My Legacy of Residential School 2022
Pope Francis came to Canada to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in residential schools in summer of 2022. His visit stirred up many emotions, and opened wounds. I submit that it’s these stories being told and retold that give rise to our suffering. 150,000 children entered residential schools; and some never made it home. The legacy of residential schools has impacted many generations. We talk of the trauma, the hurt, the disempowerment, but how often do you hear stories of the resilience, and the strengths despite the horror?
I am a residential school survivor; I was in Holy Angels residential school for 8 years.
I want my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren to know I was resilient. As a child I was curious, and loved learning, reading any book I would get my hands on. In the early days it was always Christianity books about martyrs. In my teenage years I enjoyed mysticism and witchcraft.
I have a weird quirk in my brain, called aphantasia it is the inability to create images in my brain. I wrote about it when I first discovered I had it.
“I tasted it, and that was all I got. A one-time deal. I can’t taste it again in my imagination.” – Brian Leibold. It was discovered in 1880, and coined in 2015 by cognitive and behavioral neurology scientist, Adam Zeman in the UK.
What this means for me, is that I don’t see images in my head. Crazy! And it means that I have a condition that only 1 to 3% of the world’s population has. It never occurred to me even to investigate this phenomenon. I never knew that people have a superpower of generating pictures just using their mind! Who would have thought?
Incidentally during a conversation with my daughter, I discovered I could not visualize what she was saying. Whenever I shut my eyes all I get is darkness I can’t picture anything in my head at all. I also don’t hear sounds in my head, like music either.
It was an aha! moment for me, when I discovered it, I suddenly understood why I am geographically challenged. I cannot envision lakes, rivers or roads on a map. And further it now made perfect sense that when I was talking to designers who were designing either my layout of the kitchen, bathroom, or landscaping I could not envision what they were creating until it was completed, and I could see in in a drawing or in 3D.
Until then I always thought that when people said they saw images in their mind it was more like a metaphor … or like remembering. It is interesting to find out because I never knew what it meant to imagine something visually. I always thought that it was an intellectual process and not a situation of conjuring up a visual image with the mind. This knowledge does not change anything, although it does help me understand to some extent how my brain works.
For me, I connect through my feelings. My memory works by connecting events that have taken place directly to how I felt about it. When I tried to remember somebody, I don’t get an image of them in my head; instead, I get a feeling of them. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author, wrote a book titled The Man who mistook his wife for a hat.
It is difficult to explain. I think it is like all the data is stored in my brain on a hard drive and can be reassembled when needed. But it is not stored as a picture.
That is freaky because if – like most people – you can see in pictures it must be hard to believe that others can’t do what seems so natural to you.
Later in life, I read health books, neurology, philosophy, nonfiction, and biographies.
I strive to push my boundaries past my fears. I studied at the University of Warsaw in my early 20s, I went snorkeling in the great barrier reef in my thirties, even though I am afraid of the sea. I went sailing in Fiji. I love traveling. I began studying Buddhism and picked up meditation again which I first learned while at university, to help me study. I don’t know what fears I will face in my 60s and 70s, 80s and 90s, all I know is I will continue to push through my fears.
As a youth I made choices in my life and took specific a path away from chaos and dysfunction. I was one of 16 children, I had ten brothers and five sisters. I was the youngest girl.
I can’t think of the specific moment when I decided I would not drink alcohol. I am very stubborn, and not susceptible to peer pressure.
Maybe it was when I saw an older brothers tied to a chair because as a drunk he was violent, or maybe when an older sister who was hungover and moody after coming back from a binge drinking, or maybe it was my mom yelling at drunks to go home who came to the house to buy alcohol, or maybe it was seeing a yellow room with blood stains splattered on the walls and or seeing an older sister with a broken arm because her husband beat her when he drank. The point is, there is no shortage of the negative impact of drinking in my childhood and I had no use for it in my life.
I made a choice to make a different life for myself. I remember working the night shift as a summer student at a youth detention center in Edmonton (YDC), one of our charges was acting out and I witness the social workers put her in one of the lock cells, screaming and kicking. It was traumatizing to watch. I wondered what pain she was going through to act out so violently.it was the first time I connected trauma with emotional outbursts. I worked on a closed unit for more violent youth. It was here I developed compassion for youth; I could see the goodness in them, no matter what they were in for.
Back to the resilience I spoke about earlier, I bet if we thought about it, we could come up with many stories of resilience. The first time I stood up to a nun who slapped me, I silently stared at her and did not shed a tear after the slap that echoed in the room. I remember that moment poignantly, I remember thinking it hurt! The nun said I couldn’t see the movie that evening as punishment, but I knew I would anyway. And I did.
When the movie began, I silently crept down the stairs from the fourth-floor dormitory and sat on the last step, when the movie ended and I heard the students clapping, and I ran back upstairs to bed.
If you are a former residential student, I invite you to look at examples of your resilience and share that story. These are the stories we should be sharing, stories of triumph, determination, courage, and strength. In addition to Sunday night moves, we played bingo, and had weekend trips to the lake and ran wild on the hills.
I developed creative problem solving in residential school, and the knowledge that we are not alone in our suffering. We make a choice, what stories we decide to tell. Will it be about pain and victimhood, or will it be about our resilience, strength, and courage? It is your story to tell, make it one that gives you strength, and pass that strength to the next generation. In my Podcast Empathic Witness, I search for stories of resilience, bravery, and tenacity. I understand that the horrors must not be forgotten, at the same time frame your story in a way that frees you from being a victim, like the story above where the nun slapped me, I decided to embrace my power, I didn’t allow her to punish me, and listened to the movie on the steps by myself. it’s a brief story of my resilience as an eight-year-old girl. When I tell the story I feel brave.