I didn’t enjoy high school the first time round in the 1980s. I hid myself away under what I thought was a dramatic punk-chic haircut, my musical ability and clothes I remodeled from moth-balled treasures at the Salvation Army thrift shop. I was the extroverted loner who fit in everywhere and nowhere.
I’ve never shaken that feeling that I’m an outsider and now as a serial migrant I can’t help but wonder if I chased this life to pacify, or even validate, my unbelonging. The problem is that once you’ve stepped away from your first country, you cannot go back. I have changed too much and so has Canada. The benefit is that I have new perspectives, garnered through living in various cultures. I see different ways of doing things. I see choice, not limitations.
This time round at Milpera, I’m loving high school and I don’t feel like a complete outsider either. I’m constantly amazed by the children: their insatiable curiosity, their open faces, their appetite for learning, and their desire to be normal kids going to school. There is no malaise of teenage moodiness and entitlement hanging over Milpera and yet many of these young people have lived through more trauma than most of us will ever experience. The atmosphere is one of happiness and hope.
I’m sitting at the library writing this, watching for my group of kids from last week. I’ve brought small glass jars containing different types of loose teas — chai, jasmine, oolong, fruit, sencha. I’ve laid out my large notebook with some pens. The library staff has put up a new poster of the children wordsmithing with Miss Kiki.
My coordinator encourages over a group of Asian kids who chat amongst each other in the same language. They hesitate before sitting with me, iPods at the ready. I wonder if the kids with iPods are migrants. Milpera is a school for both refugee and migrant children. I do not want to distinguish between the two yet I’m embarrassed as I catch myself doing it automatically. Would a refugee have an iPod? Would a migrant come from a war torn African country? Why this need to categorize?
The kids laugh, loud loose laughs as I try to pronounce their names. We smell the teas and they wrinkle up their noses and turn down their lips at the stronger smells, so I pinch some into their hands to separate the frangrances: they like the cardamon and they pick out jasmine as a flower. We come up with words, but this group is excited and they joke amongst themselves, writing characters on my notepad. I ask them to explain the characters and they write out One Direction, Taylor Swift and the names of songs. I try to pull them back to creative writing but I sense I have lost them. I smile. They’re just kids who need a break between classes.
I understand. I know what it’s like to learn another language and be overwhelmed with headaches, dizziness and floating foreign words. These children are here to learn English and to get help with resettlement. English proficiency varies dramatically — some speak English, but cannot write it, some write it and read it but cannot pronounce the words, some have no English at all. Many of the refugee kids have missed out on chunks of their education.
I am not a teacher and I want creative writing to be fun. Some things will work one day but not the next, some ideas will work with certain kids but not others. If I’m ever to entice them over to the power of words I need to view this as a learning experience for me as well so I file it away in my writing toolkit.
Then I see one of my girls from last week. One of my girls. I muse over my use of the possessive pronoun. Isn’t it funny how quickly I’ve latched on to a familiar and interested person? I ask the others to make room at our table and I welcome her back.
I hand her the sheet of three poems that I’d written using her words and the words from the other kids last week. I’ve put all their names at the top of the page under the poem, because I want to instill in them a sense of ownership. She takes the sheet and sits back on the orange stool, reading it, her lips moving.
My Asian group excuses themselves politely, eager to get back to Taylor and One Direction. My African contingent decide they want to start their own word page so I pass around the teas again. They talk about the smell of one of the black teas, how it reminds them of a type of leaf they eat with rice. I spell out the word phonetically: ploweso.*
”When I smell this I miss my country.’’
I nod. I know what she means and I do not know, cannot know, because I was not forced as a child to flee my homeland.
The end-of-lunch bell rings and the girls don’t move. I give them sheets of poetry for the other kids and I hand the new poster to one of the girls. It has a photo of us working around the table together. I ask if she’d like to take it home over the holidays.
”There’s me,’‘ she says, holding the poster. Is that pride I sense in her smile?
”You girls better get to class.’’ I start putting the lids on the little jars. ”Only a few more days until the term ends and you’re on holiday.’’
”Miss, I’m going to miss you.’’
I brush tea leaves off the table into my hand, my heart full.
* Please contact me if you know the spelling or translation for this word.