I taught at Dr. Ross Tilley Public School in Bowmanville for the first five years of my career, and last week I touched on how difficult and confrontational the school community could be. This sort of environment had its upside, however, in that it created an us vs. them mindset which forced the staff to become very close. Our principal Rob, for example, was a wonderful person (I’ve given him a false name as I will everyone in this article). Rob was a fun-loving guy who often joked around with the teachers, but he was scrupulously professional and always had our backs when brokering disputes with parents. He clearly respected us and the job we did. The board regularly put out thick binders full of new procedures which they expected principals to review with their teachers. I remember more than one occasion where Rob walked into a staff meeting, threw one such binder on the table and said, “I was told to bring this to your attention. Does everyone see it? Good – now let’s get on with the meeting.” He’d been in the game long enough to know that most people at the board office have no idea what actually goes on in the classroom and therefore tend to generate new material solely to justify their own positions. This remained true throughout the entirety of my 19 years in education.
I genuinely liked and respected almost all of my colleagues at Tilley, but there were a few I tried to avoid. I mentioned a grade 5 teacher named Gus in my last article. Gus was married to a Kindergarten teacher on staff named Cathy. Gus was a straight shooting guy and also, I suspect, a very good teacher. He and I got along well, but his wife was another matter. There were two things about Cathy which I really didn’t like. Firstly, she constantly referred to her son as “my Alan.” She’d say things like “My Alan won a scholarship, “ or, “The team wouldn’t have won if my Alan wasn’t playing.” This proprietorial phrasing ensured that anything her son did well always reflected positively on Cathy – as if she was responsible for his efforts and accomplishments.
Secondly, Cathy insisted on reciting the Lord’s prayer with her class every morning, a practice which had been legally banned from Ontario public schools in 1988 because it is a clear infringement of the Charter rights of non-Christians. I don’t even like it when parents indoctrinate their own children into a particular faith, so you can imagine how distasteful I found Cathy’s behaviour. She and I had several heated discussions about the illegality and unprofessionalism of what she was doing, not to mention how presumptuous it was. She always insisted, in that high-handed way so many people of faith have, that she was in the right and her actions were in the best interests of the children. There were several times I almost reported her to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but I refrained for Gus’s sake.
One day I came into the staffroom for lunch and sat down opposite Gus and Cathy at the table. Cathy always dressed up for school, and on this occasion wore a lovely yellow floral-print dress with matching earrings and shoes, with her make-up and hair done to a tee. She was clearly getting frustrated with a mustard squeeze bottle which refused to cooperate, so I offered to help, saying I had pretty good luck with such things. Cathy willingly handed the bottle over, and after shaking it vigorously several times I gave it a hard squeeze. I didn’t realize that she had slightly unscrewed the top in her effort to make the mustard flow, and the pressure I exerted on the bottle forced the lid clean off.
A spray of mustard arched through the air and landed on Cathy’s carefully coiffed hair, made up face, and the bodice of her pretty dress. The whole room went silent for a moment, and then Gus started laughing uproariously. I of course immediately put the bottle down and ran to get a cloth from the sink, apologizing profusely the whole time and saying the mustard might not show up too much on her yellow dress. Meanwhile, Cathy simply stood up and, ignoring me completely, silently went into the bathroom. I cleaned off the table while she was gone, rinsed out the cloth, and then sat back down. A minute or two passed with Cathy still out of the room, and the whole time Gus continued laughing so hard that he had tears running down his face and could hardly catch his breath. Finally I looked at him and said, “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when your wife returns from the bathroom, but I do know that things are going to go very badly for you if you’re still laughing when she does.” I could see the truth of what I’d said burgeoning in Gus’s eyes, and just like that he stopped laughing, wiped his face with his sleeve, and began eating what was left of his lunch. It was clear Cathy was furious with me when she eventually returned to the table, and Gus gave me a surreptitious nod of thanks for sparing him any part in her rage. I swear that this entire incident was an accident and had nothing to do with my antipathy for Cathy. Honest!
The other Tilley staff member I didn’t like was our French teacher Colette. She taught in a portable which was set up like a store. She brought in all kinds of junk – things she’d picked up at garage sales, her own kids’ used clothing, etc. – and literally sold it to students when they came in for French class. Colette insisted that all the proceeds went to charity, but that didn’t justify what she was doing. She was selling crap to a gullible, captive audience, and that should not have been happening. I aired my objections to her business at more than one staff meeting, but it was some time before her little enterprise was finally shut down.
As bad as Colette’s “store” was, her behaviour towards intermediate boys was far worse. She regularly ogled them, stroked their arms and heads in a most off-putting manner, and pressed herself up against them at intermediate dances. The worst example of her creepiness surfaced every Hallowe’en. Colette perennially dressed up as a vampire with bright red lipstick, and throughout the day she would kiss as many intermediate boys on the neck as she could get her grubby hands on, leaving a scarlet outline on their skin. She claimed she was only playing a character, pretending to bite them as a vampire would, but we all knew better. A former colleague of mine became vice principal at Tilley some years after I left, and I made a point of alerting her to Colette’s inappropriate fascination with teenage boys before she had even started the job. Colette finally faced disciplinary action that year when she pulled her usual Hallowe’en stunt, and was suspended for three days as a consequence. Frankly, I would have felt better if she’d been dismissed. She clearly had an unhealthy attraction to teenage boys and should have been fired for their sake. The teachers’ federation defended Colette in this case, making it one of many instances wherein my union defended a teacher who clearly wasn’t fit for the job.
Tragedy struck Tilley my second year there. I came into the staff room one morning to find everyone gathered and looking anxious. I asked a colleague what was going on and she said that they had all been called in over the PA system, which usually meant bad news. The principal, Rob, came in and informed us that a grade eight girl named Jori had killed herself. A collective gasp went up around the room as he went on to say that her mother had found her hanging body the previous evening, and that a board councillor was coming in to speak to the grade eights and to offer support to the teachers.
Intermediates at Tilley stayed in their homerooms for the morning to learn language and math, and then circulated from room to room in the afternoon to be taught all of the other subjects by specialist teachers. This was called the rotary system. Jori’s last class the previous day had been science, and the teacher, Jack, spoke up with a look of horror on his face. Evidently he had been quite stern with Jori at the end of the period because she was falling behind in her work, and he was clearly worried that her suicide may have been in response to his harsh words. Rob promptly cut Jack off at this point. He said the councillor had warned him that teachers often blamed themselves when such tragedies occurred, but the fact was that almost all teenage suicide attempts are cries for help and/or attention which are ultimately meant to fail. It was simply bad luck that Jori’s mother had been delayed at work the previous day and had therefore discovered her daughter too late to save her.
Jori’s homeroom teacher, Bob, was the hardest hit of anyone. He immediately put his head in his hands and broke down in silent sobs when he heard the news. The bell was about to ring and it was clear that Bob was in no shape to teach, so Rob told him that he’d arranged for Mark, our vice principal, to step in on his behalf. I did not start my work day until after first period, so when the bell rang Rob pulled me aside and quietly asked me to stay with Bob until he came through the worst of his initial shock. I sat down next to Bob on the couch and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder as everyone else filtered out of the room. As soon as they had all gone Bob, as if no longer constrained by having an audience, let out his full grief. He clutched his stomach and started rocking back and forth while a low and persistent moan forced itself out of his mouth. He kept this up for some time as I rather feebly stroked his back. Eventually Bob became still and silent, and I handed him a kleenex. He wiped off his face, took a few shuttering breathes, and then stood up and started to leave. I asked him if he thought it was wise to face his students in such a state, and he said, “Thank you for your kindness, but I think my kids need me.” This is just what teachers do – we stuff down our personal sorrows and traumas so we can be present for our students. That’s the job.
We also had times of great joy at Tilley. Dr. Ross Tilley, after whom the school was named, was a Canadian plastic surgeon stationed in Europe during WWII. He pioneered many new techniques on soldiers whose faces were disfigured during battle – a group of volunteers he proudly called his guinea pigs. 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and one of my colleagues, in a Herculean feat of organization, arranged for the surviving guinea pigs to come to the school on Remembrance Day along with Dr. Tilley’s widow. The plan was for the veterans to join the whole school in the gym for our annual assembly, and then to individually visit various classes to take questions from the kids and speak to them one-on-one.
Several teachers greeted the guinea pigs as they arrived on the big day, while the rest of us maintained order in the gym. The principal called the assembly to order and reminded the kids that this was a solemn occasion. The veterans who had been kind enough to come to the school had been through horrors we couldn’t even begin to imagine, and a respectful silence was expected from everyone as our guests entered the gym. The room was completely still and quiet as the guinea pigs filed in moments later – a few under their own steam, a few in wheelchairs, and several leaning on canes. All of them had huge smiles on their still noticeably scarred faces. One of them spontaneously waved as he entered the room, and this simple act of greeting broke the tension and the kids began to clap. Soon their applause redoubled and they all stood, hooting and hollering for the heroes facing them from the far wall. It turned out that this joyous celebration by the whole school was the appropriate response to our guests, not the restrained greeting we’d all anticipated. The guinea pigs clearly relished the ovation, and we were all filled with feelings of gratitude and kinship. This moment remains one of the most memorable of my career.
As wonderful as the experience in the gym was, things got even better when the guinea pigs visited our classes. My students and another grade five class all crammed into one room to meet with our assigned veteran, a wizened old man with a profoundly disfigured face belied by a sunny disposition. He patiently answered all the kids’ questions, and my grade alike colleague and I were impressed by the reverence and relevance of our students’ queries. They were quiet and attentive the whole time our guest was in the room, and I felt sure he got as much from the exchange as the kids did. It is always good to bring history alive for children whenever possible, especially those with relatively affluent and peaceful lives. I have no doubt that the kids at Tilley who met the guinea pigs learned lessons they carry with them to this day – lessons of duty and perseverance, and gratitude for the sacrifice of others. I know that I did.
I took a position in 2006 as teacher/librarian of a school much closer to my home, but to this day I maintain friendships with many people I worked with at Tilley. I attended their staff Christmas parties for several years after I left, and mourned with them at the untimely deaths of two of our colleagues over the past 12 years. Just this past summer a group of us got together in a colleague’s backyard for a socially distanced get together. We talked for several hours, and none of us really wanted to leave even as the dinner hour approached. Sometimes you hit the jackpot at a job and wind up with coworkers who all get along and have genuine affection for one another. I was one such winner when I landed the job at Dr. Ross Tilley P.S. all those years ago.