Conference ReflectionsProfessional DevelopmentThoughts, Feelings

What Can SA Learn from Grandparents: My Encounter with an Elder

It happened on the Tuesday morning at #ACPA16. Realising that I had just missed the opening of an educational session, I decided to just “email and chill” in a quiet corner. That’s when I spotted Charlie Patton, one of the Mohawk Elders in Residence at the conference.

I had wanted to chat with an Aboriginal Elder for some time, but for many reasons, I had not (e.g. fear of breaching some protocols because of my ignorance, needing to formulate my questions, not having/finding the time, etc.). This time, I had the perfect excuse: I went over to Charlie, introduced myself as someone from the Convention Planning Team, and asked how he was enjoying the conference. What began as a polite check-in quickly turned into one of the most powerful conversations I’ve had for some time.

For an hour and a half, Charlie and I talked about many different things: he told me the creation story of his people (a short version of which can be found here), and sang me songs in his people’s language; we discussed the strength and resilience of the Mohawk people, and how they fought to preserve their identity through centuries of oppression; he encouraged me to find my “wholeness” when I told him how uprooted and homesick I had felt lately, even though I was the one who fought to leave home in the first place…

My conversation with Charlie was more circular than linear. We had no agenda. There wasn’t any question that needed to be answered. We simply let the conversation be. To many of us “busy professionals,” this is an unfamiliar way of relating to each other, yet there was something beautifully familiar about this encounter. Then it dawned on me:

Charlie reminded me of my grandparents!

The day before I met Charlie, I had attended a panel session where Dr. Amanda Tachine from the University of Arizona encouraged educators to be more like our grandparents, specifically grandmothers. Grandparents listen to us when we’re in trouble, and allow us the time and space to be vulnerable. They give us advice in exactly the way we need to hear it, whether we’re ready for it or not, and they tell us stories about where we’re from and who we are. Grandparents care.

A woman and man sit side by side for a photo. These are Wincy Li's grandparents.

Wincy Li’s grandparents.

The conversation with Charlie was impactful for me, not because I understood everything he was saying (or singing) to me, but because I was moved by his kindness and willingness to share his worldview and listen to mine. Time froze because we stopped looking at our watches and gave each other our full attention, and that’s exactly how I remembered my interactions with my grandparents.

Teaching and learning reside in these conversations and moments. As Dr. Christine Nelson proposed in the session I attended, we needed to make time for stories. It is a sign of respect, and it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether you understand everything, no matter how long those stories take.

As educators in student affairs and services, how well are we following in our grandparents’ footsteps? I reflected on this after my #ACPA16 experience and encounter with Charlie, and came up with a few ideas for myself when I engage with students and colleagues:

  • Listen intently: I will stop nodding and paraphrasing and pretending to understand when I don’t. I will learn to be patient and really let others finish their stories and thoughts before I go in with my questions or ideas.
  • Make time: Following up on the point #1, I’m going to make time for important conversations and try not to rush things along. Some chats just need to take however long they take.
  • Give thanks: The biggest lesson from Charlie is that we need to be grateful for all that we have in our lives. There are plenty of things I can complain about and criticise—I’m very good at problematising things…—but I’ll try to remember the positive things that surround me.
  • Be whole: At the closing of #ACPA16, Charlie said, “The way you touch people is with your spirit.” I will do a better job staying in touch and connected with myself and the people in my life.

What about you? What did you learn from your grandparents or elders, and are there things we can learn from their teachings that will enhance our professional and personal lives? Please share your stories below. I’m all ears!

  • Rebecca Dirnfeld

    Wincy, This is a wonderful post. I am moved by your experience at #ACPA16. When thinking about my grandmother, I remember her being patient and kind. She would share with me stories that were meaningful to her, and those stories became meaningful to me. I’ve learned from your blog that taking away meaning from our encounters with others is so important in the work that we do. We need the time to do it, and we must make that time. Yesterday, a 1/2 hour career consultation turned into a 1 hour chat with a student who needed to share. I took away great meaning from our conversation, and felt more fulfilled after having it.

    • Wincy Li

      Thanks for sharing, Rebecca. I used to equate meaning-making with cognitive comprehension, but now I’m not so sure. My conversation with Charlie has reminded me that I don’t have to understand everything for an encounter to be meaningful or impactful. Indeed, because I don’t understand, I’m inspired to learn more. It’s like stories that our grans told us, which didn’t make sense at the time. The message somehow hangs on and the lesson resurfaces when we need it the most. I keep thinking: If learning can occur in such a time-delayed fashion, how is it assessed (or not) with our current assessment/evaluation tools and methods?

      • Rachel Barreca

        I think meaning-making is a cognitive process, but the knowledge and lived experiences upon which we make meaning don’t originate from nor dwell in our cognition. That knowledge lives in our bodies and emotions. Meaning-making is a holistic process and it can take time, as you have put it so well. That’s why taking time for deeper, more fully lived experiences with our fellow travelers is so important, I think. Lovely post, Wincy.

        • Wincy Li

          Well put, Rachel. I was just talking to a friend the other day, about the need for us as educators to pay more attention to the emotional and even spiritual aspects of learning, which takes time. Learning can’t just be about the cognitive realm.

  • Niioieren Eileen Sawyer Patton

    Greetings Wincy – how fine of you to take the time to reflect on our discussion. I also enjoyed the exchange and wish to acknowledge my thanks to you for your kind words and the tribute you have shown by relating to your own grandparents. It is one of the greatest honors that our grandchildren remember us. Over the years of speaking with many native and non-native people, it is always our hope that we can touch people’s hearts and spirits with the knowledge that our ancestors left with us. We can encourage you then to find your own strengths left by your ancestors – while understanding also the message that native people have been trying to convey in this land. Nia:wen (thank you) – Otsi’tsaken:ra (Charlie Patton), Kahnawa:ke

    • Wincy Li

      Hi Otsi’tsaken:ra (Charlie), so nice to hear from you! I’m glad and honoured that you enjoyed this piece. Thank you so much again for sharing your stories with me, and for your unbound kindness. You’ll be happy to hear that after our chat, I was so inspired that I began researching and reading the creation stories and myths of the Chinese people as well as native peoples. I read to learn about our world views, in hopes that there are more similarities than differences, and that these similarities can contribute to peace and harmony between different communities. Nia:wen!

  • Ian Ingles

    Great post Wincy – I really enjoyed reading this. Thinking about my memories of my own grandmother, I can see things that had an influence on me that I couldn’t see or comprehend as a kid. My grandmother had to leave a life of relative comfort as a stay at home mom in a small city (Kingston) with two teenage daughters when my grandfather passed away at a relatively young age. Without much work experience, a degree or much to live on, she went to work in what I suspect would have been one of if not the only few jobs she could get that would pay enough to support her family – a guard in a maximum security prison. It’s hard for me to imagine what a difficult transition this would have been yet she never complained about it that anyone can recall (she would even tell the odd funny story). She didn’t put up with much nonsense and had a get on with it attitude that I remember with much fondness now, even if as a kid I thought she could be gruff at times. To me, she did what had to be done and I will always remember her for that.

    • Wincy Li

      That’s a very sweet story, Ian. Thanks for sharing! Now I can see where you get your no-nonsense attitude from. 😀

  • Fenella Amarasinghe

    You’ve concisely articulated what we often tend to forget through this well written, reflective piece. Many thanks for sharing, Wincy!

    • Wincy Li

      Thanks, Ferns! 🙂 There’s a reason why Personal Foundation is my favourite SA competency.