The Shiny, Dusty Present

I’d been holding on to this idea for a long time.  It was all wrapped up with shiny paper and stored in the back recesses of my mind. When the writing got tough, I’d pull it out and look at it, encouraging myself to keep going. When I would arrive home at the end of a long day of staring at a computer screen, of checking footnotes, of rephrasing arguments, of bolstering my evidence, of missing out on the summer fun of childhood with my kids, I would go to the website just once before going to bed, reminding myself that rewards big and small awaited me at the end of this journey.  

Last Fall that journey came to an end.  I submitted the thesis and stood before a panel of researchers to defend my own research.  It was a good day.  It was a good season of life.  The next day, though, I jumped back into regular life.  I returned to preparing lectures, grading papers, and making up for lost time with my kids and my partner.  I tried to reconnect with friends I’d ignored for those final months of tunnel living.  And I shut the door on my basement office, not even touching the piles of papers, books, and post-its that lay strewn on every square inch of furniture and flooring.  
Still there, in the back of my head, was that shiny box.  I imagined that it would burst open and spill out its goodness to me on the day I submitted, or maybe the day I defended, or maybe the day the Fall term ended.  But time and circumstance (and a whole HECK of a lot of guilt) kept that little box pushed to the back.  I even stopped checking the website.  The holiday season came and went, filled with busy-ness, family-ness,  and a lovely (if not a bit sniffly) two night get away with G.  And then before I knew it, the new term was upon me.  New lectures, new grading, new family activities.  That box started to feel like a dusty, never-gonna-get-there dream. 
It was one of the dreariest days of February when that shiny box came flying to the front of my mind.  I saw an ad that reminded me that I had made a promise to myself.  And it was finally time to collect on that promise.  Once again I went to the website, ready to rip open the wrapping paper and enjoy the present therein.
Spring came in bits and pieces this year.  (Has it actually come…it was just snowing the other day?)  But one of the early glorious first days of Spring saw me jump in the car early in the morning and head west.  All the way to the Dorset Manor.  It is a bit of a hike but I could not get there fast enough.  As I made my way through those small-town streets, up the hill and finally pulled into the drive way of the old mansion, I felt a sudden panic.  While I’ve been for many a massage, I have never actually indulged in a full spa getaway.  And here I was standing at its doorstep.  Literally.  Would it be obvious?  Would I just be nervous and fidgety and not really enjoy the experience?  Would everyone know that I was just a teacher?  Would I make some major social gaff and not know it?
The instant I walked in the doors, those anxieties flew away.  I was met by one of the warmest, most welcoming hostesses, I’ve ever met.  She called me by name, took my bags from me, offered me a drink, and by the time she had me signed in, I could already feel the weight being lifted from me.  This place felt serene.  It felt peaceful.  It felt calm.  As I walked beside my hostess through the Manor and the grounds, she graciously explained that this was a place of comfort and peace.  And I believed her.  There was no pretension, no snobbishness, no judgement.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner could be taken in my robe, I was told. The hot tub, saunas and lounge areas were open until eleven – if I managed to stay awake that late.  Cucumber water, granola, and fruit were always available for snacks between meals.   The treatment rooms felt like a hidden cave – candlelight and gentle music really did steal you away from the world.  I felt hidden away in a safe, gentle, peaceful place.  No one needed anything from me.  No one expected anything from me.  I was there just to be with myself.  
When I was shown my room, I very nearly broke down into tears.  Well, actually I did break down into tears but I waited that extra minute until the door was closed and I was….alone.  From the bed, I could look out over Lake Ontario.  From the big soaker tub I could look out over Lake Ontario.  Crisp sheets, an amazing duvet and calm colours all reinforced that indeed I was in a wonderful place.  I opened the bottle of wine I had brought (it’s a BYOW place to boot!), ran a bath and watched myself let go. 
I sat in the tub and realized that it was worth holding on to that shiny package in my head for all those months.  I was giving myself the best present I could think of – time to let go, time to just be me, time to refresh, time to celebrate the milestones I’d achieved.   But I also realized in that moment that I was being taught a lesson — next time don’t hold onto the box for so long.  Open it regularly.  
I won’t even get into the epiphanies I had the next day during my massage….
I think I’ll give myself this present on an annual basis.  Maybe it will become my anniversary gift to myself – celebrating that I can set high goals and achieve them.   Or just celebrating that it’s good to be me.


Every term I meet approximately a hundred new students. As their teacher, I get to hear a lot of stories.  I hear stories about colds and gastro bugs, crashed computers, late metros, grandma’s birthday parties, all night Nowroz celebrations, and family vacations in the middle of term.  I haven’t yet heard about a dog eating homework but I don’t doubt that one day I will.  But I also hear other things about their lives.  As I’m getting materials ready in the minutes before class, I hear students talking about the night before at the club.  I hear them gossip about their friends.  I hear them re-enact the battles they wage with their parents.  I see, as the term progresses, new relationships being born.  Sometimes, I see relationships coming to an end and two students who once sat together and gazed at each other all class, now sit across the room, trying desperately not to move their eyes in his or her direction.  They talk to me about their weekend plans and about what they should do after college.  They ask me what dating was like before cell phones.  They try to figure out what it’s like to be a thirty-something woman — “when do you get to have fun?” I’ve had more than one student ask.

Not only do I see them in the classroom, though. I often see them in the halls and I think they are a little pleased when I remember their names, even semesters after they’ve been in my class.  In a school of 10,000 students, they like being seen and being known.  And a good number of them make their way to my office over the course of a semester.  Sometimes just to hand in an assignment, sometimes to ask for help with the correlation coefficient or with their paper on the history of eugenics.  Often times to ask for an extension.  Sometimes they find their way down the long hall to my office just because they want to talk.  And the stories that they share in that space repeatedly make me stand back in awe.  A young woman nursed her mother, her only living relative, to death last semester. She asked for an extension only in the days surrounding the funeral.   Another student flew back and forth to Honduras in about 48 hours to say good-bye to a dying father he’d never known. Another explained what it was like to be chased  through another country by her father  who was abusive and angry and that great day when she and her mother finally got a visa to come to Canada.  Students struggle with their parents’ separations and divorces.  They themselves are in abusive relationships.  They are struggling to come out to their parents.  They have breakdowns and end up in health care institutions.  They have cancer, leukemia, HIV and Hepatitis.  They get pregnant, have abortions, give birth to babies they will raise as they stay the course and finish their DEC’s.   They are brave and determined.  And in those places they tell incredible stories of over-coming the odds.  The students who are the first in their families to go beyond high school.  Those who are called up to professional hockey teams.  Those who are celebrating recovery from addiction. Those who are mapping out a more sustainable future for the school, the nation, the world.  Those who see the future as limitless.  
Of the hundreds of students I’ve taught, I’ve been privy to only a small percentage of their stories.  But those stories help remind me that every single one of them has a story that can break your heart. (A. Marshall)