When my family arrived in Canada as immigrants, the first and most challenging barrier was not knowing the English language.We didn’t have a family member who could help us remove the web of restriction caused by our lack of understanding English. These were the 90s and there were no smart phones, nor clever translating apps to function as our interpreters.
My parents carried a pocket dictionary, and word by word we tried to make sense of the native tongue, culture, and the confusing new world. I remember how much of a struggle it was just to rent an apartment and fill the piles of forms written in the English language, not to mention applying for a job. For my parents the job market was limited to a handful of Polish companies that were willing to hire individuals who didn’t speak the language. Those jobs typically involved cleaning, caring for an infant or an elder, or some labour-intensive task in construction.
Luckily the Canadian government offered free English classes to recently arrived persons. And like thousands of new immigrants, my parents attended these classes in the evenings, after work. I was also learning English in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class, at my high school. However, by spending a major portion of my day studying English in an ESL class, it meant that I missed most of the regular classes I needed to take if I wanted to eventually attend a University.
During the 90s, students in Canadian high schools in the province of Ontario had the option to pursue three tracks: Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. To be able to apply to a University, a student had to be enrolled in the Advanced track, and then take OAC (Ontario Academic Credit) classes in order to proceed with higher education at a college or university.
In my case, without knowing the English language, I was unable to enroll in the regular high school curriculum classes, let alone take these classes at an advanced level. The idea of attending a Canadian university, or even being able to apply to one, seemed near impossible from where I was starting.
There’s no such a thing as equal opportunity. Accept this and get to work.
Still, I haven’t given up. Those were the cards dealt to me, and I had to make the most of my situation. I was determined to learn English, because I understood that if I wanted to do anything with my life in an English speaking world, it all started with a solid language foundation. Having a voice and being able to communicate with those around me was essential. Regardless of my intelligence and knowledge. If I didn’t have the language to communicate my thoughts and ideas, what was inside of me would have no value to those around.
I spent countless hours on learning English. I remember at one point walking down the school library aisle, looking for the thickest book I could find. I came across War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and determined to read it cover to cover. I spent a day reading the first page of this overwhelming book. It took time to look up the hundreds of words I didn’t understand and then try to make sense of the story. As I progressed through the book, page by page, gradually recognizing more and more words, towards the end I hardly needed the dictionary.
My motivation was the idea that if I could make it through such a challenging book, I would learn thousands of new words, and perhaps be able to eventually take English classes like the other Canadian kids. The possibility seemed exciting to me.
It took more than War and Peace to get me into the Advanced English high school class, but by grade 11, almost three years later, I was finally permitted to enroll in the Advanced English track and continue onto the OAC English. Eventually I was able to apply and get into University of Toronto, and realize my dream. And yes, graduate too.
Although the finish line might be the same, not everyone enters the course from the same starting point.
Looking back to where I started, the odds were probably not in my favor. However, with work and perseverance I managed to catch up with many other Canadian students in my class, many who didn’t have to squeeze learning the English language into three years.
However, in the end, did it truly matter where I started compared to my classmates? Or, what challenges I had to go through to get to where I wanted to be? On my university application no one was going to give me extra points or special consideration because I was an immigrant. What counted were my grades, the quality of my essay, and my test scores. This is all that the university review panel saw and based their decisions on to grant me acceptance.
The results of our actions are what matters, not intentions or the roads we had to travel to get to to our destination.
Personally, yes, what was most important to me was my journey, not the destination, because of all I have learned along the way. But to others, who had an impact on my academic career, it’s the effect of my efforts that was most relevant. It’s that piece of paper that told them that I could handle higher learning, not where I started or what challenges I needed to overcome to get a diploma.
Most people don’t care what you had to do to get to where you are. An employer is not going to care that your parents’ divorce caused you to slide on your grades and you didn’t get into the college you wanted, and don’t have the right degree. The guy you’re dating is not going to loose sleep over the fact that your relationship with him is suffering because his ex keeps interfering, if he does not see this as a problem and welcomes it. The scheduled flight to Paris will not hold for you because you were caught in bad traffic or had a flat tire on the way to the airport. And your boss will not be concerned that your job’s unpredictable schedule is preventing you from developing a serious relationship.
It’s easy to blame someone or something for why things are not going our way. And yes, it’s not fair that everyone does not get to start from the same point. Some get to start the race way ahead of us. And we may never get a chance to catch up to those in the lead. But life is not a competition. It’s about making the most of what we were given or have, and piece by piece build the best version of ourselves; a version that makes us happy.
Maybe that means changing jobs, or careers. Maybe it’s starting a new exercise routine or by dropping bad habits that slow us down. Maybe it’s as simple as putting that phone down. Going for a walk to give ourselves some head space and clear the noise that distracts us from listening to our own intuition and where it wants us to go.
The power to make a change to attempt to get the result you want, lies within you. If you don’t make a change in your actions, don’t expect the result to change. A different result requires a different approach. Expecting a different result by doing the same thing each day, only leads to frustration. Screaming and crying for change yields nothing, only by changing our actions can we expect the results to change.
Because when you meet others who don’t know who you are, most of them are not interested in the obstacles you had to overcome to end up where you are today. What interests others is the kind of person you are today, here and now, and the effect of all the journeys you’ve taken to arrive here.
About the picture: Caught in the Rain
When painting this illustration, I was thinking of the time when I was caught by the rain while forgetting to bring my umbrella. All around me I saw others pop open their nifty colorful umbrellas, enjoying the comfort of staying dry as they marched on. I got completely soaked that day because I was not prepared, nor protected. The world seemed so harsh and cold.
I wanted to illustrate a similar scene, with a boy who is getting wet because he didn’t bring his umbrella. The umbrella stands for protection, and without it he is vulnerable. While others will arrive comfortably dry at their destination, he will be wet. This is the consequence of him not being prepared, for whatever reason. He is resourceful though, and uses a newspaper to shield himself as best as he can. Maybe the person next to him will let the boy come under her umbrella for some protection? But is she walking in his direction, or are they going the opposite way? Will he join her, and change his course, or will he go his way and risk getting further soaked by the rain? Either way, he must make the best of his situation and get to a cover, or continue towards his destination. Of course the rain will eventually stop, this is the hope, symbolized by the sky filled with stars. Because just like circumstances, the weather changes too. And the sun will come again.