I was standing in the middle of a field in Haiti with balls of tape and a swarm of young competitors. Blasts of lively music caught my attention and I gazed at the schoolyard across from the field where students of all ages were dressed in bright, blazing blue uniforms, marching to the beat of celebratory music. Just outside the chain link fence that surrounded the school was a little boy in tattered clothes peering intensely at the high knees. He drew his arms and began lifting his feet high to imitate the learners in the field. The blue marchers had been chosen for sponsorship in. They got to learn.
But success was beyond this little boy’s reach … Or was it? His movements were out of sync; He was alone and disadvantaged – wasn’t he?
I walked away from that schoolyard believing he was disadvantaged and his success in life would be dependant on sponsorship. What I didn’t see in that moment of time was that he was teaching me courage. I was the student, he was the teacher. The truth is, if you have a heartbeat, you are constantly teaching and learning. You are developing habits and perspectives and by your words and actions you are teaching others to see the world in certain ways too.
That boy in Haiti taught me that you can have “success” without significance, but is that really success at all? If, however, a life of significance is the aim, success of all kinds will follow.
That day in the Haitian field, that boy showed me what significance really looks like. He chose to be curious about the school, to do what he could to be connected to people, and to compose his own march, believing that he could make change for someone and that day, that someone was me.
He was a Curious. Connected. Composer.
Two of my students are currently teaching me more about this powerful life approach. Jacob Buffalo walked into my classroom last fall with passion and enthusiasm. He was determined to score high because he told me his grandma would beat him if he didn’t. She was the woman who cared. Only weeks into the school year Jacob’s enthusiasm dropped and his attendance tanked…
I was frustrated with his lack of engagement and attendance and frankly, his attitude. However, my frustration didn’t seem to be motivating him to change, go figure. I needed to be curious like the Haitian boy … One question without assumptions or judgment can transform a relationship and change the direction of a life. Jacob, are you ok? Jacob’s grandma had died. Jacob didn’t finish the semester as he’d imagined, but he did finish. He stayed curious about himself, his own life, his goals and hopes and he decided: This semester is not going how I’d hoped, but maybe there is another path I can forge from this point forward. And he did. In a sense, he picked up the pen, and decided to write his own grade ten story. Jacob’s curious approach and courageous effort would have made his grandma proud.
Joy walked into my math classroom last fall, wanting to hide in the back of the room. I noticed Joy’s arm was pulled inside her sweater – and I asked her if she had hurt her arm. At my question, Joy bolted out of the room in tears and I learned later about Joy’s amputation. Joy is a brave cancer survivor and my question was her worst fear. Later that day, I found her and spoke with her. She was angry and she could have asked to be removed from my class forever (I’m pretty sure she was tempted), but she remained curious about the situation and me. We talked for a long while, and her ability to remain curious allowed me to explain my mistake and paved the pathway for an incredible relationship. Later in the semester, I asked Joy to speak at an event where her story inspired hundreds of youth from across the province. She chose to live curious, to own her story, and tell it. Real connection can only come through writing our true stories – the good, the bad and the ugly.
That Haitian marching boy could be considered weak. But our weakest moments are true parts of our stories and these parts need to be told too, because they are true, and they are part of us, and sometimes our strongest action is to accept and own our greatest struggles.
Just a few weeks ago, a substitute teacher made the same comment I had made to Joy in the fall. I found her sobbing in the hallway. The substitute teacher had grabbed her shirtsleeve with laughter and had suggested she was lying about her amputated arm. She told me she wasn’t just upset about the teacher’s insensitivity … she said, it’s all of it Miss Cey! Everyday I wish I had my arm, And today I can’t stop thinking about the day I had to shave my head … And I wish this wasn’t my life but it is! I asked her if she would pick up her pen and write her story about the day she shaved her head, and she did.
In her letter, Joy told about her hair falling out in mats, she told about trying to hide, she told about looking in the mirror and having someone else look back at her. Joy signed her story as: 11-year-old girl almost done grade 6 and had to leave school so she wouldn’t die.
Joy chose Connection. She wrote. She cried. She acknowledged the difficulty of her story. Her courage in her most difficult moments births connection, empathy and hope.
That very same day Joy was writing her story at the high school library table, Jacob sat frustrated at a computer just meters away. He was supposed to write a research paper about the 18th century in Britain. He couldn’t care less about the 18th century in Britain, and quite honestly, in that moment, neither did I. I did know that Jacob cares about his future and is interested in rap, so we began to study the life of the composer John Braham. Jacob developed an inquiry question: What was it that made John Braham so successful? We found out that Braham’s most successful and well-noted song was called The Death of Nelson and this song united a hurting nation with Hope after the war.
You and I, and Jacob live in a hurting Nation today too. A Nation in need of reconciliation, and the process can feel slow and the impact of generations of disunity is being felt and experienced by Canadian students, teachers, families and the country at large. It’s up to you and I and Jacob to continue to lead our Nation forward, and to impact Canada as Braham did Britain so that we can all write another story for the next generation. Jacob chose connection that day at the computer and a powerful essay took shape.
A few days later, Jacob came to school with another sad story. His cousin had passed away. In these painful moments, if we choose to live curious and connected, we can become the greatest composers.
This year, Joy spent hours painting and honing her skill painting and writing with her left hand, although she was born right handed. She has owned her story with words and composes messages of hope with paint.
Jacob composes rap music and the day after he told me about his cousin, he said, Miss Cey, We all have rhymes and stories to tell and we express it through our pen and paper…
We have a lot of quiet minds…We can’t talk because we get interrupted everytime. If I have a dollar or a dime – everytime – I get quiet I be rich. Sometimes I feel left behind because the way we heal is to talk about our problems. Why is it so hard to combine some of these rhymes when one of my cousins died I can see right now is nothing but grey. I’m talking about my truth there’s just so much to do so I’m in with the new but I like old. Some people think that’s bold. When I heard, I felt cold. But we can heal people – because we’re equal… This song proves to all the people who think we’re quiet … Proves you wrong – this song is called quiet minds but I won’t shut these blinds.
Joy composes paintings and Jacob, rap songs. What is it for you? What are you passionate about? Simon Sinek says, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”
That doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Jacob’s history essay is taking some serious discipline and Joy told me her left arm aches when she writes. On the days I don’t feel like being curious, connected or composing anything, I look up on my office wall and am reminded by Joy’s painting, Jacob’s rap and images from Haiti, to pick up my pen and keep writing my story.
Albert Einstein says, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” I would argue: “Once you stop this kind of learning – the kind that changes you – you start dying.”
Maybe the courage of the Haitian boy and his determined marching can be the motivating spark for me and for you to pick up our feet too. Maybe the story of his passion, his desire to be a curious, connected composer can inspire you to live this way too. And maybe you will choose to lift your feet to empower others like Him. Maybe your story can change his.
It has been said, “The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” Choosing to be curious, connected and to be a composer is a daily choice. It’s a significant way to live and it really can change your world. When I first saw that young Haitian boy, I assumed that success was beyond his reach. I was wrong.
I think that he depends on us and we on him. I think that the little one marching outside the fence was the strongest of all. He had learned to own his story, even in his rags. He took the most significant steps he could and his steps were more remarkable than those marching with sponsorship and support.
Will you pick up your feet, even when you feel weak and will you pick up your pen even before anyone is reading your words, and will you acknowledge the deep significance of your weakest days and draw the courage to build and share your strengths? Will you accept a life of teaching and learning and find that the most successful life, no, the most significant life, is spent being curious, connected and composing? Will you always choose to sign your story with hope for others to read? An 11 year old who had to leave school so she wouldn’t die, a grade ten rapper with something to say, and an isolated Haitian boy will be remembered for living lives of significance because they chose to compose. They chose to compose Hope in a world ready to be transformed by their song.