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Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.


Teaching in Jane-Finch: response to Deborah Dundas

In Sunday’s Star A Belated Thanks for a Beloved Teacher ( Sunday June 26) describes the influence of Howard Rosen, Deborah Dundas’s grade 5 teacher at Shoreham Public School in 1974. Dundas is the books’ editor at the Toronto Star newspaper. She states that Shoreham Public was one of the “ toughest [schools]” just north of Finch at Jane and Driftwood.
I know what she is talking about because I started my own teaching career in that desolated area at Westview Centennial Secondary School in the 70’s; and we would be one of the recipients of Shoreham students. It was the years of the incredible Hall- Dennis Report with its concepts that shattered traditional teaching. With grand plans and lofty visions, its implementation only created greater havoc in the fragile neighbourhood of Jane-Finch. Instead of the Report’s proposed 16-18 students in a class with several involved teachers, the numbers ballooned to closer to 30 with usually one educator unable to properly supervise.No surprise that kids wandered off, took long lunch breaks, or found their education at the mall, the only landmark in that vast wasteland. When students arrived to our more or less conventional schooling at Westview, there were bound to be collisions.
How bizarre that in my very first year of teaching, I had to face a Grade 11 English class in a room with no desks and only a few stacked bleachers. When a young man angrily tossed his text book to the ground proclaiming “ This is rubbish”, I thought I was so clever to substitute the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Maybe they listened and even interacted , but more likely,they merely scoffed. I was young, naïve, untested, idealistic. From that classroom I recall a scene of kids milling around, disinterested and unfocused, and me, confused, grimly smiling and attempting to harness interest that would provoke learning.
I’d heard some teachers received a kind of combat pay for teaching in the area and that in our motor shop, one teacher had been punched out. That may have been gossip. My only incident occurred in the art supply room when a lad rubbed up against me. But maybe the space was just too tight to prevent bodies colliding. Still I vividly relive my burning face as I returned to class, hands tightly clutching paint brushes.
Jane- Finch was my first real teaching job ( I went on to Forest Hill, Northern Secondary and Oakwood). Although I had completed my last practice teaching at Westview( always with superlative reviews!) , I surmised this school might not be my first choice as the vibe was so different from my other placements; however, I was off searching art galleries in Europe that summer and I was more focused on traveling and the school had wanted me back so it was easy to put hiring logistics into place. That summer there was a “Pink Letter “ that prevented hiring so I arranged for my father to sign a contract for me as soon as the letter was lifted. And after months of rambling abroad, I would come home to a job.
My English head at Westview was young and supportive and as an ingenue, he inspired me. My art head seemed to have other designs and I feared our relationship might become tangled. Fortunately I had a boyfriend so no boundaries were breached, but the too familiar undertone piqued me. He left shortly after my first year and his replacement became a treasured friend and inspiration.
The art classes were much easier to teach than English because the kids elected art as a subject. In contrast, they resented being stuck taking English. Those first few years, I had a mixed schedule of art and English. As a newbie, you are not given choice assignments so mine proved to be challenging; and my grade 9 tech boys were not exactly a prize to be welcomed by even experienced teachers.

I was barely 21, fresh face, anticipating I could make a change. I admit their noisy energy, forth right approach to language and dizzying behaviour both drew me in, but also made me a little fearful. They were a boisterous group, but when it came time to be evaluated for my permanent teaching certificate, I considered the class in which I had made the greatest strides and I felt proudest of my accomplishments with that Grade 9 all boy tech class.
Those days you were on probation for two years before receiving your permanent contract. I chose this group so I could celebrate how well I was managing and teaching. The superintendent who would decide my fate was Mr. G.-something. When he carefully navigated his way among the chairs and tables in the room, he seemed to be keeping his distance from the messy contingent of adolescents, who were checking him out. One fellow even called out“Yoh,, Sir!” To no visible response. I believed he would be so impressed with my obviously difficult class.

I used Leonardo da Vinci that day, carefully chosen because the boys could connect with machines and shops. They gathered close, falling over one another and we fixated on the brightly coloured examples I was pointing out in art books. They were quiet, listening, all gelled hair and over- sized running shoes. They were eager to begin their projects and except for nods, and the feeling of excitement, I had their attention for a full 10 or 15 minutes. I knew I had connected. Even as a young teacher, you are aware when a lesson goes over well, and that invisible web holds you all together, focused and sharing, all one. It was one of those experiences that locks itself in your mind and you, as a teacher, revisit it with pride and even- love -years later.
True, there were books heaped on the floor, Alice Cooper on the record player, the casual feel and gawky intrusion of elbows and knees into another’s space , but all so much less important than real communication occurring in a community of students.
I was soaring as they returned to their desks to implement my lesson:my pedagogy evident.

G. departed the room and I relaxed, smiling, confident, my own energy depleting.
At the end of the period, my department head knocked at my door and asked me a few questions: that I could not imagine applied to me. I figured the superintendent had marched out and on on to survey another victim. Maybe I was not listening because her words did not describe my magnificent performance.
Shortly after , I was called into the principal’s office and it was explained that student artwork on the walls was not properly hung. Period. The end.

And what of student engagement? Well -constructed lesson plans? Instructions well laid out and projects resulting that accomplished the task? What of enthusiasm of both student and teacher? What of an evidenced relationship that spoke of trust and support and a supportive environment? And what of my carefully prepared lesson plans and day book turned over before the class? Had I not accomplished the educational objectives for class, student, curriculum?The principal could not possibly be describing the class I had taught for my certification. Still in a fog, I felt removed, an outsider to this conversation: in which the chef topic was misaligned student work on walls!

But because the principal and especially my department heads had championed me, I would be given a second chance to re-enact a lesson and duly impress the superintendent. In deed, the fix may have been in.

I was stunned, wandering around in disbelief. I knew I had taught perhaps the most impressive lesson in my short career. Most importantly I had connected in a meaningful way to my students. I’d had their attention; they had listened with fascination at the gears and gizmos of Da Vinci’s , had followed instructions and proceeded towards their assignments, analyzing and applying newly gleaned information – that they actually found relevant. I had triumphed, or so I had thought. G. obviously did not agree.

It was a grey blur of pounding nerves in my head the day of trial number 2. My department head straightened the pictures on the wall, exactly employing a ruler to ensure they all lined up perfectly with the dooredge. For me, it was the students, the transfer of knowledge, not the context, that mattered so deeply. I would not have known how to change my presentation when I so fervently believed in a pedagogy that worked with the hearts and minds of students, that responds and builds and stimulates. Frankly, I do not recall one second of the followup lesson I was permitted to unfold. I do, however, remember the boys’ turning, craning necks and puzzled looks as Mr. G re-entered their space.

The meeting after this lesson declared I had passed muster and I was given my papers.
Not speaking, no doubt my face registering incredulous disbelief, G., in an airless room, observed me, saying” You don’t think you changed a thing , do you?”

Of course, I had not. But beaten down by the situation I demurred barely audible, “ Yes, sir”. We locked eyes but I looked away and down.

Still my memories are varied at Westview. One of my favourites concerns my department head measuring me for my wedding dress in the school washrooms during breaks, French Chantilly lace aside the garbage bins overflowing with paper towel; an English student’s insight into Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature; a camaraderie among colleagues and wonderful spirited Christmas shows where even I dressed in football gear for the predilection of the students. And perhaps , my proudest accomplishment : of helping one of the two students in the entire school who went on to pursue art at York university.

That was 1970 when girls were accompanied by overbearing parents, escorted directly to our front doors Abandoning their parents’, usually their fathers’ stern eyes, they would leap towards the washrooms to apply copious amounts of makeup and roll up waist bands. It was the same school in 1971 in which I dared to wear a pantsuit but was admonished that if I intended to dress like a man, I’d better keep my fly up.
Those were the beginning years of my immersion into teaching and the stories I would later capture in a book entitled Cases for Teacher Development: Preparing for the Classroom , published by Sage , when I worked as a program officer at the Ontario College of Teachers thirty years later. Narratives of this ilk would serve as implementation strategies when our standards at the College were finally released. We had examined the work of teachers and from their narratives, deduced what the tenets of teaching should be, decanting them into ideals of responsibility, collaboration, care, honesty, etc. We created a casebook entirely based on the lived experiences of twelve teachers, but chosen from several hundred ( two were mine) in Ontario. I invited international experts to provide commentary. From Australia to The United States, educators and philosophers at the forefront of educational theory and practice contributed to our book that was used by a number of universities here and abroad. Later a second book was added.

Too bad Howard Rosen wasn’t one of our many participants to contribute to that casebook .I’ll bet he had many a great tale to demonstrate what great teaching should look like.
Teacher stories are powerful, and meaningful.Reading Deborah Dundas’ piece recalled my years in Jane-Finch. Rosen made the difference for Deborah Dundas and so many more.

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