As for me, I will just keep on learning because I can say with great confidence I am intelligent, capable, and stronger every day. Something the child version of me could never fathom.
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Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Yvette Hoitink/Flickr