December 6th: Lost Time – 22 years on

This December 6th, twenty-two years on from the massacre of female engineering students in Montreal, I’m reflecting on lost time and wasted potential.

Twenty-two years ago I was in second year university. I remember it was hard to deal with the fact that male flat mates and friends did not think this was a crime against women. They said Lepine was crazy, and this wasn’t a reflection of the status of women in society. But we were university women at the time – the women of Ecole Polytechnique were our colleagues. The two male friends I spoke to that day felt that if women went to vigils and banded together to mourn, it meant they (men) were to blame. It was so much easier to avoid the issues and focus on the insanity of it all. But, for me and my female friends, that didn’t feel like the whole story.

Two years later, graduating from what is arguably one of our country’s best universities, was ironically the greatest drop in status I have ever experienced. One day I was a well-respected literature student, the next, I was an unemployed, dime-a-dozen graduate with a ‘useless’ liberal arts degree. I didn’t want to jump on the post-graduate train like many of my friends. It felt like throwing good money after bad. But the bleakness of a talk I’d been to in the English department a few months before graduation weighed heavy on me. An older male professor I did not recognize led a meeting informing us of the statistics the university had gathered on English undergraduate employment in the years after graduation. I think most of the female professors would not have been able to face us with such news, with no support plan in sight. The report outlined that women in the first five years after graduation were most likely to find employment as clerks and bank tellers. I remember the professor smiled apologetically after reading this, and explained that this was only the first five years, until they found their place. I don’t remember much of what he said after that. I thing something about people finding their niche, starting small businesses, going back to college for specific professional certificate courses. It is ironic this beacon of higher learning was subtly telling us ($100,000 and an incredible amount of work and dedication later) we would probably have to now go to community college for some practical certificate in human resources management or some such.

This reminds me of a particularly personable male colleague with a 3-year sociology degree who decided to just go to Hong Kong and get a job in business – which he did with seeming ease, while I did my 2 years time as a clerk and then fled overseas to teach English.

As our government is putting out data that shows how full day junior kindergarten is going to increase the profitability of the workforce in twenty years, I sigh and hunch my shoulders. Wouldn’t it be so much cheaper, easier and more immediate to invest in good guidance programs integrated within high school and university curricula to help already-well-educated young adults find ways to use their talents, skills and education in the workplace right now. There are thousands of women graduating liberal arts every year and then virtually dropping into the vacuum of apparent uselessness in the workforce. I can’t tell you how many times I was told ‘but you have no job skills’. I don’t know if I even knew how to articulate the skills I did have, and how they could be applied: research, clear writing, knowledge of grammar and punctuation, reading and synthesizing long texts, analysis.

Just recently I met a young woman who has just graduated with an MA in Literature from University of Toronto (how’s that for skills in hoop jumping. We’re talking the cream of the literary crop!). She has a part time joe-job and is working on her creative writing. She told me her last boyfriend told her after graduation that she would make a great personal assistant. We both balked at the re-telling in dumbfounded outrage. So, twenty-two years on our society is still wasting the talents of women graduating in largely female dominated undergraduate degrees. Women who excel in the ‘soft skills’. There’s a pink collar ghetto if I ever saw one. Though my first career after clerking, is the pink collar ghetto extraordinaire! ESL teaching (largely kept part-time and out of the union, no paid vacation or benefits, largely year-round, continuous intake in private language institutes) is of course, as one of my colleagues described it – the Cinderella in the closet of the wider education system. After 10 years in the field with an MA in TESOL, I finally got to teaching at community colleges and universities where I lived in Ottawa. I had gone through jobs as Algonquin, U of O, when Carleton called. I had promised myself I was leaving the profession in spite of feeling that I was doing good work, and absolutely dedicated to NOT sacrificing my clients’ education, though I was personally filling the gap between the budget of the administration and the needs of the students. The lovely woman who interviewed me and called to offer me my first 3-month contract was shocked when I turned it down. “This is the best-paying ESL teaching job in the city!” she exclaimed. “But I’ll have to re-apply for my job every three months.” “Yes, but for the most part we are able to continue giving contracts.” No, I just couldn’t continue to be a part of it. Like at Algonquin where they had to lay us off every six months to keep us out of the union. I had called Employment Equity, who told me that it wasn’t really an employment equity issue.

When my first love, yoga, started to become more mainstream, and it seemed we could actually, possibly make a living teaching, I channelled all of my educational expertise and long-time interest in meditation and Indian philosophy into my second career, and opened a yoga teacher training organization. I am very happy, and feel that running an institute for yoga teacher eduction allows me to use so many of my interests and talents without the bureaucratic hassles of teaching at a university. Twenty years ago, I could not have dreamed of a more perfect career for myself.

But, when I think of all the wasted time and thwarted efforts, and the pamphlets that the English department gave us before graduation, the loss of identity, the unsupported struggle to serve society in a way that was meaningful to me, I cringe, I writhe, I feel fully the incredible impotence of second class citizenship. I help women (and men) find their unique ways of contributing through the diverse tradition of yoga, and this is incredibly satisfying. I wish I could help my brilliant U of T graduate friend. She’s 23, and may be looking at spending the next five years underemployed, while the Government of Ontario continues to roll out full day kindergarten programs.

In fact, I support publicly-funded full-day preschool and kindergarten programs, but not because they will help increase our GNP in 20 years, but because they give needed enrichment to children who might not otherwise get it, and they support women in going back to work and maintaining financial independence without having to spend most of their income on child-care. And as I have discussed, will adding two years of education on the books really help 50% of them contribute to our GNP if we do not improve our record in helping these educated girls achieve their career potential?

The women killed at Ecole Polytechnique did not get the chance to complete their education, to use their engineering skills or to enter the workforce. One man didn’t want the competition – women in this generally male-dominated field. To honour those women, I don’t want to waste any more time not playing my full role.

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