Open Letter to the Principal of Churchill Alternative School (and other educators)

To:
Megan Egerton, Principal
Churchill Alternative School
Ottawa, Ontario

June 7, 2011

Dear Ms Egerton.

I would have preferred to speak with you in person but I was denied that opportunity. Instead, I have reluctantly decided to communicate with you in this way. It may be public, but it seems my only choice.

Kids. They’ll break your heart. Kids with broken hearts, well…they’ll make you wish you had a heart of stone, because the tears keep coming. But you know what will break you down until you feel you can’t fight the good fight anymore? That dubious honour belongs to those in the public school system who insist on making parents jump through hoops in order to have their child’s learning needs met.

My husband and I have two wonderful sons together, aged eight and five. One of them has freckles and the other has half a heart. Literally. His condition is called tricuspid atresia with atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect. Sounds complicated? It is. Deadly? Yeah, that too.

Isaac’s life expectancy is an unknown, but it is certainly much lower than average. Despite having had three open-heart surgeries before the age of three (not to mention a bowel dissection, due to a mistake in the ICU, subsequent resection, and half dozen or so minor surgeries) he has a 50/50 chance of his current condition (which is good but not excellent) to start degrading and complications to arise at around 10 years post-last surgery. That’ll bring him to the ripe old age of 13. If things go south in a significant way, he’ll need a heart transplant- the only option left to him. A new heart, despite the hope it promises, does NOT fill me with hope. The prospect fills me with dread.

Isaac’s spirit, by contrast, is well known. He feels things in extremes. Joy and sadness walk side by side with him. His experience of fear is something nobody should live through, but that’s what early trauma, several cardiac arrests and scary hospital sights and sounds will do to the young, PTSD-susceptible brain. As I’ve mentioned, hearts of stone are called for.

I don’t have one of those.

Isaac’s beautiful brain seems to work OK, albeit with a few quirks. But it’s those quirks that are causing him difficulty. Either because he takes after his excessively brilliant, quirky father or because his experiences have shaped him that way, Isaac learns in ways that are more tactile and experiential. His first year of school was a frustrating one and he began to fall behind.

And because of this, there is no place for him in the public school system at this time. Or so it would seem from my dealings with the school of which you are in charge.

We’re looking at a private school for him next year but I also wanted to check out an alternative school- YOUR alternative school- we’re lucky enough in Ottawa to have.

What. A. Mistake.

Not only was I unable to speak with you, the actual principal, the receptionist was rude and incredibly dismissive. I could hear in her voice that her job was to “protect” her principal from these people who dare to think their children somehow “deserve” an education that might fit them better than that of a regular school. Because we don’t live in the school’s zone (catchment area), she said we were out of luck. End of story. Good-bye-and-I-really-don’t-care-that-your-sick-kid-will-fall-through-the-cracks. It’s not my problem.

What bothered me most is that I found myself feeling apologetic for making the call. I bought right into her mistreatment and said not a word in protest. I felt badly for bothering her and for so stupidly assuming that I had a right to speak to someone as busy as an elementary school principal about a topic as irrelevant as my son actually, you know…attending said-same elementary school!

I hung up. I blinked a few times. Then I awoke from my stupor.

I called back.

I spoke with the same woman and told her to what extent she had crossed the line and that I hoped she would not treat others that way; that I was merely trying to find a workable education solution for my son, who has problems. She placated me, but I’m not convinced she was sincere.

Then I bawled my eyes out. Bitter, bitter tears, they were.

I didn’t speak to you, the principal.  I want to know what you intend to do about this gate-keeper mentality that is completely and utterly inappropriate in a publicly-funded educational institution.

I want to know why I couldn’t even speak with you. As a leader of a place that has solutions for children like Isaac, I’d like to hear what you might suggest as possible other alternatives.

I wanted a conversation. I wanted help. What I got was dismissal.

Isaac got NOTHING.

Q: How is this OK?

A: It’s not.

Q: I mean if alternative schools don’t exist for children like Isaac, who are they there for?

A: Beats me.

Q: And where does that leave Isaac?

A: NOWHERE.

His life will be short and it will be filled with frustration that comes  from physical and academic marginalization. The latter for no other reason than some people can’t be bothered to help despite it being their job to do so.

Yours in sincere  frustration,

Jeanette Doucet

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Running With Mo

I’m in a running rut. It’s been the better part of a year since I’ve run with any consistency, but I call myself a runner just the same. Despite an inauspicious running debut (I took up the sport out of spite but that’s another blog post), running has been a part of my life since 1996. I’m still running 15 years later, but today I run for me.

I’ve run at home in Cape Breton and through a frigid and equally glorious Arctic winter. I’m pretty slow but my stamina is quite good. Running has been the constant in my life through career changes, cross-country moves, pregnancies, injury and baby open-heart surgeries. It has brought me more than I ever thought possible, including friendship and my “outing” as a pro-choice feminist.

When our first-born was nine months old, I joined a Strollercize group. One of the other moms running was a feisty red-head who I’ll call Mo. Mo seemed no-nonsense, confident and strong. She was…cool. I liked her instantly and made it my business to get to know her. We kept running. We soon learned we were both recovering Catholics and both staunchly pro-choice. We ran our first 10k race together. We became friends.

My own pro-life hypocrisy had met a glorious end in 1991 when I chose an abortion when faced with an unintended pregnancy. My pro-choice education came in waves and my feminist philosophy evolved as the years passed. I knew in my heart that I would some day commit myself to a cause that was close to me and related to feminist issues. Sexual assault? Too close for comfort. Childhood sexual abuse? Ditto. Abortion? Possibly, but at what cost? People who advocate for reproductive freedom paint a set of cross-hairs on themselves. I didn’t think I had the courage to take on that fight.

Then I met that feisty red-head.

She had a few years on me and she had spent many of them dedicated to this very issue. She invited me to join her and her friends in the fight for reproductive access in Canada. I didn’t hesitate. Fate had found me and who was I to argue?

It’s been almost eight years since she and I first met. We still run together when life craziness allows. Our kids play together. She has been a great friend and she has been a mentor. She’s moving away in a few days (for only two years, thankfully) so it’ll be a while until we run together again. Ottawa Race Weekend 2013 sounds like as good a time as any, wouldn’t you say, Mo?

I’ll be getting back into running in the next little while. I plan to kick things up a notch with a fitness coach to help me cross-train more effectively and safely. It’ll be tough but the incentive is strong.  I have an important running date to keep, after all.

See you in two years, my friend!

Lived Experience of Gendered Poverty

I hear a lot of talk in Canada that women have achieved equality. Heck, even our Supreme Anointed Leader Prime Minister says so. Oh, really?

Let’s talk about starting points and about getting ahead in life. Let’s talk about whether or not being born a girl in Canada impacts how far you can get from that starting point. I can’t speak for all women in this country and all the communities they represent, so let me talk about me and mine.

I grew up as a member of one of the three marginalized groups in the province of Nova Scotia. Linguistically, culturally and geographically we were set apart. Think of it this way: if life is a road race and communities are the runners, I and other members of my community would be starting near the very back of the pack. As a female member of that community, I was at the back of the back of the pack.

I may not have had money or a penis, but I did have brains. I went away to university and became a teacher (no time/money to linger and explore what may have actually interested me) and accumulated huge debt. But hey, university education gives you a huge edge, right? In theory.

In practice, repaying huge accumulated debt claws back at said advantage pretty significantly. Not to mention winding up in the wrong career because you had to complete your studies in as timely and cheaply a manner as possible. Repaying that debt impacted my timing in career shift, in starting a family, in buying a first home.

Eventually I did start that family, once the debt was paid off. Smart, eh? Finally, we’re getting somewhere.

Meh.

Staying at/returning to my home community was not a viable option. Employment opportunities are slim to nil, and most often seasonal. So my husband and I live far from home and from family supports.

One career change later, I’m well behind the pack. Earning power is compromised. My industry counterparts have five years on me and likely had less debt to begin with.

I fall behind.

Baby number one = one-year *maternity leave. One year of earning power gone. One year of work experience gone.

I fall behind.

Another kid and another maternity leave. Career and earning power are further compromised.

I fall behind.

Two wonderful kiddies. Kiddies get sick (some kiddies get really sick, but that’s another blog post). There are no grand-parents or aunties and uncles nearby to look after the kids when they can’t go to school or daycare.

Because I live far from home and family. Because I had to leave. Because I started from behind.

I miss work. My dependability as an employee is questioned. My career suffers.

I fall behind.

Meanwhile, father unit has not taken parental leave and his career has flourished. I earn about 60 cents for every dollar he earns despite having a higher level of education than he has. Given his salary, his job is more or less accepted as being more important than mine and sacrifices are made in keeping with that. All else being equal, I will be the one to take time off for kiddies’ medical appointments, parent-teacher interviews and other progeny-related obligations.

I fall behind.

So much for equality.

*I can hear the howls of protests now- “there’s legislated full-year parental leave AND fathers (in the case of heterosexual partnerships) have the option of taking leave now, too. The women’s movement fought for those things and won.” Indeed, it did. But those gains merely begin to level the playing field. And don’t even get me started about what parents are paid while on leave depending on whether they’re “topped up” or not