Voices Carry

All of my life I have been a quiet person. Some of us are just that way. But even though I may not be the best at starting conversations in social settings, I do have stories to tell and ideas to share. The trick for me in this life has been discovering the best way to make my voice heard.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately because I have discovered a new book. I know I am biased in this regard but, I think Children’s Picture Books are an art form and contain some of the best storytelling you are likely to find anywhere. I Go Quiet by David Ouimet is a book that I wish I had written. It is about me and those of you out there like me. It is about the quiet ones, the introverts and our place in this loud, noisy, busy world of ours. It is about those of us who paint pictures with silence and raise choirs of concerns within our minds. It is for everyone who has a song to sing but prefers doing so in the shower rather than on stage in front of an audience. This book is a wonderful affirmation that it is ok to look for comfort and inspiration from within and that learning to trust the voice you discover there is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.

When I was still a teacher, I always had a soft spot for students whose social presence was whisper light. I made it my mission to find out what made these kids tick and then, guide them to the place where their inner voice resided. Some of the best moments I ever experienced as teacher came from children who wrapped themselves in the safety of our classroom environment and found the courage to be their true selves. This manifested itself in many ways. Some children found their voice in Art. Some found their voice in Athletics. Some found their identity via books and stories. It never mattered to me what form this awakening took, as long as it happened for that child; especially, that child who may have felt that they didn’t matter because they never had an avenue to make themselves heard. Self-expression is very important, as is believing that what you have to say has merit. Helping children to learn to trust in the value of their thoughts, feelings and ideas is of immeasurable importance because when children learn to believe in the power of their own voice, they can change the world.

The most famous recent example of a child having a message to share with the world and having the courage of her convictions to deliver it is Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. A little over a year ago, Greta begun a public protest regarding the dangers posed by Climate Change. She started a movement for young people that came to be known as #FridaysForFuture. What she did was to go out on Strike from school each Friday. While being on Strike, she sat quietly in front the legislative building in Sweden and demanded politicians take action. Initially, she was ignored by passersby. But, eventually, over time, people began to question why this girl in the yellow jacket, with the pony tails was sitting there, holding her signs. Greta found her voice and helped raise the alarm regarding the precarious nature of the state of our world. She promoted the scientific fact that our planet is approaching a very real “tipping point” of climate-inspired catastrophes that soon we will be unable to reverse. Our very existence is at stake and time is running out. So, Greta left school on Fridays and spoke for all of us.

In time, word of Greta’s School Strike for Climate got out, via news reports and on social media. Other like-minded students, such as 13-year old Alexandria Villasenor, shared Greta’s view that, while going to school is important, it is not important if there is no future for young people. Alexandria began her School Strike 4 Climate in front of the UN building in New York. Like Greta Thunberg, Ms. Villasenor looked within herself and followed the courage of her own convictions. She sat alone on the bench you see in this photo for weeks and weeks. Eventually, the positive power of social media helped propel the School Strike for Climate message so that it reached a wider, more mainstream audience. Climate scientists from around the world loaned their knowledge and credibility to this cause. Soon, local politicians in cities and countries around the world began declaring “Climate Emergencies” in their jurisdictions. Policies have started to be enacted in some countries such as the phasing out of gas-powered automobiles by the mid-2020s. Because quiet children have found their voices, a choir of concern regarding Climate Change is beginning to spread around the world.

It isn’t easy being brave when you feel as though your words are mere dandelion puffs scattered by the slightest of breezes. But, if there is anything that I have learned over the course of my thirty years hanging out with children it is this…….they have ideas that have value and they are worthy of respect from the adults in their world. I am not just referring to the Greta Thunbergs and Alexandria Villasenors of the world, either. Children, everywhere, have beliefs that are valid. They wish for safety and friendship and love and clean water and good food to eat and share together. Children espouse many of the core values that we, as adults, sometimes forget about, as we busy ourselves with things that often don’t matter. We exist on a planet where many adults strive for material gain and personal power. None of that will matter when our world burns beneath our feet. We will all be equally powerless when extreme climate disasters strike. Our money will not help us when the end is about to come and, as the old song says, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If only the adults would listen to the voices of our children.

Getting adults in positions of power to listen to the voices of children is why the School Strike for Climate movement is holding Global Strikes tomorrow (September 20) and next Friday (September 27) in cities all around the world. My daughter, Leah, and I will be attending the march being held in Toronto on the 27th. Greta Thunberg will be leading the march in Montreal that same day. She is marching with Alexandria Villasenor in NYC tomorrow. Tens of thousands of children and adults are expected to march for a better future for our planet and for us. Please feel free to find out more about these marches and about our Climate emergency by clicking on the link www.fridaysforfuture.org

We ignore the quiet ones at our peril. Those of us who are comfortable living, for the most part, within the confines of our own minds, still have a role to play on society’s stage. We don’t all have to lead the march, as the Greta Thunberg’s of the world do but, by lending our presence to the unfolding drama, we give strength to our message and allow our voices to carry. It is easy for some of us to exist, unnoticed. But, there are times when it is too important to remain quiet. The world needs us to all to speak up. Being quiet is no longer an option……even for folks like me.

***Author’s note: I am super-excited to publish this particular post today because it was created in partnership with a former student of mine, Erin Cutler. Waaaaay back in the day, Erin was a sweet, young girl in our Grade 2 class in Bowmanville, Ontario. Erin was always a hard worker and a good friend to others. But, what I always remember about her is the relationship we struck up because of an in-class activity called Journal writing. In her journal book, I would ask Erin to write a letter to me about anything she wanted to talk about and then, I would write back. On the surface, this was an exercise in writing and reading for the child. But, the deeper benefit is that it allowed a private conversation to take place, parallel to what everyone else saw in public. Whenever I wrote back to a student, I always tried to incorporate an illustration to accompany my words. Erin really liked that aspect of our journal conversations and, over time, began responding back with her own Art to go along with her questions and stories. Well, I am happy to report that Erin has grown up to be a lovely young lady who makes her living through Art. Erin specifically created two pieces of original Art for this post; the first is what I call Portrait of Greta and the second is A Choir of Concern. I am humbled beyond measure to have Erin’s great work adorning my words on this post. She is terrific in all regards. Thank you, Erin, for your hard work for this post. Hopefully, we can do this again sometime.

If you wish to see more of her work, please click on the following two links: www.illustrationsbyerin.com and www.instagram.com/illustrationsbyerin .

My Second Tuesday

Happy Anniversary to me! It’s my Second Tuesday. That makes today very special and noteworthy. For it was exactly one year ago today, after an absence of several years, that I re-started my blog. I re-started my blog on my First Tuesday. My First Tuesday was the first day of my retirement from teaching. It was, also, the first day of a new school year for my wife and two daughters which meant, for me, that it was the first time I was truly alone with my thoughts. I wrote my first post that day. It was called “The Brightness of the Light” and can be read here. That post talked about the joy I was feeling at being free to chart my own course in life. No more bells to answer to. No more bosses telling me what to do or when to do it. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted. I was free.

So, what did I decide to do on this, my Second Tuesday, you ask? Well, I am not sure if you will be surprised at my decision or not but, after dropping my youngest daughter off at her school for her first day of the new school year, I hopped in my car and drove………straight back to my old school!

I didn’t go there because I was having pangs of regret or longing for the teaching career that I had left behind. I went back to my old school to repay a debt of kindness. Let me explain. Tuesday, September 5, 2017 was my Final Tuesday. It was the last “First Day” of school for me as a teacher. When I arrived at school that day and entered my classroom, I was greeted by the sight of a jar of jellybeans on my desk. There was a note that accompanied the jar. The note said that there were 190 jellybeans in that jar; one for each day of my final school year. As each day passed, I was to remove one jellybean. As the school year progressed, the jar became emptier and emptier until, on the last day of school in June, 2018, I ate the final jellybean. The jar was now empty. My teaching career was now over. It was time to leave. The last thing I did on that final day in June was to take my name plate off of my classroom door. I put that name plate into the empty jellybean jar, walked out of the school, got in my car and drove away to a whole new life.

Before my final year of teaching began, I has suspected that there would be special and/or emotional moments along the way. When I saw that jellybean jar on the first day of school, I knew I was right. The funny thing about it was that the gesture was completely unexpected. The lady who gave me the jar of jellybeans is named Annette. While we had worked together for several years, I am sure we would both describe our relationship as being more acquaintances than dear friends. But yet, it was Annette and her act of kindness that started my final year off on such a wonderful note. And that, in and of itself, was an important lesson for me that year because it showed that my world was actually broader and deeper than I had imagined it to be. So many people did and said so many amazing things over the course of that year. I was truly and sincerely touched by it all. I will always remember my final year of teaching and those who were a part of it. And, it all started off with a jar of jellybeans upon my desk.

Well, as it turns out, this is Annette’s Final Tuesday. So today, I brought her a jar of 190 jellybeans. As I placed the jar on her desk, she asked me if I still found retirement to be fulfilling. I told her that I did. But then, I reminded her that she should treasure each jellybean and not wish her year away because being a teacher is as noble and special and important a role as any of us who have done it will ever play. I told her she was lucky to be doing what she was doing. Hopefully, today will be the start of a wonderful year in her life. Come next September, if Annette wants to share her First Tuesday with me, having coffee and ringing a bell downtown, I am up for that. But that will be her choice because, by then, she, too, will be free.

I got to see some of my former students before leaving the school. That was nice. Warm hugs and high fives were always the hallmarks of the best part of being a teacher; the relationships you form with the kids. But now, on my Second Tuesday, I got to experience the best of all worlds. I got to have the hugs and high fives and then, I got to drive away. No opening day speeches. No messes to clean up. No wondering where my summer vacation went an hour into the day. The sun is shining where I am. It is quiet and peaceful enough that I can hear the sound of the wind gently rustling the leaves of the tree in my backyard. I remain relaxed and at ease. It is my Second Tuesday and I am free.

The Gift of Encouragement

We are all human. We all appreciate being told, once and awhile, that we are doing a good job, that we are a nice person or that we are important.  In today’s frantic, multi-tasking society, it is easy to lose sight of the right path as we struggle to maintain our sanity, let alone, live a life of character and integrity. So, hearing words of encouragement is important. They not only nourish our souls but, they act as an affirmation that maybe, just maybe, we are actually on that correct path in Life.

In Ontario, Canada, where I taught, we are no more immune from Life’s pressures and stresses than anyone else in any other walk of life.  Most teachers care deeply about their profession and try their best to do right by the students entrusted into their care each day.  Most parents seem to understand this. My experience working in partnership with parents has, almost completely and totally, been positive and respectful. Being a parent has helped me appreciate the hard work that goes on in the homes of my students. Watching their children grow more knowledgable and skilled, while enjoying their school experience, has caused parents to respect who I am and how I conducted my classroom affairs.

Ordinarily, a heartfelt hand shake at the end of the school year between parent and teacher should be sufficient to recognize the contribution both have made to the life of the child in question. However, in Ontario,  a tradition has taken root that sees the parent bestow a gift upon the teacher during the final day of school.  In my career, I started many a final day of school surrounded by smiling students, arms outstretched, all holding a gift bag or an envelop and begging me to please, “open mine first, Mr. MacInnes! Open mine first!” Those gifts of mugs, boxes of chocolates, gift cards for coffee shops and crafts made with care and love from home, all were appreciated and all were displayed and/or well used once taken home.

However, there is one gift that I have gotten many times over the years and, in my eyes, it is the most important gift any parent could give to their child’s teacher……..it is the gift of encouragement that comes in the form of a simple card or letter.  Having a parent take a few moments to write that they appreciated the time I had spent with their child and that they believed it had made a positive difference, is like gold to me.

In my bedroom, on a shelf in my closet, I have a photo box.  In that photo box, I have EVERY card, letter and note of encouragement I have ever received throughout the entire course of my 30 year career.  Each letter is precious to me and each serves to remind me that, yes, I did, indeed, have a purpose in life that was worthy and that, indeed, I was making a positive difference in the lives of children.  I can’t ask for more than that.  Whenever I find myself feeling down, for whatever reason, I haul out that photo box and bask in the warm glow of the affirmations it contains.  

In most cases, regardless of the state of education in the public school your child attends, you can count on them being cared for by a teacher who is working harder than you may realize to help their students be the best people they can be.  However, there are times, in the course of their busy days, when teachers can become just as frustrated and discouraged as the students that they teach.  If you ever want to make your child’s teacher’s day, I humbly suggest that you write a simple note.  Your words of encouragement and appreciation will turn out to be the best part of that teacher’s day….guaranteed!

And, maybe, just maybe, your words will help fill that teacher’s photo box of memories, too.  🙂

We all appreciate hearing a kind word from someone else.  Have you ever written a card of thanks to your child’s teacher?  Have you ever received such a note or card from someone else, telling you that who you are or, what you do, matters?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.  Thanks for reading. 🙂

Of Things Lost and Those Still Around

I was recently asked to pen a speech to be read at a rally to commemorate/protest the one-year anniversary of the election of the Progressive Conservative Government in Ontario. I was asked to make the speech into a eulogy for all that has been lost during this past year. Believe me, the list of what has been lost is quite extensive. Anyway, the rally was held this past Friday, outside the local constituency office of our PC MPP, David Piccinni. Needless to say, Mr. Piccinni did not appear at the rally to listen to the concerns being expressed.

I was not, initially, going to post this eulogy but, the response to it from those in attendance was very positive and it was suggested it would be beneficial for a wider audience to read it for themselves. So, here comes the eulogy. At the rally, the eulogy was read by Sarah Whalen, who is a teacher and a member of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District Local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. **All photos that appear in this post are from my good friend, Wendy Goodes, who helped organize the rally.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here, together, to mark a solemn anniversary in our Province’s history. For it was on this date, one year ago today, that a minority of our fellow citizens voted in a Majority Government for Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Since that election day in 2018, much has changed in Ontario but still, much has stayed the same. Let’s, first, take a look at the latter.

Please take a moment and look at your fellow mourners who have gathered along side you today. Look at the banners they wave, the signs that they hold, the buttons and t-shirts they wear; their hearts on their sleeves, quite literally and figuratively. You are here today because you care. No matter what has been lost this past year in Ontario, you have not lapsed into defeat or self-interest. You still care. That is your superpower. You are an army of compassionate warriors and your unwavering belief in goodness, kindness and social justice for all makes you the truly worthy defenders of the slogan, “For The People”. For if there is anyone in this province capable of restoring hope to those parents of autistic children, it is you. If there is anyone capable of speaking up for the trees, as Dr. Seuss might say and, protecting our environment in a time of crisis, it is you! If there is anyone capable of maintaining our systems of Health care and Public Education for the common good of everyone, as opposed to the bottom lines of anyone, it is you. You are here today because you still believe in a better province for us all. There is power in believing in something greater than yourselves. In your belief, there is Hope. And when there is Hope, we fight on and we never give up.But, as proud and strong-minded as we all are, we have not gathered here today to celebrate but, instead, to mourn our losses, of which there are many. The minority of citizens who have elected a majority of PC MPPs have unleashed a terracotta army upon the province. They are an intimidating-looking force, filling over half of the seats in the Legislature, drowning out all inquiries with jeers, catcalls and mocking laughter. Like Siri and Alexa, these MPPs know how to retrieve their talking points well. But, don’t you dare try to strike up a conversation. They are a confederacy, not of dunces but, instead, of submissives; all standing up and sitting down on command, all speaking words that have been put into their mouths for them, all promoting ideas that are not necessarily their own. It is easy to be judgemental of people who so willingly subjugate themselves at the altar of another but, to do so would be to under-estimate the damage they are capable of creating.

It seems as if @Fordnation is attacking everything, everywhere, all of the time. Like a cruel game of real-life whack-a-mole, we are forced to battle back on multiple fronts at the same time. Our outrage, perpetual. But, while we fight to preserve our libraries, our Legal Aid system, our Greenbelt areas, our schools and hospitals, to broaden and strengthen our bonds with the Indigenous Peoples of Ontario and to protect the sanctity of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body and so much more, an insidious and troubling battle is going on that could, when all is said and done, be the biggest loss of all and that is the War on Truthfulness.

For most of us, we have been raised to believe that “Honesty is the best policy”. We have held this belief as one of the foundations of living in a democratic society. We have grown accustomed to holding our politicians to certain standards of accountability, all built upon the premise that we expect them to tell us the truth. But, with this new Government, truthfulness is rarely a consideration in anything they do. In fact, it could be argued that lying is what Doug Ford and his minions do best. They lie about anything and everything. They lie even when they don’t even have to. They lie about the price of gas on holiday weekends. They lie about job security in a time of massive cuts. They lie about not opening debates on abortion, even as their MPPs give speeches at Pro-Life rallies. They lie with the ease that most of us breathe. The ability of PC MPPs to lie is breathless in its audacity. I am sure that they laugh about it all behind the closed doors that they tend to stay. @FordNation is not at all acting “for the people”, of that I am sure we can all agree. The lie that this government cares about the common citizen is among the most fundamental of all the lies they tell. They do not care in the least about any of us standing here today. We are not profiteers or privatizers of the public good. We do not have their ear for an airing of our concerns. They have no time for us, as seen in how hard it is to get an appointment with your local MPP, have a question answered to a phone call or email. They are their own social network and they have stopped answering to us. It is almost as if democracy doesn’t matter anymore.

But, as long as we have hearts that beat in our chests and minds that see through the rhetoric being served then, the fight must go on because democracy does matter. It isn’t a perfect system of living but, it is worth fighting to protect. Truthfulness and honesty do matter. Words matter. The integrity of those who serve our society matters, still. And so, we stand here today, one year in on the most profound and fundamentally important challenge our province has ever faced.

I stand here today, with you, filled with the conviction that our Ontario is not lost yet. That there is still Hope for a return to those days, just 365 days ago, when beer cost more than a buck and nobody really cared about that, anyway. I long for time when our leaders recognized that Love is Love and parades are fun for everyone. I believe in an Ontario where reading and books are valued and Grandparents are venerated, not incarcerated. I believe in an Ontario where compassion and empathy are not just words but mindsets and that our everyday heroes have the resources and time to help those most in need. I believe in protecting our children not profiting from them. More than anything, I believe there is still time and that there is still Hope. Much has been lost but all is not lost yet. So, wave your banners high, hoist your signs into the air and join me in the greatest battle of our lives; the fight for democracy in Ontario……for the people of Ontario……our Ontario……..ours to re-discover.

Thank you very much.

A Forest of Gratitude and Remembrance

I got to go back to my school yesterday. It was the third time I had seen my colleagues this school year. The first time was around Christmas time, when a dear soul sent up a Facebook SOS looking for resources for a special needs child she was working with. I knew where to get these resources so, I bundled them up and delivered them to her at school. It was nice to have a brief chat before bells rang and she had to leave to start her work day. The second time I saw my staff was at a retirement party for our secretary who was leaving mid-year. This time, I had the luxury of having longer chats with more people and was able to catch up with everyone in greater detail. It was a lovely time. Yesterday, I was invited back to the school by a dear friend named Deb. This time, I got to be with the kids again, too. It was a special time and served to remind me of the good that comes when we care about things greater than ourselves.

This story begins in September of 2017. That was the beginning of my final year of teaching. Among the students on my class list was a special needs child. I knew him from his days in Kindergarten, in a classroom across the hall from mine. He was a lovely boy but he required help to successfully navigate his way through his school day so, he was assigned an Educational Assistant to help him. That E.A. turned out to be a lady named Deb. A few years earlier, Deb had worked, side-by-side, with my wife in her classroom in the neighbouring town of Port Hope. So, even though this was my first taste of working professionally with Deb, it was not my first experience of knowing the wonderful person Deb is.

The best way I can describe Deb is to say that she is like a sunbeam; all light and energy and warmth. Deb has a heart as big as the universe and makes those in her orbit feel wonderful about themselves. And, for my final year as a teacher, I got to share my classroom with her. What a gift from the Gods to me. Some teachers feel threatened by having another adult in the room with them. After all, being control freaks is part and parcel of doing the job. But, that was never the case with Deb. We were partners in the education of our students that year. It wasn’t my classroom; it became our classroom and that was something that made our space that much better for everyone.

As mentioned earlier, Deb’s official reason for being in our classroom was to work with a boy who had special needs. We worked closely together to tailor an academic and social programme that he warmed to over time. He was a fairly smart boy so it was a pleasure to see how quickly he adapted to his new schedule and work tasks. Gaining social independence was one of his goals so, at times, I would teach a lesson, Deb would help him get started and then, in order to foster independence, she would move away from him for awhile. Deb, being Deb, never took these “breaks” from her assigned student for herself; instead, in those moments not dedicated to her young man, she always made herself available to help other students in the classroom. I never had to speak to her about doing this. She willingly became a second resource that any student could access, as long as she was free to help. What a huge help that was to me.

Now, one of the things that helped create such a strong bond between us was that we shared a fundamental belief that being a kind and compassionate person was important in life. Being grateful to those who work on your behalf and expressing that gratitude was important in life, too. So, as we worked our way through all of the lessons that the curriculum documents required us to teach, we always did so in combination with lessons in how to be a good person. We treated each other with great respect in front of the students so that they could see how two adults act in a healthy relationship. We always treated our students with kindness, patience and respect because we wanted them to see how adults and children act in a healthy relationship. Finally, we established our clear expectation that we wanted the children to treat each other with kindness and respect, too. We were a classroom family…..and that comes with responsibilities; one of the biggest and most basic being, treat each other nicely.

Every class has its own personality. After all, a class list is more than just names on a page. Every class is populated by individual human beings; each with their own life story. As the adults in the room, one of the most important aspects of our role is to understand how the different personalities and learning styles of our students colour the tone of our learning space. Because children come to school with unique life experiences and academic development points, there are times when the standard lesson format doesn’t always work. Not every child is a paper/pencil learner. That doesn’t make them bad kids or poor students. They are simply children/learners who require a different approach. Well, as the second half of our school year came to pass, we began to find ourselves increasingly dealing with social disputes among students, much to our chagrin. As Deb and I talked, we came to be convinced that several of our boys were becoming frustrated with their classroom experience based on having to meet the expectations that come with a rising level of academic difficulty that occurs as a school year unfolds. This frustration was taking the form of socially-inappropriate interactions with their peers. These boys were increasingly off-task, they were becoming argumentative and the tone of our classroom was quickly becoming toxic. Something had to be done. So, this is what we did.

One of the things we noticed about all of the boys was a high degree of ego-centricity. There were all about themselves. “I don’t like this work!”, “I don’t want to sit by so-and-so!”, “I hate school!” Me! Me! Me! All of the time. These boys hadn’t been like this at the start of the school year but, they were now. Deb and I agreed that academic success was going to continue to be elusive for these gentlemen as long as they remained emotionally invested only in their own self-interest. So, as Winter warmed into Spring, Deb and I decided to try something bold; we wanted these boys to learn to care about something greater than themselves so, we formed a Garden Club and informed these boys that they were its first members.

So, each day during our Reading time (which was always a difficult time for the boys), Deb would gather up the Club members and they would head outside. We were able to do this because our reading time included a fifteen-twenty minute independent reading component to it. Deb’s special needs student loved to read and did not require Deb’s help for that segment of the day; thus, freeing Deb up. For the Garden Club members, it was a chance to take a break from the rigours of our classroom, get some fresh air into their lungs and to be able to channel some of their energy into something constructive such as digging in the soil of the gardens. There were three or four raised beds at a far end of the school yard. The beds were in a neglected state when the Garden Club first arrived so, there was lots of weeding and digging and planting of seeds and the hauling of water from a great distance away. And Deb, being Deb, always managed to include some Art or Poetry or Science into whatever physical labour was on-going so that, without the boys even realizing it, they were getting fully-integrated lessons, while the rest of their peers read in peace in the classroom.

As many of you know, a growing garden does not need the help of five boys for twenty minutes a day, every day of the week. So, Deb decided to expand the reach of the Garden Club and soon, Club members could be seen running the recycling programme in our school, building/fixing things in our MakerSpace or cleaning up litter from our school yard. It was during one of the school yard clean-ups that Deb and the guys noticed that two trees had been damaged in our yard due to vandalism or rough school play. This made Deb sad because she is a firm believer in the inter-connectivity of all living things in our world. She expressed her sorrow to the boys and, because it came straight from her heart, some of her emotions went into their hearts. The group decided that something must be done. So, it was agreed that new trees should be purchased to replace the broken ones and that, in order to raise the funds to do this, the Club would move into the school kitchen and start selling hot dogs!

Trees are important for the health of our planet, as you know. They act as the lungs of the Earth so, ensuring that these trees were replaced would be important, simply from an environmental point of view. But, these trees weren’t just ordinary trees. These trees were special trees. These trees were Highway of Heroes trees. Let me explain.

Canada is known throughout the world as a peaceful nation. For most of our recent history, our soldiers have served mainly as peacekeepers in foreign lands. While not as dangerous as being a combatant in a real war, our soldiers still face danger in their attempt to keep the peace and, unfortunately, some pay the ultimate price with their lives. When such a tragedy happens, that soldier’s body is re-patriated back home to Canada. When a soldier is re-patriated, their body is flown to Trenton Air Force base. Trenton is located about 30 minutes east of our school. Once the body is removed from the plane and placed in a waiting hearse, a journey begins that sees the soldier’s body, as well as, their family members, travel down a highway called The 401. This highway runs directly by our school. On the overpasses on this highway, people gather to salute the soldier and to let the family members know that their loved one’s sacrifice was not in vain. The journey from Trenton to Toronto (where an autopsy is performed on the body before it is released to the family) takes about 90 minutes. The entire route is filled with people, all caring about something greater than themselves. Over time, this stretch of highway has been officially renamed as The Highway of Heroes.

The original trees in our school yard had been placed there as part of a much larger initiative to honour all fallen soldiers and those who survived, too. Thousands and thousands of trees have been planted along The Highway of Heroes and in neighbouring communities; each one a reminder of those who cared for something greater than themselves. Once completed, this project will have resulted in the creation of a forest of gratitude and remembrance, the likes of which has never been seen before in this country.

So, needless to say, the hot dog sales at our school took on an added urgency and importance. Again, Deb being Deb, she took the opportunity of having a captive audience of wienie workers, to tell the boys stories about the fight for peace and the nobility of channeling physical energy for a cause that helps others. She did this as the water boiled and the wieners plumped. The boys then got to deliver the finished hot dogs to each classroom. Deb always made sure to have the kids in the classrooms thank “her boys” for having worked so hard on their behalf. Gratitude expressed. Gratitude received. This is how the seeds of change are planted in the increasingly fertile minds of these young boys.

And then, just like that, the school year ended. The handful of hot dog sales had managed to raise only a fraction of the cost of replacing two trees. I retired and left the school at this point. But, Deb stayed. Her energy and commitment and determination stayed and continued on during this past school year. So, as I sat home in comfy clothes, Deb and her remaining Garden Club members boiled hot dogs. While I worked on my own gardens, Deb and her boys worked on the school gardens again. Work went on in my absence because, that is what happens in life, things continue. But, I was not forgotten.

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Deb. In it, she spoke of having finally raised enough funds to replace the trees. She was so excited! But then, she told me the really grand and glorious news. She had contacted the folks running the tree programme for the Highway of Heroes Organization and had told them of the need for the two new trees. They were so impressed with what she had to say about the involvement of the boys and of the lessons they were learning about caring for things greater than themselves that, the Organization generously offered to dramatically reduce the price for Ten trees, not just two! The School Council was equally impressed and helped pay for all ten trees. So, in her email to me, she asked if I was free to attend the ceremonial tree planting. Of course I was free, I am retired!!!! LOL! But, even if I had something going on, I would have cleared my schedule for this.

The date of the tree-planting was June 6….the date of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. There was a full-school assembly. Our anthem was sung by a choir. Primary students sang a song about the soldiers who, on D-Day, gave everything they had in the fight for freedom. “In Flanders Fields” was read aloud by members of our school’s Shakespeare Club (which Deb runs). Mr. David Turnbull (the gentleman in sunglasses in the above photo) spoke to the students about the Highway of Heroes tree planting project and how each tree stood for a life given by a soldier in a foreign land. The Deputy-Mayor of Cobourg, Suzanne Seguin (in the red blazer in this photo) brought greetings from the Town and offered congratulations on raising the money to acquire the trees. Pam Lancaster from the Ganaraska Regional Conservation Authority (the area group responsible for the health of the Highway of Heroes trees) spoke about the importance of protecting these trees; especially in their early stages of growth. Finally, *two boys from the Garden Club (one has since moved away and two others were on a class trip during the assembly) got to present a school cheque for an amount equal to the price of two trees to Mr. Hurley. The whole school applauded. Gratitude expressed. Gratitude received.

Outside, in the schoolyard, the two trees were already in holes in the ground. The boys got to fill in the holes with fresh soil. Kindergarten students got the chance to protect the new soil with fresh mulch. They saw worms and bugs in the soil and were fascinated in a way that only the very young can be at such moments. Deb managed to extract a promise from all who came outside that these trees would be protected by all because of their role in helping our climate and because of what they represent as Highway of Heroes trees. News reporters took photos, like the one above, which appeared in Northumberland Snap’d newspaper. If you look carefully at that photo, you will see a sunbeam holding a shovel…..that is Deb.

The ceremony concluded with cake inside the school. I got the chance to sit with my guys and catch up. I enjoyed hearing their voices again. Those boys are growing up, literally and figuratively. It brought me a great deal of satisfaction to watch them have such a positive moment in the spotlight. After the boys returned to class, I got the chance to thank Deb for the invitation and to catch up a bit with her. She was, somewhat, emotionally-spent, as most educators are at the end of a school year. But, she still had the humility to speak of the good that can come from simple acts of kindness. A year ago, we responded to inappropriate behaviour in our classroom, not with punishments, detentions, loud voices of condemnation or exile to the Principal’s Office but, instead, with an opportunity for five young lads to experience a different way of learning…..in a garden……where seeds are planted and the best things get to grow by those who care about something greater than themselves.

Love, Mr. MacInnes

June has been deemed as Pride month in Ontario. Many communities are celebrating by hosting festivals or holding conferences that include topics such as inclusion, equity and anti-bullying and, as well, many communities are installing symbols of support and acceptance in the form of such things as Pride crosswalks. My town of Cobourg, Ontario, is unveiling their Pride crosswalk on June 3rd. I will be in attendance at the ceremony, as will our Mayor, the Chief of Police and many other prominent citizens of our town. I am attending this ceremony in my role as an ally to those in the LGBTQ Community. However, I must confess, I was not always such an ally. While I never actively campaigned against those who followed their hearts in a different manner than my parents did, I, also, never sought to educate myself about different lifestyle choices, either. This post is the story of my growth as a person when it comes to matters of the heart.

I grew up in a coal mining/fishing town on the east coast of Cape Breton Island called Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. I could see the Atlantic Ocean from the window of our living room. The squawks of the seagulls seeking dinner, mingled with the foghorn’s lullaby as we played outside on our streets or in our yards. Many of the men in town smelled of fish or were blackened by coal dust that found its way into every wrinkle and crevice. I grew up at a time before the existence of the Internet. My worldview was formed by the people I knew, the places I visited and the things I did in my home town. And, in the 1970s, all of my friends had a mom and a dad. Every one. That was what I knew family structures to be.

Because I had no access to the waves of information that wash over our children today, I only knew a derogatory term such as “fag” in the context of how and when I heard it used. For me, a “fag” was what you called someone you didn’t like. It was a putdown and meant that you thought the other fellow was weak or a sissy. “Fag” was always directed at other boys, never at girls. Girls were called “sluts” or “skanks” if they ever found themselves in line for an insult.

It took awhile before the sexual connotation behind terms such as “Fag” or “Slut” became clear to me and, even then, my own innocence and/or lack of worldly experience precluded me from fully appreciating the conversations that were going on around me. The first time I ever truly thought about alternative lifestyles to my own came in high school. It all started off innocently enough, with me and some friends of mine all talking about Rock n’ Roll and our favourite songs and bands. Eventually, the group Queen was mentioned and I distinctly remember someone making a comment about the sound of Freddy Mercury’s voice being the way it was because his “stomach is filled with cum”. The guys laughed at a reference that I didn’t understand. Peer pressure being what it is, I didn’t ask for clarification or to seek enlightenment. Instead, I did what many guys would do, I suppose, I smiled and chuckled, too.

My high school education ended in 1982 and my real world education began in the Fall of that same year, as I left Glace Bay and moved to Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, to attend university. As I left my train at Union Station and walked out into the Toronto sunshine, across from the grand Royal York Hotel, I did so as someone who never equated people with sexuality. People were people to me. But, as I settled into my new city, I saw right away that many of the people there were different from me; they had different coloured skin, they spoke different languages, they wore different types of clothing, they ate different types of food and so on. But, what I soon came to learn and to appreciate was that, even though they were different from me on the surface, they were still awesome people. I enjoyed their friendships and I was able to broaden my cultural base because of their patience and guidance. I was growing and maturing but, I was only turning 20 years old and I remained very “young” when it came to understanding the role sexuality plays in our society.

However, as luck would have it, one of the best things to ever happen to me in my life occurred just as my university years were winding down. I met my first girlfriend. We ended up being together for slightly over three years. We broke up for reasons that are neither, here nor there but, for the most part, we were just too young and immature to start out on LIfe’s journey at that time, But, because of that relationship, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life and that was, that Love is the best thing a person can experience. That I had a loving relationship right out of the gate influenced how I interacted with every subsequent female I met socially. I never viewed potential dates as sexual conquests, as many men do. Instead, I always went on a first date hoping that this particular girl was going to be “the one” whose heartbeat would match mine and that we would hold hands and walk through Life together, side-by-side, until we were old and that golden sunset beckoned.

A funny thing happened as I became an adult and entered my professional teaching years. I continued to meet people different than I was. For the first time that I became aware of, I started meeting people who identified as being Gay or Lesbian. Whether through work or through social contacts, I became friends with some of the most wonderful people I have had the privilege to know. People who were funny and kind and creative and passionate about life. My relationships were never sexual with these pals of mine and that was just fine with us, both. If I have learned anything in Life, it is that good people are good people regardless of how they dress, speak or who they may care to love. I believe in the power of Love and I have learned that Love conquers fear; especially, fear of those who have taken a different path in life than I have.

It may be a naive assumption but, I wish that everyone would allow themselves to be more open to the word, “different” and all that it entails. I am glad that we, humans, are not all the same. How boring and bland our world would be. I have changed a lot since I was a child who clung to the notion of familiarity of ideals being of paramount importance. I now embrace the potential for growth and for fun and for adventure that exists when you travel to countries different that yours, for instance. Or, when you study the history of another culture or eat foods that your Momma didn’t cook when you were growing up such as pirogies or curry. Change and personal growth should be a good and welcome part of everyone’s life. I know it has become so in my life. For that, I believe I am a better person.

I will close with a short story from my teaching career. For most of my thirty year career, I taught in the Primary grades (children 6-8 years old). In those grades, one of the most important responsibilities I had as a teacher was helping children learn to become good readers. There are many, many strategies that Primary teachers use to expose their students to language and to the conventions of reading. One of the ways I attempted to help children learn to read was by writing a daily message for them on chart paper. The content of the message could be about our schedule that day or about what we were learning about or it could be about the kids themselves; praising them for a job well done the previous day or taking them to task if I had a concern in need of being addressed. Anyway, regardless of what I wrote about each day, I always..always…always signed my message of the day, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”. ***If you expand the photo above, pay attention to the chart stand behind the four students (who were building a structure that could hold a heavy weight for sixty seconds). If you look carefully at the daily message, you will see where I signed it, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”.

Anyway, with every single Primary class I ever taught, the same thing would happen…some time after the first week or so went by, with the kids tee-heeing when they got to the word, “Love”, someone would muster up the courage to ask, “Why do you say, “Love, Mr. MacInnes” at the end of our letters? You’re not our Dad or anything!” The rest of the kids would hold their breath in anticipation of my reply which always was, as follows. I would tell the kids that, no, I was not their father. But, I was someone who cared about them all. And, because I cared about them all, I wanted to share something with them that was important to me….my favourite word. I would ask the kids what they thought my favourite word was. They would correctly guess that it was Love. I would go on to tell them that Love was my favourite word because it stood for things that made me happy such as kindness and friendship. I told them that Love was the best thing I had ever found in my life and that I felt I was the luckiest man in the world to have Mrs. MacInnes to love and to have her love me back. I finished by saying that I thought Love was better than money or power or being famous and that I hoped each one of them would find Love in their lifetime. Then I would end by saying that because Love is my favourite word and because I care about all of you, I want you to start every school day reading and hearing and seeing the word Love. Love is the best word there is and I want to share it with you. That’s why I sign all of my daily messages, “Love, Mr. MacInnes”.

To me, in the classroom, as well as, in life, Love is always the answer. So, when I see my friends in happy, loving relationships, it makes me happy in my heart. I never stop to create a hierarchy of what a loving relationship is. Love is Love. If you are fortunate enough to have found someone whose heart beats in time with yours, you have won the lottery of life. Two men. Two women. A man and a woman. Love is Love. It is all good in my eyes.

And so, on Monday, June 3rd, I will head downtown to watch the powers that be in my town unveil our Pride crosswalk. I will cheer and clap as an ally of those in the LGBTQ community and I will always view that rainbow of vibrant colours as a symbol of the acceptance of Love, regardless of the form that it comes in. I hope that, by being there on Monday, my presence brings comfort or reassurance to those for whom Pride is not just a time of good tunes and flashy colours but, instead, is a declaration of the validity of their life choices in a world that still, to this day, often retreats into the comfort of things familiar and safe. The world is not yet a safe place for everyone who follows their heart down a different path but, hopefully, on Monday, Cobourg’ s own Pride crosswalk will, literally, be a step in the right direction.

Love is Love is Love. Always and forever.

Love, Mr. MacInnes

Playing the April Fool

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I must admit to being, somewhat, reluctant to post anything today because it is April Fools Day. My thinking was that if I posted something today….and, I do like to post on Mondays…..that you would all be reading along in breathless anticipation, waiting for the moment when this post turned into one, big joke. The problem that I have with that is that I am not an epic prankster. I am not good at pulling the legs of those closest to me. When I have tried to do so in the past, my efforts have ended up being more cruel than humour-filled. So, over time, I adapted by not playing April Fools jokes but, instead, by willingly playing the fool.

In classrooms all across Canada, children are entering their school armed with plastic vomit or poop props, rubber spiders or sticky notes that they will try to place on their teacher’s back by giving an exaggerated hug. None of their jokes are ever any good but, to them, they are hilarious. In most cases, plans have been hatched in the schoolyard so these jokes are never played out in private but, instead, in front of an eager audience, ready put one over on the person who carries authority in their world. There was a time, early in my career, when I would challenge the kids to try and fool me but because they never could, they never seemed to get the pleasure out of the experience that they should have. So, as I matured as a teacher, I relaxed when it came to April 1st. In later years, I would actually peer over my shoulder when someone cried out, “Look! There’s a spider about to land on you, Mr. MacInnes!” As I turned to look, the kids would smile and laugh and think that they were incredibly clever and funny.

As my career progressed, I came to view April Fools Day with affection. I knew that the months that I had spent building up a trusting relationship with these children would bear fruit on days such as this. Their simple jokes were only played because the kids felt safe enough to do so. They trusted me not to over-react in a negative or violent way. They cared enough to stray from the regular academic routine in the hopes of creating a personal memory for themselves, with me as the star of their show. In the end, I took these pranks for the compliment that they were. In turn, I never did anything sillier than switching desks around on them or hiding their chairs and saying they’d been taken for repairs by the custodian so everyone was going to have to work standing up that day and so on. Nothing cruel or hurtful in the name of comedy; especially when it comes to the trusting nature of a child.

I truly believe in the therapeutic nature of a good belly laugh. I, especially, enjoy the sound of children laughing freely and honestly from the bottom of their bellies. Life is good when you can see the humour in it. So, my wish for everyone today is that you find your jokes funny and that, if your jokes come from the mind of someone you love, that you shed tears of joy borne from shared laughter. As that noted comedic mind from days of yore, Thomas Aquinas, is quoted as saying, “It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes.”

Have a happy April Fools Day, my friends.

PS: just for your information, our kitchen is almost finished. I am just waiting for our window treatments to come in and be installed and then we are done. I have been promised that they will be ready today or tomorrow. So, hopefully, by the end of the week, I will be ready to share with you all, our kitchen transformation, from beginning to end.

After that, I will be creating a post about the family who sent me those beautiful sleigh bells at Christmas time. I promised the man who runs MagicalBells.com that I would “repay” him for the bell by sharing his family’s story with my friends via this blog.

Beyond that, my writing slate is wide open. If there is anything you wish for me to write about, don’t hesitate to make a suggestion in the comment section of this post or, any other post, for that matter. Until then, have a super day and thanks for being readers of this blog. I appreciate your support.