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Gentle Teachers

When we got permission to stay at Missabay Community School for our week in Mish, I thought that our team would occupy the sprawling large school alone, since it was closed for the summer. But that was not the case. People came and went at all hours. I got up early each morning to have time alone, and sometimes; as I padded my way to the girls' washroom on bare feet, with the early morning sunshine pouring through the windows at 6.00 a.m.; would cross paths with Marita the custodian, coming down the hallway to start her day's work. 

 I was always looking for somewhere to be alone for a few minutes before the busy day got started, and one morning I thought that the office was the ideal place where I could close the door, read for half and hour, and write in my journal. But one of the staff came in to use the computer and started filling out some paperwork, nodding hello to me and carrying on with his business as I sat awkwardly with my journal. It dawned on me slowly that we were invading space belonging to other people, but they, whether out of kindness or politeness, never made us feel that way. Instead they graciously shared the school with us.

There was laughter in the air every day from the Ojibway people at the school; a gentle "He he he!" as they joked with one another. I never heard voices raised in anything but laughter.

Marita sat quietly on the bench lining the wall, hands folded in her lap, when we were at the dining room table having breakfast on our first morning there. Not knowing who she was, I went over and invited her to join us ,and she smiled, nodded, and came and sat at the table. As she spoke with us, I felt humbled. She uncovered prejudices and assumptions I wasn't consciously aware of, just by her presence. She was a woman like me; a mother, grandmother, and someone who shared our faith in God, I had not realized until then that I had seen her as "other" than me.

Mary sat on the bench one morning in the same way as Marita had done, like a wallflower at a dance. I went and quietly slipped onto the bench beside her and she began spontaneously to share some of her stories with me as if she had been waiting for someone to tell them to. She was probably about my age and she told me that she had been born in the bush--women used to go into the bush then to have their babies. Sometimes as children, she said, they would watch white people in the bush from a hiding place. She laughed softly as she remembered, "They would sometimes leave little things behind for us--sandwiches or an orange, which we had never seen before, and we would creep from our hiding place and take these gifts to our parents. But they told us not to eat them, so we threw them away!"  

One day she was with her father and playing in a river in the forest when she found some shiny stones in the river that were different to the rest. When she showed them to her father, he told her, "Those special stones belong to the Creator, put them back." She did as she was told, but never forgot the beautiful stones that were so precious that her father would not take them. She has never been able to find out where the river of her childhood was.

The qualities I observed in the people we met in Mish were gentleness; a peaceful quietness; humour; love of music and dance; spirituality; and a lack of possessiveness over material things. They also asked for what they needed, something I thought that we from the south could learn from. How often I have held back from expressing a need for help out of fear of refusal or rejection; in effect robbing someone else of the gift of sharing or giving. The people of Mish had no such hangups and were my teachers in that among other things.

I often wonder what they thought of us. We came, meaning to share God's love in action. We left with so much more than we came with.


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