Legends of Myself 63

Posted on February 25, 2013

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Hazelton_Hospital63.  Hazelton, 1959-1960:  The Middle Row

After the local late nineteen century gold rush was over (which was very quickly) and once again after the railway-induced land rush at the beginning of the 20th century which left the original site of Hazelton off to the side—out of the mainstream—facing a real danger of irrelevance, it was probably the existence of surrounding Aboriginal populations—providing labour and business—which allowed the community to remain viable.  Even Hazelton Hospital, founded in 1904, which gave the village the saving grace of a regionally important institution, came about with the help of a grant of a precious 99 acres of land from the already grievously shrunken territories of the Gitanmaax.

Since no remote country hospital needs 99 acres merely to build upon, the donation from the local First Nation has to be considered as a sustaining grant as well.

(And which was also wisely made.  The Europeans brought disease and other ailments to Gitxsan territory when they moved in, of which Aboriginal people got more than their fair share.  Doctors were needed.)

In the late 1950s, the (White) folks of Hazelton probably came to the realization that they could build a much more impressive school—with separate classrooms for all the separate grades, for instance—if they had a larger student body.  Racial integration would solve that problem.

Until 1959, the year I moved to Hazelton, Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian children had gone to school separately there.  Of course, I knew nothing of that.  That school down the street from our log cabin may as well have been there forever in my view of things, since it was there the moment before I arrived.  And I’d often—in fact, mostly—attended integrated classrooms already, so the presence of White children in the classroom in Hazelton meant very little to me.

It was the teacher who made an impression.  I picture her blonde, I think pretty, I would guess in her twenties, standing in front of the class, but not in front of my part of the class.  Somehow in memory she is always over there to the right.

Was she a skilled teacher?  In terms of reading, writing and arithmetic, I can’t say I recall a single lesson from Grade Four, unlike, for instance, Port Essington from the year before.  I discovered science fiction as a literary genre somewhere then, but, although auspicious, that came from my own explorations, not direction from her.  There was a set of “scholastic” fiction in the back corner, made available during classroom reading time.  I recall a story about a microbe in a cave, doubling in size every hour, which would have permitted it to overrun the world if it continued.  (It didn’t.)

Although her lessons may have sunk beneath memory, I remember my fourth grade teacher’s schoolyard reputation clearly.  The attitude of my fellow students towards her veered to the worshipful, which devolved naturally upon her five year old daughter as well.  The speculation among my classmates was that the little girl was a genius.  Oh, she must be.

Unfortunately the respect flowing from student to teacher did not necessarily flow back.

The separate schools which existed in Hazelton prior to 1959 might be explained as the outcome of a law which, in respect of “Indians”, placed matters that were otherwise in the charge of the provinces and local authorities—such as education—instead in the charge of the Federal government.  But there was more than a legal distinction involved in that particular arrangement of things.  There was also a strong Eurocentric social distinction which held Aboriginal people (and not only Aboriginal people) to be inferior, an inferiority accentuated by (natural) social-geographic separateness.

drinking fountainsSeparateness, like bars that Aboriginal people couldn’t drink in.

Like Indian reserves.

Like apartheid.

Like White and Negro drinking fountains in Alabama.

Like sitting in the back of the bus.

Like rows in a classroom separating clever children from dumb.

If I remember nothing of my teacher’s name, and recall nothing from her curriculum, I remember clearly what she thought of Aboriginal people.  Our school may have been integrated, but our classroom was not.

At the beginning of the year, our teacher divided up the children according to her notions of our intellectual capacity.  The classroom had four rows.  The two rows furthest from the window she designated for the “smart” children.  All the children in those rows were White.  The row closest to the window she designated for the “dumb” children.  All the children she assigned to that row were Aboriginal.  The row between was for in-betweeners—for those not smart but not quite dumb—which was where she placed me.

I’m not sure when I realized for sure that I didn’t belong in the middle row.  I know I was agnostic about believing it even that year, and as evidence I took note of the spelling bee and how that turned out.  The teacher had the students all lined up along the walls, each attempting to spell a word in their turn, with those who made a mistake having to sit down.  I spelled my word whenever my turn came along, and after the contest had rounded the walls a few times, there were at last only two people standing, me and a girl.  All the so-called “smart kids” had been eliminated.  The two survivors were both from the middle row.

Why was that? I thought.

I had doubts.  I had a father to teach me different over many years to follow.  But what happened in that classroom was dangerous.

It is dangerous to lie to children because children will believe you.  It is dangerous to lie to yourself, because you’ll see what you believe.  When the lie is race, you can even create what you believe, especially in places like a classroom, because people teach to expectations.  If you think a child is incapable of learning, you will often fail to teach them.  If a child is told that they are incapable of learning, they will often fail to learn.

Because she was a fourth grade teacher, my teacher in Hazelton was a dangerous woman, reaching and distorting minds incapable of judging and therefore rejecting her lessons.  She taught the White children that they were smarter than Aboriginal children.  That was a contemptible lesson.  She taught the Aboriginal children that they were less intelligent than the White children.  That was worse.  Lessons learned so young from a source so respected are deep lessons, very difficult to dislodge.  They insensibly become a part of yourself, of the way you see yourself and others, of the way you see the world.

How many who attended her classes still keep alive the meaning of her classroom geography lesson somewhere inside their minds?  In what part of the classroom do they sit, I wonder, the smart rows or the dumb rows, when they sit among their Hazelton neighbours?

Yes, it was a betrayal, pure and simple, what happened in that Hazelton classroom, a betrayal of the students, of the community, of education itself.  That teacher was perhaps the worst, the most destructive I met in a childhood that encountered many classrooms.  But it was 1959, Canada, and I don’t expect she ever suffered for it.

Posted in: autobiography