Friday, August 8, 2014

About Lunch and Knitting

A little while back, I taught in an inner city elementary school in the Lower Mainland. Kids from that school came from all over the world, and there were 54 first languages represented by the 350 or so students in the building. Think about that for a sec - fifty four different languages! And these children were from five to twelve years old.

Many of the children came from cultures dramatically different from this one. Many spoke little or no English. Almost all were living at, or below, the poverty line. The vast majority were from visible minorities, and because I'm a special ed teacher, the ones I taught had disabilities.

In addition to being a teacher, I'm a die-hard craftsperson. I relax at my spinning wheel, weaving loom or sewing machine. When I watch a video, I can't be without something in my hands, so I knit. I knit a LOT! Sometimes I knit while my husband drives the car. So it was only natural that I would start a knitting club at school.

At first, only the girls came. We didn't have any money at this school, because there were a great many urgent needs for any that came our way, so I put out the word on the internet that we needed yarn and needle donations. Pretty soon we had boxes of yarn, and all in bright colours. The kids were thrilled!

I'm a big believer that everyone grows and gains confidence by doing something for others, so I decided that the children would learn to make scarves for people without homes. I explained to them that the homeless people would surely need help to stay warm in the cold, wet, lower mainland winter. I would give them the yarn and teach them to knit, and their first project would be a scarf to help someone who was cold. After that, they could have all the yarn they wanted for their personal use, to knit anything they were able to produce. At the end of the school year, we would go to a nearby park for World Wide Knit In Public Day. And so the children began to knit.

Well, those kids knit, and knit, and knit. It started with a few little girls, knitting industriously away, their scarves becoming more skillful with each row. The number grew, and pretty soon even the littlest children were asking to knit. Some were too young or ill coordinated to really master the skill, so I got a set of knitting looms, and more scarves were started. We weren't excessively particular about the odd added or dropped stitch, so some of those early scarves were quite....artistic! It began to get a bit tricky for me to walk down the hall, because even though knitting club day was announced on the loudspeaker, the children would ask and sometimes beg to have my room opened so they could knit. Because I'm a special ed teacher, I and my fellow specialist were often called to deal with emergencies at lunch: somebody had clobbered the autistic child on the playground, or the child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder had thrown a punch at the child with anxiety disorder. Maybe someone had had a seizure, or needed asthma medication, or had to be restrained because they were in a destructive, dangerous rage. When these things happened on knitting day, the disappointment was so palpable that I soon lined up colleagues to supervise, even if they couldn't knit. Before long, I was teaching some of the adults to knit as well.

Then one day, a boy of about nine strolled in, and stood watching, shyly, until one of the girls spotted him. Both of the children spoke Cantonese, and the words that flew back and forth were incomprehensible to me, but clearly a blistering exchange was underway. In broken English, the boy explained that the girl had said that boys may not knit; only girls could knit.

Very gently, I said, "Oh, no, that's not true! Many men knit. In fact, men actually invented knitting, far away in a country in the middle East." Well! That had everyone's attention. Soon we were talking about the origins of knitting, probably in in the Arab world, and the little boy picked up some needles and yarn. By the time the school year ended, the club was about half and half, girls and boys. And we did, indeed, go for our year end public knit picnic.

The wonderful thing about those lunch hours, was that we bonded. Children of many different backgrounds, colours, languages, shapes, sizes and ages, all sat down to learn, to do something for someone else, and to chat. We talked about so many things in that group, and they practised their English, and they described their homelands, and they learned and they grew. At the end of the year, we had two big boxes of scarves to give to the homeless. When a colleague took them to the charity that would be distributing them, the recipients were thrilled! They knew that a child had knit each scarf, and that the children cared about them. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that those kids stood a little taller, and sat a little straighter, knowing they'd made a contribution to someone; knowing that they were not only the recipients of generosity, but benefactors, as well.

On my lunch hours in that school, we all taught each other things that weren't on any curriculum. I loved every minute of it. 

But when I left that school, the cuts had finally become  so severe that those lunchtime crises took over. These days I work through all of my lunch hours, either on the paperwork required by the Ministry of Education to 'designate' special needs students, in the hopes of getting some funding for them, or on meetings with colleagues and parents to try to find services for those already designated. I would love to start up another knitting club, but there really is no more time.

Kids really do matter, and this teacher really does care.


  1. This is beautiful. Thank you for holding the line.

  2. This is so close to my heart! I'm Mom to a special ed teacher who just completed her first year of work, and I'm a prolific knitter. Thank you for your commitment to the future of our province.

    1. I'm reminded of the joke shirt going around, "I knit so I don't kill people!" lol Thank you for your support. Right now, we really need it! :-)