My Best Teacher Gift Ever!!!

At the core of teaching lies humanity.   

Teachers don’t manufacture widgets or track currency fluctuations on overseas markets as they go about their daily business.  Teachers spend their day interacting with some of society’s most interesting, creative, adaptive, vulnerable, courageous citizens.  Children are capable of doing almost anything at any time. That’s one of the reasons that teaching is such a fascinating profession.  You can have the same teacher in the same classroom with the same group of children and never experience the same school day twice!   

To the teacher who views his/her students as human beings, rather than names on a class list, the complexity of the young hearts and minds that assemble in their classroom each day is what makes the job so attractive and interesting. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be a tiring day if one of the students is angry or emotionally upset. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be hilarious and memorable.  The story of My Best Teacher Gift Ever is one of those moments that come completely out of left field and, once you regain your wits, makes you smile for the rest of your life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when it happened.

I was teaching in a Grade 2 classroom in Courtice, Ontario.  I had no gifted students in this class but, no hardcore, troubled behavioural children, either.  On the whole, the class was comprised of nice, friendly, average kids.  They were a good group. I liked coming to school each day and so did they. I got along well with all of their parents. In short, it was a good year in the wonderful world of Grade 2.

This story takes place on the last week before our Christmas holidays.  If you have ever been in a primary-aged classroom the week before Christmas, you know that there is a higher than normal buzzing of energy to be found (and, I don’t mean from the overhead lights, either). If teachers were being honest, they would admit that that last week of school is not the most academically-intensive week to be had during the school year. But, just the same, maintaining some semblance of routine is important so, in between concert rehearsals and craft making, we still did some simple bits of regular work.  One of the things that helped make up my “Holiday” unit was, of course, a set of spelling/vocabulary activities.  We brainstormed chart paper filled lists of words that had to do with Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas.  The kids searched for words in word search puzzles, they unscrambled mixed up spellings, they filled in the blanks, they typed stories on the computer and on and on it went.  Well, since it was the last week of school and I had a group of kids that could go along with a joke,  I created a worksheet of questions and answers that had, as the final question, the following: “If you were a millionaire and could buy Mr. MacInnes any three gifts in the world, what would your three gifts be?”    I was hoping for answers like, “A rocket ship to go to the moon in”, or “A fancy sports car” or, “A trip around the world” but, instead, what I got back from this bunch of well-meaning but, average-joes was more along the lines of shirts, sweaters and pants.  I was a bit disappointed by the lack of imagination that they had shown until I got to the worksheet handed in by a little girl named Megan.

Megan was a nice little girl with freckles across her nose that spilled onto her cheeks. She wore her blonde hair in a bob style. Her blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was fairly often.  All in all, Megan was a good kid so, as I read over her answers, I was not prepared for what I saw when I got to the last question. She wrote, “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater, a new pair of shoes and a g string.”  

I read the first two parts of her answer with my brain in neutral but, her last answer snapped me to attention!  I re-read her answer just to confirm that I had actually read what I had thought I had read.  It turns out that I had!   G-string! Wow!  Where did that come from?  I decided to check to see if she could have meant something else like “guitar” or “gerbil” because kids at that age can still be prone to phonetic and/or inventive spelling but, the spelling was clearly a “g” and a space and “string” spelled correctly.  Needless to say, I felt the need to check into this so, as the rest of the class crafted or did whatever Holiday activity they were engaged in, I called Megan over.

“Megan”, I said. “I was checking over everyone’s worksheet and there are a couple of answers I’d like to read for me, if you would.”    

She said, “Sure, Mr. MacInnes.”

I had her read her answer to Question #1 and #3, just so she wouldn’t realize what I was really wanting to know and have her think that she was in trouble or anything like that. She read her answers and proudly smiled at me as if to say, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Could you read #5, too, please?”

“Ok….. I said that I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater……….because you have a hole in your brown one. Did you know that?”   I grunted a smile and motioned for her to continue. “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new pair of shoes…….because you have scuff marks on yours………and a g string.”   She turned to me and smiled the same smile she displayed after reading the answers to Questions #1 and 3.

So I said, “Megan, I understand what a sweater is and the part about the shoes but, I’m not sure what you mean by a g string”.

She smiled and put her hand on my arm and sweetly said, “Oh, Mr. MacInnes, everyone knows that a g string is underwear.”

“Ok”, I said. “Then answer this for me, please. I understand why you would buy a new sweater to replace my holey one and new shoes to replace the scuffed ones but, why do you want to buy me underwear?”

She looked around to be sure that no one could hear and then she leaned in, “In my home, whenever Daddy or Mommy wear their g strings, they run around the house, laughing and tickling each other.  It makes them so happy. I want you to be happy in your home, too.”

Well, what do you say to that?  I smiled and gave her a quick hug and thanked her for thinking of me and my state of personal happiness.  The story would have ended there except for a fluke of timing. During the month of December, report cards are prepared and sent home and parent-teacher interviews are conducted. Depending on everyone’s schedules, it sometimes takes a couple of weeks to get everyone to come in to the school to meet.  As luck would have it, Megan’s parents were one of two interviews I had left to conduct!

So, the very next day, after school, Megan’s mother and father walked into the classroom and sat down.  I had Megan’s work folder out and showed them some of her Math work, a painting she had done, some pictures she had drawn and, lo and behold, her spelling work that included word search puzzles, mixed up spelling words, fill in the blank sheets and, yes, a certain question and answer sheet that she had completed just the day before!   I sat there and let them look at each sheet and then, the final Q & A sheet.  I watched as they scanned down through the answers, finally arriving at the last question.  I saw Megan’s Mom mouth the words, “sweater” and “shoes” and then, her mouth just opened and she began blushing furiously. Dad broke out laughing and looked down at the floor. I just sat there quietly for a few seconds, thoroughly enjoying the moment.

Then I said to them, “Don’t worry. Teachers hear far more about what goes on at home than most parents realize.  The important thing to take from this is that in Megan’s eyes, she feels that she comes from a home that is filled with love and happiness.  She feels that you both love each other and not every child can say that about their parents. You should feel proud that your daughter views you that way and that she feels so happy herself.”   They both smiled and thanked me for my kind words.  

I have gotten many, many gifts from families over the course of my career but, nothing comes close to the imaginary g string I received that year from little Megan.  I wonder if widgets ever give gifts to the people who make them? I doubt it.  Thank goodness I have had the pleasure of spending my career in the daily company of children.  They are the essence of humanity and our society’s most precious gift.

Maker Sophie

If you follow my blog at all then, you know that there is nothing more important in my life than my family. However, when I was a young bachelor boy, way back in the day, I always thought that my life was good. I had friends, a good job, my own house and car and my health was good. Then, I met my wife.

Meeting Keri made me realize how Love can elevate your life, taking it to a higher plain of fulfillment and satisfaction. When Keri and I were a married couple, galavanting around our corner of the world, I thought my life was pretty special. We had our other newly-married, “couple” friends, we had a new home, we both had jobs we were proud of, we ate out in restaurants whenever we felt like it and our health was good.  Then, we had our first child.

Becoming a parent blew my mind!   Holding Leah on the day she was born and seeing her eye lashes and finger nails and little tiny toes made her seem perfect in my mind. She was our first-loved and the centre of our world. (Since becoming a blogger, I have written several posts about Leah:  the link to the one about all of the books we have read together over the years can be found here. The link to the recent post about her research into the life of her Great-Great Grandfather and his life during WWI and The Halifax Explosion, can be found here.)  We loved our life with Leah. We had playdates with our other friends who were starting families of their own, we took copious amounts of photos of her, Keri got to spend the whole first year of Leah’s life with her because of our generous maternity leave benefits from work and all three of us enjoyed good health, too. Then came Sophie.

Simply put, Sophie completed us. Three years younger than her sister, Sophie has brought a whole new level of joy and happiness to our family. At turns, shy and withdrawn in certain situations while, at other times, she commands the stage and bathes in the spotlight’s warm glow. Sophie has a comedian’s sense of timing and a linguist’s sense of language which often makes her social commentary razor sharp and very funny. She loves to read but, not to be read to. She is as smart as her bookish sister but, instead of building a library of knowledge in her mind, Sophie tends to be more “street smart” and practical about how her intelligence manifests itself. As a result, Sophie embraces the philosophies and practices of the Maker Movement and is quickly becoming quite skilled at creating almost anything.

The Maker Movement is one that embraces creativity above all else. In schools, it is found in the dedication of common spaces for making things out of all sorts of materials and items. Students in a Maker Space may use LEGO Blocks or programme robots or sew or build with wood and much, much more. There is a freedom of choice that defines how one interacts within a Maker Space.  From this freedom, comes the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing and, from that experience, comes the confidence to begin to grant yourself the permission to dream of what else may be possible and then, going ahead and simply, making your dreams come true.

Sophie has become a Maker in our home. While Leah is a consumer (she reads the words of others and interacts with technology apps), Sophie is my creator of content. She loves to bake and paint and draw and make Mathematical calculations, she crafts and cooks simple meals and dresses up like a fashionista!  An example of Sophie in the Maker zone mentality can be seen from how she spent her weekend.

For starters, Sophie belongs to an environmental organization called Earth Rangers. In this club, Sophie takes on certain “missions” that help our planet and the plants, animals and humans who inhabit it. So, this note appeared under our thermostat. The note instructed us to lower the thermostat a few degrees and to keep it at the lower temperature for a week. We did that. Thankfully, there are no shortage of hoodies in my closet.

Next up, Sophie has been wanting to learn how to sew. Keri and I are not sewers in the least. But, luckily for Sophie, her favourite person in the world…Gramma…knows how to sew. So, right after lunch on Saturday, the girls all headed over to Gramma’s house and Gramma taught Sophie how to sew with a needle and thread. Sophie and Gramma (mostly Sophie, I have been told) made this carry-all bag. Well done, my little tailor!

Later that evening, Sophie disappeared into the kitchen. She was very quiet for awhile and then, she emerged proudly holding this Christmas ornament for our tree. All on her own, she had gotten our craft supply box out. She then, traced a star on paper, covered the paper with wax paper and then, traced the shape of the star using a hot glue gun. After the glue had hardened for a few minutes, she simply peeled it off, hot glue-gunned a piece of yarn to act as the hook and, voila!  Sophie created a classic Christmas tree ornament. Flushed with success, she spent Saturday evening making stars for everyone in her family, including her Gramma and Poppa, her cousins and her aunt and uncle, too.

On Sunday morning, Sophie and I make Christmas cards for all of our neighbours. That is thirty-two cards. We did this because Sophie and I believe in the magic of Christmas and, much to my chagrin, we want to know our neighbours better than we do. (As you may recall, I recently wrote a post about my shocking discovery that my next-door neighbour had been a semi-famous Canadian celebrity and I had never known the whole time we lived side-by-side. The link to that post is here if you wish to read about that.) So, anyway, we made all of these cards and I delivered them to each home, just before typing this post on Monday morning. Hopefully, our neighbourhood will become a little closer and we will get to know each other a little better as a result.

Sophie’s card for her school friend, Oliver, who lives down the street.

But, what Sophie was most excited about this weekend was baking Christmas cookies. So, on Sunday afternoon, Sophie and I made a double batch of sugar cookies and a double batch of chocolate chip cookies. If anyone wants to come over for tea, we are ready!!!  Sophie was very pleased with herself because, for the first time ever, she cracked the eggs herself and didn’t get a single shell fragment in the batter!  She did most of the stirring herself and used cookie cutters to make the shapes you see in the photo. She iced the cookies once they cooled. They are delicious and I am going to get fat, for sure, eating all of the good food we now have sitting in our kitchen.

As the photo at the very top of this post shows, doing for others is something Keri and I have tried to instil in both our daughters. Sophie has a kind and caring heart and a creative mind, which is a powerful combination. To want to make a difference and to have the Maker mentality to confidently dare to make it happen is how our world changes for the better. 

Sophie Audra MacInnes is a special girl and we couldn’t be prouder of her if we tried.  

Lottery Lucky

At exactly 8:04am this morning, my daughter, Leah, set off for school. She paused at the end of the driveway and stood silently, reflecting upon the fact that her life was made possible by an incident that happened 101 years earlier at that exact same moment. This is the story of that moment.

We would all like to think that we are in control of our own lives; that the path we follow is ours to decide and, to a certain extent, that is true. But, in reality, our lives are inextricably intertwined with those who came before us and the decisions that they made along the way. For a simple example, we were born in the town or city of our birth not because that’s what we opted for but, rather, because our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents made the decision to locate in that community in years past. From purposeful decisions like that, to acts of fate beyond anyone’s control, the portrait of a life well-lived is always coloured by many factors and the line between success and failure, life and death, is often razor-thin, as you shall see in Leah’s case.

When Leah was growing up, we read books together every night. One book series that made a profound impact on her life was The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne. In each MTH book, the two main characters were transported to some historical event and/or met a famous historical figure. Leah found the stories from history fascinating and often spent time researching additional information on her own. She has maintained an interest in History ever since. Being good parents, we have encouraged her love of History by visiting museums with her, taking her to places connected to historical events (such as The Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City, the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton and so on) and by giving her access to books and resources that feed her desire to know more about the events that shaped our world.

Not surprisingly, Leah’s interest in History began to focus more on the story of her own family. So, a couple of years ago, it seemed logical to us to take out a membership in Ancestry.ca, a genealogical website that helps people conduct research on their family history. The membership was taken out as a gift for Leah’s Poppa but, because we paid for the membership, we got to set up the passwords and so on. Once that was done, we gave Leah permission to explore the website so that she could be the “expert” and figure out how it all worked and then she would be able to show her Poppa what to do. Well now, letting Leah loose on Ancestry.ca was akin to giving her the keys to the Kingdom’s treasury. She absolutely loved it!  

In her research to date, she seems drawn more toward those relatives who have been involved in the military. The first relative she delved deeply into was a Great-Uncle named Albert Eagle. Mr. Eagle was involved in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy during WWII. He died three days later in a tank battle. His body is buried in a cemetery in France that she would like to visit one day when she is a bit older.  We were all amazed at the vast amount of documentation that was maintained on each soldier during wartime. Leah was able to find enlistment records, discipline records, as well as, troop movement details up to, and including, the record of Mr. Eagle’s death and the battle that occurred that particular day in France.

But, as interesting as that was to Leah and the rest of us, it was her investigation of her Great-Great Grandfather, Frank Davis, that really brought home the precarious nature of our lives and how easily one event, action or decision could alter the future. In fact, there are so many instances where life and death danced throughout this man’s life, creating a series of connections that it is almost freakish, as you shall soon see.

This is a photo of Frank Davis that Leah has in her bedroom. The lady in the photo is to prove a very important part of this story….of Leah’s life story….but, I will save that for now.

Here is Mr. Davis’ story. Frank Davis was a husband and father when WWI broke out in 1914. At the time, Canada was still a very young nation and did not have a standing army of its own. Instead, various militias existed across the country. Mr. Davis belonged to one such militia called The Halifax Rifles.  When War was declared, the Halifax Rifles became part of the 40th Battalion of the Canadian Corps which, as the War unfolded, became known as the Canadian Expeditionary Forces or the C.E.F.  

On October 18, 1915 (my wife, Keri’s birthday is Oct. 18), Frank Davis and his fellow soldiers boarded the Cunard transport ship, RMS Saxonia in Halifax harbour. They landed a little over a week later in Portsmouth, England. Once there, the 40 Battalion was assigned to the 9th Brigade and 3rd Canadian Division and stationed at Military Camp Bramshott for training. 

While WWI was called a “world war”, in fact, many of the major battles throughout the war took place in a relatively small stretch of French and Belgium countryside. In battles such as The Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge or, later on, at Passchendaele, both armies often dug in, quite literally, in lines of trenches and faced off against one another in seesaw battles of attrition in which tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides died to advance the battle front mere metres at a time.  


For example, The Battle of Vimy Ridge, in France, lasted for four days but cost the lives of approximately 3600 Canadian soldiers, with another 7500 being wounded. The conditions were atrocious; cold, wet, muddy, no cover to act as protection, deep shell holes that often filled with water and cause many an unfortunate soldier to die from drowning. The land between each side’s lines of trenches was often dubbed as being “No Man’s Land” because to leave the protection of your own trench and attempt to advance across the open ground often meant certain death.  This is where Lance Corporal Frank Davis made one of the first decisions that changed his life and allowed Leah to, eventually be born. As his military records indicated, Mr. Davis requested to relinquish his rank and return to being a Private in the army. While Leah cannot be certain as to the specific motivation behind such a seemingly odd request, the truth is most likely, Davis recognized the futility of many of these battles and knew that as Corporal, the odds were good that he would be tasked with leading a charge across No Man’s Land because he had “rank”. The death toll on officers in the C.E.F. was very high so, it was not uncommon for Corporals to be placed in charge during the heat of battle. Being a Private did not mean that Davis was safe but, at least, he would not necessarily be first out of his trench. 

The 40th Battalion acted as a feeder squad throughout the early stages of the war. This means that members of the 40th Battalion would be called into battle to reinforce other Units who had too many casualties and who required reinforcements. Eventually, the 40th Battalion was merged into the 26th Battalion. The 26th Battalion fought in the quagmire known as the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium or, as it is better known, The Battle of Passchendaele.  It was in this battle, on November 2, 1917, that Private Frank Davis was exposed to Mustard Gas from the Germans. He was “struck off strength” or removed from his Unit and taken to the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance or field hospital, as it were.  Believe it or not but, Private Davis was lucky.  Over the course of this battle, almost half a million soldiers from both sides perished. If there was ever such a place as Hell on Earth, Passchendaele was it. 

Back in Canada, the War effort was in full swing and one of the busiest places of all was Halifax, Nova Scotia. Halifax Harbour served at the gateway to the Atlantic and, by extension, to the battle fields of Europe.  The harbour was often filled with transport and supply ships preparing to head overseas. And so it was, on December 6th, a mere month after Frank Davis was gassed at Passchendaele, that two ships collided in Halifax Harbour; the relief ship Imo and the French munitions ship, Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was loaded with explosives. The resulting fire caused the munitions to ignite and then, explode with such tremendous force that over 2000 citizens of Halifax were killed and much of the downtown area, destroyed. Among those who perished were Frank Davis’ wife, Helena and his son, Charles.

While Frank Davis lost part of his family, their deaths allowed him to survive the War. He was “discharged to Canada (Special case)”, in early 1918 and he returned home to Halifax.  

As the city rebuilt, so did Frank Davis. He remarried and with his new wife, had a son that he named William. William Davis, in turn, grew up and married and among his children was a boy named Bruce. Bruce, as it turns out, has gone on to be called Poppa at our house……the same Poppa for whom the Ancestry.ca membership was purchased and the same Poppa that Leah was entrusted to train.

So, if Frank Davis had not skirted death during WWI by design and by circumstance AND, if his wife Helena had not been killed in the Halifax Explosion, allowing him to remarry and bear a son who bore a son who bore a daughter who became a mother to a little girl named Leah, the whole fabric of all of our lives would be forever different.

But, there is one final, freakish coincidence that bears mentioning. At the time of the Halifax Explosion, Helena Davis and her four children lived in an apartment at 1253 Barrington Street in Halifax.  This was not noteworthy at the time that they lived there but, it became noteworthy as a result of Leah’s research and an incredible coincidence that she uncovered.

When my wife was much younger, she travelled to Halifax and stayed at a youth hostel. She was visiting a good friend at the time. Her friend took a photo of Keri sitting on the steps of the youth hostel. This photo was kept in a frame and displayed as a keepsake from, what was, a pleasant life memory for Keri.  In conducting her research, Leah connected the dots and discovered that the hostel in Keri’s teenage photo was, in fact, the same building that the Davis Family were living in at the time of the Halifax Explosion. If not for Helena Davis’ death that December day, Keri would never have been born and would never have been able to sit on those steps.  Being the good parents that we are, we took Leah to Halifax two years ago and stood upon those very steps ourselves.

  And so, at 8:04 am this morning, Leah stopped at the end of our driveway and thought about how lucky she is to be alive and how thankful she is to all of the people who have helped her to know the life that she has and enjoys as a result of their decisions and because of fate. What were you doing at 8:04 am this morning?

Throwback Thursday Edition

From the vault, to you, wherever you happen to be. I wrote this post while I was still a teacher at Grant Sine P.S. in Cobourg. Four and a half years ago seems like a lifetime to me. So much has changed. Grant Sine P.S. is now closed. I am now retired. But, at the time, it was my favourite place in the world. The kids and their families were very special. My colleagues have become forever friends.

There was no school experience quite like the one I had at Grant Sine P.S.; especially, on a Friday.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thank Goodness It’s Friday….or, Not!!!!

I am not sure if it actually is Friday as you are reading this but, that doesn’t really matter. This post is not about this Friday or, any other Friday, for that matter.  It is more about the symbolic nature of our safe harbours and the fragile nature of the people who seek shelter there.  It is about fearing the blue skies and sunshine of free time. It is about being at school on a Friday afternoon, with the dismissal bell ringing, your teacher ushering you out the door and you, not wanting to leave.  It is about the idea of home.

I am fairly confident that you, like me, view the end of the work day on Fridays as a cause for celebration.  Bring on the weekend!  For most of us, we work because we have to but, it is on our free time that we can relax, re-energize and slip into the comfortable clothes of the life we really love. 

When you think about schools in this regard, the image that springs to mind is of the dismissal bell ringing for summer vacation, the doors of the school bursting open and the kids pouring out, hooting and hollering, throwing their books and papers into the air, heading out to the carefree world of summer vacation!  That image had been my reality as a teacher for the first 17 years of my career.  Everywhere I taught, the kids were as excited for their weekends as their teachers were.  Everyone was happy on Fridays!  Spring Break always rocked!  And, don’t get me started about the giddiness of summer vacation!

But, then I transferred into the school I am presently teaching at and everything changed.  I teach in the middle of a social housing complex, which means that virtually every student at my school comes from a household that relies on some form of financial assistance from the Government in order for them to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.  When I first began working here, I had a vague notion of what poverty meant for me, as their teacher. I thought that everything would be fine as long as they worked hard for me.  I could supplement when necessary with supplies but, an honest work ethic would be enough to help the kids enjoy a successful time in our classroom.  If they were academically low, that was fine.  I work with all manner of students and would happily do so with them.  Basically, I walked into our classroom on the first day of school, totally and completely unprepared for what I was to encounter. Suffice to say, poverty is a bitch!   My time at this school has provided ME with the real education.  I am a changed and better human being for having had this experience. 

It is difficult to accurately describe what living in poverty is like.  For someone like me, who has a full fridge, a warm house with lots of toys and a bank account with my own dollars in it, I have no right to state that I know what it is like to be poor.  But, as witness to the myriad displays of emotion,  drama and humanity that unfold before my eyes, each and every day, in our classroom, schoolyard and hallways, I, most certainly, have knowledge to share.  The best way I know of to even remotely convey the depth of the complex, multi-faceted, nuanced layering of issues at play when it comes to poverty, is to tell you the following true story.  The story is called The Christmas Block and, honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up!  Writing this for you blows my mind, even now.

One of the ways that we, as staff, dealt with the pervausive nature of poverty at our school, was to focus on developing a greater sense of community among the students and, by extension, their families, too.  We tried to show them that you don’t have to be rich to be nice, to do the right things in life, to be helpful, to contribute to the betterment of the classroom/school/community in a positive way. We tried to empower them and to help to boost their self-esteem by making them realize their own self-worth as human beings on our planet.    That is no small task, in an environment where everyone is beaten down and in various stages of defeat.

Among the many initiatives we enacted, was one where we actively sought out opportunites for the students to participate in events outside of the school.  The thinking was, to attempt to change the public’s perecption of our school from being ” a welfare school, filled with bad kids” to being a nice school, with a warm sense of community and an ever growing list of positive accomplishments.  In this light, we jumped at the chance to participate in an event sponsored by our local Public Library.  It was a storywriting competition.  The lure for us was that they had categories of prizes for the top stories but, also, prizes for the best rate of participation, as a percentage of the school’s total population.  Being a rather small school, size wise, we thought that if we could just get each student to simply write a story that met the contest criteria then, we would automatically qualify to the participation prize. This would mean that we would get to go to the awards celebration and get our school’s name in the newspaper.  So, off our little authors went.

In my class, we had to write a story about any topic we wanted, as long as it was 100 words long.  Sweet!  No problem!  We could do it, even if it took us a couple of weeks!   As the children wrote, their stories were woefully-unimaginative.  This was not surprising due to the lack of literacy in their homes.  It is hard to become a creative and expressive writer when no one has ever read a bedtime story to you in your life.  But, even with the low quality of most of the stories, one stood out as even weaker than the rest.  It was from a boy named Tom* ( I am using my name, for the sake of privacy).  Tom was a unique student for several reasons: one, he had shown an above-average level of ability with Mathematics. This gave him the reputation among his peers, as being one of the smartest kids in the whole school.  Tom was, also, unique, in that he had a tremendous amount of pride and, routinely, refused any of the free food, clothing or school supplies that his classmates so eagerly and consistently grabbed up. So, when it came time to read Tom’s story, I had hoped that it would be one of the few to demonstrate a decent amount of skill.

Tom called his story, “The Christmas Block”. To summarize it, the story read….it was Christmas morning. His only gift was a wooden block.  He liked it.  He put it down to go outside to play. When he returned, the block was gone. Someone had stolen it, he was told. The end.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment.  Who writes a story about a block for Christmas?!  What changed my thinking was when I showed this story to a colleague who had been at this school much longer than I had.  She was far more familair with the inner-workings of the neighbourhood that I was.  As she read it, she said, “I think Tom is trying, in his own cryptic way, to tell you that something bad happened to him at Christmas. If I was to guess, I’d say he is trying to tell you that his parents took his gifts and sold them for food or drugs or cigarettes or whatever.”
To say that I was stunned is an understatement.  

I conferenced with all of the students about their stories. When it came time for Tom’s conference, I was pumped.  I asked him to tell me about his story. He just repeated that it was about a block that he had lost. He was very tight-lipped about it all.   I asked him if he had lost the block in real life.  He said it was just a story.  I asked him if he or anyone he knew, had lost birthday or Christmas toys. He replied, without looking up, that lots of things happen in his neighbourhood. I asked him again, if the story of the Christmas block was a real story. Tom got up, smiled a sheepish smile and, as he began walking away said, thanks for the contest. 

Tom was the sort of student who was never going to admit what had actually happened to him nor, that it had happened before and would, in all liklihood, happen again in the future.  But the more I poked around, trying to uncover the truth, the more convinced I became that, in fact, Tom had had his Christmas gifts taken from him by his parents and so had many other students.  In fact, the systemic looting of children’s possessions to help fuel the addicitions of their caregivers was, as it turned out, quite a normal part of life in my school neighbourhood.  No one was outraged by it.  It was just how the world worked, in the eyes of my students.

As I came to understand this more, I began to recognize the connections between what was happening at home and some of the behaviours I was seeing at school.  For instance, almost all of the kids were, what I would call, hoarders.  Their desks were crammed full of anything and everything that we had done in class.  At first, my Type-A personality was such that Desk Clean-out day was a regular feature of life in our classroom. But, I soon came to realize that everything that was going home was ending up being put straight into the garbage. There were no refrigerator art galleries in these homes.  I began to learn that if the student valued their work then, it needed to be honoured on the walls of the school because, that was their only chance to be recognized as being special.

The story would end here, if not for a bit of luck with the contest.   Our school was awarded the prize for best rate of participation!  That was awesome but, what surprised us all was that, Tom’s story was selected for special recognition.  We had been contacted and asked to nominate someone who was not known as a writer but yet, had produced noteworthy work.  I thought of Tom right away.  I sent an short, explanatory note along with his story. The judges read his story and deemed it worthy. So, Tom and his whole family were invited, along with me, to go to the Gala Awards ceremony at a fancy-schmancy banquet hall downtown.  This was not the sort of place that families from my school normally frequented.  

The awards ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:00 in the morning. Tom and his family were downtown by 8:00am.  I know that because I was running an early morning errand and saw them walking around the banquet hall, trying to find their way inside.   When I arrived, I found them seated in the front row of chairs.  The whole family was there; Tom, his older brother, his mother and father, too.  All of the men had gotten haircuts. They were wearing new dress shirts which came from the Dollar Store, according to Mom, who was very proud of her men.  

The emcee of the ceremony was a local author of some reknown.  He had quite a dramatic flair and proceeded to work his way through the various prize categories by reading snippets of each student’s winning entry.   As he did this, I thought about what might happen when he read Tom’s story about his parents stealing his Christmas gift……with them sitting in the front row!!!    But, as it turned out, I didn’t have much to worry about.  Our emcee turned Tom’s plain-sounding little story, into a melodrama worthy of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials.  As an orator, he had Tom’s words fill up the entire hall.  The story sounded glorious!   Tom’s family were thrilled.  As Tom was called up to receive his award, he kept his head bowed the entire time, even as the applause of the crowd filled the room.

His mother hugged me and thanked me for helping her son to have such a wonderful moment. Tom’s dad shook my hand.  Then, they turned quickly away and melted into the sunshine outside and went back home.

Like I said, I just can’t make this stuff up!

Since working at this school, I have seen how poverty really affects my students.  How it creates environments where the students view parents as people who will protect you with one hand while stealing from you with the other.  Being raised in such an environment means that my students don’t react to material possessions the same way as other children might.  Incentive programmes don’t hold any sway here.  I can’t tell a child that if they complete X-number of tasks they will earn a reward because, they know their possessions will just end up being stolen or broken at home.  The normal mentality of striving to achieve a goal doesn’t work here.  There is a disconnect between the wishes of my students and the reality of their lives.  Nobody writes letters to Santa at my school.   It is a vicious, negative existance, from my point of view but, from the point of view of my students, it is just life.  It is so messed up. But, poverty is messed up, too!

So now, when the dismissal bell rings on a Friday afternoon and the kids don’t really want to leave…I have developed a greater ability to understand why.  I counter this, the only way I really know how, I hug every one of them who seem to need it.  Then, they are wished a good weekend and I stand in the doorway and watch them walk toward home.

Will You be My Neighbour?

When my wife and I bought the house we are currently living in, we were enchanted by the neighbourhood. It was tree-lined, quiet and the neighbours all seemed friendly. It was, in real-estate terms, an established neighbourhood. Many of the homeowners were original to the neighbourhood when it was first built. Their families had grown up and moved away. So, when young newlyweds moved on the street, folks were genuinely happy at the prospect of children, once again, playing outside and riding bicycles up and down the street.

Not surprisingly, within a few years of living here, age began to catch up with our neighbours. One by one, either because of death or illness, several of our neighbours left our street and their homes went up for sale. Just as we did a few years prior, more young families moved in and the trend toward the neighbourhood becoming younger intensified. In fact, the house directly adjacent to us on our south side was sold. The day the new family moved in is where this story begins.

We were puttering around our yard when the new folks pulled into their driveway and began unloading their car. After giving them a few minutes, I went over an introduced myself and welcomed them to the neighbourhood. The man introduced himself as Chris and his wife, as Robin. They had one child; a son slightly older than my eldest daughter, Leah so, about nine or ten at the time. They seemed very friendly and went on to be excellent neighbours. We waved to each other whenever one of us was driving by. We helped shovel each other’s driveway in the winter and mowed grass for each other in the summer. Robin was a teacher, like Keri and myself so, we talked shop occasionally. Chris and I talked about yard things; for example, he admired a new shed that I had built and placed in my backyard. They minded their business and we stayed out of theirs. It was all lovely.

But, I discovered just the other day, that our neighbours had been keeping a secret. A fairly big secret, as it turns out. My mind is blown…still! I will share that secret with you now.

Chris and Robin separated a few years ago. That saddened us, as we liked them as a couple and as neighbours. Chris moved into an apartment across town. Robin and their son stayed next door. Because of custody-sharing arrangements, we still saw Chris frequently, coming and going with his son. He still waved and smiled at us. We still waved and smiled back.

When Chris wasn’t around, we noticed that his son was spending most of his time playing the drums. He had a full drum kit in the basement of their house and he played, day and night, for hours at a time. Fortunately for us, he was actually a talented young drummer so, it wasn’t excruciating to hear his beats seeping up out of the foundation of their house. It was almost the same style of drumming that you would associate with the heavy drum solos that rock drummers sometimes perform during concerts. At one point, the son drummed so much that we began to think that, perhaps, he was autistic, and was obsessively drumming for emotional reasons. But, truth be told, Robin and her son never bothered us so, we viewed his drumming as a small price to pay for having reliable neighbours beside us.

Eventually, Robin put the house up for sale. She and her son have moved out of the neighbourhood and we have not seen them nor Chris for several months now.

A new family moved next door. A husband and wife, with two small children. They have been wonderful neighbours, too. We are lucky. The woman, Leslie, is a teacher and happens to work at the same school as my wife, Keri, does. Occasionally, they drive to school and back together. This happened the other day. During the course of the drive, Leslie wondered if we found her children too noisy when they were playing in their backyard. Keri replied that they were fine especially compared to the little drummer boy we just had next door. Leslie replied that she wasn’t surprised that the boy played the drums because, when they first looked at the house when it was up for sale, they noticed that it was filled with rock n’ roll memorabilia. When they asked the sales agent about it, they were told that the memorabilia belonged to a gentleman named Christian Tanna, drummer and co-founding member of Canadian rock supergroup, I Mother Earth.  Leslie was surprised that we didn’t know this already.

What!!!!!??????   My friendly neighbour, Chris…….the smiling, wavy-haired Dad who I watched mow the lawn in grubby shirts….the guy who had shed-envy……..was actually Christian Tanna, drummer for I Mother Earth!!!!!   And he never said a single word about it. Not one. There was nothing about how he looked or how he conducted himself that would had given us any indication that we had a rock star for a neighbour.  Sometimes, you just never know what goes on behind the closed doors of the nice homes on your street.

Christian Tanna or, Chris as I call him, is the third from the left (in the blue tank top) and this is I Mother Earth at the end of one of their shows.  Now it makes sense that his son was such a prodigious drummer and that he had talent, too. I Mother Earth were really big in the 90s in Canada. I have to be honest and say that they weren’t my favourite band back then but, being equally honest, Chris is my favourite rock star neighbour!!!!

As I look at this photo, I am still shaking my head. Can’t believe that I didn’t know who was living in the house next door.

Driving Miss Leah

This past weekend, my daughter, Leah and her friend, Emily, travelled with me to The University of Guelph campus for our third annual trek to participate in The Science Behind the Magic of Harry Potter Festival. This festival is put on by the university’s Science department and is a wonderful way to introduce scientific concepts like Biology, Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Astronomy, Physics and much more, to eager young minds, all the while presenting it under the guise of the world of Harry Potter. There are costumes galore, as well as, games, food and contests…..all taken directly from J.K. Rowling’s books.

When Leah and Emily went for the first time two years ago, they were ten and nine years old, respectively. Life was still pretty simple for them. Neither had their own phone. No one they knew was “dating”. Neither had gone to an unsupervised party where there would be boys and girls together.  They were still very much children. Looking back, I realize I should have enjoyed their giddy silliness more during our two and a half hour long drive there and back. Those were innocent times. But, times change.

This weekend, I drove two pre-teens there and back. Those giddy children have evolved into quieter, more introspective young women. Since both knew what to expect when we arrived in Guelph, there was no nervous excitement filling the car on the way down. Emily sketched in a notebook and worked on an original story she was creating. Leah read for awhile and then listened to music on her phone. Neither wore a Harry Potter-inspired costume this time (Leah did wear a Hermione Granger t-shirt but, it stayed hidden under her hoodie).

Both girls enjoyed all of the activities that they participated in, as they have the past two years as well. But, there was one difference this year and it was this:  because I am the only adult accompanying the girls, I have always felt a sense of obligation to my wife, to Emily’s parents, to Leah’s Grandparents and so on, to document all of the super exciting, creative and informative activities the girls are involved in. So, I have always taken lots of photos to share with everyone later, when we are back home. This year, as I was taking photos, the following happened:  during one of the activities, Leah rolled her eyes, looked to the Heavens and said, with a tone of exasperation, “Dad! Will…you…please …stop!”

No one in the room seemed to notice, including Emily, who was busy completing her activity. But, I noticed. And, I stopped taking her picture.  Dad was embarrassing daughter, simply by quietly being Dad. This isn’t the first time this has happened lately. For example, Leah began attending middle school this year. This school has ten times the enrolment of her old school. I offered to go with her on the first day to make sure she got where she was supposed to be going. She refused and said I could go to the crosswalk with her but no further. Being retired, I have time to volunteer to go on class trips with my girls for the first time ever. Leah said, “OMG, Dad!  I’d die if you came on a trip!”  Leah is changing. She will be an official teenager in April.

Like all parents come to realize, there is a time when our children begin to carve out their own identity and create a life that is truly their own. Leah has just left the starting blocks on this journey. It is tough watching her go.

But, as tough as it is for me to observe it all, it must be far tougher to be a young girl growing up in today’s society. Both Emily and Leah are finding their lives changing in real time. On the drive back home, they sat in the back seat and started talking to each other about it. I was wise enough to keep my mouth closed and just drive the car.  We passed a mall on the way out of Guelph. This started a conversation about book stores (which both girls adore) and then, back-to-school shopping trips. This transformed into a talk by Leah to Emily about being at the newer, bigger school (Emily will go there next year) and then, on to the topic of shopping for clothes.

Both girls lamented the lack of clothing options they felt were available to them. Both complained about the pressure they felt to wear clothes that were too tight and body hugging, too short and revealing or else, too full of holes (such as in ripped jeans). Both girls lamented the seeming inability to find clothes that were soft, roomy and comfortable. Without saying it, Leah and Emily are beginning to realize the trap that society has prepared for young girls and that is the trap of sexualizing their bodies. Leah and Emily are bright, intelligent, caring and creative young women. They have much to offer our world. They are definitely more than the sum of their body parts. But, as we drove through the rush hour traffic at the top of Toronto, they both talked about how much they dislike the way fashion choices seem to force them into a role that they don’t want to accept; especially, in the eyes of boys that they labelled, without hesitation, as being very immature and annoying. It was quite a conversation.

There is power in the ability to make your own decisions. Right now, Leah is beginning to  experience what it is to make her own choices; the first major life choice being, pulling away from her parents. Whether it be spending countless hours in her room with the door closed and headphones on or else, finding it excruciatingly embarrassing to be seen in public with her Mom or Dad, Leah is coming to realize that the trail she must blaze is one that must be done on her own. It won’t be a pain-free process but through it all, I will be there for her if she needs me. But, for now, I will step back as she steps away and through it all, I have to trust and hope that she will grow and become the person she is meant to be and be happy and proud of who that person turns out to be.

In the meantime, I will shut my mouth and keep driving the car.

Leaving For School

My mother is 87 years old. Her mind is still sharp and she will make you a hot cup of tea should you care to pay a call. Catch her in the right mood and she will tell you stories. Mention that you know me and she will tell you stories of my childhood. One of the stories she will tell you is of the day I left home.

I had graduated from High School and had been accepted at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in their Radio and Television Arts Programme. On the last Saturday in August, 1982, my mother took me to the train station and watched as I boarded the VIA Train (Canada’s version of Amtrak, for my American friends) taking me to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. I was only 18 years old. This was the first time I had travelled alone.

It was some years later that I got to hear my mother tell her version of the story of this day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had watched the train pull out of the station and immediately got in her car and drove to the next station stop down the line, in the hopes that I would have changed my mind about leaving and had gotten off.  I passed through that station never knowing she was even there. I never knew she had been at the third station stop, either. But, she had.  Then, at last, she turned the car around and went home. I understand that there were tears.

As for me, I made it to the heart of downtown Toronto in one piece. Dazzled as I was by the sights and sounds of a city bigger than any I had ever known, struggling as I did to find my academic footing in university, tempted as I was by the alcohol and girls that were made readily available to me at parties that seemed to be everywhere, all the time, I did not call my mother for a full four weeks.  Needless to say, that first phone call was met with a mixture of emotions on both ends of the line.  I have called her every week since, for the rest of my life. I never realized, up until that first phone call, how much I really meant to my mother. Children, sometimes, take their parent’s Love for granted.

The scene that I have described is not unique to me and my family. Every year, parents take their university or college-aged children to far flung locales and bid them teary goodbyes. There is always a mixture of sadness and pride amid the tears that flow. As parents, we want our children to be happy and safe and successful in life so, at some point, we have to say good-bye and trust that they will be ok without us. It hurts. But, at the same time, it fills our hearts with Hope.

Regardless of any family’s specific story, the general truth is that these separations are planned for well in advance. There is a whole process of applying to various schools, gaining acceptance at one or more, discussing the pros and cons of each choice, dealing with finances, accommodations and much, much more. There are timelines to follow and milestones to pass before there is ever the chance of the tearful goodbyes at an apartment building or dormitory steps. That is the way it was for me and my mother. It is the way it is for countless other families, too.

But, at one time in Canadian History, the idea of children leaving home to attend school far away was, in fact, viewed as Government policy; not for all families in the new land of Canada but, specifically, for the children of Indigenous families. Indigenous nations existed in all regions of, what became Canada, long before European settlers crossed the Atlantic. Their cultures and traditions were rich and well-established. However, as European explorers arrived and began claiming tracts of land for foreign masters across the sea, they did so with a mindset that dictated the need to “civilize the Natives”. By this, they meant forcing the existing Indigenous populations across the land to abandon their own customs and beliefs and adopt those held by the European settlers. One way these beliefs were turned into actual policies that were set into motion came in the form of the Residential School System.

The thinking behind the establishment of the Residential School System was relatively simple; if they could “educate” children in the ways of the Europeans then, these children would grow up to be, more and more, European and, less and less, Indigenous. If successful, the Residential School system could completely transform the thinking, attitudes, beliefs and customs of the entire Indigenous population in only a few short generations. Assimilation would be complete. Indigenous life, as was known at the time, would disappear. Canada would be “civilized” from coast to coast to coast.

When these schools began operation, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families. They were sent to schools which were, in many cases, hundreds of miles from their homes. Once they arrived, their hair was cut, their clothes were taken from them, they were not allowed to speak in their own language and they were treated with harsh discipline.  It was a terrible time for these children and their families.

 

To get a sense of how Indigenous children suffered in the Residential School System, please watch Gord Downie’s cinematic re-telling of the life and, subsequent death, of one such child, Chanie Wenjack. There is no happily ever after in this story.

 

Eventually, the Residential School System came into disrepute and ceased to exist as formal Government of Canada policy. But that was not before lasting harm was caused to  many Indigenous Nations, their families and to the children who were taken from their homes against their wills. The utter failure of the Residential School System can be seen in a renewed call for understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness between Indigenous Peoples and those of us who call ourselves Canadians.  One of the first steps taken on this healing journey was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Many victims of the Residential School System were allowed to appear before the Commission and share their personal stories. Many Indigenous elders were asked to document the toll these policies took on their communities. The pictures painted by their words were not pretty. When all were heard, the members of the TRC issued a number of “Calls to Action” aimed at raising levels of awareness of Indigenous issues across the country, as well as, helping to implement systemic changes in how Indigenous culture is recognized, celebrated and appreciated.  One of those calls to action can be seen in public schools all across Canada in what has become known as “Orange Shirt Day”.

Today, in classrooms all over Canada, students are being encouraged to wear an orange shirt. They will hear the story of how a young girl, Phyllis Webstad, had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day of Residential School. These modern day students will come to learn of the broader story of what happened to so many Indigenous children and that it was an attempt at, what some, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, term “Cultural Genocide”. Hopefully lessons, painful as they sometimes are, will begin to be learned and younger generations of Canadian students will grow up with a greater level of respect for Indigenous culture, customs and beliefs, as well as, those of other countries, too. When we all take time to appreciate the beauty and wisdom found in cultures different than ours, we all grow richer as a result.

So, when my mother tells her story of the pain she felt as I boarded that train, I have no doubt that her pain was real. But, the choice to leave home that day to go to school far away was mine to make. My mother was involved in every bit of planning that led up to our train station goodbyes.  Despite of a few forks in the road, my life has been a happy and successful one since that day.

But, I can’t even begin to imagine how different everything would have been if I had been forced to leave. If soldiers or police officers had dragged me away from all I had known to a life completely unknown. In Life, the freedom to make our own choices is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of how we live. During the time of the Residential School System, freedom to make decisions that affected the most important part of life….Family……was taken away. Powerlessness and anguish followed in its’ wake. Those were terrible times for Indigenous families and stand as a black mark on Humanity.

As my daughters left for school today; Sophie with me to her school and Leah, with my wife, to Leah’s school, all four of us wore our orange shirts. Orange Shirt Day is a somber day but, a hopeful day, as well. Sometimes, going to school brings academic lessons. Today, on Orange Shirt Day, the lessons will be a bit more primal. They will be about the bonds of Love that unite families and how nothing is more important than Love and Family.

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Leaving for school and then, coming home to those you love, should always be the bookends to one of childhood’s most important memories. May it always be so for all children, forever more.