Thesis excerpt: Red Worn Hands

by Elaine J. Laberge

Red worn hands.

I think of the shame and vulnerability I feel; my aloneness and fear, How I feel so visible because of the stain of poverty, yet invisible. I work hard to make myself invisible. I am defined by the stain of poverty—it is how I define myself and how I perceive others see me or my fear that they will see me this way. I often worry because I walk swiftly and that is a sign of my upbringing. My roughened red hands from years of hard physical labour that started at too young an age. I feel terrified I’m too rough to be on this landscape. If professors find out who I really am, they will have me expelled.

(From my field notes, March 23, 2015)



My red worn hands[1] are symbolic of a life shaped by childhood poverty. How often I despised my mother’s hands. They were beaten red and calloused. They felt like sandpaper. They looked like dried jerky. I have my mother’s hands.

Relaxed hands as if they were attached to a body in harmony. Hands pretending she had no worries but worries and fears persistently extending to her hands’ fingertips. Her hands have an unnatural quality (perhaps unnerving to those who hate the poor), like a mummified child-adult from the archaeological Egyptian pictures she had seen. Painful and angry red hues infused with tell-tale signs of outdoor labour. Skin sagging at the joints, as if the skeletal structure of her hands had shrunk, too early, leaving deep grooves indenting and marking the knuckles in a ceaseless circular pattern; surfaces ensconced with cruel furrows and folds.


At each juncture of her hands, across her hands’ entire landscape, she sees the deeply imbedded markings, and colouring, of intergenerational suffering; her life—and her hands—have been indelibly shaped and marked by poverty. The skin of her hands reminds her of the first knapsack she made out of gunnysacks when she was a child, valiantly held together with binder twine: useful and practical—rough and worn.


Cuticles lying jagged; angry flesh exposed from relentless, fearful tearing. Skin, at the corners of her middle-fingers and the entire outside area bracketing her baby-finger nails, nails that have not yet been victimized by her teeth, are elevated with hardened, worrisome and toiling callouses. Her right index finger reveals the indentation and callouses of grievously gripping and applying pens to paper in defiance, or resistance, to her origins. Her nails are torn down, close to the quick, leaving behind thin, blood-soaked traces of healthy tissue; deformed nails with dips and grooves like a hillside. Surviving uneven and fragile nails are dotted with dried blood, worry, and white spots.


Hands, with a forced and false casualness, gently splay on the keyboard. She nervously lifts her hands, slightly, until they are poised just above the keys, swollen reddened fingertips quivering apprehensively as she begins to write of a lived experience:


A student says, “Aren’t you ashamed of your hands? They look so old!” The only sound her shocked, indrawn breath; the only visible signs of her pain and shame is the stiffening of her shoulders, the tightening of her jaw, the infusion of a red slash across her cheekbones, just under her sunken, saddened eyes, and the heat that envelopes her ears surrounded by a close-crop hair cut. She clenches her hands into fists so no one can see inside. She didn’t know her hands were weathered and old before their time until she entered onto the higher education landscape.

(From my field notes, September 17, 2015)


I try to shift my understanding of my red worn hands. This shift helps me understand that wisdom sits on and in my mother’s and my hands (Basso, 1996). Shields (2013) writes:

[Students] who may come from families struggling with poverty, disease, homelessness … may have learned to cook meals, clean the house, negotiate the local bus system, care for younger sibling …—all skills that have enabled them to survive, but not necessarily those that help them interpret and make sense of the typical “middle-class” educational landscape and curriculum. This means that, as educators, we must learn to value, and make connections to, a wide range of experiences and cultural capital. It is not sufficient to focus on what students do not know; instead, it is critical to emphasize and build on what it is that they do know and can do. (p. 32)


Shields (2013) is speaking about creating socially just, equitable, and inclusive education. Yet, part of the missing story is that my red worn hands also speak to an existence and body shaped by caring and attending to the lives of others in meaningful ways. These shifts in understanding open up the possibility of “the extraordinary potential of living, telling, retelling, and reliving stories of experience”[2] (Huber, Caine, Huber & Stevens, 2013, p. 212) as poverty-class students travel “to and within unfamiliar [higher education] landscapes” (Caine, 2010, p. 1304). By attending to experiences and shifting understandings, I wonder about the potential for “deconstructing existing knowledge frameworks and for co-constructing new ones” (Shields, 2013, p. 43).

[1] This phrase is shaped from Sean Lessard’s (2014) doctoral dissertation title, Red Worn Runners: A Narrative Inquiry into the Stories of Aboriginal Youth and Families in Urban Settings. I am using it with Sean’s gracious and generous permission for which I am deeply grateful.

[2] As Caine, Estefan & Clandinin (2013) explain, “Embedded in the retellings of … experiences is a notion that each story is always partial and contextual and offers new possibilities as the stories are retold (p. 577). We tell and live, retell and relive experiences (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).

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