Courage, Reconciliation, and Freedom

Many days as a college teacher are uneventful — long hours of preparing, marking, and teaching, but other days are anything but. This post is about academic freedom, but it will take me a few moments to get there. I need to tell you a story from a few years ago.

One afternoon, I popped out during my lunch break for a quick walk downtown. The city I live in is rich in historical culture and a walk downtown often rejuvenates me. As I passed by McDonald’s on my walk, I noticed a homeless youth quietly asking for change. She was dressed in dirty pyjamas, no shoes or socks, and her dyed red hair was a complete matted mess with black roots 4″ long. She looked absolutely awful.

As she asked me for change for food, I looked her straight in the face and my mind starting racing. I recognized her. In my other life, I taught high school. She was one of my former students. What on earth was she doing here? She had graduated high school! She had a diploma and even some certifications in the oil and gas industry. How had she found herself here, in late November, without a winter coat, shoes, and socks. She was sitting literally 50 feet from the unmarked women’s shelter in our city!

I had to say something. I bluttered out nearly in tears, “Akira, why are you here? Do you remember me — your grade 11 math teacher?” It took her a few seconds for to recognize me. The path to youth homelessness is always a sad one. Akira was aboriginal and a crown ward. Her mother had an acquired brain injury and was unable to care for her as an infant, as was her young in-experienced biological father. CAS placed with her elderly great grandfather who cared for her for many years until he passed away. Then she moved with her great uncle, but an abusive drug-addicted boyfriend had lured her away from this kinship placement. Akira and her boyfriend had a son who had been  apprehended by the CAS. When I taught her in high school, she had dreams of becoming a veterinary assistant or early childhood educator. She was so happy then, but now she told a sad story of how she had lost custody of her son, had lost her family, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Her dream of going to college seemed so far away.

I told her, “There’s a women’s shelter right over there! You can stay there, get your life together, and go to college!”

She agreed to go but not until she picked up her things. She was staying with her boyfriend in an abandoned building behind the taxi dispatch centre in a rough part of town. I walked with her a few blocks (she had no shoes) to a damp, dark building with broken out windows and doors. There was no electricity, running water, bathrooms, or heat. The floor was littered with drug pajrphenilia. Inside were five or so tents, but no one seemed to be there. She collected her things quickly which consisted of some rusted cans of food from the local food bank, a ratty blanket, and a pillow. She had to get these things before her boyfriend came back. I saw a rat run across the floor and water drip off the ceiling.

We walked back to the homeless shelter. They accepted her. I left feeling good about myself for taking her there. We made plans to meet at the college the next day to start the enrolment process for academic upgrading at college. Akira had taken grade 11 workplace level math and needed the college level for entrance.

Akira arrived at the college and looked much better. She had a shower and clean clothes. I sat with her in a meeting with a caring manager who oversaw supports for crown wards. I also took her to our aboriginal centre who could offer her many supports. After positive meetings with both managers, I then left Akira in academic upgrading thinking the enrolment process would be straightforward. She had a high school diploma and was only lacking 1 credit for admission. It is common for students to be lacking several admission credits as their plans change from high school. She was so excited to be taking positive steps for a better future.

Akira called me from the homeless shelter later that day to tell me she had written an admission test and she thought she had done well. We waited for a few days for her results. Finally, Akira phoned me, but she was in tears. She told me she didn’t qualify for upgrading and couldn’t go to college. She said she received a letter stating she needed to go to a local literacy centre. She had called them and found out that they had a wait time of at least four weeks before an intake interview. I thought to myself – how could our upgrading deny her? She had taken grade 11 math with me and got a good grade. She had  a high school diploma. I taught her!

I was upset and demanded to the see the admission test. With great reluctance, a manager pulled out a grainy, photocopied math test consisting of exactly four questions. One was a long division question with decimals, one with money, one with fractions, and another involved area and perimeter. I was shocked they were using this test as the gateway to our academic upgrading program. Had this test been validated by any math teachers on the campus? Why hadn’t I been consulted – I was enrolled in a PHd focusing on the validation of testing tools. Was she given a calculator? Did anyone even ask her if she had a learning disability and needed a caluclator? What math teachers at our colleges even looked at this test? The manager admitted no math teacher had ever been consulted on this gateway test. The gateway test did not reflect the current high school math curriculum or focus at all.

After I contacted the manager overseeing our crown ward program, upgrading wrote a letter to Akira apologizing for denying her entry.

But it was too late. Later that night, Akira’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her in a pubic park  while on a “meth binge”. He was waiting in the bushes watching for her outside the shelter. As she exited the women’s shelter to buy a chocolate bar from a nearby convenience store, he attacked her in broad daylight. I am thankful to the passerby who called the police.

I only saw Akira once after this when I received a phone call from the Attorney General’s office to talk about my safety. Her boyfriend had apparently issued me some sort of threats because I had encouraged her to go the women’s shelter and upgrade at the college. We both ended up at a meeting with a detective and prosecution as they planned the case against her ex-boyfriend.

Akira never came back to college. She never regained any custody or visitations with her son. Will she ever come back to college to fulfil her dream of becoming an ECE or veterinary assistant? It would take a miracle to bring her back. She now raises additional children as a single mother on social assistance.

Something so simple…a gateway math test….needed our feedback as math teachers. Why didn’t a manager take a few minutes to email us and ask for feedback? Our upgrading department now uses an Ontario-government approved Basic Skills Assessment as the gateway test. The new entrance test gives detailed feedback about the student’s literacy and numeracy. I wonder how Akira would have scored on this test, but I will never know. Her bad experience with the four-question math test changed her life path.

Academic freedom means we faculty have some input, not elusive input. Leadership theory tells us that we have a stronger system when faculty and administrators work together collaboratively, not against each other. We owe it to students like Akira to work together. This is what academic freedom means to me.

*Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.

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