Some years ago I was teaching in a small First Nations community in Northern Canada. This community had no road to it and so the only way in or out was to fly. It was during our time there that swine flu made the global headlines. Early into this calculated panic, I received a notice in my classroom one morning just before lunch. It went something to the effect that I was to inform the students that school would be canceled after lunch and that all teachers were to be at the local band hall by one o’clock for an important meeting to discuss how the community was going to prepare for the impending outbreak of swine flu.
When I got to the band hall for 1 o’clock I sat there through a frenzy while we were told to volunteer for jobs that would be essential when the epidemic hit. People who had their licence to operate heavy machinery were asked to sign up to dig the mass graves. People would be needed to go around town and shoot the dogs since people would be too sick to take care of them. Others would be needed to go through town and collect the corpses. It was suggested that I be on a committee to request body bags be sent up by the federal government. After the allocation of jobs, a message system was devised where a piece of green paper in your window meant everyone was fine. Yellow paper meant there was at least one person in the house who was sick. Red paper in the window meant that someone had died and their body needed to be taken away.
I sat there swinging back and forth between the emotions of shock, disbelief and humour. From my calculations, the fact that we were flying into the community on 25 year old airplanes in minus 50 degree Celsius weather and landing on gravel strip runways, was much more of a concern than was the remote possibility that swine flu would cause an epidemic that would wipe out a portion of the community. A few years earlier I had been living in Asia when SARS “swept” through and no one I knew even got a head cold. What were the people of the community thinking? How could they get so carried away with irrational fears?
As per the native tradition, in a community meeting everyone has their chance to speak and say all they have to say. Therefore meetings can go on for hours and often well into the late evening. As the meeting continued people took turns speaking of their concerns.
Towards the end, an elder who I had never seen before or after, was brought forward in his wheel chair and was given the microphone. His words were translated into English, mostly for the benefit of the teachers in the room, who were largely from outside of the community. He began by speaking of his early childhood living semi nomadically on the land and of the days during WWI when Spanish flu had come through the communities. He began to speak of his vague memories from the time of early childhood when so many of the people he knew had succumbed to the flu and passed away. I sat there and listened and watched the room, I could feel myself straining to understand the roots of the narrative. The story was not unheard of by me but I had only heard it as background or context to other stories. In contrast to me, I came to notice, the community members sat there nodding in agreement moments before an important point was made. They had all heard this story before and knew what the next point was going to be.
It was then that I understood the panic and the sense that this flu emanating out of Mexico really could be impending up on the shore of a frozen lake in the Canadian sub-arctic. The community members were coming into this meeting with a different narrative than I. I was raised in the narrative of the wonders of science that can control and concur nature. The community members I was among share some of that narrative and they are also members of a different narrative, a narrative of which the Spanish flu is only one chapter and a later chapter at that. It is a chapter that had its start in 1492 with first contact of Europeans to the Americas. Though first contact that far up north came centuries later, the proto contact period where European disease spread from tribe to tribe was the foundation of this narrative that was the fuel to the panic of that meeting.
This is one particularly poignant example of the power of narrative. It raises questions that I find myself coming back to again and again as an international teacher. You have great power to influence and shape narratives. The subtle but influential undercurrents that sculpt the ways we understand and interact with our world. To be honest, I had found that meeting in the band hall, humourus, I was sure the community was overreacting in the extreme. Had the elder never asked to speak I would never of had the ah ha moment and I probably would be telling this story differently, about the community that was out of touch. What other times, having taught in Thailand, India and Myanmar, have I missed the narrative? Laughed or brushed of a comment. What does that do to the students, competing narratives, one emanating from home, one from the classroom?
This could be a good place to collect more stories of divergent or unseen narratives. We all know they are there, but how often do we see them? Feel free to post your stories.