Re-Schooled

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Kindergarten

I’m going back to school. That’s it. It’s happening. No matter how big a challenge the next two years are, I’m going back to school. Specifically, I’m taking a Library and Information Technician program. I’m cautiously jazzed about this. Cautious because it’s a big investment of time and money and – if I’m being honest – because no dream that a person has had for 30 years can ever be as good as what they’ve imagined. Jazzed because holy damn, I’m going to school!

 

I understand that for a lot of people, school was hard. But for me, it was my oasis. Every day, from 8:30 to 3:30, I was in my element: a place where books and art and ideas were valuable and questioning things was often encouraged.

If I’m being honest, it was also a place I was safe. It was my escape and I loved it, even when it was harsh or I had trouble with other kids or I got something less that an 80.

I remember clearly every teacher I’ve had, starting with Ms. Crouch in kindergarten all the way up to Mr. Piercey, who taught me Grade 12 English online after I returned to high school recently.

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Grade Two

To be clear, I didn’t leave school because I wanted to. The year I left, I had obtained the highest mark in all three of my courses for that semester. I still have the letters of congratulations from the principal. I was thinking about taking English in University and my grades meant that despite my poverty, I had a chance at making it. But just before exams, my abuser found out that I had “told” what had happened to me. I ran within minutes of finding out he knew, taking with me just what I could carry. His threats were a stronger motivator than any hope I had.

 

I still managed to attend most of my classes, while crashing on the couches of friends or staying up all night and catching sleep at school or on the subway. Then a spot opened up in a transitional group home. Since I had nowhere else to go, I took it, but that meant moving outside of my school district and starting again (not for the first time) in a new space with new challenges. As soon as I was out of immediate danger, I fell apart. I was bowled over by my own emotional combustion.

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Grade 8

I wonder if I could have fought it out then – but I just can’t look at back at the person I was and fault her for taking a job and focusing on surviving.

 

Since then, I’ve tried to go back to school a few times, with varying success. There was always something else that needed my focus, and that’s okay. That’s how life is. But a few years back I caught a bug that totaled my system. One day I had a seizure and, internally, I thought – oh, this is it, the end of my life. I realized that I was happy, in that moment. Happy with my love and home and the family and circle of friends I had built. I realized that I only had one regret and that was not finishing school.

So almost immediately, I started completing high school using TDSB e-Learning courses. They are fabulous, by the way, if you’re thinking about going back. I found that school was still very much in my blood. In my first course, the aforementioned English with Mr. Piercey, I received my first 100%. In all my courses, I never once dipped below a 98%. It’s something I’m proud of, as I was working and healing that whole time.

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Grade 12, the second time around.

More than that, though, I loved it. That passion to share and learn, to strive to communicate and to listen, it felt like a homecoming, even if it was a virtual one.

 

That brings us to December of last year when I was laid off from work and injured myself pretty badly all in a few short days. In the time since then, two big things have happened: I had surgery, which I’m still recovering from (but quite well, thanks!) and I applied to go to college to become a Librarian!

If you know me, you know books are my heart (well, books and my love Graeme.) You know that with my years of work with kids and work with words, I’m suited to do this gig. But even more than that, it will be the final stage in my return to school.

I’m applying for some bursaries and assistance, but even with that, it’s going to be a massive cost. We will become a one income family and that’s going to be a shock to the system, for sure. But we will make it work, no matter what. I need to see that piece of paper with my name on it. Need need.

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College!

We’ve set up a GoFundMe so folks can help if they’d like. We’re asking only insofar as you have it to give, because we realize that most of us are in a tight place right now. Give what you can, if you can and if you want to. And know that no matter what, you’ve all helped me get to this place and I am so, so grateful.

My plan is to post videos and updates as I go, so you can see what you’ve helped accomplish.

Thank you all. So much.
See you in September!

Heather

 

 

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Trigger Warning: This Is A Post About Trigger Warnings In Education

Warning!

Warning! Ideas ahead!

I am a high school drop out. I say this because I need to start by acknowledging the limits of my knowledge. I am also a high school returnee, currently attending secondary school online. By this time next year, I will likely have the diploma I was not able to obtain exactly 20 years ago. I am also a person with PTSD. I am not an expert. What follows are my ideas. They are just ideas. They are not medical or psychological advice or a substitute for working with a professional or a support team of friends and/or family. I also don’t speak for all people with PTSD, because, despite what you’ve heard, we do not share a neural link or have secret meetings that we don’t tell you about.

As a high school student, trauma survivor and, I hope, a future post-secondary student, I’ve kept abreast of the debate surrounding trigger warnings in the classroom. There are writers and educators who are decidedly pro or anti, and those whose responses are more metered. Admittedly, the overwhelming preponderance of articles are against trigger warnings in education, citing censorship, the swaddling of young learners and political correctness as reasons not to engage in content related warnings.

Some of the comments I’ve read are dismissive of people who experience PTSD (about 8% of North Americans,) suggesting that, perhaps, they just aren’t in a place where they are ready for a classroom setting. The implication is that, with some help, survivors will make themselves well enough that the warnings will not be needed. It is a classic argument used against people living with neurological or emotional differences: Fix yourself before others have to interact with you. Be well first, THEN you can be a part of society. This attitude begins with the problematic assumption that all people with mental health challenges have access to care, that they are not already actively involved in treatment and that treatment can accomplish wellness in the short term.

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Eeeee-ooooo-eeeee-ooooo

As a sufferer of PTSD and depression who is approaching my 40s, who has been in some form of treatment or another for half my life, I have no desire to wait for wellness before pursuing an education. Still, I understand the reticence of educators to try to view every lesson plan from the perspective of every student and their potential triggers. It would, eventually, detract from the quality of their work, their ability to spontaneously follow a lesson’s organic flow and their freedom to select material that is both potentially triggering and well-suited to their lesson.

A stumbling block for educators is the broad spectrum of topics and ideas that can be triggering, and the concept that introducing potentially triggering topics is always detrimental – which, of course, it isn’t. On topics like homelessness, abuse, the mental health system or a slew of others, having a voice like mine in the conversation is valuable. I took a sociology course as part of my high school studies, and was the only person who could answer from a first person perspective the question, “Would you steal food/is it right to steal food if you were/are starving?” Almost everyone else said no. I was able to present a pretty convincing argument for yes, because I know what starving feels like. To remove the voices of the traumatized from education is to remove a trove of experiential wisdom.

In an attempt to balance the value of ideas and the safety of individuals, I suggest an approach that empowers the person with trauma, as well as the educator. On the first day of class, the educator can openly acknowledge that their class will probably cover topics and materials that may be hard for trauma survivors or those experiencing PTSD. If someone feels that they are likely to be triggered (while accepting that many PTSD sufferers want no such accommodation) they can either meet with the teacher to discuss in person what challenges they could face or they can submit the same in writing. Anyone requesting pre-class warnings when certain topics will be knowingly covered in a class or in the material, will be asked to develop a trigger plan. A trigger plan is a series of steps one can take to either work through a symptom or to exit a class safely if symptoms should arise. My trigger plan includes accessing a great app I use to work through my symptoms, sitting near doors or windows, keeping comfort foods or beverages on hand, having my medication ready and writing down my physical sensations. These work for me (sometimes) but may not work for all people experiencing PTSD symptoms. The goal is to personalize the plan to maximize classroom time for the student and minimize conflicts for the instructor.

It's a...hot topic.

It’s a…hot topic.

Trigger warnings, like all other accommodations, don’t work as a one size fits all proposal. That’s when they start to resemble censorship. The answer, though, isn’t to eliminate trigger warnings completely. Ideally, conversations around trauma allow students an opportunity to be frank and set their own safe parameters. Teachers admit that they can better help their students by treating them like individuals and students take responsibility for preparing for the inevitable times when a trauma-reaction can not be predicted.

This solution assumes that the teacher or professor is open to creating this dialogue. I understand that many educators either do not know how to start the conversation or, as is sometimes the case, have no desire to. If trauma survivors have a desire to try to create this dynamic, I’ve made a form that can be filled out to help get the ball rolling. It’s a PDF, which means it should be readable by almost any device. Feel free to print it out, share it and use it. The sooner we start a real conversation that includes people with PTSD and trauma survivors (who are often drowned out by the more widely accessible opinions of educators and columnists) the sooner we can get back to the business of learning.