(This story contains the singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral, third person pronoun.)
BY TAYLOR PACE
On March 15, Student Engagement brought in volunteers from the college and community to act as human books for their seventh annual Human Library event at the Doon campus.
“This is part of our Respect Campaign, learning from people with diverse backgrounds by having conversations to get better insight on people who are different from us,” said Thomas Campbell, a Student Engagement programmer and the organizer of the event.
The “books” were recruited from the college and organizations in Waterloo Region, like the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre and the Sexual Assault Centre in Waterloo.
Each book could be “checked out” for 15 minutes by those wanting to ask questions and learn first-hand about a variety of topics through an unabashed conversation that transcends social norms.
First, I spoke with Lyn, who is gender variant, polysexual, and a veteran book. Lyn identifies as gender variant to avoid confusion with transsexual. “I’m not going in for surgery. I’m a non-binary, non-masculine male,” they say.
Polysexual refers to someone “who is potentially not just attracted to the binary male-female, but all those wonderful people in between, like me.”
Lyn came out as bi and queer first, which, Lyn says, was easier for people to wrap their heads around.
“I was never comfortable with the person in the mirror. I tried to fit in and be who people expected me to be, and so the gender identity part sort of came later.”
In fact it came at a party, replete with blonds and glam styles, where Lyn and a group of friends decided to have a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest.
“We all got dolled up, squeezing into outfits and plucking eyebrows. I was doing all this stuff with a little mirror, and we did the contest. The big moment was going into the washroom later, and there was a full-length mirror. I looked at this person in the mirror, and it was like a physical weight that was sitting on my shoulders fell off. It was quite a physical moment.” This moment was so significant for Lyn, they got goosebumps telling it.
“For the first time I liked who I saw in the mirror, and that was a really decisive step on the path to becoming who I was comfortable being, and saying I’m going to be at peace with myself even if it means I’m at war with the world, because who am I living for?”
Next I visited with Carmen, who is a “huge proponent of learning about people through people,” and she loves being asked questions. “You could ask me anything and it wouldn’t bother me,” she says.
Carmen has lived with cerebral palsy her entire life.
“I was born 10 weeks early, so my muscles weren’t fully developed. Also, I stopped breathing when I was really tiny and that’s, you know, not recommended,” she says, laughing.
But her disability has not held her back. Carmen has lived on her own since 2015, with the help of her army – a term for personal support workers coined by Lyn, who happens to be one of them.
She works and volunteers with different organizations in Waterloo Region, and is a community relations person for Bridges to Belonging, which helps people with disabilities “figure out their dreams and goals.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to have typical work hours because you have other needs like doctors’ appointments, or you need to use the restroom and there’s not an accessible restroom where you work,” Carmen says, adding she needs an assistive device to use the restroom. “Logistics are hard, but mine are a little bit easier because I have my army, which to be blunt, is because I have money to pay the army.”
Along with her work and volunteering, she is currently taking continuing education classes in human resources at Conestoga College “to increase her arsenal.”
She says she has always gone to regular schools, and attended university in Illinois where she lived in a dormitory with several other people who had physical disabilities. Students doubled as personal support workers and became friends. She says this experience instilled in her a sense of pride in her disability.
“Sometimes self-confidence is lacking when you have a disability,” which she says can be remedied by having genuine relationships in whatever forms they may take.
“Lyn is my friend – we’re really good friends because we see each other all the freaking time. So I mean, I like to say that I get to cheat in terms of friend-making because once you get out of college it’s really hard to make friends, because life is not automatically set up for that to happen. But I don’t need to worry about that because I’m constantly getting new, usually women, in my life.” “Or wannabes,” Lyn chimes in, laughing.
Last, I spoke with Dean, an international student from Harare, Zimbabwe. Dean came to Canada directly from high school in 2016 to study mechanical engineering technologies at Conestoga. He plans on turning it into a bachelor degree.
Draped on the table in front of him is a handmade tapestry from an artist in Harare. He tells me the five major animals of Zimbabwe are an elephant, lion, giraffe, wildebeest and a hippo. The tapestry depicts the elephant.
English is the official language, but the tribal language, Shona, is also commonly spoken. “I come from one of the tribes, which is the Shona tribe, so I basically speak Shona and English.
“I wanted to learn as much as I can and develop my home country, that’s the goal, going back and taking the knowledge (with me).”
He says being an international student has its ups and downs. “The ups would be being in a new environment and getting to experience new things and getting to meet different people. I especially like this region because there’s a lot of diversity. I like how I get to meet people from all over the world here in this one little area.
“The downs would be having to live on my own and not having family or support or anything like that, or being in an individualist culture or society, whereas I grew up in a more community-based type setting where people would be more open, friendly. Here it’s different where people stick to themselves.”
He continues, “Back home you can go up to anyone and start a conversation and it wouldn’t be weird. Here, people would look at you like ‘why are you trying to talk to me?’”
Dean says he tried this a few times when he first came to Canada, and “a couple of times it did go well because they were other international students, but generally it doesn’t.
“It kind of is still weird to me. But I do my best to not infringe on other people’s boundaries,” he says, adding Zimbabwe doesn’t have as many social boundaries.
“You can’t just show up at someone’s house here in Canada, but a random person can do that in Zimbabwe and they will be fed. Some people would come and ask for water or sugar or bread or whatever or anything at all, and you wouldn’t even know their name,” he says. “One time I gave someone literally the shoes off my feet because he didn’t have shoes. That’s what I miss about home.”
He wanted to be a human book to get people talking about his home. “Zimbabwe’s a great nation, it’s got lots of people who are creative, people who are smart, people who have good mathematical backing and their thinking – just general ingenuity in everything that they do and they work really hard. I want the world to hear that, I want people not to look at Zimbabwe with such an opaque lens, so to say.
“One of the Seven Wonders of the World is Victoria Falls. It’s cooler than Niagara Falls,” he laughs.
While each book I checked out had considerably different life experiences, there was one common theme amongst them all: using open dialogue to learn and to educate.
Perhaps we should take a page from each of these books and always be open to respectful, educational and kind conversation with everyone who comes our way.