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Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Teachers

"..the education of women is of greater importance than the education of men, for they are the mothers of the race, and mothers rear the children. The first teachers of children are the mothers."

But fathers are a close second, at least mine was. My mother nurtured me gently but firmly the first six years of my life, years that were spent almost entirely alone in her company for we lived in very remote Alberta communities after our arrival in Canada in 1957. Schools in those rural farming and ranching communities were not wealthy enough to afford kindergarten, a term I never even knew until I was much older. Children stayed at home with their mothers. There were no play groups, no nursery schools, no daycare.  Mothers toiled away at home in those somewhat deprived communities, their lives dictated by domestic labour.  My mother, even as the school principal's wife and therefore sharing a rather higher social status in the community with the church minister's wives, was nonetheless subject to all the same harsh realities of life in a remote community. 

But not all her time was spent immersed in domestic drudgery. My mother read a lot. And she read to me. I remember that we belonged to a mail order library of some sort, perhaps from the University of Alberta, and books were a constant in the various "teacherages" (housing, often quite rough and basic, provided by the school board) we inhabited over the nine years we spent in Alberta. My mother was a voracious reader and, happily, she loved to read to me.  I think I was a late bloomer, like many of my own children, when it came to reading independently, but my mother made sure I was well-exposed to good books.  Dad, on his many trips out of town to meetings or summer courses in "The City", as Edmonton was known, often brought back wonderful books. Among them were "Wind in the Willows", "Winnie-the Pooh", "Anne of Green Gables" and a fat volume of "Grimms Fairy Tales", all of which I still possess.  At about age eight for Christmas I was given a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, also still in my possession. I have very fond memories of bedtime as a child.

I loved being at home with my mom, who really just left me to my own devices as a child. I'd listen to Gilbert and Sullivan on the record player, taking special delight in the devilish laughter of the Mikado on a D'Oyly Carte recording of that operetta. I was probably a pretty odd little girl, never bored by a solitary life, good training for my life now, I realize. There was almost no television, a few toys and books but apart from that I would just hang out with my mom, helping her as much as a little preschooler could, or play all by myself, lost in an imaginary world. Mom didn't drive or have access to a car even if she could, so we spent most of our time alone at home together.

But eventually the apron strings had to be cut. I really looked forward to entering grade one though I must have been rather terrified to share a classroom with over thirty other children.  I missed my mom hugely and remember being terribly embarrassed when I called my sweet young grade one teacher "Mom" one day.

I hated school even though, paradoxically, I excelled at it. I was skipped ahead in my early years, thanks, I'm sure, to my mother's early tutelage, though she never attempted to teach me anything formally at home. She just talked and read to me a great deal and played a lot of games, experience that strongly influenced my approach to teaching my own four children at home. It was a wonderfully free childhood, despite the isolation. In comparison, I was shy, bored, stressed out and somewhat lonely at school despite the large class sizes. But there was one thing that gave me comfort in those early years. Dad, as principal, was at school too, as were my siblings for the first couple of years.

The school I first attended in Grassland, Alberta, had about three hundred students, grades one to twelve. Though the town itself was very tiny, a mere widening in the highway that passed through it, the school and local businesses served the farming community surrounding it. I would guess, from the many school buses I remember lined up outside the school each day, that nearly all the children were transported into town from their farms. Every year during the sowing and reaping seasons when all hands were needed at home, the school emptied out leaving only the littlest who were too young to help and those of us whose families lived in town and simply benefited from the bounty of the annual crops.

Dad taught the upper grades which meant my two siblings were lucky enough to have him as their teacher for some courses.  I had to wait a few years and another town for that privilege. Dad was well loved and respected by all, at least that was my impression. He knew every single kid by name and treated all equally with his wry good humour. He always said that a school was too big if the principal could not identify a retreating student from behind, which loosely translated into anything over about three hundred students.  How many schools are there like that anymore, I wonder, in this world of bigger-must-be-better? Dad was also rather formidable if you ever found yourself in trouble, a situation I wisely avoided all my school-life. He was fair but tough and everyone knew it.

So, though I didn't enjoy Dad as my teacher until I was ten, he was a soothing presence for me. For the three years that he was my teacher in the small town of Kemano B.C,  where class sizes were small, intimate and multi-graded, I can safely say he was the best teacher I ever had. Those were the only years that I didn't wake up with dread and anxious stomach cramps from my terror, a feeling that came back with a vengeance when I was sent to Vancouver to attend boarding school. The little school in Kemano stopped at grade eight and all the children had to be sent away to high school at a tender age or your family moved away to another community.  I had learned to love school, and my dad's relaxed approach and emphasis on self-directed learning, a revolutionary approach back in the sixties, also influenced me greatly when I came to teach my own children. Dad was an inspired teacher, a Renaissance man; he could do anything and knew everything, it seemed to me, and what he didn't know, he freely admitted and set about finding out.

Not only did I learn the most about my own learning-style from my dad but he taught me something else, something he probably didn't even consider especially significant. Many of you probably remember the long-lost custom of gathering the school community together every morning for prayers and announcements.  Today, school size and religious anxiety prohibit that practice in most schools, but in those days, in those communities, everyone was considered to be Christian, even if you weren't, though I think the population in those towns was pretty homogeneous. We'd shuffle into the auditorium with the youngest at the front, the oldest at the back, and listen to Dad give the daily announcements, then recite the Lord's Prayer, or maybe it was the other way around.

I was never sure of Dad's spiritual leanings. Like sex, it was a taboo topic in our home. We were never sent to Sunday School, unless we wanted to; we never attended church, unless we wanted to. We were never taught the Bible beyond what was part of the school curriculum which Dad wholeheartedly supported, probably believing it was an essential part of a well-rounded education, if nothing else. Mom was often called upon to play the organ or piano at some of the local churches but we were never forced to accompany her. One summer I tagged along on a week-long Christian summer camp probably conducted by young, zealous traveling missionaries. Mom and Dad were both happily supportive of the venture, though I quickly became bored and wished I had stayed home instead.

So it was really by accident that Dad became my first spiritual teacher.  That recitation of the Lord's Prayer every morning became the only connection I really had to any faith back then, but even that was tenuous. I had no real interest but I dutifully memorized and recited it every day as did we all. I have vivid memories of standing at the front of the auditorium as a little six-year-old with my classmates and feeling the need to recite this prayer as loudly as I possibly could, probably shouting it. I felt God needed to hear my voice alone amidst the throng. Dad and my teacher must have known all too well who the offender was but all that was said by my teacher was a quiet reprimand to the entire class that such behaviour was unseemly.  If she didn't already know it was me, my reddened face would have revealed my culpability. I quieted down after that. In later years I would stand next to my best friend, now well at the back of the small Kemano School common room where we gathered every morning, with my eyes tightly shut to see how long before I started to sway and risk falling over. I'm not sure I ever had a single spiritual or reverent thought all those mornings.

That prayer is still one I recite daily, having come back to it after abandoning all things spiritual for years.  It now stands with several others I have memorized from my new faith, but it is the one that, as I recite it, I summon up my dad's presence along with all the other family members and friends who have left us. I imagine us all together again, standing close just as I did with my schoolmates, while I recite the Lord's Prayer on my solitary morning walk, my meditative time.

It surprised me a few nights ago when Michael asked that we start saying that prayer at bedtime along with the two others I always recite. We dedicate it, as I do when I'm on my own, to all those who have gone. It is the only prayer Michael has embedded in his memory, now incapable of memorizing new ones, but it is one thing we can still do together, in unison.

Thanks Dad.  

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