Another lifetime ago, or at least it feels that way, I was known as Vicki Khamba. In the Punjabi culture, it’s common for individuals to have a nick name used in the family, mine was Vicki. This happened to extend to the first part of my schooling years, for most of those years I was at Mentor College, until I went started university and began using my real name, Baljit.
I see Baljit as being tethered to my adult self, while Vicki seems to be linked to my childhood. For the many years, I separated these two parts of myself, Vicki and Baljit, as they seems to represent two entirely different lives. However, over the years, as life has continued to evolve who I am, I find myself not wanting to separate the two, but seeking to merge them into the being I am today. After spending 3.5 years closely tied to cancer, I have been seeking that part of myself I tried desperately to shed.
Four weeks ago, 3 days before my 44th birthday, I completed by final surgery in this lengthy, complicated and emotionally wrought breast cancer journey. This one was to remove both my ovaries, to minimize the risk of my BRCA-1 cancer returning there. To my surprise, I woke up from this surgery in a complete and utter rage. I’ve been angry since then. I’ve been wanting to scream and cry out to the world. I don’t know what keeps me in this state and who to direct it towards. I’m furious at myself for not being a stronger person when I was younger, for the injustice in the world, you name it, I was irate about it. This is a stark contrast to the mostly optimistic and hopeful person I have been. I feel like the removal of my ovaries and all the hopes tied to them unleased a fury that can no longer be contained. In this vexation I’ve been searching for what once brought me joy, many of which were tied to my earlier self, the Vicki-self.
I had the opportunity to come home to Ontario, Canada on my own for a conference. I decided to come home a few days prior to the conference and something within me was wanting to go and visit Mentor College, where I had spent grade 2 – OAC (grade 13). This is where I was shy, insecure but caring and imaginative. I had the delightful opportunity to have some of the same teachers from elementary school until I graduated high school. Here I discovered my deep love for music, arts, sciences and health. Further, with the small classrooms and connection fostered by the faculty, I was able to learn in an environment that felt safe. I was able to discover the ways that I learn best, which was not the authoritative lecture style, but in an environment where I got to be interactive and inquisitive.
I’ve thought about this in detail, especially as I’ve spent my last 2 years studying leadership and education through a doctorate of education program. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities throughout the years where I’ve mentored others, whether it was in education, research or career. I’ve taught others to be like Baljit, strength and victory, however, now I find myself searching for Vicki more and more.
Vicki is tied to being at Mentor College, being in the school musicals and drama club, playing the flute in band, researching my next science fair project, reading and making notes on the latest novel we’re reading, thinking about what speech I’m going to do that year, learning about friendships and trying to navigate through teenage hormones. That was all 25 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. I vividly recall each of the long corridors, the knocking sounds rising from the radiators waking up in the morning, and to this day hearing the Canadian national anthem reminds me of being in a classroom.
Last year, I rediscovered a part of me through joining a local community chorus in Temecula, the Southwest Women’s Chorus. Here, I got to read music again, dust off my piano, sing and most importantly, connect with other caring women. I felt like this has woken a portion of me that has been quelled for the last 25 years, when ambition, fueled by anxiety and determination had taken over. I had thought going through a leadership program would further fuel my ongoing drive. However, I’ve noticed that the program tied with the cancer surgeries has been motivating me to seek out that other part of myself.
I lived my whole life in Mississauga, which is where I was born, lived and went to school. After starting university, my life took me to other places around Canada and the United States. During those years, my parents ended up leaving Mississauga and moving into the neighbouring city of Brampton. However, my childhood memories are strongly tied to being in Mississauga. I had decided last week, just before I flew out from San Diego that I would be coming to see Mentor College. I have been feeling a strong draw to visit. I arrived to Toronto Tuesday night excited to go and see my old school the next day.
The following day, I drove down familiar streets that I recall from when we lived in Mississauga. It felt like moving through those streets transported me back to when I was a young student. I took that opportunity to talk to myself, particularly to my angry Baljit-self from the voice of Vicki. There were moments of gratitude for the journey I had been on these last 25 years but a sense of returning that calmed and centred me.
Upon arriving at the familiar campus, I paused a moment to take in the familiar sights and sounds. The building had changed externally and was no longer had a red brick façade with portables along the back. The building had a more modern appearance with the addition of grey concrete overtop of the brick and an extension in place of the portables. However, the familiar giant maple trees stood proudly, their bright leaves changing colours and the occasional helicopter seed whirling down.
Parts of the interior building had changed as well, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see some portions remained exactly the same from when we had moved into that building when I was in grade 4 (1987). It warmed me to think that these students were seeing parts of what I saw all those years ago. Perhaps even sharing in some of the same experiences I had. I was also excited by the additions and changes the school has made to continue evolving. A part of me wanted to take my time to wander into each of the classrooms, sit at the desks, go into the auditorium and stand on the stage, even play my flute in band practice. I adored being in the atmosphere and returning there felt like coming home after a long, tiresome journey.
After registering at the office, I met with David Whyte, Principal, High School Division. He was our principal when I was a student. He asked me what I had been up to and I found myself delivering an epilogue of my vocational trajectory spanning the last two decades. I hadn’t anticipated going there to talk about myself, but it was cathartic for me to hear my educational journey. I felt like I had accomplished something that the timid and fearful version of my younger self would be proud of. I had spoken of my years spent guiding students, including those from Mentor College, over the years.
Afterwards, I saw Chris Starkey who is now the Administrative Principal, previously he was my Phys. Ed teacher. I had many fond memories of him helping me foster confidence in myself through physical activity, which continues to be a large part of my life today. He walked me through the campus, showed me classrooms, spoke to me about what my other classmates have been up to. I was absolutely amazed that he remembered the names and details of so many students. At the end of our tour, I got an alumni pin and took a picture by my graduation photo from 1997.
Lastly, I went to see my music teacher, Ian Hoare. Tears sprung to my eyes as I saw him, I was flooded with memories of seeing him when from when I was 7 years old to when I graduated from high school. Further, he had been one of my major supporters throughout my cancer journey, sending me motivating messages and checking up on me. It was the love of music that taught me to work through any challenge in life by breaking it down into smaller components and taking it one note at a time. Then pretty soon, you can connect all the pieces together to deliver a beautiful melody. The challenging portion is no longer stopping you. In recently joining my chorus, I’m reminded of all the times I spent practicing the flute or piano, being in the high school band and just a general sense of feeling whole.
Emotional and grateful, I left the school with the hopes continuing to be an avid supporter. Not from the sidelines, as I have been the last 25 years, but actively. I left feeling the grip of rage slip away and replaced with feeling of peace. I hope that other Vickis and Baljits who are struggling to figure out their place in the world cross paths with me. I’m eager to show them that the many sides of who you are can merge into one determined being. I want them to realize that success is a combination of accolades, perseverance and a constant recalling of your foundation. For me that was formed during my years at Mentor College, for which I will forever remain appreciative of.