I still recall that day when the vice-principal of my new high school walked me to my first class.
She knocked. Knowing that all attention was diverted to the door, my face grew hot and my stomach went in knots as the door opened and I was led in. As I stood at the front of the class, she introduced me and all I could do was stand there and peer at all the unfamiliar faces looking back at me.
I was 14 and had just moved from Moosonee – a town of about 2,000 – to the city of Timmins, which had a population of 40,000.
It was a huge culture shock to move to the city at that age. There were so many aspects that were different than back home.
For instance, my Cree expressions and Moosonee/Moose Factory slang had no meaning to my new high school classmates. I had no one to share the excitement of the approaching hunting seasons, whether it was the goose migrations in the spring or the moose-mating season of the fall. Learning traffic laws and bus routes became a necessity so I could make my way to school.
Maybe it was because of the town I grew up in, or maybe because we were kids, but a direct “Hi, how are you?” or any similar greeting wasn’t common back home, especially to strangers.
Instead we greeted with gestures and jokes. So it felt weird when a classmate would say hi to me. I couldn’t carry on a conversation because I couldn’t relate to them at all. They talked about things I did not know or care about; they laughed at things I didn’t find funny.
This was my introduction to high school.
The teenage years are the most difficult times to move, I think. The resilience and friendliness of children can overcome it, while adults are more mature and experienced.
A teenager is already dealing with a multitude of issues in that transitional period between childhood and adulthood as they attempt to process their self-image, social acceptance and sexuality. Not to mention leaving friends and family at home. Imagine moving to a new town with completely different culture and conventions while dealing with these things.
Since everything was unfamiliar, I tried to find some familiarity in my surroundings. In those first few weeks, I befriended two brothers I knew from back home. We never hung out before then, but I suppose our shared experience brought us together and I now had someone in which to say “jish stug,” “solid” or “ever deadly.”
We ran with groups at times that my parents probably would not have approved, but I tried to maintain positive activities whenever I could by taking up guitar, playing a bit of hockey and reading. I got my first job at 16 flipping burgers. And I took part in activities arranged by school’s native organization.
These things kept me busy and I was able to meet people with shared interests.
As the years passed, I adapted to the once-unfamiliar surroundings; so much so that when I would go home, friends and family would tease and call me “city boy.”
Henry, a friend I met in Thunder Bay where I attended college, had a similar experience. He lived in Sachigo Lake all his life until he moved to Thunder Bay for school.
“Yeah, it was pretty hard for me too,” he said after I told him about my experience. When I asked how he coped he said, “Well, I just tried to keep busy.”
He made efforts to participate in school.
“When we would do group activities, I would take part,” he said. “It really built up my confidence.”
He learned bus routes and rode around town so he could familiarize himself with the city. And he took every opportunity he could to jam on his guitar or bass with other people.
Henry moved to the city for the same reason I did: education. It’s become a necessity nowadays as jobs demand more qualifications and training.
A new school year is approaching and I’m sure there will be students leaving their communities. It will be hard, but I wish you good luck and recommend doing what Henry and I did: go out and take part in positive activities with other people.
While it was difficult for me, it got easier and, looking back, I appreciate the experience because it allowed me to grow as a person.
When I look up at the clear blue sky these days I am missing something. For about a year now during this wretched pandemic I have hardly seen any contrails...