Of Teachers We Knew

An old friend of mine recently uploaded this video to YouTube. It’s my Grade 7 teacher at the age of 16, lip-syncing to Etta James’s “Stop the Wedding” on our local TV station’s Saturday afternoon hit music show.

She had a big impact on the lives of those of us she taught. My friend and I started a school paper at her urging. He went on to become the founder of a literary journal and magazine editor whereas I went on to other things. But she was the one who told us to find a passion and run with it.

She often went off the prescribed coursework and often told us of the real history of Canada and the US in that she made sure we were aware of slavery. She had a YA novelist come in to read from her book about the Underground Railroad. Every day began with 15 minutes of self-directed reading. She saw I was reading, at 12, George Orwell’s 1984. She encouraged me to keep reading it, even if I honestly didn’t get all of it.

I have increasingly vague memories of a lot of the teachers from those days but the memories of her have always remained sharp.

She passed away in 2011.

The New Not Normal

 

I’m spending this month in a series of group counselling sessions for management people past forty who are “in career transition,” as the euphemism goes. In general, it’s been pretty helpful. I’m terrible at networking and cold calling so it’s helping me with that. They say 80% of jobs out there are not advertised so networking is how you get them.

But an interesting thing happened yesterday. We’re in the suburbs of Montreal and as a group, I’d say about 30% of us are immigrants. If I was in the city’s core, I imagine that percentage would be higher.

One participant made a comment, beginning with “When I came to this country…” and when he finished the moderator said (I’m paraphrasing because it was in French, mostly):

“OK, here’s a thing. On Friday, in the United States, they are going to inaugurate an IDIOT. Because of this, on both sides of the border, and I’ve lived in Boston and Montreal, there are bigots who think it’s now ok to discriminate against immigrants. You may want to focus on your experience and education and not your background. When you’re talking about your background to an employer, just say I have a PhD. Or, I worked for Coca-Cola. You don’t have to say my PhD is from Spain or I worked for Coke in Colombia. That can come later when they find out how really great you are.”

Now, this moderator was an older guy so maybe he was erring on the side of abundant caution but it surprised me that he suggested that. Last year, Canada welcomed 25,000 refugees and only the most conservative of our politicians suggest heavy restrictions on immigration. But perhaps he has good reasons for suggesting it. Canada is not immune to this kind of dog-whistle, anti-immigration rhetoric and some of our own politicians are taking a page out of Trump’s book.

It’s a frightening and sad thing to imagine something as banal as employment counselling can be poisoned by this new political atmosphere.

On the Language of Business

As a Quebec anglophone, I am what is known as bilingual*. I can read, write (with assistance), and understand what is being said in person or on TV or radio.

The * comes in when it comes to speaking. I am incredibly shy about speaking in French knowing that the French in my head sounds a lot better than what comes out of my mouth. So, afraid that I’ll make mistakes, I speak quickly and nervously and because I speak quickly and nervously, I make mistakes. If I slow down and think about what I need to say, I do better.

This makes job hunting in Montreal a bit of a challenge. Montreal has plenty of companies that operate officially in English. I worked 19 years for a company that did its business in English. But others are French only or bilingual. And that’s natural. This is, after all, Quebec. You know you can do the job you’re applying for but if you can’t communicate through the selection process, and knowing you’re up against people who speak four or five languages effortlessly, you’re going to be a disadvantage in a major way.

I have a phone interview in French on Wednesday. I can do things to prepare, like write down some anticipated responses in French (phone interviews are great that way – they’re like an open book test) but my spoken French really needs to improve. There are things I can do to help with that: MeetUp groups that specialize in French conversation, etc. But until I get it up to a better standard, I’m always going to find myself at a disadvantage.

It’s the reality of employment. You always need to upgrade your skills and learn new ones if you want to stay relevant.

Clearly, I have some room for improvement.

But at least I’m not Wayne Gretzky.

By Christmas?

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. When I was downsized in March, I got a number of phone calls from recruiters fairly quickly and I assumed I’d be working again by summer. Then I thought, when that didn’t happen, I’d be working by fall. Then everyone assured me I’d be working by Christmas.

But right now, I can’t give it away. I’m still living off a severance package and all is well in that department but eventually, I’m going to need something. I got an email from a company specializing in debt restructuring asking if I was interested in a position with them. Calling people to arrange debt repayments sounds positively depressing but, well, I’m going to have to do something, aren’t I?

I’m reminded of the song by Payola$, “Christmas is Coming” written during an economic depression in the early 80s and it even mentions going on Unemployment Insurance, as it was known back then.

Been down to the UI
and nothing but queues
Been down on my welfare
with holes in my shoes
the kitchen’s still leaking
with floods on the floor
the landlord will fix it
he only wants more
Christmas is coming it’s been a long year

I suppose as the new fiscal year begins, companies may have more positions available.

On the other hand, there is a child-man in the White House with his finger on the button and we’re all going to die so it won’t matter! Wheeee! I’m trying not to be fatalistic. I really am.

Anyway, we’re spending tomorrow night in Ottawa to visit some friends and family and see the lights on Parliament Hill. Our invitation to visit Justin and Sophie at Harrington Lake must have been lost in the mail so we’ll be at a Travelodge. And we’re eating at a Chinese restaurant. Because somehow, every holiday season, Chinese food is consumed somewhere along the line.

I hope you and your loved ones have a nice Christmas, Hanukkah, or just a relaxing holiday break.

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My Information Addiction

Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. I watched this spectacle on a solar-powered TV in a small Senegalese village (so small, in fact that not even the Google car has found it yet). The sound was bad and with my high school French, I struggled to understand it. I knew in the events leading up to it, that Berliners of both side were permitted to travel back and forth and I thought this was simply more of that. I had to ask around for a few days until I confirmed that, yes, it had come down.

I was eighteen years old at the time and while I missed home, there was a weird, helpless feeling not knowing what was going on. In that village, there was no electricity and few people had radios. The TV belonged to the village and was turned on once per night. The news would be presented in the majority language of Wolof, then again in the official language of French (or maybe I have it reversed). There were no shops so I couldn’t even scan newspaper headlines.

So I spent three months seeking out radio broadcasts or finding newspapers. I particularly liked the International Herald-Tribune. Late 1989 was a time of several historic events like the fall of communism, the impending release of Nelson Mandela, and the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique. I struggled to get details on all these events.

I’m not sure why it was important that I was aware of these things as they happened. My immediate knowledge of these events wasn’t going to change them. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be a journalist in those days and would eventually go to school for that. I made that my excuse to inhale news. Whatever the reason, I hated not knowing of certain events which is a silly thing to hate, really.

Later, when I attended a community college radio journalism programme, as part of our coursework, we had to run a community radio station. The newsroom had a teletype machine that I would watch type out breaking news. I loved the idea that as soon as I pulled that off roller, I would be the first to share this news over a closed circuit PA system with a bunch of disinterested agricultural students. I guess it was like being given a secret.

I would later repeat this behaviour at an FM station in Saint John where I did a work-study thing (I also may have sabotaged my career by refusing to work as an unpaid intern when my work-study stint was over). In the end, it may have been for the best. And later, when I attended university to get a degree in English, no Drama, no just English, I did the same thing and spent more time at the campus radio station than I did in class. But I did get to interview Svend Robinson and Rage Against the Machine, though not at the same time.

On trips out of Saint John to larger centres, I would find well stocked magazine stores so I could load up on alternative magazines like the Humanist in Canada, the Progressive, This, and Might. I wasn’t just interested in getting the news, I wanted to get a specific take on the news before I got the news. I subscribed to newspapers, went straight to the opinion pages. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be informed, I wanted to make sure my opinions reflected those of writers I admired and wanted to emulate as a journalist. I realize, of course, that this is what they call cognitive bias.

So, as you may imagine, when the internet became widely available and little more user-friendly for the masses, I declared that I had been waiting my entire life for this point. In the 2000s, it became extremely easy to tailor your bias through the news you consumed by simply choosing to read websites and bloggers who leaned a certain way and then declaring yourself well-informed.

Today, I still do this. My phone gets news alerts from CTV and Huffington Post. I love Flipboard for Sunday morning reading and when news breaks, I go to Twitter.

But I’m backing off a bit these days, in baby steps. I try to get other views on events, not just the ones that conform to my biases. And it’s really ok if I miss a story here and there. The fact remains I changed careers long ago, or simply realized that my original career just wasn’t going to happen, as they say these days, because of Reasons.

With all that said, it’s worth noting that my addiction to information was generally national and international news and almost never local, which I found dull. Today, that’s changed somewhat as, while it’s easy to find sources of national and international news, local news can actually be a challenge so I’ve been seeking out that out a bit more.

I think this has been just a roundabout way of me saying that I’ve been waiting all my life for nonstop, multiplatform access to news and opinion and now I have it and now I think its finally enough.