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The first time I heard the words “your people” applied to me, I was in grade four. We were having a culture fair. We would do a project on our heritage, and then both fourth grade classes would gather in the gym, and everyone would take turns presenting. We were supposed to bring a snack that represented our culture.
Miss Thompson told us about multiculturalism. We were all from different backgrounds, she said, but we were all welcome in Canada. The only kid who was a real Canadian, she said, was Mike. Mike was an Indian – well he was back then. Now I suppose he’s Native American. Miss Thompson said he was a real Canadian; his people were here before the explorers, and now they live on reserves to keep their culture alive. Miss Thompson asked Mike to demonstrate an Indian War Cry, and Mike said he didn’t know how. Mike’s dad was a doctor and wasn’t into all that reserve stuff. When Miss Thompson insisted, he did like the movies: he made his mouth into an O and pounded his hand against his lips. Miss Thompson was appeased.
Then all of us had to say what our heritage was. Some kids were immigrants. More were the children of immigrants. A few Poles. A few Italians. One Portuguese. A number British. One kid was French – his great-grandparents had come from France. When it was my turn, I said I was Canadian.
“Where are your parents from, Samantha?” Miss Thompson asked.
“And their parents?”
“Canada,” I repeated, sheepishly.
“But your family must have come from someplace else originally. Were your people slaves who escaped north from the States?”
I don’t think she meant anything by it. My Mom later told me some people were just ignorant, and that included teachers.
“No, Miss Thompson. We’re Canadian.” I answered, although I was beginning to doubt myself. I didn’t know where we were from before Canada. This was the first time I was told we had to be from somewhere else.
“Well you’re African. Why not do a project on Africa?”
“But I’m Canadian!” I protested. “Why can’t I do a project on that?”
“Michael is already doing Canada. No one else is from Africa. It’s good to embrace our differences.” Miss Thompson said.
“But other people are doing the same place. Why can’t we?” I wheedled.
“You don’t have to be ashamed, Samantha. You should be proud of your heritage.”
That was the end of the discussion. My Dad’s family was Irish, but I didn’t think to tell that to Miss Thompson. Or maybe I wasn’t sure that she’d believe me. There was one book in the school library about Africa. It was a children’s storybook about Anansi. When I got home I complained to my mother. I didn’t want to do Anansi. I didn’t know what kind of food I could bring. As soon as my mother got in from work, I immediately confronted her about my school assignment.
“Sometimes it’s easiest to do as you’re told,” my mother advised. But she was upset enough to telephone Miss Thompson at the school. I was told to leave the room. Eventually, Mom called me back, and informed me that I was to do the project on Anansi.
“But Mom, I hate spiders!”
“Just learn about Anansi, and I’ll find something for you to take in.”
That was the end of the argument. I took in a fried banana treat and talked about the trickster spider. I lied about the snack and said my Mom made it all the time; really she got the recipe from a neighbour and never made it again. She didn’t like bananas. Paul told us that every year his Uncle in Poland sent a special Communion wafer so that everyone in their family could have a piece. Stephanie wore her mother’s red shawl over her sweater to show her Portuguese heritage. My presentation was shortest. I felt lacking, somehow. My family was so typical, unlike all these other families. We didn’t have any special cookies or meaningful scarves.
Thinking about it now, I realize some of the other kids must have picked traditions out of books, or were talking about their grandparents rather than their parents’ way of doing things. Mike, certainly, never did a tribal dance in his life before this point. Mike played soccer; he didn’t go to powwows. We never really thought of him as Indian; he was just Mike—he played on the AA hockey team and got straight C’s. I had the biggest secret crush on him in seventh grade. But he had a thing with Lindsey, who was skinny and had blond hair down to her waist. My body was awkward and chubby. I knew better than to compete.