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The best gifts arm you for life

There was a lot of violence at boarding school, most of it hidden. Some classes were let out early, racing home to Stringer Hall, taking shortcuts to avoid the bullies.

Most bullies were 'town' kids, envious of what they thought was our 'uppity' institutional life. They could never know that we envied them what we were denied ? a family.

My older half-sister and I were kept separated, so we could not support one another. She would, however, smuggle me what little money she could find, sneaking it to me on the weekends, so that I could buy an occasional treat. The few pleasures we were allowed were counterbalanced by some horrific episodes, such as fierce attacks by the bullies. When I think back on the earliest days, one attack especially springs to mind.

In a lot of ways I was a typical little Inuit girl, struggling with English, adjusting to school, living with 199 other kids virtually devoid of privacy.

My half-sister and I were tough, having been brought up like boys by my father. Constant training had imbued us with stamina. Although my father had anticipated a different environment ? not residential school ? that training saw us through some very dangerous times.

In early fall, my half-sister and I went berry-picking behind a hill near Stringer Hall. We had been released for the weekend. We had picked nearly an entire bag of cranberries, when two massive Dene boys suddenly appeared.

They had sling shots, the kind that sported thick rubber slings for killing rabbits and birds, and they were aiming them at us.

'Let go of the bag,' one of them commanded, firing a warning shot that went wide. I was terrified, my heart hammering away. Looking them straight in the eye only brought silence for a few minutes. They were serious.

I looked over at my sister. She stood still, defiant, even when she was told the second time to let go of the bag.

They shot her hand.

Still, she would not let go of the bag. Blood ran down her fingers, mixing with the color of the berries. We both remained, reaching for whatever reserves we possessed of bravery.

I broke, snarling, 'Look what you did!'

I started yelling, running to my sister. I grabbed the bag that she had dropped ? only because her hand had now swollen, preventing her from gripping ? and defied the boys to try again. My sister was gasping in pain, trying to stem the blood which now steadily streamed.

The boys departed, the fun taken out of their threats. My sister bandaged the wound as best as she could, tears now welling up with her pained sobs.

'Let's go before they come back.' I said. 'I'm proud of us anyway. We didn't run away.'

Somehow, years later, only that fact is important. With fondness, I can still picture my sister when I close my eyes, standing there, holding her ground with fierce pride, refusing to be a victim.

I think I learned then that it takes two to make a victim: both the bully and one's self. Will is the key. You cannot be a victim if you refuse.

Strangely, from then on, I didn't succumb to bullying. Later, when a senior girl dumped me out of my bed ? mattress and all ? I merely stared her down, daring her to continue. As before, she walked away, confused at her failure to evoke submission.

The best gifts are the ones that arm you against life.