Cenaiko shares horrific challenges as a youth that ultimately led her to become a teacher

June 6, 2019

As she was handing out the one-page blue sheet to those attending her session at the Awâsis 2019 Aboriginal Education Conference held recently in Saskatoon, there was clearly a personally lived experience Wynona Cenaiko wanted to share.

Aptly named, Not a Statistic, Cenaiko took those in attendance back to a day etched in her memory. Recalling how she was sitting at the University of Saskatchewan when one of her professors handed out this same sheet, citing the seven factors that hinder academic success in students.

The theory was that children who had experienced any three (or more) of the seven factors are not likely to have academic success and thereby graduate high school.

Cenaiko, an elementary teacher at St. Edward School in Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, recalls having a chuckle with her mom when reading the list which included the following: poverty or low income, a single-parent home, parents lacking a Grade 12 diploma, exposure to alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence and experience of physical, sexual or mental abuse. According to the handout, “as educators, these are factors outside of our control.

“I remember thinking I beat the stats because I ticked all the boxes,” Cenaiko said before chronicling what can only be described as a harrowing experience growing up in Saskatoon, weaving her story based on all the aforementioned factors.

Yet as she unwrapped the seemingly endless number of challenges she experienced, Cenaiko managed to maintain an even keel, noting that “this is me sharing my story, which I was asked to do. While it might make some people uneasy, I don’t look on my experiences as a burden. Maybe it proves I’m stronger than you might think,” she remarked. 

“It wasn’t a white picket fence and there were hard times, but I give so much credit to my mom and some of the teachers who helped me beat the odds,” Cenaiko said.

Alluding to a string of challenges her mother faced, largely as a single parent, Cenaiko recalled how at one point her mother had pretty much given up and so she and her brother were placed in foster care for a period of three or four months. While Cenaiko is of her father’s Indigenous descent, her brother was blond and had green eyes. When placed in foster care, he was referred to as Norman, while she was to be known as “Indian Baby Number Two.”

Cenaiko recalled being the only “Indian” in her elementary school. There was an understandable feeling of not belonging to the point where she would refer to herself as being Spanish.

School was a regular regimen for Cenaiko while battling demons and having to deal with near-death experiences. Referring to some of the hardships she had to overcome as “pretty horrific,” Cenaiko reminded educators how important of a role they can play for children whose daily reality might not be that dissimilar to her own.

According to Cenaiko, it is important for educators to be mindful of what sort of message they are conveying.

“You can tell so much by looking in a person’s eyes. I can tell you there were definitely teachers who you could tell they weren’t going to waste their time with someone like me. But I also had the ones who you could see cared and were prepared to listen and not walk away.”

In her own very matter-of-fact way, Cenaiko suggested, “I don’t think I am amazing to have survived, and my story isn’t unique. There are other kids out there experiencing similar hardships and challenges.

“That’s why as a teacher [Grades 4 and 5] you need to be there for those students and to let them know you believe in them.

“I don’t want to let those kids down and so it’s important for them to know you’re not going to give up on them and to see the potential they have. It’s about building relationships and listening to their story. Sometimes we get clogged down with work and we forget to talk to the kids. If you forget to talk to the little people, pretty soon they won’t talk to us.

“Education has become like a business and so sometimes we forget about making a difference and an impact. It’s important that you have a sense of what you can and can’t control as the teacher,” she offered.

Recalling her own rather tumultuous youth, Cenaiko always had a strong drive and conviction that “at some point you’re going to get to make your own decisions and I knew at a young age that this is not going to be my life forever. I remind my own students of that all the time. You don’t have to think that because of circumstances you’re a lost cause.”

Once Cenaiko has built up a sense of trust with her older students, in particular, she will share tidbits of her own story in the hope of being an inspiration.

“Teaching can be very inspiring and I remember wanting to be that person where you [as the student] could come and feel safe. I really didn’t have that. But with my students now, I have told them when they graduate and get their university degree, you have to promise to come back and visit because that’s your ticket. What we talk about will come to fruition.”

Upon the conclusion of her actual presentation, Cenaiko wondered aloud if the story had made any impact or not. One of those in the audience summed it up succinctly by remarking “I am inspired, and it makes me want to try harder.”