I have mentioned elsewhere on this illustrious blog of mine that for the past few years, on and off, I have been teaching about “cultural vocabulary” at a place called ABES in North East Calgary. (Please see Cultural Vocabulary at ABES and Work, Work, Work.)
On thing I believe it’s important for my students to know is who’s on our money, from the Loonie on up. I guess I might well ask at this point, to my Canadian readers, if you know, exactly, for all the times you’d handled, say, a ten dollar bill, whose picture appears on it.
I ask this because one day last week, I came upon a conversation between one of my students, a doctor from Pakistan, and a Canadian–born student from another of the programs. She was asking my student just what, exactly, we focus on in my class. (Another way saying, “What the hell do you do in there all day?”)
By way of example, he mentioned that he now knows who appears on our ten dollar bill. I asked her if she knew, to which she said she had no idea. The good doctor then informed her “It’s Sir John A. MacDonald.” To which she asked, “Who?” To which my student, who has been in Canada for all of six months, replied, “Our first Prime Minister, and The Father of Confederation.”
I guess we still must teach Canadian history in our schools. But I was really surprised, one might even say shocked and appalled, that a young, intelligent woman who received her education in Calgary wouldn’t know the answer to this.
While we might believe that all American students learn about George Washington (as we do in Canada as well), there are clearly gaps in the American system, as the following story illustrates.
A number of years ago, I found myself (not that I was lost, but you know what I mean) in New York City, specifically in Spanish Harlem. I was there with a program developed at Calgary’s Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts called the Playwrights’ Web. We had partnered (I hate using nouns as verbs, but sometimes it seems inevitable) a Calgary junior high school with one in Harlem, the idea being that we would learn about each others’ cultures through the vehicle of playwriting.
The class in Calgary had been quite into the spirit of the project, but when I walked into that classroom in Harlem, it almost seemed to be the first they had heard of it. One young, diminutive fellow in the class walked up to me, in the midst of utter pandemonium, stood there looking at me, arms akimbo (as we used to say) and said, “Yo! You’re the man! You’re the big tall white man! Do something! Teach us something!” And then he returned to his seat, getting high fives and low fives from his classmates as if he played for the Yankees and was returning to the dugout after hitting a home run.
I remember at that moment looking at the door thinking to myself, “New York City is just beyond that door. I could just leave. Why don’t I just leave?” It was very tempting.
As I stood there contemplating the closed door to the classroom, three girls in the front row who were all in their best attire, and unlike anyone else in the room actually seemed interested in the program, engaged me in conversation. One of them asked, “Do you all got your own money up there in Canada?”
I said yes, indeed we do. I happened to have a Canadian 20 in my wallet and so I fished it out and held it up for their consideration. At the moment I held it up, the whole room went quiet. No more pandemonium.
The young dude came back up the centre aisle looking at the bill with great confusion and suspicion. At length he asked,
“Whut da fuck’s that?”
“That’s a 20 dollar bill, I said.
“No it ain’t,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“Where da fuck’s that from?” he asked.
“Canada,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “Where da fuck is dat, anyway?”
“North,” I said, “North of the Bronx.”
“And it’s like its own country?” he asked.
“We like to think so,” I replied.
“And you all got your own money up dare?” he asked.
“Yes we do.”
He leaned in and looked more carefully and then asked, “Who’s the fuckin’ chick?”
“That’s the Queen of England,” I told him.
He worked that around in his brain for a moment before asking, “What da fuck’s she doing on your money?”
To which I said, “That’s a very good question.”
And after that little interchange, we managed to have a very good week together. I taught them a bit about the theatre, a bit about playwriting, a bit about Calgary, and a whole lot about the American Revolution, which oddly enough, they seemed to know very little about.
And so it begs the question, “Who’s on your money, and why are they there?”
Have a look sometime. You might learn something.
Thanks for reading!