Saturday, December 08, 2007


I was at an event Thursday night, put on by METRAC, commemorating the anniversary of December 6th. It was a good event, with spoken word performances from various people. (Some of the performers work with METRAC, in the ReAct program.)

During the night my mind started to wander, as is often the case—especially when it comes to spoken word, which I can appreciate, but don’t really enjoy that much—and I started to ask myself: What’s the difference between me and the people who are performing here tonight? And there were some obvious differences: I’m older than most (or all) of them; I’m white, and most of them were youth of colour; I came from the country, and most of them came from the city; I have money, and most of them don’t. But none of those things, even though they were true, really felt like the real difference.

And then it hit me. What my subconscious had been working on in the background came to the front: I’d had encouragement. My whole life, from the time that I was a kid right up until the present day, I’ve always had encouragement.

In school, I always got fairly bad grades. But did my teachers ever tell me that I shouldn’t bother going to college or university, because I wasn’t smart enough? Did they suggest that I just give up, and go get a job pumping gas or something? Quite the opposite. Almost every report card I ever received had a note on it from my teachers, saying something to the effect that I could do better, if I would just apply myself. I was smarter than the grades I was getting, I just didn’t try, they were telling me. (In fact, it’s quite possible that I got better grades than I should have, from teachers pushing me through.) But from what I know of the kids in my Youth Group, that’s not true for youth of colour in the city schools. They have been told that they shouldn’t bother applying to college or university. They have been told that they should just give up, and go out and get menial jobs.

When they do get praise, it’s usually a guarded form of praise. People will say “wow, she’s a very good spoken word artist!” and you can almost hear, on the end of the statement, “…for a street kid.” As if living in the poor areas of Toronto, with all the lack of food and clothing and proper shelter that comes with it, also brings a lack of intelligence, or a lack of talent. We talk of “street smarts” and “book smarts” as if they’re mutually exclusive; you can either learn how to live on the streets, or you can become an engineer. But they’re both forms of being smart; they’re both ways to apply your intelligence. Who’s to say that someone with street smarts wouldn’t make a great engineer, with the right opportunities? We should never be surprised when someone who’s not so well off is intelligent, or talented. (And, of course, we shouldn’t make the opposite assumption, either, which is equally demeaning: “Oh, she’s from the streets! I bet she’s a good rapper!”)

Even to this day, when I get praise for doing a good job at work, it’s just that: straight up praise. “That was very good work you did, serna.” But people who haven’t had my advantages, who happen to be on the wrong side of the line between rich and poor, or who have the wrong colour of skin, seldom receive “pure” praise in this culture. They get qualified praise. What’s expected of me gets treated as miraculous from them.

I really think praise needs to be doled out equally. The kids in my Youth Group, some of whom are really smart and some of whom aren’t, just like the kids I grew up with, need to be encouraged. They’ll never have the advantages I did—even a poor white kid in the country is still better off than an inner-city kid—but they already know that. What they don’t know, because it’s been kept secret from them, is that they can accomplish something in this life. Some of them will even accomplish beyond their means.

Apologies for the lack of cohesion in this post. I know it’s all over the map. There were too many thing I was trying to say, and too many of them were not so well thought through.