Book: The Ones You Meet Crossing Over

You may have noticed my voice here, in this space, has been silent of late. It’s not because I’ve stopped writing, though! Over the past year I’ve been working away on a set of stories, all set in my home of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

The first, The Ones You Meet Crossing Over, is set in 1925 and follows Martin, an Irishman and a veteran of the Great War as he begins a career as a schoolmaster and makes a home in outport Newfoundland.

In these troubled times I’m thinking some of you might appreciate a unique tale, told in my curious Newfoundland (Dad) / Dublin (Mom) accent so I’ve decided to make the whole thing available in audio format up on Soundcloud

Here’s a link to Chapter 1: You don’t need to install Soundcloud if you don;t want to.

And Here’s a link to Chapter 2.


And, of course all of you are avid readers so perhaps you would rather do exactly that. If so, Chapter 1 is over on the link below as “Book 1 Sample” and Chapter 2, happens, for now, to be the latest post.

If you like it follow along. I will be adding a chapter every couple of days until it’s finished. There are eleven in total.


The Darkness and the Light

Their program nearly over, the student teachers settled in
and waited for the start of their last class.
All in eager anticipation; careers set to begin,
yet still amazed at just how quick the year had passed.

The work was finished so they figured that this would be the time and place
to say goodbyes and and on the year to reminisce.
But to their great surprise they learned that wouldn’t be the case.
The prof said, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to ask you this.”

Was this a joke? No, she was serious.There would be no chit chat.
So, they sat up straighter and gave to her their full attention,
thinking, “what on earth could be so all important that
she left it right until the very end to mention?”

Without a word the lights she turned off, the window blinds she closed
and then went and softly shut the door so tight.
And in the silent, unlit room the question then she posed,
“tell me please, when does the darkness become light?”

It was as if the clock had stopped; nobody made a sound.
All sat waiting, thinking, “I don’t want to be the one to answer this.”
But time did pass and the realization slowly came around:
someone would have at least to offer up a guess.

Now, quite a few of them engaged in a game of second guessing,
thinking that to find the answer would not be all that hard.
And on this last day perhaps she’d planned one final simple lesson.
Yet, the quiet stillness of the room had caught them all off-guard.

A first attempt, was offered up, “Wait, I think I know.
It’s when the words within our books then can be seen.
So truth and knowledge can finally on our students be bestowed.
And, best of all, new insights and subtleties be gleaned.”

She shook her head, no, uh-uh then at what she’d heard,
saying, “who says reading is a thing they’ll even want to do?
So many find their truth and live without the printed word.
And aren’t books best when guided by insight and wisdom too?”

Some were now perplexed but then there came another try.
“It’s when the class can see the notes and such I put upon the board,
and pass out gems of knowledge, their consideration to apply,
so precious facts to their growing memories then can all be stored.”

But shook her head again, retorting, “it’s not at all just about you.
And you should never equate the act of teaching with that of telling.
You’ve got to guide, help and demonstrate; yes, all of that is true.
But it’s what your students can perform that should be the most compelling.”

One student, braver than the rest, offered up one last response.
“It’s when they can see my classroom and all the wonders that it holds
and my students in their courses can thus find themselves ensconced,
and feel the magic of the learning that inside there unfolds!”

But she shook her head again and said, “no, that’s still not just quite it.
Each of your classes are important but they’re not the only one.
Our subjects are mere elements of a much larger kit.
It’s more than just your stuff that counts considering the long run.”

Nothing was said til at some length, once more the prof resumed,
“You’re wondering what was wrong with what you said?
Frankly, the answer is ‘nothing much’; they were as clever as you’d assumed.
It’s just that your words did not quite jive with what was in my head.”

“The need for guidance and compassion was far from in your sights.
Then you put yourselves out front, when it’s students who matter most.
And you were fixated on what divides and not on what unites.
It’s as if the differences were what had you all engrossed.”

While she spoke the student teachers became increasingly aware
of how their eyes had become accustomed to the light so low.
And looking around, a simple truth began to become clear,
and through it all a bunch of smiles did glow.

And in the ever-rising light, her voice continued, “You’d
best bear in mind it’s not just about how to earn a living.
School is about learning how to build a life that’s good.
And for instilling in our young folk all the the joy that comes from giving.”

“So it’s best to recognize those gathered all around
share and walk much of the path that lies in front of you.
And, like you, endeavour to pursue a life that’s sound
while to themselves always remaining true.”

“When you are able to discern the commonalities
and let them be the guide to your insight,
then recognize that the school unites us all in family:
that is when the darkness becomes light.”

Each year, at their year – end gala, I do a recitation for outgoing graduates of the Intermediate / Secondary teacher education program at Memorial University of Newfoundland, my place of work. The above is this year’s installment.

For Wilbert, a True Friend and Mentor

“This can’t be true.” I looked again
but the words remained there, plain to see.
“Life’s setting sun is sinking low.”
I wondered, “how could this be?”

The very one who, so many times,
stood firm for what you knew was right
and who broke down walls to get things done,
with modesty, honesty and foresight.

And who, for friends, and home and family
stood strong, the worst you’d face
is now facing the end, but still my friend 
holds courage, strength and grace.

And for my part, stronger than the sadness
I know some time soon I must endure
from my memory springs the many things
I have yet to thank you for.

I’m reminded of the first time we met.
You, then the province’s consultant for Math Ed.
agreed to help this “young gaffer” (your words)  
with advice on a paper I just couldn’t put to bed.

Well, based on the insight and knowledge
you so freely gave me on that day
my mediocre work improved
and, thanks to you, the paper earned an “A”.

And then in the early nineties when
distance education physics was set to go
and I hinted “hire me” to who was in charge
my rejection came as a humbling blow.

But when my school board got a call
asking if they could second me to do that very chore
I knew right then there was one more thing
I had to thank you for.

And then, later on, when the axe fell,
budgets slashed and so much was let go
you found a way for me to stay,
even gave me more chances for to grow.

Like when you managed the Vista project
which reinvisioned online learning,
you found for me a space–and t’was through that grace
my career took its next turning.

For the skills I learned all through that time
and the responsibilities you helped me learn to bear
I did apply as we built CDLI,
so thanks, too, for all those years.

I’ve often wondered how best to thank you for
the opportunities, support and, of course, advice
but I came to see you just did it unselfishly.
There never was a price.

And so, now I work my time with those
on the same path that that we once chose.
And the journey they’re on is so very long.
It’s a less kind world these days, I do suppose.

Still it seems to me that the best way
to honour all the kindness you’ve bestowed
is to pass it on and try to help those
with whom I share this road.

So when I find a way to help another
through some thing I say or do
I’ll feel that same sense of gratitude
and smile, then and there,
as I think of you.

My favourite picture of you, taken back in ’99 on the occasion of your retirement. Back Row: Lloyd Gill. Wayne Oakley, Harvey Weir, Dave Dibbon, Rachel Handrigan, Wade Sheppard, Rene Wicks. Front Row: Wilbert Boone, Maureen Boone, Jean Brown, Maurice Barry

Small Schools, Big Decisions

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. –T, S. Eliot

It’s that time again–a few small rural schools are once again in the fight of their lives. Sadly, I noticed Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial are among those on the list.

Back in my university days, I had a very good friend from Swift Current. We were residence roommates for a while.  Though we came from communities fairly close together and of roughly the same size I was always envious of the extras he enjoyed while being a student at Swift Current Academy. For instance it had a drama club and he was able to attend numerous provincial festivals. It also had music at all levels and I was decidedly envious of his ability to play piano, something he’d picked up at school. They also had a gym. The one in my community, while I was in school, was just an empty shell; the money was not found to complete it until after I was gone.

Swift Current, viewed from a hill above nearby Black River. I can see the tops of those hills from my house in Souhern Harbour. 

In the summer, from time to time, I’d drive down and spend the day with him. Perhaps we’d head down to Marystown, just for a gab and a bite. He loved poetry and would spend most the time trying to make me love the work of T. S Eliot as much as he did. It didn’t work. I still don’t like it much. Perhaps we’d hang out at his house and play board games or talk about books. My favourite times would be when we’d just walk along the roads, stopping from time to time to go out on the many wharves that lined the river’s edge. Mostly, the water would be drifting lazily by; Piper’s Hole was generally sleeping monster. From time to time, though, especially after rain it would awaken and I’d see the furious flow that gave the place its name. Swift Current is like that.

He’s gone now, died over thirty years ago, but never really all that far from me; I think fondly of Steve and his home all the time.

During the 1990s I was a Physics / Math instructor with the province’s distance education program. Daily, I’d enter one of our audiographic studios and hold class with my students, dispersed all throughout the province. Swift Current Academy was one of my schools and, for years, I was a virtual member of the staff. I even managed to get out to a few of their spring proms.

That’s been a while, too. I moved on to educational administration in the late nineties. Most of my former students are, by now, in their forties or just about there, and busily getting on with their lives…mostly somewhere else, as it turns out.

Swift Current is what you might call “off the beaten track.” To get there you have to travel about 25 km down the Burin Peninsula highway The school is similar to what you’d find in most small communities, perched kind of out of sight on the side of a hill and meant to handle around 200 to 250 students, which is what it had in the ‘70s and ‘80’s.  Back when I taught via distance, it was declining from 150 to 110. There’s a little less than that there right now. Last time I checked it was home to 28 students. That’s right, 28. Today’s enrollment may be a little off but there are around 15-16 students in k-6 and 12-13 in 7-12, or thereabouts. That’s all the more remarkable when you realize that it also serves two other nearby communities, Garden Cove and North Harbour.

Same for Cook’s Harbour. When I taught there via distance, enrollment was declining from around 60 to 50. No there are 10 or 11 students, about equally divided between k-6 and 7-12.

Now the existence of the schools is under question, for what must be the umpteenth time. The district feels there’s money to be saved by busing Swift Current Academy students either to Arnold’s Cove or to Clarenville, where, additionally, the schools they will then attend can offer “better programming.” Besides, it can be pointed out that a trip from Swift Current Academy to Tricentia Academy in Arnold’s Cove is only around 45 km and should only take about 30 minutes by bus. Similarly with Cook’s Harbour. The distance from The school there to White Hills Academy is 45 km, a trip that can be done on a bus in 45 minutes.

There’s just one thing wrong with this reasoning–basically everything. Let’s dissect it bit by bit.

A fisher’s wharf in Garden Cove.

Let’s start with the supposed savings of money. Anyone who’s ever done educational administration knows there are no simple formulas. Everything is interrelated, just like the Earth’s own living system. Attempts to enact change using a simplistic cause-and-effect approach tend to fail–they often backfire, in fact–because of the many hard-to-see complexities that lurk beneath the surface. Cutting a school does not translate to savings as the move-around of students creates additional pressures on the communities they leave and on the schools to which they are moved. As often as not, the loss of 2-3 teachers at the school to be closed is met by a needed addition of the same number of people in the school that receives them. Oh, and vastly increased bussing costs. No savings. None. Forget it.

Now there’s the issue of “better programming.” This notion is based on the two false and stupid premises I shall call “False and Stupid Premise 1” or “FSP1” and ”False and Stupid Premise 2” or, FSP2. Let’s now take them on.

FSP1: Multi-age, multi-grade classes are second-rate. This is mainly driven by the people who’ve known nothing else–mostly people who are ignorant of life in small communities. They’ve only been in a classroom where a teacher is in charge of just one grade and therefore assume that if you pop in a second grade the teacher’s efforts have to double. Since that’s not possible, then it follows that the students then only get half an education. That’s not necessarily true. It’s only true if you view classes as teacher-centred, which, frankly most urban folk tend to, having come from an environment where all hands sit neatly in rows, listen diligently as a teacher drones on about whatever from the front of the room and then go and do a bunch of paper-and pencil based homework at home. My friend Dr. J. H., puts it like this, “Too many people equate teaching with telling.” In most of our small rural schools it’s not like that, nor has it ever been. That’s because, with multi-age multi-grade (let’s call it MG-MA) being an omnipresent reality, classes have always tended to be more student-centered. Unlike the urban classrooms, the rural ones have been much less rigid. The teacher does not drone on, ad nauseum, to the  whole group. They can’t. And that’s a good thing. Instead, with the MG-MA class, the focus is more on getting the students to do the work and on finding ways to help them do just that. Now, think about it–which way do you think would be more effective (a) listening and watching a teacher do something (bear in mind the typical tolerance that a child has for watching and listening to anything) or (b) the child being made to do that thing for themselves. Unless you are truly daft you can see that the answer has to be the latter. Now, this is not to imply that MG-MA is necessarily easier and more effective–it’s not. Pulling off MG-MA requires appropriate training, support and a student-centered mindset. With those in place, though, it’s in no way inferior.

FSP2: A larger school naturaly has more to offer. It’s only natural to assume that if you double the school’s complement of students, so, too, will the staff complement double. And, then, with more students, and teachers who, presumably, will also give of their extra time voluntarily there’ll be a broader offering of courses and extracurricular activities. Too bad it does not work that way at all. First of all, the larger the school, the leaner the operation. Look for yourself at the pupil-teacher ratios in the various schools. You’ll notice that they’re quite generous in the small schools and not so much in the larger schools where teachers have to struggle with classes from 25 to 35 students. Simply put, the larger the schools the more harried the teachers and the less attention each student gets in class. But it doesn’t stop there. While large schools DO offer a wider variety of extra-curricular activities the number that each student can reasonably get involved with also declines. Consider varsity sports, for example. In a school of 1000 students, only the 15 or so BEST basketballers can make the team, and that team only. In a small school, just about everyone with an interest gets to do it. Besides, they also get to play on the volleyball team, the badminton team, etc. Small schools, by their very nature, encourage all students to participate in most, if not all, activities.

Finally there’s that whole load of misinformation and just plain wrong-headedness around busing. Consider again Swift Current, sure, it only takes around 30 minutes to drive from Swift Current to Arnold’s Cove but that’s not how buses work. The bus has to start it’s run right at the southern end of the community and then wend its way through the town making anywhere from 4-7  stops along the way. Each stop takes time. With that done, the bus then has to go down into Garden Cove and do the same. With that out of the way it then has to do the same in North Harbour. That’s a total distance of about 70 km and a total driving time of around 1 h 15 minutes. And that’s on a good day. How many good days to you think we can expect in the winter? Not a lot. Over the typically snow-covered roads we expect from December to March you can double that. Of course things can be made more efficient. The buses from Garden Cove and North Harbour, for example can just meet the bus from Swift Current and shorten things up somewhat–you’ve still got three busses running though. Not exactly a recipe for cost savings.

Now let’s look at Cook’s Harbour. It’s about a 50 km trip from Cook’s Harbour to While Hills Academy in St. Anthony, with as associated driving time of around 45 minutes. Adding in the stops you need to make it’s more like an hour. Again, though, on a good day. Have you ever driven the route in winter? I have, several times, and let me tell you, it’s harrowing. Cook’s Harbour is way up there at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula and it tends to get a lot of wind and drifting snow. To put it mildly the roads are tricky. Once again, I’d double the driving time on most days in winter, assuming the roads are passable at all.

Think about it, the busing “solution” ensures that the students from the community spend three to maybe four hours per day on school buses. Let’s do that again, but slower: Children. Spend. The. Bulk. Of. Their. Time. Out. Of. School. Driving. To. School. “Only on the bad days!” you may well retort to which I can only respond, “Have you ever been on those routes?” Most days during the school year are bad days. That’s how it is at the foggy soggy bottom of Placentia Bay and the wind and snow swept tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. You just think you know it because it’s not quite like that where you’re used to living.”

Which kind of brings us to the heart of the problem: the decisions for the community are not being made either by the community or, for that matter, to be in its best interests. That’s how it has to be, given that, by law, education in Canada is a provincial / territorial matter. Since we’ve socialized it, it stands to reason that the needs of the province as a whole takes precedence over that of any individual, school or community.

That said, there’s a certain inevitable sense of tragedy associated with the notion that those who decide are not those who have to live with it. For me, a transplanted bayman, it’s hard not to feel a certain double-dose of bitterness. First, it saddens me to see how so many of my fellow bayman expats so quickly adopt townie ways and completely shun the rural life that nurtured them. Worse, though, is the anger I get listening to listening to casual conversations in town; it’s long been my suspicion that townies would love it if they didn’t, in their words, “have to foot the bill for all of the lazy people who choose to live the comfy life ‘out around the bay.’”

Ah, yes, “around the bay” that catch-all phrase for everything in this province that exists outside the Northeast Avalon, that homogeneous hinterland where the people apparently talk funny, ride quads and do precious little work.

Which brings me back, sort of, to that T. S. Eliot quote, but in a very messed up way. Rather than gaining wisdom and depth of understanding from that long time of coexistence between the urban and rural parts of the province, it seems as though nothing changes. Yes, we come back to where we were, but none the wiser and none the better. Poor Eliot is totally wrong, at least as Newfoundland and Labrador is concerned. He’d have been better off using just two words–nothing changes.

We’re just back to where we’ve always been. In times past, decisions regarding outport Newfoundland were frequently made in St. John’s, for reasons that primarily suited the city and were based on a limited, negatively-biased understanding of not just outport life in general but also on what effect these choices would have not only on the communities directly affected but also on the province as a whole.

The basis of that very decision making is typically the back-of-the-envelope type where someone estimates the taxes paid directly by the community and then compares that value to the cost of providing services. If the former is smaller than the latter then it’s concluded that the service is too expensive to provide. It’s not worth it; a sinkhole that needs to be plugged. This is typically followed by complaints about self entitled bay dwellers, perhaps even calls for resettlement.

The stupid narrow mindedness of this so-called logic is rarely called to question, even though the flaws are readily apparent.

Frankly, there’s a complete ignorance of the simple fact that the economy of the St. John’s area is essentially parasitic, akin to a tremendous sucking vacuum, a ravenous black hole that only exists as long as money is lobbed into it from some external source.  It has few primary industries of its own. The majority of the jobs—retail, government, health care and education—do not create wealth themselves, but, rather redistribute it secondarily.

By contrast, the viable rural communities are home to industries that generate the wealth that sustains the capital. Every time a load of fish is landed, perhaps processed and then sold outside the province, every time a boat or train load of ore is sold on the world market, every time a load of lumber or paper is shipped off, each and every barrel of oil that leaves here, new money is put into the province’s coffers. Oh and let’s not forget the huge money that pours into outport Newfoundland courtesy of the men and women who take it home from the long work commute to Fort Mac. The best that St. John’s can do is recycle it a bit, through retail, services and taxation, and then pass it around for the crowd to have a few jars and complain about the stupid baymen and plot how they can all be fixed for once and for all.

Simply put, a vibrant and wealthy St. John’s is totally dependent on an equally vibrant and wealthy everything else and everyone would do well to bear that in mind.

Swift Current, viewed from a wharf in Garden Cove.

But that’s not what’s really disquieting. What is truly bothersome is the ease with which everyone accepts simple two-column financial accounting to be the only yardstick by which fiscal and social policy can be measured and decided. Life’s value cannot be properly and completely  counted using a financial balance sheet. Sure it’s one huge and reliable measure–after all, there’s absolutely no point in trying to create or build anything you cannot afford–but it cannot be the only measure. There are other things, including overall quality of life, especially as it affects one health, both physical and mental and, of course, the deeper portions of finance that extend beyond a simple balance sheet.

So what’s the point here? This: when making decisions about the future viability of communities it’s important to look beyond the obvious. Sure, do an accounting, but do it thoroughly. Look at the money but bear in mind that some dollars (ones that grow the economy) are worth more than others (the ones that are just recycled and which trickled down). Look also at the bigger picture. Is the loss of a single small school really worth it if it leads to the economic death  of  once-viable community? Are the alternatives as good as we think? Are they even safe? Even desirable at all?

I am reminded of my 21 years at the Department of Education. In the late eighties and early nineties, when the huge drop-off in student enrollment was first being realized, a term was coined: necessarily existent schools. It’s pretty much self-explanatory. At that time, there was a huge cull underway on schools and on school boards. Approximately 40 school districts was reduced, in several cycles, down to two–an English and a French one. At The same time the number of schools was reduced from around 1000 to a little over 300. Through it all, though, there was always a realization that, for some communities, closing a school was not a practical option and, even though the costs of operating those schools were significantly higher per capita, there was agreement, grudging, perhaps, but still agreement, that this was just part of maintaining a primarily-rural society. As time went on, though, more and more mean-spiritedness crept into the psyche and the term “necessarily existent schools” was dropped some time in the mid nineties. Now, nothing is off the table. Anything goes–literally.

We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pride ourselves on being friendly, caring and community minded people. Is that really the case, though? A friend of mine has set me straight on the idea of the friendly NL’r. For years I recall him telling me, perhaps it’s not that we’re naturally friendly but that we haven’t been tested, really tested, lately. Well now, with oil at just under $65 per barrel, a depleted fishery, an all but dead pulp and paper industry and a mining industry sadly in need of some TLC it’s safe to say that we’re being tested and what’s the response from the supposedly affluent urban part of the province? “Shag the rural part, shut it down. Too expensive. Let them move to town or move away, whatever.”

Is that we we really want? Clearly, for me, the answer is, “no, not necessarily, let’s look closer.” In the case of of Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial I believe that to be very much the case.

Just today, on the radio I heard a story of how students from the recently damaged Bishop Field school had to move to the former School for the Deaf. Many of the parents concerned about the long bus ride. It’s a good thirty to forty minutes and the general consensus is that this is too long and that the situation needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Too bad the same sympathy cannot be extended to the few rural students who may soon have to face rides 4 times as long.

The tip of Sound Island (home of my children’s maternal Great-Great Grandmother), where Piper’s Hole River meets its brackish end

A few months back I was out home in Southern Harbour and had a little time on my hands so I drove down through Swift Current, just like it used to so many years ago. I stopped by the side of the road a few times and even walked out on some of the wharves, still marvelling at the river winding its way to its brackish end just past Sound Island. I looked toward the graveyard and thought of Steve, realizing that, of the people I knew from there from back in the day, none were left. I made a point of driving through Garden Cove and North Harbour on the way back. For the whole trip I did not see a single school-aged child. I so dearly hope this is not a portent.

Work, Unrequited Love, and Regret

It never ceases to amaze me how our chaotic lives so often lead to order. Just how is it that all of the random interactions between the thousands of souls within our circles of friendship can lead to any semblance of sanity? Social norms? Maybe? Bias? Possibly? All that is sure is that, now and then, powerful messages and lessons arise from the milieu and, if we allow ourselves a little peace and quiet there are there for the taking. Sometimes that lesson is one of regret.

Just the other day, I found myself making a point to a colleague like this: I asked, “Have you ever had a crush on someone who did not return your feelings? She chuckled, “Just one?” It was an easy question. It’s happened to all of us and unless someone’s really been blessed (actually I would say they are either very unlucky or, at best, awfully forgetful; after all strength only grows from times of pain), the mere mention of it can’t fail to resurrect, from those long-ago teenage and twenty-something years, the feelings of shame, of sadness; that overpowering grief which accompanies the realization that something you so dearly and powerfully want will remain forever beyond your grasp.

The subject? Work. My point? Even though we can love work it’s important to realize that work does not love us back. It can’t. It has, after all, no feelings and, therefore, no real means by which it can reciprocate. Any love-ish responses from work that we may experience, either real or imagined, are just in accordance with policy or some higher directive within the corporate structure. It’s just behaviourist; programmed.

Ersatz love is not love.

Now don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t suggesting that we should not love work. Far from it! Throwing one’s soul and passion into the daily labour is just about the healthiest form of self-expression I can fathom. That which occupies the lion’s share of our waking hours should be something about which we care deeply, right? Else, why bother? Find something else. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which you can spend the day.

No, it’s just that we should not expect reciprocity for those extras we put in. We are hired, after all, to do something fairly specific and, in return, it’s agreed that we will receive financial compensation along with, hopefully, a modicum of respect–although the later part is far from guaranteed. Anything else is on us, and us alone. The extras we do are best seen as things we do to receive rewards that are intrinsic. And good for that! After all there are few things more rewarding that the certitude that what we have done demonstrates excellence and is the results of our best efforts.

Life, at least seen through the rear-view, has an uncanny knack of leaving us with a more-or-less coherent rendition of events. Even ones that probably once bore no semblance of connection become, over time, all coupled, to a single train. So too with this week. After a conversation from last night here’s now a part two to my story.

Chatting at a party with a former student, I became aware of an even more powerful rendition of the story of one-sided love. She graduated with her B.Ed. some years ago and since then has been working hard in the hopes of some day obtaining full time employment. At the party she was quite upbeat. The number of substitute days she’d been getting, per week, has been steadily growing. She’s been working on another degree, one that will make her even more employable, and is right now just one course short–a course that is not offered in the next semester. No worries, though, she’s also working on a go-around, for a system that apparently does not really care if she succeeds or not.

There are times during a conversation when you disengage, temporarily, from the outward discourse and rejoin that ever-present inner conversation. So, shifting my mouth to automatic, my thoughts ran instead to the obvious: this young teacher–a particularly talented and well-suited individual, I might point out–had, some two years earlier, already achieved all that is necessary to pursue her chosen career. Since then she’s been going day by day, looking for substitute work while, at the same time, working feverishly to add yet another degree to an already impressive list. And all for what? “Hopefully sometime soon, maybe I will able to snag a term contract,” she’d said. She didn’t even see a permanent job as a realistic outcome at this point! How completely messed up, all things considered! I returned to the conversation, assured her that she was taking all the right steps, said, in all sincerity, “I am so very proud of you,” and returned to the group I was mostly hanging with.

It happened again on the ride home. Thinking back on the exchange with the former student a flood of similar stories of former students trying so very hard to break into such a walled-up system flowed through my head. This time the thought was inescapable. There’s love. There’s unrequited love and then there’s … this.

What have we done? How could we have possibly created such an uncaring, unfeeling structure? The irony! After all, this is the same system charged with the education, the care and, yes, the love of our young people. Is it too much to ask that it spare a little of that same love for those who so dearly want to be one of those charged with carrying out its mission?

So what’s my point? Frankly I’m not completely sure. I only wish I could suggest some positive steps that might ameliorate this, items that might make it a little more fair, more tolerable, more just plain right. Of course it’s not that simple. There are no real dragons to slay, no villains to vanquish. No doubt, as is the case in all walks, there are more than a few self-centered thugs who have muscled their way to positions of influence and power and, for whom, self-interest trumps integrity. They are the minority, though. The vast majority of all of those who serve the system, whether as teachers, administrators or as trustees, do so in pursuit of the lofty goals you’d expect. It’s just that we’re all just one piece of a much larger mosaic, one that cares about much more than young professionals and their contribution to our future.

There are those who will scoff, and assert that it’s all confirmation bias. You know, that style of wrong thinking, when we only acknowledge the evidence that supports our beliefs and either ignore that which is to the contrary or find a way to refute it. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, though, they’re not, at least not this time.

For my part, the best I have is a feeling of gratitude. It provides a huge measure of comfort knowing that those who wish to join the teaching profession do so with such a degree of fortitude and passion. That said, there’s something else and it’s not good. I’m left with deep regret knowing that my own veteran’s legacy, my own contribution of thirty-five years of service to the same profession has not contributed in any meaningful way to improvement in how we treat those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.

They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Again

A conversation with a former student, now abroad, who informed me of how all the teachers’ lesson plans need to be written in procedural form and pre-approved by the upper administration, reminded me of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Tired of fetching the water himself, the master sorcerer enlists the aid of his best apprentice to do the menial task. Thinking he knows more than the master, the apprentice enchants a broom to do it for him. Sadly, though, he does not know how to stop it and soon the place is flooded. Sometimes the “upper underlings” think they know more than they really do, to the detriment of us all.

The mysterious duality that brain physiology imposes upon our perceptions!  While the notion of the hard and inseparable divide between the left and right brain function has been debunked over the past ten years or so it remains that the brain is not symmetric. There are significant differences between the left and right halves–differences in weight, in shape, in appearance and even in the ratio of right to grey matter. And while neuroplasticity is a thing; yes, the brain can “rewire” itself in response to injury and to education, there is a decided selection on the left for processing things in a logical, procedural way and on the right for dealing with things that, frankly, seem to be decidedly quantum-mechanical, governed by things that can only be understood on a more holistic, probabilistic, even whimsical sense.

It’s painful, therefore, to observe, more and more, a growing emphasis, throughout society, on things that appear more left-brained, at the expense of things that best come from the right. Witness the increased de-skilling of the trades and the professions, a thing you see increasingly in my own field as, more and more, everything gets reduced to something “anybody could do.” Everything has to be reduced to an algorithm, a set of procedures or rules, with less and less room left for that wonderful, powerful thing we call “good judgement” or “art” depending on the context. It all makes you  wonder just how many of those apprentices are busy enchanting brooms as you read this. Let’s hope there’s at least a few wiser sorcerers who can undo it.

Save You All A Few Bucks on that Proposed Royal Commission

Contrary to the views of Dr. Wade Locke, widely distributed by the local media as alarm over out-of-control health care costs as well as the notion that NL’r’s live exceedingly unhealthy lives (some truth there, mind you), we don’t really need to spend oodles of dollars on a royal commission to try and get to the bottom of it. The answers or, rather, THE answer is already known.

We’re older than average; a province of increasingly older farts. Health care costs are higher for older people.

Check out the graph, prepared by StatsCan with your own tax dollars (the data has already been gathered at public expense). It shows the average age of Canadians broken down by province and territory.


Notice two things:

  1. Blue Bars: In 1982 we had the youngest population in Canada.
  2. Yellow Bars: In 2012 we had the oldest one.

See—that’s the whole thing, innit?

Why did we get so old so fast? Is it something about the fog? The moose sausages? The toutons? Our crappy water supplies, perhaps? Blue Star beer? The awful weather?

Nope, we all know why, don’t we–our young people left.

In 1982 they were all here. Over the years, off they went, mostly to Alberta I suppose, leaving only the older ones behind. This did two things: 1—left us with fewer young people and 2—left the rest of Canada with more young people. In other words our Blue bar went up while this helped drive everyone else’s down.

And, now, more to the point, now that those who moved away are having kids of their own, somewhere else, this is again dropping the rest of the Blue elsewhere in Canada, while ours keeps climbing as we get older with each passing year..

Might I suggest that instead of wasting piles of money on a question that’s really been answered that, perhaps, we engage in a much harder, but more fruitful conversation around the topic of what should we do, as a people, in response to the fact that our young people really don’t want to stay in this place?

(Oh, and can I have the million$ the province was going to spend on the commission now? I need to pay off my MasterCard, Mortgage and Line of Credit. That would be almost enough to fix it so I can still stay here after Muskrat Falls comes online and the s**t really hits the fan.)

What do I Teach?

My friend Ed Wade was shocked to hear I planned to offer you advice.
Said, “They’ve heard enough of our old stuff. Some stories should suffice.”
Let’s do both, but be forewarned, you’re about to hear the pronoun “I” a lot.
It’s not about me, but about you, and maybe you’ll find some food for thought.

As this past year went by so fast many thoughts have came my way.
So I supposed I’d draw on those to frame out what to you I’d say.
I don’t want to ramble as I often do. I’ll try to be more concise
and gauge my speed against your need to check what’s on your mobile device.

This time each year I try to put a few words together for you
who are about to start; words from the heart; advice on what you might do.
In the past I made a list of things that seemed important at the time
and figured a way for me to say them in a way that rhymed.

But looking back I realized I’d made an error fundamental,
said too much, and so, as such, lacked an idea that was central.
Therefore, this time I took my own advice, and thought it through before I begun.
So now I’ll share one idea here, not a bunch as from a scatter gun.

“What do you teach?” I’ve often been asked by people I’ve just met.
That’ll be the thing to which I’ll cling in the few words you’re about to get.
But first let’s come around to it in a way that makes more sense
for you’re all from here, and you know, my dears that’s not how things commence.

You see around here, when you meet someone, first thing they will blurt out
is, “Hello me son, where are ya from?” They know people from there no doubt.
Next thing you’re asked is what you do—that’s the one that leaves me most concerned.
Are they following cues, or judging you, based on what they think you earn?

And so you answer them as you see fit; maybe ask about them too,
‘til finally they come around to the one about which I’m making all this ado.
“Oh! What do you teach?” they’ll ask, expecting you to answer in terms so short & plain.
Ah, it makes me squirm, I must affirm! Please sit and listen while I explain.

You’re thinking maybe I can’t commit, for many of you know why I have no tattoos.
You’ve heard my fears that after seven years, when our bodies are made anew,
the several things that once meant the most will likely have been replaced
as experience brings even more new things and the old stuff gets displaced.

But it’s more than that, sure I’ve changed. In first year MUN I’ve memories so clear.
Physics and Math, choosing, all the while musing teaching them as my career.
But my first job in a small rural school proved that wouldn’t be the case.
Eleven courses kinda forces subject teaching to an impossible pace.

I found it best to look at my students instead of the subjects that I taught.
It being a small school I found, as a rule, I’d have ‘em again more often than not.
Knowing their strengths & shortcomings let me get the most from those I’d been assigned.
Nine years came & went with me giving 100%, ‘til to move on I felt inclined.

I still recall that day twenty five years ago when I landed what was then my dream job.
Teaching Physics and Math online—ah the stars had aligned for this poor geeky bay-dwelling knob!
And to my delight I found that things hadn’t changed much. I still taught students from small rural schools.
Taught multiple subjects, and in many respects still able to use all my tried and tested teaching tools.

And so the time passed. Every few years brought more change: some good, some bad, some unexpected.
I got better, yup, yet I often screwed up, but each time I had more experience thus collected.
And so, over time, many things became clearer—that’s one gift that experience brings.
What I teach,” I now know, and I’ll tell you, although, first let me clarify several important things.

In the time you’ve been here many of you’ve come to know there’s some questions that I love to ask.
My favourite? This is it, “What’s love’s opposite?” If you say, “hate” I will take you to task.
For both love and hate coexist; you can feel both at one time, so opposites then they surely can’t be.
So take away love, yes, go give ‘er a shove, and what’s left is not hate but apathy.

So I caution you, then, when you’re put in clarge of a class and your priority is maintaining control,
keeping the sweet little dears all quiet—or in fear—really, that should never ever be your first goal.
Be mindful that when they’re unwilling to express what’s going on inside of their heads
you’re just flying blind, while they’re falling behind. All hands’d be better off at home in their beds!

But in all the time that I’ve asked of the opposite of love not one soul has shot back, “But what’s love?”
To me that seems weird, but perhaps you were “afeard” I’d keep babbling…I’m like that…sort of.
As you probably know, there’s many possible responses; the ancient Greeks spoke of no less than eight.
But it is this for me: “to want you become the best you can be.” So to teach is to love; ain’t it great!

So, then, as you practice your craft, and get on with your lives, you’ll let students in more and more.
And while their joys you will share, I bid you beware for then they can hurt you right down to the core.
And after several bouts of this you may feel jaded and wonder if it’s all really worth the price.
But let there be no doubt, once they’re “in” there’s no “out.” Been there, and on that I’ve advice.

At times you’ll get hurt, perhaps by students you love, or maybe because of the stunned things you’ll do.
Perhaps you’ll be too headstrong, at any rate there’ll be wrong that will leave you feeling broken too.
When you’re down you’ve three choices of what happens next. Here they are in the order of ease:
First: stay down, don’t get up, you poor sweet buttercup. If that’s you, you best quit now; do it please.

Second, you can get back on your feet and go on, displaying fortitude and resiliency.
But there’s a third choice: become stronger; it’s been voiced by sages with some brilliancy.
In order to get stronger, first you must get hurt but work carefully on that damage, I implore.
Because your strength it will grow and in time it will show, you’re far better than you were before.

After all there’s no sense expecting students and class to always be perfect and bright.
Rose-coloured glasses, are only for asses convinced their way is the only one that is right.
For once you get used to letting your students just be, even cranky and putting you to the test
they’ll trust you enough to share with you the stuff you need to help them be their best.

So I know you’re wondering, “Where’s the point in all this?” After all I promised an answer to you.
But you made a mistake, said my time I could take. To me that’s licence for some ballyhoo.
One last thing I will tell: back when I was in school, I was advised I should be an engineer.
At gadgets I liked to pick, I could fix ‘em right quick so ‘twas a good choice for me, they were clear.

But there was this thing, see there was something else that intrigued me far more than that stuff.
And so when I applied to MUN ‘twas cut and dried, choosing Education, for me, was not tough.
Yes, messing around in the lab is still fun, but a life in the classroom leaves me with no remorse.
And if you haven’t figured it out, what I teach, there’s no doubt: I teach students, of course!