My Convocation Shoes

Hilda Cupeta


It was two weeks after my sixteenth birthday when my dad announced that he was moving the family from Panama to Canada in search of a better future. That day I felt my world fall apart. I spent my first year in Canada wanting to be invisible. “University?” I thought, “Will I ever get to go? I am still so afraid to speak and to write English.” But the day did come. I celebrated the fulfillment of a dream as I put on these shoes.


It has been more than 20 years, but the day has actually come. As I put on my new, braided, white and red wedgies, carefully chosen and brought from Panama for this special occasion, my thoughts wandered away to 1988, when my life changed drastically.

Two weeks after my 16th birthday, my dad announced that we were moving to Canada in search of a better future. The country was growing more and more unstable, and the people were becoming discontented under the military dictatorship of General Noriega. In the past year, there had been many riots. I can remember finding myself in the midst of two while in school—running away from getting caught by the military as I fought through a cloud of tear gas. But other things were more significant to me. I was happy, dreaming about going to my next dance with my newfound boyfriend. I made plans with my friends for our last year of high school, where I was on the honour roll. When the news came that we were leaving Panama for Canada, my world fell apart.

I spent the first year here walking through my high school’s hallways wanting to be invisible. I did not want people to see how different I looked. I did not want students to notice that my skirt was not as short as those of the other girls, that my hair was not perfectly blow-dried, or that I was not allowed to wear make-up yet. I did not want to open my mouth for fear that students would hear my strong Spanish accent. I was petrified to speak. I knew I ran the high risk of having to repeat myself like a parrot, two…three and four times before someone would understand me.

When the time came to apply to university in the fall of 1991, my long-held dream of becoming a teacher was only a faint voice in my heart. There was no possible way, I believed, that I could ever become a teacher in Canada. I doubted I would ever be accepted into university with only three years of English language immersion. On the advice of my parents and guidance counsellor, I chose to apply to Chemical Engineering. It made sense. After all, you can make tons of money as an engineer and create a better future for yourself. That is what my parents taught me. I would not have to write essays, which terrified me, and I was good at numbers and chemistry. “I can definitely do this,” I thought.

After one year in the program, I failed to meet the requirements to stay. Not knowing what to do next, I sought some career counselling. At a meeting, my counsellor said: “People, people, people… that’s all your tests show! What are you doing in Engineering? You need to be working with people, not formulas!” After that meeting, I reluctantly switched programs and registered to complete a specialist degree in Psychology. I knew I would have to write essays, which scared me. But in the spring of 1995, I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts and Science and began my career as a youth worker. For the next 15 years, I heard myself encouraging young women to pursue their dreams…until one day, during a quiet and cool fall afternoon as I was strolling along the streets of my neighbourhood, I realized that I had not been able to reach one special girl in my life who had indeed let go of her dreams. That girl was me. The time had come for me now to do what I had told many young women to do for years. Finally, I was ready to go back to school, to teacher’s college.

Today, I have become a teacher. These red shoes from Panama are the only part of my clothing showing beneath the black graduation gown everyone has to wear. This time, I refuse to be invisible, and I do not want to blend in with the rest of the crowd. I want to make sure I look different because the path I took to get to this day was not like anybody else’s, and that is perfectly fine with me!

HILDA CUPETA moved to Canada from Panama when she was 16, graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts and Science, and began her career as a youth worker. She is now pursuing her true vocation as a teacher.

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