Today I have been repeatedly reminded of how much easier (and fruitful) it is to encourage and inspire another person, than to antagonize and silence them. I have lived most of my life without much encouragement (or any for my most formative years), and am constantly aware that when left to my own devices, I have presented a long history of being ignorant, misguided, and a frequent flyer of the accidental asshole club. And this is why encouragement and inspiration are so important. Human beings are hard-wired to need to belong to something (even if they are also extremely introverted and need a lot of time alone, or are socially awkward and experience difficulty reading body language). There are few things as immediately alienating as being shot down and left to figure it out alone. And there are few things that put the largest possible majority on the defensive as being antagonized when a simple gesture of encouragement could steer the conversation in an entirely different direction that promotes learning and solidarity. Most of my life has been marked by being shot down or antagonized — regardless of whether or not I am actually less ignorant (relatively speaking) of what I’m saying than the person responsible for this negative stimulus.
So while I may not have contact with all of the people I am about to talk about, I still very highly respect their gift of inspiration and encouragement. In some cases, I even still very highly respect the person behind it, even if the problem between us is that one or both of us were reminded of what it was like to be on the frequent flyer list of that accidental asshole club, whenever we were around each other.
My Grade 6 homeroom teacher was the first person to stop and notice when I wasn’t wearing boots in the middle of Winter just north-west of Edmonton. Not only did she put her own (used) boots on my feet, but she also snuck into the school’s kitchen many times to bring me something to eat when everyone else had “hot lunch day”.
My first Grade 8 art teacher was the first person to encourage me to keep drawing and making art. My second was the first person to start putting me down for the same, and I still haven’t really recovered from her actually sabotaging my hours and hours of pain-staking work. But then I took a typing class to avoid her, and now I write this blog.
My Grades 7 & 8 industrial arts teacher (an Irishman) was the first person to recognize that if you give me more responsibility and less supervision, I won’t just slack off. Up until that point, I was just deprived of opportunities for growth by default.
My Grade 12 English teacher (a Scotsman) was the first person to stop and actually listen to me instead of telling me what to say, think, and feel. He was also the first person to ever give me high praise for my writing. He always described himself as a narcissist (and even kept a picture of himself on his desk), but I always knew it was just a schtick.
My high school German teacher was the first person to encourage me to keep going. He wrote a message on the inside of my grad cap that said Beste Wünsche für die Zukunft (best wishes for the future) and I don’t know if he’ll ever know how profound that was. I haven’t forgotten and it’s been more than ten years, but that message is still with me. I still have hopes of seeing the fruits of that wish finally manifest.
A therapist, who had only seen me on a single occasion before I was hospitalized when I was 18, brought me a pen and paper and encouraged me to start writing as a way to cope with the isolation I felt. 13 pages about the illusion of destiny literally poured out of me before my hand cramped.
My first sex work client helped me to see myself as a powerful person. He respected me more highly than any of my lovers up to that point in my life, and he helped me (however unintentionally) to take strength from the fact that I have a skill set (however niche at the time, I was much more to him than just a young body with an hour-glass figure). He showed me that I have a right to assert myself, and a right to determine my own boundaries.
One of my later sex work clients helped me take back a part of myself from my trauma — he offered his body as service to me, and I claimed it. And in so doing, I freed myself from the secret torment I previously associated with that particular act. It was the first time I ever took a part of myself back in such a direct act of inversion with a consenting partner. It wouldn’t be the last.
The first person I did erotica work with showed me that I am inherently respectable, and that anyone who truly understands this will show that without being prompted to do so first.
My first college instructor recognized that I stood out from the rest of my class in a distinctive way, and even though she couldn’t say what it was, she did what she could over that six weeks to foster that unspoken quality. That carried me through the remaining two and a half months, during which I experienced ostracism, exclusion, bullying, harassment, and social isolation. I graduated as part of the top 5% of my accelerated format class.
The eye surgeon I worked for, for a temporary position of just six months, taught me how to be more professional on the job. He and his colleagues made me feel at home and respected in a multi-million-dollar mansion among dozens of doctors. As I had once lived in a tent in the backyard of a condemned house full of meth addicts, I never dreamed this was possible. He and his office manager showed me as I left on my last day that my hard work as a part of his staff was a valuable contribution.
The family doctor I worked for showed me that my work ethic both conveys respect and commands it from others. She molded me into an emboldened professional and encouraged me to follow my highest aspirations when I took the reins of my personal and professional development.
My second philosophy instructor (a man of German descent, with whom I am still friends, after 5 years now) taught me to respect my voice, and continues to be a source of encouragement and help.
My third philosophy instructor helped me realize how much power is in a pen — especially when it’s in my hands. Her feminist-centered instruction helped provide me with structure for my thoughts and passions. It is largely because of her compassion and encouragement that I began identifying myself as a feminist.
My feminist philosophy instructor inspired me to begin the work of interrogating my social privileges as well as my experiences of trauma, marginalization, and systemic oppression. It was the first step I made towards embracing my identity as a queer and a trans person. It was also the course I scored the highest possible mark in, over my entire post-secondary education.
My first anthropology instructor inspired me to write (and keep writing) against Western imperialist and colonialist standards for what defines desirable cultural practices, in defense of community self-determination and preservation of cultural diversity — no matter how much other people will fight back to maintain this form of oppression and cultural erasure.
My first psychotherapist taught me to value my own life, and to start valuing myself enough to begin interrogating all the double standards I maintain(ed) exclusively at my own expense. In very significant ways, he helped me take my life back from the brink of death. He also helped me through my decision to come out as queer and trans, and fully supported the decision, recognizing how much happier I would be just by virtue of living authentically.
My second anthropology instructor inspired me to write for the first time about my sexual trauma and the insight I’ve gained from it, into sex work and the way mass media depicts and addresses women. It was the first time I had ever made a permanent record of openly acknowledging myself as a survivor of incest and multiple sexual assaults.
A Polish woman — my first actual girlfriend — inspired me to finally start respecting myself for my own sake. She was among the first people to call me by my Right Name, and to see me with my head shaved.
A Chinese man, with whom I spent two years in a romantic relationship, taught me how to say thank you without automatically apologizing. He taught me how to accept a gift and declare my needs without perceiving myself as a burden to those who answer.
A Gitxsan man inspired me to trust the power of my voice as a white ally, and to not undermine my demand for decolonization, dismantling of Settler privilege, and the right of all First Nations communities to sovereignty and justice. He taught me not to undermine my message, simply on account of my skin colour.
An indigenous elder taught me about the prophecy of her people — that long ago, they knew Settlers were coming, and that no matter whether they arrived here running from something else or with a peaceful intention, the day would come that some would become allies to indigenous people and help rebuild the wheel of life uniting all people as one. She encouraged me to speak and write about the cost of colonialism to me personally, to multiple generations of my family, and to all Settlers here. It is largely because of her encouragement that I finally began stepping up to the front lines of social justice, instead of hanging just behind it.
A Danish man showed me that by acting with integrity and speaking the truth, I demonstrate myself as a trustworthy person to those who deserve my trust.
A Mohawk man showed me how to smudge, and how to bestow my gratitude to the Earth for its gifts. He taught me to hug on the left so that our hearts are close while we embrace. He inspired me to incorporate respect for the Earth I walk on, and everything I touch, into every day of my life. He renewed my deepest respect for the role of animism in the preservation of cultural diversity.
A Greek woman encouraged me to keep fighting for social justice, even if other people begin to fight me because of it.
A Ukrainian woman taught me that when I am most urgently in need, I am most deserving of dignity and respect.