Originally published September 26, 2016 on Cambridgelearns by Kelli Vogstad
Over forty years ago, six year old Phyllis Webstad lived with her grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. They had very little money, but some how Phyllis’ grandmother managed to save enough to buy Phyllis a brand new orange shirt for her first day of school. Wearing her treasured orange shirt, Phyllis entered the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, outside of Williams Lake, BC. The mission quickly stripped off her new orange shirt and replaced it with the school’s institutional uniform. Phyllis shares her story and her memories of feeling unworthy and insignificant in the video below. She recalls all the children crying, frightened, and feeling that no one cared. No teacher was telling them that they would be okay and that they mattered.
Phyllis’ moving story is the nucleus for what has become a national movement to recognize the experience of survivors of Indian residential schools, to honour them, and to show a collective commitment to ensure that every child matters. The initiative calls for every Canadian to wear an orange shirt on September 29 in the spirit of healing and reconciliation. Phyllis’ story also reminds me of how important our role is as teachers. We are often the first person a child comes in contact as they enter our school. At school, teachers work together to send a message to all our students that we care, that they are safe, and that they matter.
Orange Shirt Day is this Friday, September 29th. It is an opportunity for First Nations, local governments, schools, and communities to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope for generations of children to come. The date for Orange Shirt day was chosen because it is the time of year in which children were taken from their homes to residential schools and because it is an opportunity to set the stage for anti-racism and anti-bullying policies for the coming school year.
Today we have the capacity and the opportunities to make our lives different from those that came before us. Phyllis’ story stands to remind us all that we can make a difference in the lives of our children and students, helping them feel worthy of love, respect, and belonging.
I am struck by the importance of our responsibilities as parents and teachers. As parents and teachers, we are in the business of person-making. The cultures we create in our homes, classrooms, and schools, the interactions we use, and the activities and tasks we ask children to do, can make important differences in their lives and who they become. Who we are in our homes and in our classrooms can have profound influences on who our children and students become. These are important understandings we must remember as we work to create environments that will have positive effects on our children. This is not always an easy task.
My belief, and my hope, is that the stories we remember and share from our pasts, stories such as Phyllis’, help us to become better people. As I continue working in schools with teachers, students, and their families, I must remember I am an agent of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions which I bring to classrooms and schools influence and impact students’ own journeys to becoming who they are and the stories they will share.
Our challenge is to accept, value, and nurture our students’ developing selves in an effort to help all of them feel a strong and positive sense of belonging. We must remember, the way we live together in our classrooms and our school, and the way in which we appreciate each other’s struggles to become who we are, can make a lasting effect on each of our lives. With this understanding, teachers work hard to create a special place – a place of belonging that sends the important message to all the members of our learning community: you matter.