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What I have learned from the refugees I teach

KATY LEMAY/The Globe and Mail

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Dressed in a silken black robe, she is lighting candles in a portable classroom. A cassette deck leaks music from the album Tubular Bells.

Alexandra is a self-professed witch, sharing her Wicca practice with us. The students are mesmerized, and I, the fresh-out-of-the-faculty teacher, am humbled by her conviction and poise, her satisfaction with who she is. It is 1974.

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My memories slide forward to the late 1980s, and latch onto another student, a year older than his Grade 11 peers, dressed entirely in black, shod in military-issue boots and sporting a heavy chain at his side from which dangles a boiled sheep skull. A menacing image, but filled with dark beauty, and his story has a good ending.

Finally, perhaps 1992, another class presentation, this time by a young man in his early 20s who, through his voice and an overhead projector, takes us on a journey from Iran to Pakistan to Switzerland, and finally to Canada. Dressed as a woman and crammed into the back of a truck with Iranian women, he escaped a regime that oppresses the Baha'i faith.

I teach a senior high school English course to students whose education was interrupted because of war or persecution. They have been Tienanmen Square protesters, believers in unpopular religions or ideologies in the Middle East, young women denied education or victims of economic hardship. My school has become an ark, a temporary refuge until the storms abate and they can find dry ground.

The public discourse on what it means to educate a student is continuous. Much of it lately concerns the role of technology. One position argues that technology facilitates communication, research and social activism. Another contends that technology has become abusive and impairs learners, that cyber-stalking, trolling and bullying are proliferating, and students' attention spans have been diminished.

Technology debates have always been part of the educational landscape. In the 5th century BC, Socrates excoriated the invention of writing, declaring it would make people's minds lazy, impairing their capacity for memory and inducing a kind of Lethean forgetfulness.

In the 1970s, math teachers argued about the role of electronic calculators in the classroom and English teachers discussed how to incorporate TV or film into the narrow literature curriculum. Students lugged boomboxes to school, later transformed into Sony Walkmans, then iPods. Now, wireless schools and smartphones pose formidable challenges to educators as they attempt to reconcile the dark and light sides of technology.

Teaching, however, is much more than debates about technology. As I embark on my 40th year as an educator, I still feel how the dark moments grabbed me by the throat and shook me, and my teaching memory is scarred by these: a car accident destroys the lives of two boys on their way to Florida during school break; the suicide of a student who could not find his way into the light; a teacher dies from a massive hemorrhage in his classroom, surrounded by test papers.

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On the other hand, there were miraculous escapes from death: a car plows through our library window, leaving a trail of glass shards and shattered tables but students mostly unscathed; a plane makes an emergency landing on the football field – on a weekend, with no one at ground level.

The darkness was always illuminated: students who survived abuse and spoke about it; students who came in refugee waves through the decades: Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Communists; civil war survivors from Lebanon; Ismailis fleeing Uganda; survivors of ethnic and religious brutalities in the former Yugoslavia or the chaos of Afghanistan – in particular, the young women who had never been formally educated.

Of course, the mundane is a fact of all employment. Routines fill the day. I was in a constant battle to scale the mountain of my marking load. There were mornings when I felt like Eliot's Prufrock, measuring out my life with coffee spoons as I graded papers late into the night, trying to make sense of one student's perspective on Hamlet's neuroses and another's on finding her true self on a Greek island.

Recently, an ex-student who is now a teacher and mother suggested that poet Khalil Gibran got it right about parenting:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

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They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

The same is true for teaching.

Parents, students and teachers would do well to appreciate the profundity of the school experience: that it has a power to transform. Each day offers choices for beauty and illumination, for meaningful connections with others – what philosopher Martin Buber calls authentic "meeting" or "encounter."

Perhaps all that abides from the school years is merely a distillate of memories: a candle flickering in a classroom; a student finding her voice; or just a sheep skull, warding off the forces of darkness.

Martin Kofsky lives in Toronto.

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