I Am Not A Number
"I blew gently on the red welts that had bloomed down my arms.
Ashamed? I wasn't ashamed of my language. I was proud of it. But
everything I knew and loved about who I was and where I had come from
was slowly being taken away. Mother's last words--Never forget who
you are--rang in my ears. 'I'm Irene Couchie. I'm trying to
remember,' I whispered, as tears streamed down my face.
Irene Couchie, protagonist of Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer's
I Am Not A Number, was a real eight-year -old child when she was taken
from her parents, against the family will, to a government run
school. She was assigned a number instead of her name. Her hair, a
source of pride in her community was cut off. She was forbidden to
speak her native language. Right before the above quote she was
forced to hold a pan of hot coals by a nun who told her she should be
ashamed of herself.
"Irene Couchie Dupuis was among approximately 150,000 First
Nations, Metis, and Inuit children--some as young as four--who, for
over a century, were removed from their homes and sent to live at
residential schools across Canada. The schools were created and
funded by the federal government in the belief that Indigenous peoples
were 'uncivilized' and needed to be 'saved' from themselves. In
reality, that 'education' cost Indigenous children the loss of their
families and communities, their Indigenous languages, and their
Can you imagine, as a child, being torn from your family and
community and placed in a stern, unforgiving environment where you are
systematically stripped of your identity? If you are a parent can you
imagine having your beloved children forcibly taken from you to a
place where, "...Rules were strict, conditions harsh. Children were
poorly fed; infectious diseases thrived; many students died alone and
far from home. Basic skills and trades were taught, but generally
children were overworked, and the quality of education was poor.
Those who broke the rules were punished. Most of the children felt
lonely, isolated, and unloved."
Some of today's best literature is being done for the read aloud
and early reader set. We have come a long way from my childhood when
Dick, Jane, and Sally look, look, looked at Spot run, run, run. In
both fiction and non fiction formats, children and parents are
introduced to topics many adults are clueless about. Yet language and
viewpoint are emminently appropriate. And illustrations, whether
paintings or photographs, are breathtaking.
I Am Not A Number is a perfect example of this. Dupuis and
Kacer (Irene's granddaughter) manage, by presenting the day-to-day
experience of a child, create a protagonist children will relate to.
They convey the true horror without going beyond what kids can deal
with. (For parents and teachers there are added layers of meaning,
particularly on the last three pages that kids will probably not
read.) Gillian Newland's paintings really bring the story to life.
Facial expressions are body language are eloquent. Irene's mother,
saying goodbye to her, strives valiently to hide unspeakable pain.
Her father, when she and her brothers return for summer vacation,
shows determination to do whatever it takes to not have to send them
back. In contrast, those rigid, chalk faced nuns are grim enough to
give adults nightmares.
Even if you have no children or intentions to be fruitful and
multiply I advise you to read I Am Not A Number. You'll do a lot of
people favors if you request your local library to acquire it.
Remember what they say about those who do not understand the past?
On a personal note, one night I was getting intoxicated on the new
picture books and their potential. I brought four of them (I Am Not A
Number and the next three I am reviewing next) to my lunch with Olivia
to see how she would respond to them. Olivia is a UMaine undergrad.
She's a very likeable blonde girl next door...
Warrior woman. She's very smart and knowledgeable on a wide
variety of important issues and involved in student activists
organizations like Student Women's Association and Maine Peace Action
Coalition. She also found I Am Not A Number to be extremely poignant--
a story that very much needed to be told. It bothered her that this
part of history is so little known today.
Olivia is my new partner in literature and I will include her
observations from time to time. This blog has been a solo act a tad
A great big shout out goes out to Olivia and her activist peers who
fill my heart with great hope for her generation and the future of the
world we all share.
Sent from my iPod