Bridges and Barriers

Title Image for Sister Triangle Article "Bridges and Barriers"

by Harmony McMillan

 

“If we have no peace, it is because 

we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.

                                          -Mother Teresa

 

A couple of years ago, I worked with a group of Grade 8 students on a project called “Craft Reconciliation”.  The nation-wide challenge was to use Minecraft to create a city that represented our vision for reconciliation in Canada.  Along the way, schools were invited to share in conversations about “what reconciliation looks like” in their local contexts.  Our classroom, made up of primarily First Nations students, partnered with a classroom in Newfoundland, made up of primarily non-First Nations students.  Both schools are uniquely tied by their membership to the Jesuit Schools Network.

 

The students in Newfoundland began by sharing about their experiences with reconciliation as a religious sacrament, an act of confession within the Catholic church.  In response, our students spoke about reconciliation as a concept entirely rooted in relationships.  Reconciliation meant friendship, unity, peace, harmony and bridge-building. I was so intrigued by their open and honest, yet distinctly different, perceptions of reconciliation.  The dialogue between the two groups of 14-year-olds was friendly and respectful. Neither group’s definition was more accurate than the other, yet I couldn’t help but admire the depth of understanding expressed by our students.  They didn’t talk about reconciliation like a factual concept to be grasped and explained, but a deeply needed reality to be experienced and felt and lived out in their homes, schools, and communities. And despite the very real brokenness and pain in many of their own lives, they spoke with a brave hopefulness for reconciliation in our country. 

 

What they would later create together in Minecraft blew me away (and the competition; they ended up winning the challenge).  They honoured the truth of our painful history with broken-down homes, representing the traumatic and long-standing effects of residential schools. They created spaces for healing, like hospitals, language schools and sanctuaries devoted to conversation and understanding.  They built churches (in their words, “a place for everyone, of all backgrounds”), schools, libraries and restaurants to draw people together in community. Bridges connected the community at the heart, where beacons of light shone out into the dark sky.

 

This wouldn’t be the last time my students would be my best teachers when it comes to reconciliation.  My role as an educator at Mother Teresa Middle School places me within an incredible community of people practicing reconciliation together. The everyday reality for us is rarely neat and tidy, or straight-forward, or without questions, struggles or uncertainties, but it is most certainly beautiful.  We are reminded often that “we belong to one another”, and we press into that vision of kinship. My personal journey with understanding reconciliation has been a similarly bending and sometimes bumpy road. There are barriers and bridges along this pathway to reconciliation, and slowly, I am learning to notice them sooner.

 

I arrived at this unique school after 8 years of teaching in affluent communities.  For a long time, my heart was drawn to the inner city, but I was afraid.  I was afraid of failing. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to build relationships.  I was afraid of the unknown. Like so many of us, my fear was a barrier that held me back from stepping into new opportunities and open doors. I was afraid of what I didn’t know, what made me uncomfortable, and what I couldn’t control. 

 

Learning about First Nations spirituality from loved and deeply respected friends and elders has been one of the most beautiful gifts I have received at Mother Teresa Middle School, but I admit that I haven’t always stepped into these sacred experiences comfortably, or without fear.  From my place of privilege, I am used to entering most spaces with ease and comfort.  I’m used to being in control and I’m used to knowing what to expect. I am learning that I need to show up in spaces of difference, with humility, curiosity, and a willingness to learn and to receive. Thanks to my gracious indigenous friends, I am learning to smudge, to sweat, to bead, to scrape a buffalo hide, to sit shoulder to shoulder in a pipe ceremony and listen carefully to the wise teachings of elders.  I used to be surprised by the blessings of these new experiences, but now I know to expect them! 

 

Along this journey, I often find myself running into the roadblock of judgment. I’m amazed by how quickly I reach for the measuring stick to compare and evaluate an approach or way of life that is different from my own.  Jesuit priest and author, Gregory Boyle writes, “Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other”.  I am slowly learning to let go of that measuring stick, the need to analyze and that need for perceived rightness, and instead, to settle my mind and heart into a space of openness and receptivity. “Wage peace with your listening”, writes poet Judyth Hill.  To move towards one another in peace, we need to learn to listen to one another without judging.  As Boyle also says, “Judgment, after all, takes up the room you need for loving”.

 

Like I said earlier, it wasn’t the last time my students would teach me about reconciliation.  Earlier this year, my Grade 6 students planned a “Welcome to Canada” party for newly arrived refugees to Regina.  We brainstormed various learning centres, each station highlighting an aspect of Canadian culture.  Several students insisted that one of the centres should be titled, “We Teach, You Teach”.

Bridges and Barriers Article Picture 2 - Students Playing Games

Photo Credit: Mike Dubois

The students would introduce a new English word, and then the refugees would reciprocate by teaching the students a word from their language. While I was stuck on transmitting knowledge, my students were keenly aware of the importance of receiving knowledge from their guests. This simple gesture was a beautiful image of reciprocity.  The bridge from fear and judgment to reconciliation is marked by this kind of mutuality in our relationships with one another.  

 

At the end of the party, the students planned for our First Nations drummers (“The Buffalo Boys”) and dancers to close the event with a round dance.

Bridges and Barriers Article Picture 2 - Students in Classroom

Photo Credit: Mike Dubois

I can’t think of a more inviting, inclusive space to welcome new friends to our country.  A refugee from Afghanistan was welcomed into the drum circle and started to sing and play alongside the boys.  We circled the drum, hand-in-hand, laughing and smiling across the room at one another.  

 

As we danced, I recalled the vision of reconciliation imagined by our Grade 8 students: Bridges connecting us, beacons of light shining into the dark sky.

 

Links:

Our Vision of Reconciliation https://youtu.be/1A0nLmVHTJU

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle

Wage Peace by Judyth Hill

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Headshot of Harmony McMillanAbout the Author

Harmony is a proud prairie girl with a bad case of the travel bug! She happily spends her days teaching the Grade 6 students at Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina.  Harmony’s favourites include: singing, sports, bike rides, party-planning and most especially, her nieces and nephews! She is deeply thankful for the strong roots of faith in her family and continually amazed by the goodness and grace of God.

6 Comments

  1. Barbara Slywka on March 23, 2020 at 10:41 am

    Wonderful and meaningful words, Harm. Thank you. Such a significant thought – “Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other.”

    • Harmony McMillan on March 25, 2020 at 11:48 am

      Thank you, Barb! I can highly recommend Father Greg’s books!

  2. Cymone on March 24, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    Very nice read Harmony. Everywhere You go and everyone you meet will be touched by your beautiful smile and genuine kind heart ❤️.

    • Harmony McMillan on March 25, 2020 at 11:49 am

      Hey, C! Thanks for reading and thanks for the love!

  3. Idelette on March 25, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    This is beautiful and hopeful. Thank you for facilitating these kinds of mutual learning spaces.
    O, you and these students give me hope. Thank you!

    • Harmony McMillan on March 25, 2020 at 10:16 pm

      Thank you, Idelette! I hope that you will come visit us at MTMS someday!! I would love to introduce you to these awesome kids, and I would love to introduce these awesome kids to YOU!

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