Three rows of students are standing in the gym of Conrad Elementary School holding their drums. Facing them are five other kids, who will be leading the next dance and song. In the middle of the two groups is Marlene Clifton. Her voice is both powerful, full of Indigenous pride, and gentle as she teaches her students about the next song they are about to perform.
She reminds them that it is a sacred song which is not to be filmed for social media. The drumming begins and the students start to sing. The Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids are mixed together and one-by-one the rows move about the gym, intertwining through a cultural performance that was once dying in the education system.
“It’s kind of a cultural piece where I’m trying to teach all students that this is part of who we are as Indigenous people, that the drum is the heartbeat of all of our nations. Everybody in our nations have drumming and it brings people together so so well,” said Clifton, Aboriginal resource worker.
Marlene Clifton started the drumming program four years ago. Every two months she rotates between all the schools – from elementary to high school – to teach the kids about different Indigenous songs from different houses, and together they all put on a year end show.
“I make sure that the kids understand that this is really respectful. I point out to them that our culture has been dead for such a long time and we’ve been prohibited from performing any of our songs and feasts. It’s not that long ago that we were able to take it back. I really make sure that kids understand that this is something that I hold very sacred and dear. And it’s been just wonderful,” said Clifton.
Clifton has been an Aboriginal resource worker for School District 52 (SD52) for more than 20 years. Her position is designed to build relationships and make sure that Aboriginal parents feel comfortable in the school system.
For Clifton, this will be her last few weeks of practice with the students and the last Indigenous Day drumming show they put on under her guidance. After 33 years of service to SD52 – 34 if you count her sabbatical year – Clifton is retiring.
She was born and raised in Port Edward and moved to the City of Prince Rupert 15 years ago. Her career with SD52 began to bud when she became a daily volunteer at her children’s school.
“I was doing that for about maybe three years, every single day. I would go up and do something in the school. And so the principal said, you know, you’re here all the time, you may as well get paid for it. We have a job opening for a library assistant, would you be interested in applying? My husband and I thought, ‘yeah, that’s a great idea. I’d love to work in the school system,’” said Clifton.
From there she became a childcare worker, lunch supervisor, speech pathologist, and an attendance clerk – one of her most fondest positions and memories at SD52.
“As an attendance clerk I realized teenagers are not the same as your own teenagers that you’re bringing up in your household because your expectations are different. And they’re just people, even though they were driving me crazy, because they’re always questioning everything. But you know what? I realized that that’s all part of their growth, and they’re growing up,” she said.
|Clifton was honoured on stage later on for her decades of service to Prince Rupert. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
She is most excited to spend time with her husband, kids, and grandkids in retirement.
“My biggest advice is for families to stay involved with your kids, you want them to stay out of trouble, you want them to be a part of something, stay involved with them.”
Sadly, Clifton is the only person in the school board who does the drumming. She will continue working with kids on-and-off through the Role Model Program, a program designed to honour talents from all nations.
She is also working on a book called Sharing Our Heartbeat, with colleague Raymond Wong, a Grade 3 teacher, to keep her work alive.
When her retirement was announced, the schools of SD52 put together for a surprise party for Clifton. As she walked through the doors of the gymnasium the students began to drum, but this time for her.
Jenna Cocullo | Journalist
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