Facebook is an interesting place – can I call it a ‘place’? – and I try very hard to avoid the rabbit holes. The platform is double-edged because it is also a remarkable means to connect with friends and family. One of my ‘friends’ is also an aunt, and this past week she posted one of those random questions of no real consequence to generate attention and likes. Although I did not post a response, I was captured by the question: “Do you remember the name of your Grade Five teacher?” Yes, I do. But it is a winding path to get there.
The students I taught in the earliest years of my career seemed to think that I had lived through Woodstock. From today’s vantage point, it seems remarkable that high school students would understand a reference to Woodstock; even some readers may not recognize the name of that infamous outdoor rock festival. My students were poor judges of vintage, concluding that all adults over 25 were old. I was quick to point out to my students that I was born in the sixties but not of the sixties. During the summer of love, I was getting ready for primary school; I was excited for my new gym bag and my Flintstones lunch kit, the kind with a thermos to keep my soup hot. I had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was. Yet, in my students’ defense, it might have been the hair. As a ‘twentysomething’ in the early 90s, my appearance – particularly the long hair – would have fit perfectly in Bethel, New York, in the summer of ‘69. Fashion aside, I was quite happy to give up my barber in the era of hair bands and grunge.
When I started attending school, my dad was more the Crew Cuts than he was the Beach Boys, which explained the kitchen-stool-homemade-haircut I sported. Always. While I was not the only boy in class with very short hair, I had classmates whose parents clearly enjoyed rock festivals. I envied their longer hair, hating my bristles. And then, in Grade One, we discovered I could not read the chalkboard. Add a pair of black, thick-rimmed glasses to the close crop as the summer of ’71 approached. The following school year would be the last in which my hair did not cover my ears, and it would be the last I spent under my father’s roof. It would also be the last time for quite a while that I spent a full year in only one school.
There were many changes to my life when our household held together no longer. I know they were profound, difficult, and sometimes painful; and they must have been overwhelming to that little boy. As a child, I controlled very little in my life during this time, which may be why one of these changes – a trivial thing, really – figures largely for me. In my household, under new management, I had permission to grow my hair longer. At a time when I controlled nothing, I suddenly had this autonomy! So began the collection of family and holiday photos in which my hair hung well past my collar and often in my eyes. And, in the post-Beatles era of Led Zeppelin and Edgar Winter, I went to school in style.
I went to a lot of schools; we tended to move with some regularity. I was starting Grade Five when I landed at a little community school in Coquitlam, with Mr. Dugan.
I went looking for the school on Google Maps this week, only to discover, a little sadly, that it has been closed since 2007. It was a small school for students K-5. Adding to its allure was the fact that the school yard was literally out my back door… well, just out the ground level door of the stairwell to our apartment block. Because my mom would leave early for work each morning, it was my job to get both myself and my sister ready for the day, deliver her to daycare, and then get myself to school on time. With the daycare located in the block beside our own, and the school so close to my doorstep, I never had to visit the office to report I was ‘late not absent.’ I spent the entire year at this school; I was in a good place.
In my experience at that age, men were Vice-Principals and Principals; this was the first time my teacher was a man. It was also the first time my Principal was a woman, and it is a brief interaction with her which left a lasting impression from Grade Five.
It is not what you may think: I was a compliant student, never giving Mr. Dugan reason to send me to the Principal’s office. In fact, this singular exchange with the Principal may have been the one and only for the year. It happened outside, as we were making our way back into the school after the morning recess. The Principal stepped into my path, stopping me with a hand on each shoulder. I remember a tall woman who had to stoop to look into my face. She asked me one question: “How do we communicate with each other?” Inexperienced with authority and a little uneasy, scared I may be in trouble, I cast my eyes downward and stammered my uncertainty. I lifted my eyes to meet hers, and she said, “Now we’re communicating.” I once again lowered my gaze, growing more and more anxious. The Principal then said, “Now we’re not communicating.” I looked up again, confusion clear on my face. And once more she said, “Now we’re communicating.”
In my replay of this moment, the back and forth goes on and on; but, in reality, I expect it was less than a minute. The Principal put me out of my misery and ended this interrogation by telling me that we communicate with our eyes, and she could not see mine well because my hair was too long. I needed a haircut. She sent me off to class with that judgement preoccupying me entirely. Like I said, I was a compliant student.
Another perk of the school’s location was that I went home for lunch nearly every day. I would go home, warm up a tin of Campbell’s and watch some TV. Not on this day. I spent most of the hour staring into the mirror, seeing what my Principal saw: a shaggy-headed boy, unkempt and unworthy. It was hard to operate the scissors in my reflection, and the cut lines were blunt and unskilled. But in the end, my eyes were no longer behind a curtain of hair.
I returned to school just before lunch ended and joined the students lined up and waiting to be let into their classrooms. As with recess, the Principal greeted everyone at the door. Short of calling out her name, I did all I could to make myself obvious to her. Standing as tall as possible, I made sure to look up and into her face as I passed, hoping she would notice what I had done. She acknowledged me as I walked by, but I could not say with confidence that her nod meant she noticed my trim. However, I can say with confidence that whether she noticed my hatchet job or not, she certainly would not have anticipated the enduring impact of this interaction. Nor would my Grade 12 English teacher, whose comments in a stairwell one afternoon filled my sails and set my course as a future teacher. Each in different ways, the experiences with my teachers have shaped the educator I became.
Facebook, as I said, is an interesting place to connect with family and friends. It turns out it is also a place where students reach out to their former teachers, sharing, “It was a small act of kindness you did for me that affected the trajectory of my life, so thank you,” or, “You helped me see that I could be somebody and do things in my life… You encouraged me to stretch myself… I don’t know if that was what you intended, but your little pushes helped me to live in a whole new world.” I am humbled by these comments, and they validate my life’s work and my belief that every interaction with children is important, holding potential to affect their future.
My friend keeps a sticky note on his desk to remind him of his daily purpose: “Increase the life chances of every child.” It is remarkable that we get this opportunity, innumerable times every day, just in passing.