I had three presentations at a school today in the West end.

I’d been to the school about ten years ago, when I was first starting out, and my has it changed! Back then this school had the distinction of being one of the most homogenous immigrant population schools in Toronto. About 96 or 98% , can’t remember exactly, were Somali immigrants.

I got a strange vibe from the principal back then. He was outwardly encouraging and yet… a bit reticent, if you know what I mean.

He went into a lot of detail about the kind of social problems this group of immigrants were having, in such a way, that left me feeling a bit uncomfortable.

I try not to over analyze these things. You never know when people are reacting to other factors in their lives.

I did a five day program at that school sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in the Schools program. Basically I would apply for grants and then the schools I approached would have to pitch in a pittance to have me work with a group of students in an artistic venture. I did my Universality in Folktales workshop, teaching them writing and storytelling skills.

These were junior students.

But one of my most vivid memories was getting to a point with these kids, almost like a Sidney Poitier moment like in To Sir With Love, where I put aside my lesson plan and asked these kids what their dreams and goals were.

Of the boys, 90% of them wanted to be basketball stars.  If all of them actually made it, that would probably comprise most of the NBA.

I asked them this because none of them were taking their schooling, or my program, seriously. I asked these same kids what they would do if they pro-basketball thing didn’t work out, what was their fall back? They didn’t have any other plan.

These were grade four kids, but still.

At one poine I told them about hygiene.

I told them that many of them smelled and they couldn’t tell because noses had gotten used to their own smell. You see the nose has a certain baseline tolerance of smell. Fifteen minutes after you’ve smelled an aroma, you can no longer register it. Your nose or brain, automatically adds it to the baseline, I think to help avoid people from being overcome by their olfactory abilities.

So people who stink are the worst judges of whether they stink, because they’ve been living with the smell and can’t tell.

I also, in front of the teachers, told them about when I went back to Pakistan. We stayed in a pretty middle class area, but even then, we did not have access to hot water. To take a bath you had to heat the water on the stove for each bath, and dilute it with cold water, then use a cup to pour the water over yourself. It was a real hassle.

And, where I was staying in Lahore, there was water rationing. The water only came on in the taps twice a day for about an hour. There are good reasons why people in third world countries don’t take baths everyday.

But coming to Canada, they needed to change those habits.

I also mentioned the need for deodorant and anti-perspirant.

The teachers really appreciated what I told the kids. They told me with the kids reaching puberty, there were many times when the body odour was so strong that it was enough to knock them down.

But I did it for the teachers as well. For them to understand why these immigrants were the way they were.

I often wonder what happened to those kids. It almost seems though that people fleeing from a wartorn country, are so relieved, just to be safe, that they can’t seem to see the danger their kids are in.

The interesting thing too was that because the school was so Somali, many of the children had little incentive to learn English.

Now that same neighborhood has changed. There were about one third Somali, and now many more of them were South Asian: Pakistani and Sri Lankan.

It was so neat to see so many little girls wearing hijab.

The principal had seen me at another school, and that’s why she’d invited me to this one.

The weirdest thing that happened–a real first–was that one little black boy in kindergarten started crying uncontrollably when I asked the kindergartners to leave.

It was my primary presentation called Picture the Story, where I talk about where ideas come from, I tell Ruler of the Courtyard, Silly Chicken and my newest Big Red Lollipop story. That takes about forty to forty-five minutes. By that time the kindergartners have had enough and I let them go and keep the grades one to three students back so I can show them how a story goes from concept to finished book. I show them rough draft, editing, then page breaks, artist sketches, layout, and finally fold and gathers (proofs).

They find the process fascinating.

Well, when I asked the kindergartners to leave, like I said, the little  black boy started crying and I went up to the teacher and asked if there was something wrong. “No,” she said, “He’s just devastated because he has to leave. He loved your stories.”

In fact many teachers came up and told me how much they’d enjoyed the stories. The most common comment being, “You were really good!” (Kind of like they were surprised.)

Oh well. It comes with the territory. I’m not surprised that most people would look at me and not know that when I get up to present, even when I have a horrible cold, like today, I turn something on. A teacher in the Arctic said I was like a Broadway show! LOL.

I don’t know about that! I don’t sing, but I am very *ahem* theatrical!

Most of the time I’m very low key, it’s just when I’m presenting. Which is probably why I do about eighty school visits a year. Word gets around.

People don’t expect that from a Muslim woman, I guess.