I’ve never had the honor of meeting her and probably never will but people like Amanda Chekowski, 18, of Edmonton symbolize one of the best things there is about being a Canadian. Chekowski was the subject of a photo essay in last Saturday’s Edmonton Journal that traced her desire to achieve her goal of earning a high school diploma as a single mother. Indeed, any single mother who chooses to finish her high school education and overcome a myriad of hardships on her way to a better life for herself and her child should be commended and praised by society. But the drive exhibited by Chekowski and others who make such a decision should make all Canadians feel proud of the efforts of these young mothers.
The Edmonton teen learned she would be a mother at fifteen and was told that her future and that of her child would be a bleak one. Told she would never finish high school by her mother, aunt and sister who had all been teen mothers, Chekowski refused to give up on her goal of finishing high school.
After twenty-four hours of labour, Chekowski’s baby, Janaya, was born without a pulse and was revived.
Months later, her daughter suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with hypopituitarism – a condition which sees the pituitary gland not releasing hormones the way it should. Doctors told the young mother that her daughter would be legally blind and have learning difficulties. Two years later, Janaya, although small for her age, takes medications but can see and is able to count to forty. Speaking of her daughter, the eighteen-year old mother revealed a common bond she shares with Janaya. “She took everything everyone said she was going to be, crumpled it up and threw it back at them.” Like her daughter, Chekowski has refused to accept her predicted lot in life and is forging ahead with her dreams of achieving a better life for her daughter and herself. Enrolled at Braemar School for teen mothers in Edmonton, Chekowski graduated with top marks on June 22 while fulfilling her role as a new mom and working part-time.
In February, the single mom was hit by a car while walking across a street which resulted in torn knee ligaments and two months away from school. Still, she wouldn’t give up. She was able to finish her studies and graduated in front of her cheering daughter last week. “I can’t even describe how good it feels,” said Chekowski to the Edmonton Journal. The young mother has already set her sight on her next goal and will become the first female in her family to attend university in the fall at MacEwan University in Edmonton. “If I can handle a two-year-old, high school, working, being single and trying to figure my life out, I can handle anything,” she told the Journal.
And this desire to rise above her roots and situation is what makes being a Canadian so special and such an honor. This country is made of stories similar to the young single Edmonton mom – people who, each in their own unique way or set of circumstances have overcome setbacks or personal tragedies to improve themselves and provide a better life for their children and families.
As a former teacher at a adult high school in Hobbema, I’ve seen countless examples similar to Chekowski’s. In the majority of cases, adult students in Hobbema came to Maskwacis Cultural College with stories which often made their instructors blanch. Above all, however, the Cassandra’s, Erica’s ,Darryl’s, Marlaina’s, Sharon’s Jolene’s, Patience’s, Brett’s and especially the Corrine’s I dealt with during six incredible and intrinsically rewarding years were and will be constant reminders of individuals who shared the same desire of improving their lives. Those years will always be the years I remember most fondly as I recall my teaching career because I was working with students who knew the value of education and wanted it. Their ambition and drive, so evident, in the men and women who settled Canada or helped to transform their native or adopted homeland into the country it became was, and is, awe inspiring to me.
The common denominator they all share is their courage to overcome their past situations and rise above the poverty or other horrible pasts as they either began to work toward a better future or were close to achieving their educational goals. And it these strengths that, to me at least, symbolize what it means to be a Canadian. It means never giving up on what you want and being prepared to endure the seemingly, at times, unendurable, (just ask some of my former English and Social students at MCC as they put up with countless long-winded explanations of the causes of World War One or my incredibly bizarre English essay assignments, right Marlaina). It means being so focused on your long-term goals that you sacrifice almost everything else in pursuit of that goal. It means being tough minded and determined enough to persist in your goal, your ambition, until you are successful. It’s that never give up quality, stubbornness and even pig-headiness (if you will) that makes a Canadian a true Canadian.
That same determination to succeed, to overcome obstacles that stood in the way of being successful was found in the late Stuart Winkler of Edmonton. Stuart passed away of a heart attack on June 13, before starting another shift at his employer of more than 45 years. Stuart, to those familiar with the central Alberta running world for the last twenty (or more) years, was known to everyone. I never had the honor of being able to call Stuart a close friend but that never stopped him from always offering a handshake or smile or slowing down to trudge along next to a suffering stranger (me) as I struggled toward the end of some road race finish line. He was always good enough to attend the local road races in Wetaskiwin and (as usual) was always ready with a smile and a handshake when things were going poorly. That was just Stuart. Stuart lost his hearing when he was just nine months old after he caught German measles but that did not prevent him from living his life to the fullest. “He never had a lot of breaks in his life, but he overcome it all,” said John Stanton of the Edmonton Running Room at Stuart’s eulogy. “He had an incredible sense of community and was known for his athletic stuff and known for his humour, but in other circles, he was known for the incredible amount of volunteer work that he did. He was a unique individual and also a very compassionate guy. He never complained and took all the speed bumps life threw at him and managed them and did it with dignity, did it with humour, and did it with pride.”
If one chooses to use the young single mom from Edmonton, the adult students from Hobbema or Stuart to illustrate one’s definition of being a Canadian, what qualities do they, and we, share or should strive to emulate? First of all, all three cases were determined to improve their life and the lives of those closest to them. This is especially true of the single mom and, since I knew them better, the Hobbema students I came to know and respect during my time with them. The Edmonton mom and the Hobbema students had all come to realize that education was the only thing that would help them improve their lives and they came prepared to work for a chance at doing so. Their determination inspired me in many cases and often left me thinking of my uninspired performance during high school in Wetaskiwin when I was content to just get through and not be noticed. (My apathetic attitude began to change in Grade 12 thanks to a demanding and wise old Social 30 teacher who still resides in Wetaskiwin.) They were and, hopefully, will remain determined to achieve their goals, educational or otherwise, and are prepared to perform the hard work required to achieve their goals. Finally, all three cases possess the same quality so many of our ancestors possessed – to never let adversity prevent one from moving forward toward a better life. With individuals such as the ones dealt with here, thanks to the spirit, drive and determination of Canadian pioneers and our ancestors, the meaning of what it means to be Canadian will be preserved and enhanced in the future. We are proud of our past for it identifies what we still stand for today as exhibited by individuals such as the single mom from Edmonton, the adults from Hobbema and the late Stuart Winkler.