School is in.
The most important activity anyone can pursue – learning – is underway in classrooms around the world. Nothing is more important for the future of First Nations than the success our children can achieve in their schools.
This past summer I was asked to impart some words of wisdom to 31 graduates of Nipissing University’s Aboriginal Education summer program, which provides certificates to classroom assistants. I thought that the best message I could offer them would be my assessment of some teachers who made a lasting impression on me during my formative school years.
Miss Elsie Kidd was my kindergarten teacher – she also taught my mother and came within one year of teaching my son, which gives you some idea of her classroom longevity. Her face is still etched in my memory, with kindly features that would look right at home on a box of flour or baking powder. Her snow-white hair was neatly collected in a bun, and her blue eyes twinkled behind rimless, octagonal-lens spectacles.
She could be seen walking to school each morning and afternoon surrounded by a flock of first-year pupils who buzzed like bees around a honey pot.
Long before educational gurus discussed things like different learning styles and outcome-based teaching, Miss Kidd had an innate understanding that not all children digest information at the same rate, or in the same way. She demonstrated supreme patience with tykes who were clearly uneasy about leaving the safety of home for the first time, and motherly gentleness in encouraging a few who were clearly unprepared to tackle any of the three R’s.
My first day at school was so overwhelming that by lunchtime I decided I’d had enough, and barricaded myself in the outhouse behind my grandparents’ little stone dwelling just down the street. My escape must have been anticipated, because my Aunt Elsie soon rousted me out of my hiding place and marched me back to resume my formal education.
In time, I was glad she did. Miss Kidd mesmerized us by illustrating her lessons with magical blackboard drawings in coloured chalk, which were as impressive to us as slick powerpoint presentations. Her reward for even the shakiest attempts we made at printing letters of the alphabet was to impress an animal stamp image on each completed assignment, which we would then try to colour with crayons as skillfully as she had crafted her blackboard masterpieces.
On the final day of our first year at school, we were stunned when she presented all 40 of us – the Ontario Teachers Federation obviously hadn’t negotiated maximum class sizes yet – with shiny new five-cent pieces. Most parking meters don’t accept nickels these days, but on that sunny June afternoon in Lakefield, Ontario, a windfall of that magnitude would purchase a large Pure Spring Ginger Ale, or a cone with two scoops of chocolate ice cream from Hamblin’s Dairy.
I’ve never been taught by a better teacher than my first one, whose critical task it was to make students want to come back for more.
Others that stand out in my memory include Grade 8 teacher Everett Sloan, who wore double-breasted grey suits, and whose duties as school principal included ringing a brass hand-bell to announce recess and resumption of classes, administering the dreaded strap to a few boys who tested the teaching staff’s authority in a variety of naughty ways, and calming down Gloria Carey who flew into bouts of hysteria whenever the pubic health nurse came to inoculate the student body against polio, diphtheria, or smallpox.
Mr. Sloan was as stern as Miss Kidd was serene, but he was willing to go beyond curriculum requirements to educate students who proved they could handle everything Grade 8 could throw at them. Thanks to him, I entered high school with a grounding in geometry and the ability to play “You are my sunshine” on the Hawaiian guitar.
We didn’t have guidance counsellors, but Grade 10 English teacher Andy Harris recognized signs of journalistic competency in my skill at précis-writing – trying to boil down 1,000 dull words into 200 interesting ones. He also opened the world of Shakespeare to us by serving sandwiches and snacks in his living room while the voice of Alec Guinness on a 33-rpm recording helped us understand Macbeth more than reading it a hundred times on a printed page ever could.
Another inspiring English teacher, Prof. John Pettigrew, taught me one of my most important life lessons – sharing. When he heard that I was about to leave Trent University for personal reasons, he called me into his office and offered to pay my tuition, which amounted to a year of my stepfather’s annual salary at the time. “People who think they’re coming back seldom do,” he warned, and he was right.
So when my granddaughter and I were watching a performance of Twelfth Night this August in Stratford’s Festival Theatre, I was delighted by the inscription on a brass plate on my arm-rest informing occupiers of that seat that it represented a donation in memory of John Pettigrew.
I would like to think that my late professor knows that, despite dropping out of school, I’ve never stopped learning.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.