Take Our Kids to Work Day is intended to show the younger generation what it’s like in the ‘real’ world, when we impart some wisdom from our professional lives, and, hopefully, inspire a student by giving them a glimpse into the future. I didn’t really think of the day as an opportunity for me to learn, until I met Mia.

My alma mater got in touch to ask if I’d be open to having a grade nine student shadow me. Certainly. But I warned them that Shedoesthecity does not operate from a slick tower at Bay and Bloor, rather a closet-like space on the second floor of my 100-year-old west end home. I wanted to manage expectations, in case the student was anticipating a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada.

Mia was expected to arrive by taxi at 9:30. I tore around the house gathering up used tea cups, tossing bath towels in the hamper, and frantically tucking away plastic hammers, drill bits and a saw into my son’s tool kit. Amidst the frantic tidy, it dawned on me that I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d occupy Mia’s time all day. Since I mostly just sit in silence, writing and emailing, what would we do together? Oh no.

I posted an emergency status to my Facebook asking for advice. Some popular suggestions included:

“Have her teach you how to use Snapchat!”
“Get her to set up your phone properly.”
“Have her use a hashtag for the day, like #MyDayWithJen, and see what she chooses to post!”

However, the suggestion that resonated the most was, “How about a list of what we THINK teenagers like versus what they actually do like.” Yeah, that’s a good one.

I cleaned off a desk for her and since she’d indicated to the guidance department that she had an interest in being an editor, I arranged an assortment of magazines on the desk. Beyond the ideas pulled from my Facebook network, I had also pulled up recent press releases and emails that seemed appropriate. I enjoyed sifting through my inbox, trying to locate what would appeal to my student.

Heading to the front door to take out the recycling, I noticed a young girl standing on the sidewalk, looking a little lost. I opened the door, “You must be Mia. Come on in!”

As I took her brown bagged lunch, she looked around the room, slowly eyeing all our kitschy art, family photos, and assortment of weird things I’d collected from country yard sales and sci-fi film sets. I learned Mia was from Ningbo, China, and had only been in Canada since September. No wonder she looked extra wide-eyed at examining my home. Being a boarding student, it was likely the first Canadian home she’d been in. I contemplated whether to mention that most houses would probably not have an enormous pastel crocheted house in the middle of the living room, or life-like deer figurines resting on the buffet, but instead I watched as she looked around quietly, “I love it here.” She said. Suddenly, I was less self-conscious that I wasn’t greeting her at a fancy reception desk on the 20th floor.

Upstairs in the office, we talked about her interest in being an editor. Like most grade nine students, she had a vague idea of why she picked it for career day, and admitted that neither her nor her friends read magazines. (Although one of them had read Harry Potter SEVEN times.) I opened The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, explaining what each magazine was best known for. I showed her the masthead, and we turned the pages together, examining how each publication was laid out. I explained how advertising works, how the magazines make money, and how they choose which stories to run. I felt like I was explaining an ancient artifact, something already out of print, from another era.

Following, I had her do the assignment that my friend had suggested, but now knowing she was new to Canada, I tweaked it slightly. “I’d like you to make a list of things you’ve observed since moving to Toronto and starting high school.” I broke the assignment into categories: Music & Pop Culture, Fashion, Social Media, Food, Books/Magazines, Room Decorations (she’s a boarding student), Movies/Netflix.

As I sipped coffee and started chomping away at my to-do list, Mia typed. To break the silence, I put Joni Mitchell’s Blue on low volume, another piece of Canadian culture I felt she should be introduced to.

She emailed me her list, titled “Observations Since Starting Grade 9.” As I read it from my computer, three feet away, I chuckled. “So, people like to “stalk teachers on the Ontario College of Teachers website? And what exactly is K-pop?”

It was an impressive list that gave me a lot of insight into her peer group. What was amusing was that social media habits of grade nine students are in fact the same as that of grown adults: “Not really posting anything but just having a presence.” Certain things that are acceptable in many offices, even the fancy ones at Bay and Bloor, are not allowed in grade nine: “Dark nail polish is ‘illegal’ at school.”

I then asked Mia to make a list about what fourteen year olds like in China, what life is like there. I was intrigued to see what memories really stuck out for Mia.

  • Every class is huge with about forty-something students
  • The platform schools provide for sports is miserable – there aren’t many school teams, games are rare and boys have to organize games between classes themselves
  • Another weird thing about sports: boys are a lot more involved whereas some girls think they are just supposed to be quiet and nice and sweet and watch boys play
  • Math and science are really hard
  • You don’t have to pay for music in China
  • Many schools require students to wear uniforms every day, which are like poorly-designed baggy skiing apparels
  • Almost all the tops and sweaters in China have words on them, but always in English and usually with grammar mistakes
  • Only thin girls wear shorts in summer
  • No girls would have her hair down during school. Most girls have ponytails. Bangs are popular
  • Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and almost every social media in North America is blocked
  • A social medium called Wechat, where you can chat, video call and post stories, is popular among Asians in Canada
  • The content Chinese teenagers post is pretty much the same as that of North American teenagers, except for one thing: frequent complaints about school
  • Laptops, phones and iPads are not allowed at school so most people read (in Mandarin)
  • Posters of celebrities are not allowed in the dorms. Most students put cute signs on the walls saying “Goodnight” or “We are a lovely family”
  • Youtube and Netflix are not available in China

My day with Mia inspired a lot of thinking. In our conversations, I often had to explain things, like what Indigo Books is. Places and things that are so deeply embedded in our culture were completely foreign to her. She took me into high school life in Canada and showed me how it looks differently in Ningbo, China. While the math and science may be harder there, and while they may not have access to the same social media, Mia said that she didn’t notice too many changes day-to-day: “We just go to school, do things, do our homework, eat, go to bed.”

Of all things that I learned in this one day, what I loved the most was revisiting this fleeting age that rests precariously between childhood and adulthood. It’s delicate, impressionable, and in Mia’s case, full of wonder. They’re young enough that chicken fingers and Harry Potter are still important items that frame their world, but old enough to spot the inequalities in life, and the subtle cultural differences that build society, but of course I had her show me how to barf rainbows.

Featured image of world map painting by Audrey Deford. Check out all of Audrey’s watercolour map paintings on her Etsy shop.