A dear friend of mine who is a Teacher-Librarian at a nearby school to where I live recently wrote an impassioned blog post about the importance of reading aloud to children. She spoke about some of her favourite chapter books and how they were brought to life for her as a young girl because of the way her teachers read to her and her classmates. Her post *(which you can read here) seems like an obvious thing for a teacher to preach, but as she said, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the increased use of facial masks, along with a younger generation of teachers who, themselves, have grown up using technology to read their words, rather than books, she had noted a marked decrease in the number of classrooms in her school where being read to aloud was a regular part of a student’s day.
Her post struck a chord with me because when I was teaching, reading aloud to my students was my absolute favourite part of my day! I am an introverted person most of the time so reading great literature aloud gave me permission to tap into my theatrical side. I loved the cadence of wonderfully written language. I enjoyed reading “in character” by altering my voice and adopting accents and so on. But, most of all, I found great pleasure in inviting children into the magical world of stories. Helping to ignite a passion for reading is one of the most satisfying aspects of my job as a teacher. Not only is reading a crucial life skill but the ability to use your imagination, to be a problem-solver and to develop an appreciation for characters and cultures different from your own all play out in stories…especially, in stories read aloud by someone you trust.
In June of 2018, as the date of my retirement approached, I tasked myself with the job of clearing out my classroom so that the incoming teacher wouldn’t have to deal with piles of resources that he or she may not have wanted. Among the resources to be cleared out were almost 2000 books. Over the course of my thirty year career, I had accumulated a vast in-class library of fiction and non-fiction books. I had them organized by subject in bins on shelves all around our classroom where they could be accessed by my students. As the end of that final school year approached, I was lucky to have another teacher come along and ask about what I intended to do with my classroom library. I ended up giving it all to her. The day she came to take them away, we discovered that I had seventy-two bins of books. Somehow she managed to get them all into a truck. I hope that some or all of those books turned out to be useful to her and that she is sharing them with her students even as I type these words. However, before this lady came to take my books away, I went through my own collection and pulled out thirty books that were important to me for various reasons….one book for each year that I was a classroom teacher. Those books I took home. Each time I look at them I am reminded of what it felt like to be involved in the journey that each child took when they walked through our classroom door and what a privilege it was to be their teacher. One of those thirty special books was a book of poetry for children called Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.
The poetry of Shel Silverstein was silly and subversive at the same time. It dealt with topics that young children could relate to such as fear of the dark, the perils of laziness, dealing with parents and/or siblings and much, much more. The language used by Silverstein was sometimes simple and many times lyrical. I used this book (and several of his other books of poetry) with every group of students I ever taught from the very first year I bought this book (Year #3 of my career), all the way to that very last class in 2018. By the time I took that book home with me in the summer sunshine, it was threadbare and falling apart from overuse…as all loved books should be. But something magical lay buried within the pages of this book. It was there in all those classrooms over the years. It was there before I ever bought the book. It lies there now for you to discover should you ever care to look for yourselves. The treasure buried within the pages of this great book is a hit song! It is true! On pages 76 and 77 of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is a poem called The Unicorn. This poem was written by Shel Silverstein as a commentary on religion and inclusion and silliness. It concerns the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and how he created a floating zoo and how the unicorns were invited in but were too busy playing games to see the danger all around them from the rising flood waters (which explains why children can never see a real unicorn in the wild anymore says Silverstein). This poem would have remained strictly a moralistic tale for children if not for the fact that a group of Irish immigrants to Canada chose it as a song for their debut album. That group became the Irish Rovers and their version of “The Unicorn” went all the way to #1 in Canada, selling over 8 million records in all, making it the biggest hit song in their whole career.
The Irish Rovers got their name from an old song called The Irish Rover , which chronicles the journey taken by a ship back in the days of exploration and discovery. It is a fantastical tale of adventure and ruin and has been a popular drinking song in Ireland for generations. The Irish Rovers band was formed in the 1960s in Toronto when a man named Will Millar met another man named Jimmy Ferguson and the two spent the evening singing and drinking and singing some more. Millar introduced Ferguson to his brothers George, Joe and Ian who, in turn, were joined by an accordion player named John Reynolds. Together, the boys in the band became one of the driving forces behind making Irish/Celtic music popular in Canada and around the world. The Irish Rovers eventually became Canadian citizens at the behest of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who then proclaimed them to be official Canadian ambassadors of music and sent them off to tour around the world under the banner of the Canadian red maple leaf flag. The Irish Rovers launched their career with “The Unicorn”, but they had plenty of other hits, including “Wasn’t That a Party?!”, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Black Velvet Band”. Not only did the Irish Rovers have a number of hit songs, but they were also television stars in Canada. The Irish Rovers hosted several iterations of the same variety show over the course of two decades. The shows would be set in a pub-like locale and would see the band play several tunes, along with a few celebrity guests who would show up, from time to time. One of my favourite university memories was getting to go to a live taping of an episode of “Party With The Rovers” in 1983.
During my first year of university I lived in a student apartment complex in Toronto called Neill-Wycik College. My building was twenty-three stories tall and consisted of apartment units that housed four, five or six students at a time. Each unit had a common kitchen/living room area, two shared bathrooms and a bedroom for each student. In my first year, I was part of a six-person unit. There were three guys and three girls living together in what became a sort of family set-up. Being new to such a big city, it was helpful to have a group of people to explore the city with and to learn how to develop consistent cooking, cleaning and studying routines. One of the girls I lived with was a young lady named Lisa Weinstein. Lisa was taking the same Radio and Television Broadcasting course that I was. But, for the sake of this story, what is most important to note about Lisa was that her father was a man named Les Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein was an executive with a fledgling Canadian record label named Nettwerk Records. Nettwerk Records began by signing and promoting bands such as Skinny Puppy and The Grapes of Wrath. They would eventually gain fame by signing and developing a young female singer from Halifax named Sarah McLachlan. One of the other bands that was managed by Mr. Weinstein at Nettwerk Records was The Irish Rovers. So, when they were filming for their new series, Lisa asked us, as her roommates, if we wanted to attend a taping. We readily agreed and off we went. As mentioned, the set was designed to look like an Irish pub. Instead of sitting behind the cameras in bleachers, where many shows place their audience, we were seated at round tables meant to resemble how tables would be set in a real pub. Because of this, the audience was on camera as much as the singers were. One of the rules we were given before taping began was that there could never be an empty beer glass seen on a table. So, between each take, crew members would wander around and refill every glass! My glass was refilled four or five times, at least! I can’t quite remember to be sure. The members of the band drank with us drink for drink. By the time the show ended with a boozy rendition of “The Black Velvet Band” with guest star, Tommy Makem, I can barely remember applauding and stumbling home. But I do remember how personable the Irish Rovers all were and that It was a fun evening. If Lisa had asked, I am sure we would have all gone back again and again to the tapings.
It is funny how life is sometimes. Men from Ireland formed a band in Canada named after an Irish sea shanty. They had a hit song with a children’s poem from a book that I valued more than most in my own classroom library. But, before ever becoming a teacher, I drank beers with the band on the set of their show simply because I had the great good fortune to be roommates with their manager’s daughter. Although it may be a good story, it is one that I never shared with my students because I didn’t feel as though a story about their teacher getting hammered on free beer with the Irish Rovers was a suitable tale to tell. But, let me tell you, every time I opened that book in class and saw that poem I remembered. I remembered every moment of it all. And furthermore, unlike every other Shel Silverstein poem in that book, “The Unicorn” was one I couldn’t just read….it was one I had to sing.
The link to the official website for The Irish Rovers can be found here.
The studio in which the “Party With The Rovers” show was filmed was in Don Mills, Ontario. The official website for Don Mills, Ontario can be found here.
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