Last week, I wrote about my years at a residential school, and about being asked by a classmate what our teacher meant when she referred to “a harlot.”
Obviously, it was us. To the abusive Mrs. Aech, it was all of us girls. There was never anything wrong with the boys, but to this strange, bejewelled teacher from the South, Inuit girls were all harlots.
The word became a trigger for my plan to get out of this hell. I wanted to be anywhere else, anywhere myself and the girls around me were not constantly dubbed harlots and the Whores of Babylon.
A desperate desire to never again be targeted by Mrs. Aech grew into an inner resolve. I would beat her at her own game. The way out, I reasoned, was to excel, to give her no ammunition for criticism. From that day on, I wore nondescript clothes. Everything I owned was navy or brown. I wore almost no makeup. Chapstick was all that touched my lips. I would comply, outwardly. Inside, I had promised myself a year of nothing but straight As (okay, B+). But it was a plan. Three more years, then freedom.
I more or less stuck to it. Involvement in sports characterized my “I’ll show them” attitude toward the males. If they were going to be Mrs. Aech’s favourites, I would simply play that much harder, that much better. They were not superior to this girl. Soccer, basketball, track-and-field — I was never a good athlete, but I did it all and it seemed the way to go.
A friend and I once jogged all the way out to the airport, 16 kilometres, just to see if we could do it (although we had to hitch a ride back). When I wasn’t in the gym, I was studying. I went far beyond what was expected of me — more frighteningly, of what I expected of myself.
The harder I worked to dig myself out of the pit of self-pity, the more I got involved in activities that took me outside of myself. The harder I worked, the more there was to do.
Today, when I come across fellow residential school students (I hate that victim-word “survivor”), especially from Stringer Hall, I often see evidence of them having adopted the same game plan. Many became involved in politics, business, leadership, etc.
Ironic, since we were without positive role-models in “school.” I also recognize what lurks behind their successes: the loneliness, the bitterness, the battles with self-esteem. The fatigue.
Nowadays, I have realized something about it all: The drive for success was a game strategy that worked then. I had intelligence, and the strategy helped me get through residential school. But there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom, and I have a bit of wisdom now.
These days, I work to live. No living to work. I live for the things that matter: immediate family, those I love best, living and dead. Maybe, in a way, Mrs. Aech was right. We were the Whores of Babylon anyway, but not in the way she meant. Are we not whoring out ourselves when we are passive, invisible, acquiescent in order to succeed in a system not of our making? Are we not whores, of a sort, when we sell ourselves out to get a little back?
Girls that I grew up with no longer joke about Mrs. Aech, the “Dragon Lady.” It’s not respectful to speak badly of the dead — a respect we pay her, in death, that she could never afford us in life.
If I could say one thing to Eva: Thanks for asking that question. It made me search for answers I would never have invented on my own. None of us ever thought to look up “harlot” or “whore” in the Bible. It’s somewhere in Revelations, I guess. Like residential school itself, it is one of those things I could never figure out, and am probably better off not dwelling upon.
Some people say abuse builds character. Perhaps it does. Some say that the abused are survivors, victims needing therapy, sympathetic ears. This, too, may be true. Nevertheless, I say that it is also a game — like chess for your life. And you must play it with strategy. Just learn to recognize when it is finished, and time to turn your back on the board.