Kids These Days

When I was a child, my life was pretty good. I was born into a loving family. I was healthy. I lacked for nothing in the way of toys, friends or opportunities to travel and see new places and meet new and interesting people.

When I was a child my biggest fear was of gorillas. Not the kind you find in the jungle with Jane Goodall. My fear was of circus gorillas. Once, the Big Top Circus came to my area and my parents took me there. I loved the lion tamer and his lions. I loved the trapeze artists so high in the sky. I, especially, loved the funny clowns who kept pouring and pouring out of such a teeny-tiny car. But, the one thing I did not like was the gorilla. When the gorilla came out, it bolted from the ring and made a dash for the audience. I was a small boy at the time and did not realize that this “gorilla” was really a man dressed up in a costume. That may have been evident to the adults in attendance, who laughed and laughed at the gorilla’s antics. But for me, a small child, that gorilla was very real and it was coming far too close to where I was. I remember being terrified that it was going to get me. Even though my parents hugged me close and reassured me that it was all just an act, I took from that night, a fear of circus gorillas that lasted throughout my early childhood.

But, when I was a child, imaginary gorilla attacks, along with a real attack of appendicitis when I was seven years old, were my only issues of note growing up. We weren’t rich but, I was doted upon and protected and cared for in a way that erased worries from my mind. My childhood was fun. I was lucky.

I’m an adult, now. As I navigate through my days, I can’t help but notice story upon story in the news and on social media about children who are not having wonderful childhoods. In fact, these children are being physically and emotionally pummelled by the world in which they find themselves. Through no fault of their own, these children are suffering in ways that beggar belief.

For example, I could never be a U.S. Immigration officer these days. I don’t understand how any human can rip a child from its’ mother’s arms and lock that child away in detention camps. What type of person must they be to not be affected by the tears, the cries and the heartbreak of such a situation? But yet, it is real and it is probably happening in real time as you are reading my words right now.

I could never be a politician these days. Where are the real leaders that put the betterment of society and of real people first? They are nowhere to be found these days, it seems. As they march to the dictates of their autocratic and/or billionaire puppet masters, their policies often contain elements of cruelty aimed at the weakest members of society. In many cases, this includes children. Here in my home province of Ontario, Canada, our newly elected government is attacking our world-class education system. Their first two targets: children in Kindergarten (who are between three and five years old) and autistic students. What does it say about the values inherent in any given society when the youngest and most vulnerable members of that society are the first to be cast aside as being completely inconsequential?

Another troubling story from this past week concerned the death of a young girl named Riya at the hands of her father. Riya’s father and mother were estranged at the time of her death. It was her birthday, the day she was killed. Initially, this was a case of child abduction. Unfortunately, the vast majority of child abduction cases involve people with whom the child is intimately familiar with, such as a parent or grand-parent. That was the case here but, unbelievably enough, Riya’s death at the hands of her father was not what made this story notable. The story of the attempt to rescue her and the backlash that it caused on social media has ended up telling a far greater tale of how far we have strayed, as a society, from the moral path that should always guide us.

When any child is abducted in Canada (I am not sure about how this applies to other countries) police issue what is called an Amber Alert. An Amber Alert is an emergency message that is broadcast across all electronic highway signs, personal mobile drives and so on. This message alerts citizens that a child has been taken and provides a description of the child, the person who did the abducting (if known), the vehicle involved (if known) and the location of the abduction. Time is always of the essence in a kidnapping situation so, having eyes everywhere helps authorities to save the lives of those abducted, more often than not. In Riya’s case, she was abducted at night so, the Amber Alert was issued after many people had gone to bed. The Amber Alert, when issued, caused mobile devices to set off an alarm. In this case, the alarm sounded in homes across Ontario and many people were woken up which, like a smoke alarm in a fire, is the intention. Most of the people who were woken up, checked the Amber Alert message and either went to their window to look outside, some actually got in their cars and did a quick drive around their neighbourhoods and towns and some offered their thoughts and prayers and went back to sleep. But, a small minority of others flooded 911 operators with outraged complaints about being woken up by an emergency that had nothing to do with them. While they vented, Riya’s final breaths were being met with violence from the one person who should have loved and protected her the most. I truly don’t understand how anyone would turn away from a child in danger.

Around the world, some teenagers are tired of being the most distant thoughts of the powers that be in their lives and have decided to take action themselves to better their world. For instance, I applaud those Parkland students in the U.S. who reacted to being victims of a school shooter by waging war against the gun culture of America on social media. Their efforts have resonated across the world. Many consider these kids to be heroes for defending their right to attain a safe education. I agree that they have done mighty things but, I wish they didn’t have to be the heroes they have become. I wish they could be focussing on dating and what they want to do when they grow up and getting their driver’s licenses instead of fighting the mighty N.R.A. and all the 2nd Amendment trolls who wage war online. I wish our society could have let them just be kids.

The same is true of those kids organizing school walkouts because of concerns about our environment, as well as, those battling to create and maintain inclusive environments within their towns or schools for people of differing gender identities, cultures or intellectual abilities. And, of course, we have, arguably, the most famous and impactful young person on the planet, Malala, who remains a tireless advocate for the rights of girls around the world to attend school and gain an education and a measure of control over their own futures. Kids, all. But, just the same, kids forced to fight like adults because the adults in their worlds just don’t seem to be listening.

One person who always listened to children (and someone who I modelled my whole life after) was television personality, Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers created one of the first television shows aimed specifically for children. As a foundational tenet of his show, Mr. Rogers believed that children were human beings, as worthy of respect and dignity, as any adult. As a means of putting this thought into practice, Mr. Rogers actively sought out opportunities to talk with children and, most importantly, to listen to children. I can tell you from my experience as a classroom teacher for thirty years that children ask the very best questions. They ask the big questions! They are well-versed in the concepts of fair and not fair. They have boatloads of empathy and will hug those they trust easily. They want to know that things will be alright in their world and so, they will ask questions. I answered them honestly every time. Mr. Rogers did, too. As a family, we recently watched the tremendously wonderful documentary about the life of Mr. Rogers on Netflix called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” I encourage you to do so, too. Watching it will fill your soul and renew your spirit. It is a documentary that shows children being respected, being made to feel important and being cared for……not as an after-thought but, as the highest priority possible. Which is, as it should be.

I admit that I teared up at the end of this movie because the world in which we live in these days is so far removed from the world of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood. Of all the things in the world that consume our thoughts, working to maintain the innocence of childhood for children should be near or at the top of the list. How precious a time in the lives of these little humans! And how easily we, as their guardians, throw it all away in our rush for material gain or our self-absorption in the importance of our own lives. What have we, as a society, become when we place so little tangible value on the lives of children?

I will close by saying that I encourage you to all watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” in order to renew your soul and realign your priorities in life. However, as much as I admire Mr. Rogers, we can’t afford to let his legacy do our work for us. We all have a job to do for the sake of our children. We need to take better care of our environment so they don’t have to be organizing school strikes and sit-ins to draw our attention. We need to reign in our penchant for violence so kids can go to school and only worry about doing well in their studies and not worry about active shooters roaming their hallways. We need to talk with our children and listen to them, too. Most importantly, we need to fill the lives of our children with love and hugs and laughter and healthy food and good experiences outside of the home, too.

My “gorillas” were only imaginary but, the “gorillas” today’s kids are facing are all too real. They needn’t be so. We have become a world that doesn’t do a very good job of valuing childhood. This needs to change. Our future depends upon it.

Sorry I have Been Distracted

It has been awhile since I have contributed a post. I apologize for that. I am itching to get back to my writing but, we are in the middle of a big, whole Kitchen renovation. If you have ever found yourself in the middle of such a major renovation then, you can appreciate that it is messy, noisy, disruptive to your home routine and that, quite simply, it takes time to complete.

I am very thankful to all of the skilled tradespeople who are helping to transform the heart of our home but, I will, also, be thankful when they are finished and we can put our home and our lives back together again. As for my blog, I don’t know about you but, I have a hard time writing with there is noise from construction and conversations competing with the thoughts in my head. So, I wait to write. Sorry.

As the projects stands, the new floor is in and the cabinets are all installed. But, walls still need prepping for painting (which means cutting out the drywall where the old back splash was, re-installing new drywall, mudding, taping and sanding, too) and a new back splash put in when the wall prep is done. As well, our counter top and new sink are still to arrive so, we are still a week or three from being completely finished. The one thing about the wall work is that I can do most of that myself. For if there is one thing, besides not writing, that is driving me crazy about this project, it is that I haven’t been in control of much that has happened to date. Custom cabinetry and flooring is best left to professionals. But, in doing so, we have handed over control of the timeline, too. I may appear like a nice, gentle soul but, underneath it all, I am a control freak and so, not being in control of when trades people arrive, how quickly they work and so on is driving me batty. Having said that, I doubt I could do the work as capably as they can so, they work and I sit and not write and slowly, painfully slowly, the project advances and we near its conclusion.

When all is done, I will post some “before and after” photos so you can all see the scope of the project. We are happy with the work to date but, we will be happier in a few weeks when it is all done and our lives return to normal and, my blog does, as well. Until then, you are all wished continued good health, happiness and all that is good in life.

See you all on the other side.

Home, Sweet Home!

My mother is turning 88 years old in June. Just prior to this past Christmas, she had an episode with her heart that caused her to be in hospital for three weeks. She received wonderful care from the doctors and nurses and has now returned to her home in an assisted-living residence for senior citizens. Now comes then hard part for her, finding the physical and emotional strength to remain being able to live independently.

Home, wherever that may be, is a special place. This is so for a myriad of reasons but, foremost among them is that Home equates with personal freedom. Your home, be it a condo, a starter home, a mobile home, a mansion or something else altogether, is your space. You can live the life you wish to live within the confines of your personal safe haven. Unlike living with your parents, for example, or being a renter, having your own home affords you the opportunity to explore your world as you see fit. Don’t like wearing pants?! Don’t wear them then when you are home! Want to rise with the sun every morning?! Go ahead and start your every day with the golden rays of the sun on your skin. It’s your choice because it is your home. Having personal freedom to make your own choices is one of life’s most enticing elixirs. It is something that, once tasted, is incredibly difficult to stop savouring and desiring as life unfolds.

So, as my mother lay in her hospital bed, our conversation was never just about her getting better. It was always about whether or not she would recover enough to stay in her current home. Or, more to the point, would she be able to recover sufficiently to continue living life on her terms once she left the hospital. The short answer, for now, is yes. My mother is back in her apartment in her assisted-living residence. But, the depth and scope of her choices has lessened as a result of her illness. Instead of leaving the residence to go shopping, as she was able to do in December, she now considers it an accomplishment to walk (with a walker) to the dining room and have her lunch in public. This tires her out and forces her to rest more than before. Not being able to walk very far limits her life choices to those available within her residence. Luckily, her residence…….the place she calls home…is very nice and she is surrounded by people who care for her and who are helping her as she recovers.

But Life is a cruel Master. It gives you the greater part of a lifetime to enjoy the freedom of living how you choose and then, as the end draws near, Life claws back that freedom, incremental block by incremental block. My mother and father married in the 1950s. Before I was born, they travelled to Europe, the U.S and across Canada. My mother was a Registered Nurse, working full-time during a time in the evolution of our society when women were only just starting to have careers outside of the home. After my father’s death when I was just 11 years old, my mother raised my sister and me on her own. Up until the last five years of her life, my mother always lived on her own in a house or apartment and enjoyed a life of great independence. And then, Life presented my mother with a bill that she was unable to pay. The winters grew colder and longer, the storms more intense and her gait less steady on icy walkways and roads. Suddenly, my independent mother began to become fearful when it came time to leave her home; fearful that she would fall and be unable to get up, fearful that she would break a hip, as cliched as that sounds, fearful that she would lose control of her life and the power to make her own decisions.

So, she made a decision. A decision to give up living on her own in her own home and apply for admission into the assisted-living residence where she currently resides. The independence and freedom of having the world as her oyster ceased to exist when she moved. Life collected a portion of its debt and, as a result, my mother’s world shrunk. She still has an apartment but, like all the other residents, she is not the only one with a key to her door. Staff check on her and work to make sure she is safe. If they detect anything that they feel may be unsafe, they can report it to the head supervisor and meetings will be held. For example, my mother has a kitchenette. She was always a great cook in her younger days, but now, she sometimes forgets to turn off a burner or that she has even put a teapot or some eggs on to boil. Meetings were held. My mother has now been asked to not use her oven and to stay in the kitchen if she ever wishes to boil an egg again or else they will have to remove her stove….for safety reasons. To help, we bought her an electric kettle that has an automatic shutoff. A stove is very important to my mother so, she works very hard to remember to turn everything off and to watch her pots when they are boiling but, it is hard for her to always remember. Meanwhile, Life chuckles and readies another bill.

I am not sure how it is in the rest of the world but, in Canada, there are systems in place to help people, like my mother, to transition through the various stages that occur near the end of life. For now, while my mother has been discharged from hospital, she has been provided with in-home support from a personal service worker (P.S.W.) who stops in each day to provide physical therapy, help with food preparation, etc. This is very helpful because neither my sister nor I are geographically close to our mother. This is a public service and was arranged by a social worker who works in the hospital specifically to deal with the elderly and with families who are unsure of how best to help. There are, also, private agencies that, for a fee, will provide workers to assist my mother should she need to leave her residence for an appointment, for example. All of this brings a measure of comfort to those of us far from home.

My mother, also, has her name on a list to move into a nursing home. Regardless of the state of her recovery from her heart illness, the call that a bed has opened up should come within the calendar year, or so we have been told. A nursing home is the next stage available for the elderly. In doing so, she will trade her assisted-living apartment for a room with a bed and a dresser and a chair by the window and round-the-clock care. Her world will shrink again, as will, her ability to make decisions for herself. Following a nursing home, my mother will end up like all do near the end, in a palliative care ward in the hospital. At that point, her world will have shrunk down to the confines of her own skin and bones. And then, she will die. She will. It happens to everyone eventually. Life will collect its debt in full and that debt, once paid, earns the payee the reward of eternal freedom.

My mother has never been one for spontaneous gestures so, I doubt she will opt to jump into a volcano or throw herself off of a mountain peak, all to avoid progressing through the life stages that await and which are beckoning with increasing urgency. I have watched aunts and uncles and my wife’s grandfather, all recently pass away so I am familiar with the stages of decline that occur and, to the person involved, the incremental loss of freedom that happens. For now, I am trying to put on a brave face and be very matter-of-fact about it all but, when each stage comes, my heart will crack a little more and it will be tougher than I expect, I am sure.

But, we are not at the end yet.

When I spoke with my mother yesterday on the phone, she said she was feeling more like herself. I told her that I was happy for her. She is glad to be home. I know she welcomes making her own choices again, after being in the hospital for three weeks. The intoxication of independence is not something given up without a fight. I am lucky that her mind is clear and that she is lucid, to a point. I intend to treasure every moment we all have left with her because, as many of you can attest, moms are everything. And, Moms and Home kind of go, hand-in-hand, don’t they? Just goes to show that when I speak of “going home”, I am not always just talking about Cape Breton.

A Foundation of Love

Recently, I was asked to contribute a short piece of writing to a website called Inspire Your Marriage. This is a website that offers profiles of married couples. These couples provide stories of what helped make their marriage work, what some of the ups and downs may have been and how did they resolve any difficulties they may have encountered. Here is the story of Keri and Tom.

Keri and I have a very good marriage because our marriage is built upon a foundation of Love. All good marriages are. It may seem like an obvious starting point but it bears examination. This is what I mean by Love.

When you love someone….I mean, truly love someone….the focus of your life changes. It is no longer just about you and your wants and needs. When you truly love someone, their happiness and well-being, their hopes and dreams, all become as important to you as they are to your partner. And the best part about it is that you welcome this responsibility willingly into your life. Falling in love with my wife didn’t cramp my style in the least. In fact, it elevated my life to a higher plane and brought a sense of joy and contentment that I never knew was possible. We completed each other, right from the very beginning of our relationship and are partners in the truest sense of the word.

One of the most important secrets to our success is that we love each other for who we are. Neither of us tries to change the other into someone they aren’t. We are happy with the person we each found when we met. Make no mistake, Keri and I are different people. We bring different skills and experiences and personality types to the table. But, instead of fighting against each other when our personalities clash, we have, instead, always found ways to complement each other. I will give you a quick example. I am more of an introvert while Keri is more of an extrovert. I have always recognized that having many friends is important to Keri and brings her much happiness. Therefore, even though I don’t desire to always be going out and about, I have always encouraged Keri to maintain social relationships outside of our home; with her work colleagues, university classmates, family members and so on. Keri, for her part, recognizes that I am comfortable living within the space between my ears and, as such, she never forces social engagements on me. She gets her social time. I get my quiet time. We both are happy.

A final element to the success of our marriages resides in the fact that, as partners in Life, we understand the importance of helping each other out; especially, with the day-to-day grind of running a house and raising a family. We each have our jobs; Keri washes the clothes. I iron them when they are done. Keri dusts the furniture and then, I vacuum. I cook most of the meals and Keri washes the dishes most days and so on, it goes. Because we care about each other, we derive no pleasure from watching the other person being unduly burdened by chores. Being helpful in equal measure helps lessen the burden of running a home on both of us. This, in turn, gives us more time to share together doing things we enjoy, even it is something as simple as sharing some hot tea and chatting about our day.

I consider myself to be blessed. My life, as a husband and father, has unfolded better than I could have dared to dream. My heart is full. My wife and my children have helped to make it that way. I am rich beyond measure as a result. And, all because we have built our marriage on a foundation of Love.

The Power of Success

I had an unexpectedly interesting day while using social media today. I am not usually someone who fawns over celebrities when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram but, every now and again, because of technology, a connection is made with someone that people would consider to be “famous”. In my case, while on Twitter this morning, I found myself chatting, via tweets, with Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk.

Chantal Kreviazuk has been a star in the Canadian music scene for a couple of decades now and has several number one hits. For over twenty years, she has been married to another Canadian music star, Raine Maida, lead singer of rock group, Our Lady Peace. I have long been a fan of both performers because they have always been about way more than just their music and record sales. In fact, a few years ago, I wrote a post about them. I will insert that post in now and, after it is done, I will tell you what it was that caught my attention this morning and helped reaffirm the strong level of respect I hold for both performers. Here we go……

     Success means different things to different people.  To many of us, the measure of success is purely quantitative; those who have the most are the most successful because, well, they have the most.  The Education System is groaning under the weight of using standardized testing to measure success. In Music, record sales and concert ticket sales are often the standard by which the success of a singer or band is measured.  But, is this fair? 

     In order for data-driven criteria to be the most valid indicator of success in Music, an artist or band has to play that game as well.  While record sales are always important, in so much as they generate income and help pay the bills that allow artists to produce albums and to hold concerts, for some artists, record sales are just a means to an end and are not the single most important measure of success for them.  Sometimes, an artist is in it for something grander. Sometimes, an artist aspires to use their fame and notoriety to promote a cause that they champion that, is important to them and that, in their eyes, is more more than ticket sales and album units moved.  Such a band was Our Lady Peace.

     Our Lady Peace is a fairly successful Canadian pop-rock band. Over the course of their career, they have been awarded four Juno Awards and nine Much Music Video awards (the most ever by a single band.) They’ve had numerous Top Ten radio hits such as, Is Anybody HomeStarseed, LifeInnocentSuperman’s DeadSomewhere Out There and Clumsy.   While never quite ascending to the lofty heights of stadium rock maintained by bands such as Rush or Bryan Adams in his day, Our Lady Peace still managed to be that band that would come to your hometown and sell out the local theatre or hockey rink.  They were a made-in-Canada and maintained-in-Canada success story, as far as record sales are concerned.  But, record sales do not tell the whole story.

    Lead singer, Raine Maida, has always been noted for having one of the most powerful and unique voices in Canadian rock.  He is handsome and personable, too.  In the early days of Our Lady Peace, Maida was certainly being groomed to be a “rock star”, in the mode of a Corey Hart, perhaps.  But Maida, to his credit, had a higher purpose to his life and refused to be lured into the false trappings of stardom.  Raine Maida is married to fellow singer Chantal Kreviazuk.  Lovely and talented as they both are, the potential to be a musical “power couple” was certainly there. However, both performers are Christians.  Because of their personal beliefs, both singers have dedicated much of their adult lives to helping others in need.  They perform at benefit concerts, they do mission work in third world countries and, at home, they have both dedicated sales of their hit songs to charity.  In the case of Our Lady Peace, sales of one of their biggest hits, Clumsy, have all been directed to helping support an anti-bullying venture in Canada known as Kids Help Phone, where children who feel lost or scared and alone can call and talk to a supportive adult.

     In my eyes, Our Lady Peace has to be considered a great Canadian success story. They have used their music to make a positive difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, knowing that what you did mattered is among the most important measures of success there is.  Ask any kid who was contemplating suicide but didn’t follow through because of that voice on the phone. Ask any refugee who was given shelter and a warm meal. Ask any church whose coffers were bolstered because Our Lady Peace and Chantal Krevizuk appeared, without fanfare, at their church hall for a benefit concert…..ask any of them and they will tell you that fame, itself, is not the measure of success but, instead, it is using fame as a tool to make a difference that can make one a success.  Our Lady Peace and Chantal Kreviazuk had that figured out all along and, as a result, have enjoyed a most successful career as there has been.

I wrote that three years ago. This morning, I discovered that Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida are still using their fame, their platform, to help others. They have completed a documentary about the struggles and heartbreaks and love and successes they have encountered as a married couple. The documentary is set to air at the end of January and is called I’m Going To Break Your Heart. The link to the trailer is here. It can’t be easy to lay your soul bare for all to see but, that’s what Chantal and Raine have done. In the information I read about this documentary, they said that they have often been asked how their marriage has survived so long in the spotlight, as it were. They replied that no marriage is perfect and every relationship has its ups and downs and that it was important for people to see the human side to their world. They ended by saying that they believed love is worth believing in and fighting for. Their hope was that this documentary would inspire couples who were, perhaps, questioning the strength of their commitment, to, in fact, renew their will to fight for their own relationship instead of giving up.

So, I spent a few minutes this morning tweeting back and forth with Chantal Kreviazuk about Love, marriage and the power of success to help make a positive difference in the lives of others. Like I said off of the top, I don’t normally go on about celebrity encounters but, in this case, I am willing to make an exception. Do you have any advice for how to maintain a good marriage? Have you had any interesting celebrity encounters? If so, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my words.

My Hana’s Suitcase Story


Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂

Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.

That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.

Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.

As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.

As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂

My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.

My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.

And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.

Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.

That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.

Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.

So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.

The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.

Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.

About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.

I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.

That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.

So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as such to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.

So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.

I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.

A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.

I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.

Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.

Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too

Will You Be My Neighbour: the Survey Says….

Faithful readers of this blog will know that, just prior to the “Christmas of 2018” holiday season, my daughter Sophie and I delivered 34 handmade Christmas cards to our neighbours. The hope was that, by reaching out via a Christmas greeting, that some of the walls of isolation that currently exist on our street would come crumbling down. This post will provide you with the reaction our cards received. Do I have to keep my nose firmly in my own business, gazing downward as I stroll down the street or will I be swapping stories about the weather and calling my neighbours by name as our paths cross? Let’s find out, shall we?

Of the 34 cards we sent out, the MacInnes Family received one email reply, two visits at our door and a total of ten cards left in our mailbox. That works out to be a return rate of almost one-third. Not perfect but, not bad, either. Of the replies that we did receive, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Here are a few of the replies:

“What a lovely surprise to get your card. The colouring was beautiful, as were the nice holly drawings.” from Bonnie at #2.

“Thank you for your Christmas card. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” from Marie and Amy (her black lab) at #19.

“Thank you very much for your Christmas wishes.” from Maureen and Gerry.

“Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a year filled with happiness in 2019.” from Faith and Mike at #4.

“Thank you for your cheerful Christmas card and wonderfully hand-decorated envelop. You touched us with your Christmas spirit. Much appreciated.” from Tom, Judi, Kyle and Dex the dog.

“We were so touched to receive your lovely card and to meet one of our neighbours in such a way. Thank you. (And, we loved the beautiful artwork on the envelop!) Wishing you all a very happy holiday season, a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.” from Todd, Lea, Sophie and Luke at #8.

“Thank you for thinking of us. Merry Christmas to you all.” from Brenda and Ed at #20.

“We hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and, of course, Go, Blue Jays, Go!” from Jen, Brian, Abby and Emma. *This family are all big Toronto Blue Jay baseball fans and are known for having Blue Jay pennants and flags in the front of their house.

“Thank you for your card! I love the envelop! I hope we get to meet each other in person. Have a peaceful and safe holiday and a year filled with laughter.” from Starr. Starr’s card came in a personally-decorated envelop too, as you can see, she has some talent.

We received a card from Bernice and Eric at #16, too. While their greeting inside the card simply wished us a Merry Christmas, what was noteworthy is that Bernice actually knocked at our door and delivered, not just a card but, also, Christmas sweetbread and a tray of maple fudge that her husband had made that day. Both were delicious! You can see them in the photo at the top of this post.

So, as first steps go, this journey toward knowing my neighbours has gotten off to a good start. We reached out and many reached back. To those who have welcomed our gesture, the next step is, obviously, to reinforce the positive response we received, with a follow-up reply in kind…..even if it is simply waving to them the next time we are out at the same time and calling them by name. As walls go up, one stone at a time, walls come down, one kind act at a time, too. That is what this experiment was all about. Does kindness and friendliness still matter in today’s world? I believe it does and our Christmas cards were an attempt to prove it true. To those who reached back toward me and my family, I am very appreciative and grateful. I am not expecting to become best friends with anyone but, one never knows what the future may hold. For now, I am happy to live in a neighbourhood where we treat each other kindly, where we watch out for each other’s well-being and where we can greet each other with a smile and a wave and say hello by name.