Learning what it is to be Black in Quebec
Part 3: Playing Adult
As mentioned, pregnancy ushered in the next phase of my life. What I did not mention was that it probably saved my life as well. I was on the path to nowhere, and having my son forced me to get with the program. While there is no question my son could have picked a better mom, I could not have asked for a better son- timing and all. (Note: I will not be including much about my son in my entries. Parents are embarrassing enough without having them tell your business to the world. His childhood is his story to tell)
After the student walk outs and subsequent extended teachers’ strike of ’79, by a quirk of administrative magic, I wound up in grade 11 with no credits for grade 10. This meant that all my friends would graduate that year, and I would be stuck coming back on my own. In a flash of logic that can only be explained by a teen, I decided this was a reason to quit school- without my parents knowing. It only took a couple of weeks for me to see what a dumb ass decision that was.
At that time, they introduced a new teaching model into the school system; the first alternative school, Phoenix High. 4 teachers, 12 students studying in an office building. I had started classes and was two weeks in when I discovered I was pregnant. I went to school that Monday to tell the teachers, expecting they would throw me out. They didn’t even think about it. Instead, they explained I needed to finish school if I was to have any chance of at a decent life. They pointed out that I could always further my education later, but that if I did not get my HSLC, the chance of me going onto higher education was almost nil. When I pointed out that due to my credits situation I would not graduate before I gave birth, they made a deal with me: If I would do the work, they would arrange for me to do both grade 10 & 11 provincial exams, which if I passed, would allow me to graduate. This is how I completed grade 10&11 in 13 weeks, wrote my exams at 7 months pregnant, and graduated with an A- average.
I have to pause here to point out there are two types of teachers in this world: One type focuses on the students and does all they can to help them make the finish line, and the other, focuses on upholding the system, and can act as blockers to the finish line. My teachers at Phoenix went so far as to pick me up and take me to my exams, stay with me during, and pump me up after each test on the ride home.
At the time, the school board would not allow us to write our exams in our own school – I suspect our marks had them thinking that the teachers were inflating our grades. As far as they were concerned, we kids were losers who would never make good. Instead, we were sent to Western Laval High School to write our exams, where the principal took exception to me, because he felt allowing me into school, much less giving me the opportunity to graduate was a bad example to the rest. To him, I was being allowed to cheat they system. He told me this directly before my first exam, then he went so far as to have invigilators stand over me as I took my tests- I suspect in an effort to intimidate me and cause me to lose focus. My teachers thwarted that plan by passing the window of the exam room often and flashing me smiles and thumbs up as a reminder that I could do it. I did it indeed. Not one of my tests came back with a lower grade than 90%.
Fact is, I discovered I was not a bad student, just a bored one. Growing up, my grandfather saw to it that we were well educated, with much supplementary teaching at home. As a result, school failed to challenge me, and few ever figured out that the little brown kid was actually smart until Phoenix. Idle hands are the devils workshop, and I was bedeviled for many years.
Moreover, my grandfather felt a good education foresters questions and invites debate. He raised us to believe in things only after we have filtered it though our critical mind and found it passed the litmus test. Needless to say, in a system that is all about indoctrination rather than education, many of my teachers found me a challenge to their authority- some particularly had a hard time with such questioning coming out of brown face. Phoenix changed all of that and taught me to expect/demand better.
I graduated in June and gave birth in August. My parents were downright pissed off about my pregnancy. My father was so mad; he cancelled a planned visit to see him. As far as he was concerned, I had tanked my future with one stupid decision. He was even more pissed when he discovered I was too far along for anyone to do anything about it. My mom was more disappointed; plagued with guilt, blaming herself as moms do and loaded with fears about what would become of me. Both knew full well how a Black girl, much less single parent, is perceived in our world.
As a result, I spent the end of my pregnancy hidden away at Elizabeth House, in hopes that I would choose adoption. The prevailing thought seemed to be I could give my child up, put the whole thing behind me, and move forward like it never happened. Thankfully, I didn’t get with that plan and coincidentally, putting me in Elizabeth House was what made me see I could do it on my own if I had to. (Note: what a woman does with her body is no ones business but their own. I do not believe that adoption, abortion or keeping a child is inherently wrong or right, but rather each person has to have the right to choose what is best for them because they are the ones who have to live with their decision)
I need to be clear here is saying that while my parents were pissed about my pregnancy, they adored their grandson almost from the moment he was born. Actually Dad was the first to capitulate. He wanted to stay mad, but my stepmother was not having it. Instead, his first comments were, “Well, you’ve gone and done it now, but at least you had the decency to have a boy”- casual sexism anyone? He then went on to ask, “What complexion is he?” – I think I mentioned my father’s people has issues with darker shades. Needless to say, he fell in love with his little “taupe” (the word my son uses to describe himself) grandson.
My mother stayed mad a little longer – “you made your bed, now lie in it”- until a close friend tricked us into the same room when my son was about two months old, and forced her into holding him. She took one look at him and began to coo – “you really are a cute little bastard, aren’t you”. Yeah, it sounds rough, but West Indians take the pain out of words by using them with love – kind of like the African American movement to reclaim and repurpose the word nigger.
That very night my mom contacted me, and laid out a plan that would have me move into her building, were she could be a support to me and my son. Since that day, she has never wavered in her support of both of us.
I tell this story so that I can point out that not once is my sperm donor mentioned after that faithful night. As is still true of society today, girls get penalized for being sexual beings, while boys get to sling their dicks around like a weapon with impunity. Not once during all of this did anyone ask about him or seek him out to hold him accountable. Instead I was so shamed about it all, that even I did not hold him accountable. In a way, this was a blessing. Watching my friends co-parent with men they had no love for, and who had no love for them seemed much harder than my situation.
Moreover, the legacy of slavery has totally fucked with the ability of the Black community to deal with female sexuality or sex at all. We don’t talk about it, we don’t teach positive self-regard, or explore sex as a natural human function with our children. We still seem to believe that ignoring it will make it go away. We still teach abstinence as the only proper way to be, and anything that results from doing otherwise, you deserve. A girl on the pill before marriage? Only sluts do that. In fact, any forethought before the act by a female is considered a sign of looseness. Sex is supposed to be something we capitulate to in order to please a man, not something we actually enjoy and seek out. And if you think this is bad, think about the legacy of slavery on the Black LGBTQ community. SMH- we have to do better! This is the reason I would go on to teach sex ed as a part of my life-skills programs for youth.
For the first five years of my son’s life, I stayed home with him and lived on welfare. At the time, the system did not try to force single mothers of children under 5 into the labour market. Instead, it recognised the stability that comes from having a stay at home parent during these formative years.
For the most part, my personal progress forward was put on hold while I focused on preparing my son for the world. Days were spent with other single moms, playing with our kids, and doing the best to put one foot in front of another. Nights were another story. We pooled together to get babysitters and went out to explore nightlife in Montreal as an adult.
Dating as a single mom proved challenging, and for the most part, I concentrated on occasionally getting my itch scratched discreetly, rather than seeking out a true partner.
I also started to build a surrogate family around me. I could not run the streets like my single friends, many of whom were for one reason or another alienated from their families. So, as one of the first to have my own apartment, my house became the hang out. I did not realise it at the time, but what I was doing was finding my purpose in taking care of others. For the first time in my life, my friends were predominately Black, but the one thing they all had in common with my early friends, was they had at-risk personalities. I became the neighbourhood mom for these adult children.
By the time my son was 5, I began to tier of always giving- especially when I realised that these folks took freely, but rarely offered anything in return. The day my son went to kindergarten, was the same day I started to move forward with my own life plans.
The next couple of years would see me first get an apprenticeship in construction electricity, where after 3 months in school my teacher would ask, “What are you doing here? You’re a social worker, not a construction worker!” Turns out he was right. As I had a history of dropping out, I forced myself to finish the 18 month course, get apprentice distinction and get my security card, even though I would never work a day in the field.
I finished the program and was stuck, not knowing what to do next. Enter Job Generation, an employability project for visible and ethnic minorities. The concept of employability was so new at the time, that there was no formal training for it. Anna Campangna and Iris Unger (YES Montreal) would pioneer this field in Quebec. Employability training, simply put, teaches you how to choose a career, and how to find and keep a job.
This led me to pursue a career in the helping professions, and when welfare tried to force me to quit school, Anna stepped in to offer me a job in the field, which enabled me to stay in school.
Given the dusty time I had finding my way through life, is it any wonder that I decided to pursue a career that would enable be to help others who were having a hard time finding their way? I think not.
I think this is a good place to hault my biographic recitation. I have included this long winded recount on this blog, because a) it’s a good time for a life review, and b) it will help you to better understand my perspective on the issues to come. You can also expect shorter entries – this shit takes me hours to write!