I must admit to being, somewhat, reluctant to post anything today because it is April Fools Day. My thinking was that if I posted something today….and, I do like to post on Mondays…..that you would all be reading along in breathless anticipation, waiting for the moment when this post turned into one, big joke. The problem that I have with that is that I am not an epic prankster. I am not good at pulling the legs of those closest to me. When I have tried to do so in the past, my efforts have ended up being more cruel than humour-filled. So, over time, I adapted by not playing April Fools jokes but, instead, by willingly playing the fool.
In classrooms all across Canada, children are entering their school armed with plastic vomit or poop props, rubber spiders or sticky notes that they will try to place on their teacher’s back by giving an exaggerated hug. None of their jokes are ever any good but, to them, they are hilarious. In most cases, plans have been hatched in the schoolyard so these jokes are never played out in private but, instead, in front of an eager audience, ready put one over on the person who carries authority in their world. There was a time, early in my career, when I would challenge the kids to try and fool me but because they never could, they never seemed to get the pleasure out of the experience that they should have. So, as I matured as a teacher, I relaxed when it came to April 1st. In later years, I would actually peer over my shoulder when someone cried out, “Look! There’s a spider about to land on you, Mr. MacInnes!” As I turned to look, the kids would smile and laugh and think that they were incredibly clever and funny.
As my career progressed, I came to view April Fools Day with affection. I knew that the months that I had spent building up a trusting relationship with these children would bear fruit on days such as this. Their simple jokes were only played because the kids felt safe enough to do so. They trusted me not to over-react in a negative or violent way. They cared enough to stray from the regular academic routine in the hopes of creating a personal memory for themselves, with me as the star of their show. In the end, I took these pranks for the compliment that they were. In turn, I never did anything sillier than switching desks around on them or hiding their chairs and saying they’d been taken for repairs by the custodian so everyone was going to have to work standing up that day and so on. Nothing cruel or hurtful in the name of comedy; especially when it comes to the trusting nature of a child.
I truly believe in the therapeutic nature of a good belly laugh. I, especially, enjoy the sound of children laughing freely and honestly from the bottom of their bellies. Life is good when you can see the humour in it. So, my wish for everyone today is that you find your jokes funny and that, if your jokes come from the mind of someone you love, that you shed tears of joy borne from shared laughter. As that noted comedic mind from days of yore, Thomas Aquinas, is quoted as saying, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”
Have a happy April Fools Day, my friends.
PS: just for your information, our kitchen is almost finished. I am just waiting for our window treatments to come in and be installed and then we are done. I have been promised that they will be ready today or tomorrow. So, hopefully, by the end of the week, I will be ready to share with you all, our kitchen transformation, from beginning to end.
After that, I will be creating a post about the family who sent me those beautiful sleigh bells at Christmas time. I promised the man who runs MagicalBells.com that I would “repay” him for the bell by sharing his family’s story with my friends via this blog.
Beyond that, my writing slate is wide open. If there is anything you wish for me to write about, don’t hesitate to make a suggestion in the comment section of this post or, any other post, for that matter. Until then, have a super day and thanks for being readers of this blog. I appreciate your support.
I just finished reading a great and important book called “A Train Near Magdeburg” by Matthew A. Rozell. Using first-person accounts, for the most part, Mr. Rozell, a U.S. History teacher, describes the liberation of a train filled with starving, dying Jewish prisoners on their way to be executed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII. The photo on the front of the book was taken by a U.S. soldier who stumbled upon the train as he and his Unit chased the Germans back toward Berlin. The photo depicts the moment that these forlorn individuals realize that they have escaped death and are, in fact, going to be rescued. From Death to Life in the click of a camera’s shutter.
Mr. Rozell did a masterful job of stitching together the words of the survivors and provided an insider’s view of the Holocaust as it unfolded all around those who ended up on that train. He managed to tell their stories well and, in doing so, he brought dignity and a measure of humanity to each person.
When Mr. Rozell first became a teacher, he started a project aimed at documenting the experiences of U.S. soldiers while they were still young enough and mentally-alert enough to accurately tell their tales. He and his students conducted hundreds of personal interviews. They documented the results of their conversations in a website called TeachingHistoryMatters.com As luck would have it, one day Mr. Rozell was conducting an interview with a soldier who was now known as Judge Walsh. As the interview ended, Mr. Walsh’s daughter suggested he should tell Mr. Rozell “about the train”. As it turned out, Judge Walsh was one of the soldiers who liberated that train. He told Mr. Rozell his story. As it all turned out, Mr. Rozell helped co-ordinate a reunion of the remaining train survivors and the remaining U.S. soldiers who liberated them. This book describes the reunions (there were several). But, more than anything, it demonstrates the value of lives fully lived. For each survivor is accorded time to talk about the families that were raised because they got to live. They spoke of the careers they have had and the good they did for others because they became teachers or doctors or poets or artists. They talked about the good they have been able to do by talking about their experiences and warning of the dangers of fascism and genocide.
There were approximately 2, 500 Jewish prisoners on that train near Madgeburg, Germany. Each one a real person. Each one had a heart that beat. Each one had hopes and dreams for their future. Each person had a name and an identity that was uniquely theirs. None of them were “vermin”, as the Nazis called them. None of them were “cockroaches”, as the Rwandan Hutus called their Tutsi countryfolk before that slaughter began. None of them were “Base people” or “Depositees” as Pol Pot called those he sent to the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. No, these 2,500 were all human beings in their own right and they deserved to live because of that fact.
Words matter. Who says them can matter even more. One of the first things a totalitarian regime does as it sets out to settle political or cultural scores is that it will begin a campaign of de-humanization. It is easier to incite violence against “enemies” if those enemies are portrayed as being sub-human. One way to tilt the playing field against a chosen person or group is to take away the individual identities of those involved and give the entire group a label. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws set that process in motion, resulting in the creation of a sub-class of people with no rights and no worth. It is so much easier to do terrible things to those whose names you do not know and whose lives you firmly believe don’t matter.
Mr. Rozell believed it was important to preserve the history of those involved in WWII so that the lessons of that conflict could be shared with his students and with others in his sphere of influence. I am happy he did that because I enjoyed his book immensely. It is one of the best and most important books I have read in years. “A Train Near Magdeburg” was brought to my attention on Twitter by a man I follow there named McKay Smith. I, originally, came to know of Mr. Smith (@McKayMSmith) because he, too, is a storyteller. When I first encountered him, he was posting a comment thread about a family member who had landed behind enemy lines during the War. His story made for fascinating reading. But, more than that, Mr. Smith took great pains to pay tribute to those who had suffered along the way. He has told the stories of many people who died in the War, as well as those heroes who risked much to save others. In every case, Mr. Smith shows their photo and states their name. Words matter. Names are important.
After reading Mr. Smith’s tweets about “A Train Near Magdeburg”, I ordered the book the very next day. A decision over which I have no regrets. Thank you, McKay, for bringing dignity to those who suffered so many indignities during the War. You do right by them, just as Mr. Rozell did in his great book. There is a documentary slated to come out soon about this book and that train and those aboard it who got to see the light of another day. The trailer for that documentary is here. Hopefully, it will work for you.
As I type these words, it is less than 24 hours since there were two different mass shootings in the U.S. In both cases, the shooters were spurred on by words spoken by people of influence and/or authority. Words that acted to de-humanize a targeted group. Cataloguing History does no good for anyone if the lessons it contains go unheeded. We have seen leaders label citizens as “invaders” before. We have seen citizens labelled as “criminals” and “rapists” before. We have heard the words “rodents” and “infested” used before. And we are now seeing it again. President Trump’s use of these words is not by accident. His use of de-humanizing words that take away the worth of a targeted segment of his society is a trademark of those who practise in genocide. Now, it hasn’t come to genocide in the U.S. yet but, then again, Hitler had almost a decade to finalize his plans before the smokestacks belched and the mass graves filled with the bodies of real people known then, only as “vermin”.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is a very impactful books. If you decide to read it for yourself, you will find yourself moved many times over. For me, I will end this post with the scene that most struck me. It was in the first hour or so after the U.S. soldiers had arrived and liberated the train. In that time, many of the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to leave the train cars or were too weak to do so. But, as the scene stabilized and the Jewish people began to realize that freedom might actually be at hand, they began to tidy themselves up as best they could and they lined up in as orderly a fashion as they could before the U.S. soldiers and then, one by one, they stated their names and where they had lived and, with that one act, they became real again.
Words matter. Names matter. I have a name. My name is Tom.
I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. In my hometown, there are two museums of note. The first is called The Miners Museum. It is located at the edge of a tall cliff, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. For a few dollars, you can don the garb of a real coal miner and go under that ocean on a tour of an actual coal mine. My wife and I were married in the Miners Village Restaurant which is the greenish building you can see in the right side of this photo. We were serenaded afterwards by a Gospel Choir in the Museum theatre room. The Miners Museum holds a special place in our hearts. But, having said that, the Miners Museum is not the most famous museum in town.
On the other side of Glace Bay, at a part of town called Table Head, sits the Marconi Museum. This museum is dedicated to celebrating one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of this past century. For it was at Table Head that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Trans-Atlantic wireless message in history.
I was thinking a lot about Marconi and about Glace Bay recently because I just finished reading, Thunderstruck, by author Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has written many books; most of which involve the connection between some infamous moment in History and some famous moment, too. In the case of Thunderstruck, Mr. Larson tells a tale of one of England’s most famous murder cases and how Marconi’s invention enabled authorities from Scotland Yard to apprehend the criminal involved.
In our modern times, it seems inconceivable that anyone could move freely about the planet. We are constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and satellites, our purchases tracked on-line and our social media feeds instantly updated to include stories and advertisements tailored to our lifestyles. Everything is immediate. Real privacy or anonymity is hard to come by.
But back in the early 1900s, when Marconi was conducting his experiments, news took time to travel. So, when the mild-mannered Dr. Crippen murdered his over-bearing wife and fled England with the woman he really loved, Dr. Crippen correctly believed that it was possible to travel abroad, incognito, with his lover and avoid detection and capture. But, as Mr. Larson so expertly details in his book, Marconi had invented a means of reducing the time it took for messages to travel across the Ocean to mere seconds. Not only that but, Marconi had fine-tuned the ability of ships to communicate quickly and accurately with receiving and transmitting stations on land. Thus, by the time Crippen and his lover had boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, the Captain had already received a police bulletin from Scotland Yard with photos of the suspects on it. Furthermore, because the Captain was able to confirm the identities of the two criminals, he was able to quickly rely that information to Scotland Yard authorities who, in turn, were able to dispatch officers who sailed on a speedier ship and were able to make the arrest before Crippen’s ship ever made its destination of Quebec City.
I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck because I like reading about Historical events. An added bonus, for me, was that such a large portion of the book was set in Glace Bay. The photo on the right shows the original station that Marconi and his crew erected at Table Head. Much of today’s instantaneous communication can trace its roots back to this rocky spot on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
I think that most of us take for granted the push-button world we live in. We complain if there is a delay of only a few seconds between the time we click our mouse and the arrival of our content. But, back in Marconi’s time, it took him and his team over a decade of trial and error in order to figure out how to do what he did. *That is Marconi sitting cross-legged, as his wireless operator attempts to ascertain whether or not his message has been received in England.
That Marconi’s invention helped catch a notorious criminal certainly captured the world’s attention in a tabloid kind of way. It was the first time in History that a police pursuit was reported on in, what amounted to, real time, a hundred years ago. Millions of people on both sides of the Ocean knew that Crippen and his accomplice were doomed well before the arrest was ever made. In fact, perhaps, the last person to realize the drama that had been unfolding around him as he sailed from Belgium to Canada was, Dr. Crippen, himself. Right up until the end of the voyage, as the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway came into view, Crippen thought he had escaped to a new life; first, in Canada and, eventually, in America. As Larson points out in his book, on the last evening before his arrest, Dr. Crippen stood outside the wireless office on board the ship, watching the electrical arcs colour the sky. He commented to the Captain about how magical this new wireless thing seemed to be. The Captain, to his credit, merely smiled and nodded.
As much as newspaper editors cheered the arrival of wireless communication, one of the real values of it came a few years later, when wireless communication played such a huge role in saving survivors of the Titanic sinking.
As with so much in our world, things are never simply black and white. Wireless communication started our world down a path where silence rarely exists anymore. Amid the noise comes wonderful things like tsunami warnings that save countless lives and astronauts who walk on the Moon and tell us about the giant leaps they are taking. There is wonder in all of that. But, lack of privacy is a very real concern and there are no easy answers to that. For a genius once sat on a windswept part of my hometown and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, with a few bits of morse code that transformed into electrical waves that sailed across the Ocean faster than any ship, obliterating national boundaries, making us all, simultaneously, citizens of the world. There is no such thing as a personal identity anymore. Thanks to Marconi, we are now all stitched together in a social-media fabric held together, not with wires and batteries but, with binary codes. Our world has become digitized.
And, that process began in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A town that has two museums; one that probably means more to those of us who were born there and one that we share with the world.
We are all human. We all appreciate being told, once and awhile, that we are doing a good job, that we are a nice person or that we are important. In today’s frantic, multi-tasking society, it is easy to lose sight of the right path as we struggle to maintain our sanity, let alone, live a life of character and integrity. So, hearing words of encouragement is important. They not only nourish our souls but, they act as an affirmation that maybe, just maybe, we are actually on that correct path in Life.
In Ontario, Canada, where I taught, we are no more immune from Life’s pressures and stresses than anyone else in any other walk of life. Most teachers care deeply about their profession and try their best to do right by the students entrusted into their care each day. Most parents seem to understand this. My experience working in partnership with parents has, almost completely and totally, been positive and respectful. Being a parent has helped me appreciate the hard work that goes on in the homes of my students. Watching their children grow more knowledgable and skilled, while enjoying their school experience, has caused parents to respect who I am and how I conducted my classroom affairs.
Ordinarily, a heartfelt hand shake at the end of the school year between parent and teacher should be sufficient to recognize the contribution both have made to the life of the child in question. However, in Ontario, a tradition has taken root that sees the parent bestow a gift upon the teacher during the final day of school. In my career, I started many a final day of school surrounded by smiling students, arms outstretched, all holding a gift bag or an envelop and begging me to please, “open mine first, Mr. MacInnes! Open mine first!” Those gifts of mugs, boxes of chocolates, gift cards for coffee shops and crafts made with care and love from home, all were appreciated and all were displayed and/or well used once taken home.
However, there is one gift that I have gotten many times over the years and, in my eyes, it is the most important gift any parent could give to their child’s teacher……..it is the gift of encouragement that comes in the form of a simple card or letter. Having a parent take a few moments to write that they appreciated the time I had spent with their child and that they believed it had made a positive difference, is like gold to me.
In my bedroom, on a shelf in my closet, I have a photo box. In that photo box, I have EVERY card, letter and note of encouragement I have ever received throughout the entire course of my 30 year career. Each letter is precious to me and each serves to remind me that, yes, I did, indeed, have a purpose in life that was worthy and that, indeed, I was making a positive difference in the lives of children. I can’t ask for more than that. Whenever I find myself feeling down, for whatever reason, I haul out that photo box and bask in the warm glow of the affirmations it contains.
In most cases, regardless of the state of education in the public school your child attends, you can count on them being cared for by a teacher who is working harder than you may realize to help their students be the best people they can be. However, there are times, in the course of their busy days, when teachers can become just as frustrated and discouraged as the students that they teach. If you ever want to make your child’s teacher’s day, I humbly suggest that you write a simple note. Your words of encouragement and appreciation will turn out to be the best part of that teacher’s day….guaranteed!
And, maybe, just maybe, your words will help fill that teacher’s photo box of memories, too. 🙂
We all appreciate hearing a kind word from someone else. Have you ever written a card of thanks to your child’s teacher? Have you ever received such a note or card from someone else, telling you that who you are or, what you do, matters? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below. Thanks for reading. 🙂
I was recently asked to pen a speech to be read at a rally to commemorate/protest the one-year anniversary of the election of the Progressive Conservative Government in Ontario. I was asked to make the speech into a eulogy for all that has been lost during this past year. Believe me, the list of what has been lost is quite extensive. Anyway, the rally was held this past Friday, outside the local constituency office of our PC MPP, David Piccinni. Needless to say, Mr. Piccinni did not appear at the rally to listen to the concerns being expressed.
I was not, initially, going to post this eulogy but, the response to it from those in attendance was very positive and it was suggested it would be beneficial for a wider audience to read it for themselves. So, here comes the eulogy. At the rally, the eulogy was read by Sarah Whalen, who is a teacher and a member of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District Local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. **All photos that appear in this post are from my good friend, Wendy Goodes, who helped organize the rally.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here, together, to mark a solemn anniversary in our Province’s history. For it was on this date, one year ago today, that a minority of our fellow citizens voted in a Majority Government for Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Since that election day in 2018, much has changed in Ontario but still, much has stayed the same. Let’s, first, take a look at the latter.
Please take a moment and look at your fellow mourners who have gathered along side you today. Look at the banners they wave, the signs that they hold, the buttons and t-shirts they wear; their hearts on their sleeves, quite literally and figuratively. You are here today because you care. No matter what has been lost this past year in Ontario, you have not lapsed into defeat or self-interest. You still care. That is your superpower. You are an army of compassionate warriors and your unwavering belief in goodness, kindness and social justice for all makes you the truly worthy defenders of the slogan, “For The People”. For if there is anyone in this province capable of restoring hope to those parents of autistic children, it is you. If there is anyone capable of speaking up for the trees, as Dr. Seuss might say and, protecting our environment in a time of crisis, it is you! If there is anyone capable of maintaining our systems of Health care and Public Education for the common good of everyone, as opposed to the bottom lines of anyone, it is you. You are here today because you still believe in a better province for us all. There is power in believing in something greater than yourselves. In your belief, there is Hope. And when there is Hope, we fight on and we never give up.But, as proud and strong-minded as we all are, we have not gathered here today to celebrate but, instead, to mourn our losses, of which there are many. The minority of citizens who have elected a majority of PC MPPs have unleashed a terracotta army upon the province. They are an intimidating-looking force, filling over half of the seats in the Legislature, drowning out all inquiries with jeers, catcalls and mocking laughter. Like Siri and Alexa, these MPPs know how to retrieve their talking points well. But, don’t you dare try to strike up a conversation. They are a confederacy, not of dunces but, instead, of submissives; all standing up and sitting down on command, all speaking words that have been put into their mouths for them, all promoting ideas that are not necessarily their own. It is easy to be judgemental of people who so willingly subjugate themselves at the altar of another but, to do so would be to under-estimate the damage they are capable of creating.
It seems as if @Fordnation is attacking everything, everywhere, all of the time. Like a cruel game of real-life whack-a-mole, we are forced to battle back on multiple fronts at the same time. Our outrage, perpetual. But, while we fight to preserve our libraries, our Legal Aid system, our Greenbelt areas, our schools and hospitals, to broaden and strengthen our bonds with the Indigenous Peoples of Ontario and to protect the sanctity of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body and so much more, an insidious and troubling battle is going on that could, when all is said and done, be the biggest loss of all and that is the War on Truthfulness.
For most of us, we have been raised to believe that “Honesty is the best policy”. We have held this belief as one of the foundations of living in a democratic society. We have grown accustomed to holding our politicians to certain standards of accountability, all built upon the premise that we expect them to tell us the truth. But, with this new Government, truthfulness is rarely a consideration in anything they do. In fact, it could be argued that lying is what Doug Ford and his minions do best. They lie about anything and everything. They lie even when they don’t even have to. They lie about the price of gas on holiday weekends. They lie about job security in a time of massive cuts. They lie about not opening debates on abortion, even as their MPPs give speeches at Pro-Life rallies. They lie with the ease that most of us breathe. The ability of PC MPPs to lie is breathless in its audacity. I am sure that they laugh about it all behind the closed doors that they tend to stay. @FordNation is not at all acting “for the people”, of that I am sure we can all agree. The lie that this government cares about the common citizen is among the most fundamental of all the lies they tell. They do not care in the least about any of us standing here today. We are not profiteers or privatizers of the public good. We do not have their ear for an airing of our concerns. They have no time for us, as seen in how hard it is to get an appointment with your local MPP, have a question answered to a phone call or email. They are their own social network and they have stopped answering to us. It is almost as if democracy doesn’t matter anymore.
But, as long as we have hearts that beat in our chests and minds that see through the rhetoric being served then, the fight must go on because democracy does matter. It isn’t a perfect system of living but, it is worth fighting to protect. Truthfulness and honesty do matter. Words matter. The integrity of those who serve our society matters, still. And so, we stand here today, one year in on the most profound and fundamentally important challenge our province has ever faced.
I stand here today, with you, filled with the conviction that our Ontario is not lost yet. That there is still Hope for a return to those days, just 365 days ago, when beer cost more than a buck and nobody really cared about that, anyway. I long for time when our leaders recognized that Love is Love and parades are fun for everyone. I believe in an Ontario where reading and books are valued and Grandparents are venerated, not incarcerated. I believe in an Ontario where compassion and empathy are not just words but mindsets and that our everyday heroes have the resources and time to help those most in need. I believe in protecting our children not profiting from them. More than anything, I believe there is still time and that there is still Hope. Much has been lost but all is not lost yet. So, wave your banners high, hoist your signs into the air and join me in the greatest battle of our lives; the fight for democracy in Ontario……for the people of Ontario……our Ontario……..ours to re-discover.
I got to go back to my school yesterday. It was the third time I had seen my colleagues this school year. The first time was around Christmas time, when a dear soul sent up a Facebook SOS looking for resources for a special needs child she was working with. I knew where to get these resources so, I bundled them up and delivered them to her at school. It was nice to have a brief chat before bells rang and she had to leave to start her work day. The second time I saw my staff was at a retirement party for our secretary who was leaving mid-year. This time, I had the luxury of having longer chats with more people and was able to catch up with everyone in greater detail. It was a lovely time. Yesterday, I was invited back to the school by a dear friend named Deb. This time, I got to be with the kids again, too. It was a special time and served to remind me of the good that comes when we care about things greater than ourselves.
This story begins in September of 2017. That was the beginning of my final year of teaching. Among the students on my class list was a special needs child. I knew him from his days in Kindergarten, in a classroom across the hall from mine. He was a lovely boy but he required help to successfully navigate his way through his school day so, he was assigned an Educational Assistant to help him. That E.A. turned out to be a lady named Deb. A few years earlier, Deb had worked, side-by-side, with my wife in her classroom in the neighbouring town of Port Hope. So, even though this was my first taste of working professionally with Deb, it was not my first experience of knowing the wonderful person Deb is.
The best way I can describe Deb is to say that she is like a sunbeam; all light and energy and warmth. Deb has a heart as big as the universe and makes those in her orbit feel wonderful about themselves. And, for my final year as a teacher, I got to share my classroom with her. What a gift from the Gods to me. Some teachers feel threatened by having another adult in the room with them. After all, being control freaks is part and parcel of doing the job. But, that was never the case with Deb. We were partners in the education of our students that year. It wasn’t my classroom; it became our classroom and that was something that made our space that much better for everyone.
As mentioned earlier, Deb’s official reason for being in our classroom was to work with a boy who had special needs. We worked closely together to tailor an academic and social programme that he warmed to over time. He was a fairly smart boy so it was a pleasure to see how quickly he adapted to his new schedule and work tasks. Gaining social independence was one of his goals so, at times, I would teach a lesson, Deb would help him get started and then, in order to foster independence, she would move away from him for awhile. Deb, being Deb, never took these “breaks” from her assigned student for herself; instead, in those moments not dedicated to her young man, she always made herself available to help other students in the classroom. I never had to speak to her about doing this. She willingly became a second resource that any student could access, as long as she was free to help. What a huge help that was to me.
Now, one of the things that helped create such a strong bond between us was that we shared a fundamental belief that being a kind and compassionate person was important in life. Being grateful to those who work on your behalf and expressing that gratitude was important in life, too. So, as we worked our way through all of the lessons that the curriculum documents required us to teach, we always did so in combination with lessons in how to be a good person. We treated each other with great respect in front of the students so that they could see how two adults act in a healthy relationship. We always treated our students with kindness, patience and respect because we wanted them to see how adults and children act in a healthy relationship. Finally, we established our clear expectation that we wanted the children to treat each other with kindness and respect, too. We were a classroom family…..and that comes with responsibilities; one of the biggest and most basic being, treat each other nicely.
Every class has its own personality. After all, a class list is more than just names on a page. Every class is populated by individual human beings; each with their own life story. As the adults in the room, one of the most important aspects of our role is to understand how the different personalities and learning styles of our students colour the tone of our learning space. Because children come to school with unique life experiences and academic development points, there are times when the standard lesson format doesn’t always work. Not every child is a paper/pencil learner. That doesn’t make them bad kids or poor students. They are simply children/learners who require a different approach. Well, as the second half of our school year came to pass, we began to find ourselves increasingly dealing with social disputes among students, much to our chagrin. As Deb and I talked, we came to be convinced that several of our boys were becoming frustrated with their classroom experience based on having to meet the expectations that come with a rising level of academic difficulty that occurs as a school year unfolds. This frustration was taking the form of socially-inappropriate interactions with their peers. These boys were increasingly off-task, they were becoming argumentative and the tone of our classroom was quickly becoming toxic. Something had to be done. So, this is what we did.
One of the things we noticed about all of the boys was a high degree of ego-centricity. There were all about themselves. “I don’t like this work!”, “I don’t want to sit by so-and-so!”, “I hate school!” Me! Me! Me! All of the time. These boys hadn’t been like this at the start of the school year but, they were now. Deb and I agreed that academic success was going to continue to be elusive for these gentlemen as long as they remained emotionally invested only in their own self-interest. So, as Winter warmed into Spring, Deb and I decided to try something bold; we wanted these boys to learn to care about something greater than themselves so, we formed a Garden Club and informed these boys that they were its first members.
So, each day during our Reading time (which was always a difficult time for the boys), Deb would gather up the Club members and they would head outside. We were able to do this because our reading time included a fifteen-twenty minute independent reading component to it. Deb’s special needs student loved to read and did not require Deb’s help for that segment of the day; thus, freeing Deb up. For the Garden Club members, it was a chance to take a break from the rigours of our classroom, get some fresh air into their lungs and to be able to channel some of their energy into something constructive such as digging in the soil of the gardens. There were three or four raised beds at a far end of the school yard. The beds were in a neglected state when the Garden Club first arrived so, there was lots of weeding and digging and planting of seeds and the hauling of water from a great distance away. And Deb, being Deb, always managed to include some Art or Poetry or Science into whatever physical labour was on-going so that, without the boys even realizing it, they were getting fully-integrated lessons, while the rest of their peers read in peace in the classroom.
As many of you know, a growing garden does not need the help of five boys for twenty minutes a day, every day of the week. So, Deb decided to expand the reach of the Garden Club and soon, Club members could be seen running the recycling programme in our school, building/fixing things in our MakerSpace or cleaning up litter from our school yard. It was during one of the school yard clean-ups that Deb and the guys noticed that two trees had been damaged in our yard due to vandalism or rough school play. This made Deb sad because she is a firm believer in the inter-connectivity of all living things in our world. She expressed her sorrow to the boys and, because it came straight from her heart, some of her emotions went into their hearts. The group decided that something must be done. So, it was agreed that new trees should be purchased to replace the broken ones and that, in order to raise the funds to do this, the Club would move into the school kitchen and start selling hot dogs!
Trees are important for the health of our planet, as you know. They act as the lungs of the Earth so, ensuring that these trees were replaced would be important, simply from an environmental point of view. But, these trees weren’t just ordinary trees. These trees were special trees. These trees were Highway of Heroes trees. Let me explain.
Canada is known throughout the world as a peaceful nation. For most of our recent history, our soldiers have served mainly as peacekeepers in foreign lands. While not as dangerous as being a combatant in a real war, our soldiers still face danger in their attempt to keep the peace and, unfortunately, some pay the ultimate price with their lives. When such a tragedy happens, that soldier’s body is re-patriated back home to Canada. When a soldier is re-patriated, their body is flown to Trenton Air Force base. Trenton is located about 30 minutes east of our school. Once the body is removed from the plane and placed in a waiting hearse, a journey begins that sees the soldier’s body, as well as, their family members, travel down a highway called The 401. This highway runs directly by our school. On the overpasses on this highway, people gather to salute the soldier and to let the family members know that their loved one’s sacrifice was not in vain. The journey from Trenton to Toronto (where an autopsy is performed on the body before it is released to the family) takes about 90 minutes. The entire route is filled with people, all caring about something greater than themselves. Over time, this stretch of highway has been officially renamed as The Highway of Heroes.
The original trees in our school yard had been placed there as part of a much larger initiative to honour all fallen soldiers and those who survived, too. Thousands and thousands of trees have been planted along The Highway of Heroes and in neighbouring communities; each one a reminder of those who cared for something greater than themselves. Once completed, this project will have resulted in the creation of a forest of gratitude and remembrance, the likes of which has never been seen before in this country.
So, needless to say, the hot dog sales at our school took on an added urgency and importance. Again, Deb being Deb, she took the opportunity of having a captive audience of wienie workers, to tell the boys stories about the fight for peace and the nobility of channeling physical energy for a cause that helps others. She did this as the water boiled and the wieners plumped. The boys then got to deliver the finished hot dogs to each classroom. Deb always made sure to have the kids in the classrooms thank “her boys” for having worked so hard on their behalf. Gratitude expressed. Gratitude received. This is how the seeds of change are planted in the increasingly fertile minds of these young boys.
And then, just like that, the school year ended. The handful of hot dog sales had managed to raise only a fraction of the cost of replacing two trees. I retired and left the school at this point. But, Deb stayed. Her energy and commitment and determination stayed and continued on during this past school year. So, as I sat home in comfy clothes, Deb and her remaining Garden Club members boiled hot dogs. While I worked on my own gardens, Deb and her boys worked on the school gardens again. Work went on in my absence because, that is what happens in life, things continue. But, I was not forgotten.
Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Deb. In it, she spoke of having finally raised enough funds to replace the trees. She was so excited! But then, she told me the really grand and glorious news. She had contacted the folks running the tree programme for the Highway of Heroes Organization and had told them of the need for the two new trees. They were so impressed with what she had to say about the involvement of the boys and of the lessons they were learning about caring for things greater than themselves that, the Organization generously offered to dramatically reduce the price for Ten trees, not just two! The School Council was equally impressed and helped pay for all ten trees. So, in her email to me, she asked if I was free to attend the ceremonial tree planting. Of course I was free, I am retired!!!! LOL! But, even if I had something going on, I would have cleared my schedule for this.
The date of the tree-planting was June 6….the date of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. There was a full-school assembly. Our anthem was sung by a choir. Primary students sang a song about the soldiers who, on D-Day, gave everything they had in the fight for freedom. “In Flanders Fields” was read aloud by members of our school’s Shakespeare Club (which Deb runs). Mr. David Turnbull (the gentleman in sunglasses in the above photo) spoke to the students about the Highway of Heroes tree planting project and how each tree stood for a life given by a soldier in a foreign land. The Deputy-Mayor of Cobourg, Suzanne Seguin (in the red blazer in this photo) brought greetings from the Town and offered congratulations on raising the money to acquire the trees. Pam Lancaster from the Ganaraska Regional Conservation Authority (the area group responsible for the health of the Highway of Heroes trees) spoke about the importance of protecting these trees; especially in their early stages of growth. Finally, *two boys from the Garden Club (one has since moved away and two others were on a class trip during the assembly) got to present a school cheque for an amount equal to the price of two trees to Mr. Hurley. The whole school applauded. Gratitude expressed. Gratitude received.
Outside, in the schoolyard, the two trees were already in holes in the ground. The boys got to fill in the holes with fresh soil. Kindergarten students got the chance to protect the new soil with fresh mulch. They saw worms and bugs in the soil and were fascinated in a way that only the very young can be at such moments. Deb managed to extract a promise from all who came outside that these trees would be protected by all because of their role in helping our climate and because of what they represent as Highway of Heroes trees. News reporters took photos, like the one above, which appeared in Northumberland Snap’d newspaper. If you look carefully at that photo, you will see a sunbeam holding a shovel…..that is Deb.
The ceremony concluded with cake inside the school. I got the chance to sit with my guys and catch up. I enjoyed hearing their voices again. Those boys are growing up, literally and figuratively. It brought me a great deal of satisfaction to watch them have such a positive moment in the spotlight. After the boys returned to class, I got the chance to thank Deb for the invitation and to catch up a bit with her. She was, somewhat, emotionally-spent, as most educators are at the end of a school year. But, she still had the humility to speak of the good that can come from simple acts of kindness. A year ago, we responded to inappropriate behaviour in our classroom, not with punishments, detentions, loud voices of condemnation or exile to the Principal’s Office but, instead, with an opportunity for five young lads to experience a different way of learning…..in a garden……where seeds are planted and the best things get to grow by those who care about something greater than themselves.
June has been deemed as Pride month in Ontario. Many communities are celebrating by hosting festivals or holding conferences that include topics such as inclusion, equity and anti-bullying and, as well, many communities are installing symbols of support and acceptance in the form of such things as Pride crosswalks. My town of Cobourg, Ontario, is unveiling their Pride crosswalk on June 3rd. I will be in attendance at the ceremony, as will our Mayor, the Chief of Police and many other prominent citizens of our town. I am attending this ceremony in my role as an ally to those in the LGBTQ Community. However, I must confess, I was not always such an ally. While I never actively campaigned against those who followed their hearts in a different manner than my parents did, I, also, never sought to educate myself about different lifestyle choices, either. This post is the story of my growth as a person when it comes to matters of the heart.
I grew up in a coal mining/fishing town on the east coast of Cape Breton Island called Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. I could see the Atlantic Ocean from the window of our living room. The squawks of the seagulls seeking dinner, mingled with the foghorn’s lullaby as we played outside on our streets or in our yards. Many of the men in town smelled of fish or were blackened by coal dust that found its way into every wrinkle and crevice. I grew up at a time before the existence of the Internet. My worldview was formed by the people I knew, the places I visited and the things I did in my home town. And, in the 1970s, all of my friends had a mom and a dad. Every one. That was what I knew family structures to be.
Because I had no access to the waves of information that wash over our children today, I only knew a derogatory term such as “fag” in the context of how and when I heard it used. For me, a “fag” was what you called someone you didn’t like. It was a putdown and meant that you thought the other fellow was weak or a sissy. “Fag” was always directed at other boys, never at girls. Girls were called “sluts” or “skanks” if they ever found themselves in line for an insult.
It took awhile before the sexual connotation behind terms such as “Fag” or “Slut” became clear to me and, even then, my own innocence and/or lack of worldly experience precluded me from fully appreciating the conversations that were going on around me. The first time I ever truly thought about alternative lifestyles to my own came in high school. It all started off innocently enough, with me and some friends of mine all talking about Rock n’ Roll and our favourite songs and bands. Eventually, the group Queen was mentioned and I distinctly remember someone making a comment about the sound of Freddy Mercury’s voice being the way it was because his “stomach is filled with cum”. The guys laughed at a reference that I didn’t understand. Peer pressure being what it is, I didn’t ask for clarification or to seek enlightenment. Instead, I did what many guys would do, I suppose, I smiled and chuckled, too.
My high school education ended in 1982 and my real world education began in the Fall of that same year, as I left Glace Bay and moved to Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, to attend university. As I left my train at Union Station and walked out into the Toronto sunshine, across from the grand Royal York Hotel, I did so as someone who never equated people with sexuality. People were people to me. But, as I settled into my new city, I saw right away that many of the people there were different from me; they had different coloured skin, they spoke different languages, they wore different types of clothing, they ate different types of food and so on. But, what I soon came to learn and to appreciate was that, even though they were different from me on the surface, they were still awesome people. I enjoyed their friendships and I was able to broaden my cultural base because of their patience and guidance. I was growing and maturing but, I was only turning 20 years old and I remained very “young” when it came to understanding the role sexuality plays in our society.
However, as luck would have it, one of the best things to ever happen to me in my life occurred just as my university years were winding down. I met my first girlfriend. We ended up being together for slightly over three years. We broke up for reasons that are neither, here nor there but, for the most part, we were just too young and immature to start out on LIfe’s journey at that time, But, because of that relationship, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life and that was, that Love is the best thing a person can experience. That I had a loving relationship right out of the gate influenced how I interacted with every subsequent female I met socially. I never viewed potential dates as sexual conquests, as many men do. Instead, I always went on a first date hoping that this particular girl was going to be “the one” whose heartbeat would match mine and that we would hold hands and walk through Life together, side-by-side, until we were old and that golden sunset beckoned.
A funny thing happened as I became an adult and entered my professional teaching years. I continued to meet people different than I was. For the first time that I became aware of, I started meeting people who identified as being Gay or Lesbian. Whether through work or through social contacts, I became friends with some of the most wonderful people I have had the privilege to know. People who were funny and kind and creative and passionate about life. My relationships were never sexual with these pals of mine and that was just fine with us, both. If I have learned anything in Life, it is that good people are good people regardless of how they dress, speak or who they may care to love. I believe in the power of Love and I have learned that Love conquers fear; especially, fear of those who have taken a different path in life than I have.
It may be a naive assumption but, I wish that everyone would allow themselves to be more open to the word, “different” and all that it entails. I am glad that we, humans, are not all the same. How boring and bland our world would be. I have changed a lot since I was a child who clung to the notion of familiarity of ideals being of paramount importance. I now embrace the potential for growth and for fun and for adventure that exists when you travel to countries different that yours, for instance. Or, when you study the history of another culture or eat foods that your Momma didn’t cook when you were growing up such as pirogies or curry. Change and personal growth should be a good and welcome part of everyone’s life. I know it has become so in my life. For that, I believe I am a better person.
I will close with a short story from my teaching career. For most of my thirty year career, I taught in the Primary grades (children 6-8 years old). In those grades, one of the most important responsibilities I had as a teacher was helping children learn to become good readers. There are many, many strategies that Primary teachers use to expose their students to language and to the conventions of reading. One of the ways I attempted to help children learn to read was by writing a daily message for them on chart paper. The content of the message could be about our schedule that day or about what we were learning about or it could be about the kids themselves; praising them for a job well done the previous day or taking them to task if I had a concern in need of being addressed. Anyway, regardless of what I wrote about each day, I always..always…always signed my message of the day, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”. ***If you expand the photo above, pay attention to the chart stand behind the four students (who were building a structure that could hold a heavy weight for sixty seconds). If you look carefully at the daily message, you will see where I signed it, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”.
Anyway, with every single Primary class I ever taught, the same thing would happen…some time after the first week or so went by, with the kids tee-heeing when they got to the word, “Love”, someone would muster up the courage to ask, “Why do you say, “Love, Mr. MacInnes” at the end of our letters? You’re not our Dad or anything!” The rest of the kids would hold their breath in anticipation of my reply which always was, as follows. I would tell the kids that, no, I was not their father. But, I was someone who cared about them all. And, because I cared about them all, I wanted to share something with them that was important to me….my favourite word. I would ask the kids what they thought my favourite word was. They would correctly guess that it was Love. I would go on to tell them that Love was my favourite word because it stood for things that made me happy such as kindness and friendship. I told them that Love was the best thing I had ever found in my life and that I felt I was the luckiest man in the world to have Mrs. MacInnes to love and to have her love me back. I finished by saying that I thought Love was better than money or power or being famous and that I hoped each one of them would find Love in their lifetime. Then I would end by saying that because Love is my favourite word and because I care about all of you, I want you to start every school day reading and hearing and seeing the word Love. Love is the best word there is and I want to share it with you. That’s why I sign all of my daily messages, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”.
To me, in the classroom, as well as, in life, Love is always the answer. So, when I see my friends in happy, loving relationships, it makes me happy in my heart. I never stop to create a hierarchy of what a loving relationship is. Love is Love. If you are fortunate enough to have found someone whose heart beats in time with yours, you have won the lottery of life. Two men. Two women. A man and a woman. Love is Love. It is all good in my eyes.
And so, on Monday, June 3rd, I will head downtown to watch the powers that be in my town unveil our Pride crosswalk. I will cheer and clap as an ally of those in the LGBTQ community and I will always view that rainbow of vibrant colours as a symbol of the acceptance of Love, regardless of the form that it comes in. I hope that, by being there on Monday, my presence brings comfort or reassurance to those for whom Pride is not just a time of good tunes and flashy colours but, instead, is a declaration of the validity of their life choices in a world that still, to this day, often retreats into the comfort of things familiar and safe. The world is not yet a safe place for everyone who follows their heart down a different path but, hopefully, on Monday, Cobourg’ s own Pride crosswalk will, literally, be a step in the right direction.