Monday, September 2, 2013

Labour Day, 2013...reflections on a 50-year working life

Labour Day, 2013....fifty years after I started my first full-time job as a teacher in an Ontario private school, teaching grades 5 through 8. Not an unreasonable day on which to reflect on the various cultures, supervisors, organizational goals and objectives and the various treatment of workers in the several workplaces on which I am both willing and able to reflect.
First, the Canadian culture of the mid-sixties could not be more different from the culture of the mid 21st teens. There were bomb shelter signs on  buildings in Northern places like Buffalo and Niagara Falls, N.Y. into which towns Ontario basketball and football coaches were invited to play what we then termed "exhibition" games.  John Kennedy was in the White House, for the first 75 days of the fall term in 1963, until his tragic assassination on  November 22. In Canada, there had been a few years of Diefenbaker governments, both minority and majority; the termination of the contract to  build the  latest and most innovative fighter aircraft, the AVRO Arrow was signed by Diefenbaker, throwing many highly trained engineers who had been working on the plane out of work, especially noteworthy to one from Parry Sound, the urban centre that serviced Nobel, where much of that work as being carried out. In 1963, Lester Pearson was brought to Sussex Drive, as Prime Minister, and the Liberals began what turned out to be nearly a half-century of continuous power in Ottawa.
An Ontario private school in the mid-sixties was a place of rarified atmosphere, accommodating the offspring of some of Ontario's most affluent parents, some of whom arrived in chauffeured Cadillac limousines, in short pant, blazers and navy ties, carrying their boy-size brief cases. Army cadets, and parades for all students in the "upper school" (high school) were expected as were team sports, accommodating all young men of all shapes, sizes and levels of courage and competitiveness. There were five football teams to accommodate fewer than 150 students; in my first year, I was assigned to the "third" team, a mix of some sizeable bodies with younger more agile athletes, 'in training' for an opportunity to be called up to one of the first or second teams, in case of injury, or exceptional promise from their respective performances.
As their coach, at twenty-one, I too was competitive, and somewhat pleased, honoured and humbled when I was asked to coach the 'second' team in my second year a the school. Before the end of the first year, however, our team was having a feast on the competition, besting them by halftime by some twenty points or more. It was at that moment that one of the "masters" from our school who was then serving as referee for the game approached me quietly at the end of our team bench.
"I would advise you not to play your first string in the second half," he opined, "you do not need to humiliate the opposition any more than you have already done!"
Stung by his mentoring, and his more than slightly officious demeanour, I remained silent, while I considered what he had said. Knowing that his standing and history at the school went back at least twenty-plus years, (he was also a Housemaster, and part of the 'inner circle' of the school) and my barely beginning my career, I accepted his counsel and played everyone of the reserves, as we continued to sustain the victory.
In my third year at the school, I ran into a minor discipline situation with one of the senior students, in grade twelve as I recall, and when I discussed the situation with the Headmaster, a former Army Colonel and retired Anglican clergy, I recall his words as if they were issued only yesterday.
"John," he said in a gruff and uncompromising tone, "Do not bring this matter to the Headmaster; that boy's father has been on the Board of Governors of the school for decades and you are sure to lose!"
I obeyed the directive, and let the matter drop.
Having requested teaching assignments that included some additional secondary school English courses and classes, I watched and waited eagerly for an invitation to the Headmaster's office to inform me of whatever decisions had been taken, with respect to my request, only to learn via the proverbial and eternal "grapevine" that entwined itself around the faculty, the residences, the nurses offices, the chapel and the dining room, that an "old-boy" had been recently hired, following his graduation from Bishop's University to teach the very courses for which I had applied. With less than a month to go in that third year, I recall quitting and staying, until the final day of classes, when I moved to the public secondary school system. I knew that as a non-old-boy I would never be able to compete with those whose pedigree included graduation from that school, years of 'service' to school teams, and the potential that accompanied such men in terms of fund raising.
Into the public secondary system I plunged only to find that it too had its favourites, its traditions and its blind spots. Teaching history to grade twelve students, I found a single sheet of foolscap in my mailbox each Monday morning with an outline of the week's curriculum, which was merely a copy of the titles, subtitles and treaties or battles from that portion of the assigned text. The document was prepared by the 'head of the department' and I was suitably chagrined, given my own capacity to read the information from the text itself. I petitioned the then principal to scrap the course, in favour of an approach that would examine a series of intellectual papers collated into book form, on the history, usefulness, impediments and prospects of the United Nations. He concurred.
Also, I was offered more coaching assignments, starting with 'bantam' basketball, where I had the opportunity to learn from one of my own teachers, a former English teacher who had returned to get a PHE degree and now taught in the Physical Education Department, along with his coaching. As part of my apprenticeship as a basketball coach (I had coached the sport for three years at the private school) I had the opportunity to attend a clinic by then widely respected coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, Bobby Knight, at the University of Toronto, where some 500 Ontario coaches gathered for a full day of tutoring, demonstrations and schooling under the 'master' we considered him then.
Early in my stay in the first school, a guest of the Canadian Club visited the town where he gave a public lecture. So interested and curious was I about the man, I attended, and spontaneously, following the address, approached him with an invitation to speak to my three grade twelve classes. his name: Don Harron, then famous as Charly Farquharson, the Parry Sound Farmer, on a CBC weekly television show bearing the title, "This Hour has Seven Days" with hosts, Patrick Watson and Laurier LaPierre. Harron was delighted to accept the invitation, knowing that I had offered it without prior approval or permission, and recommended that I submit the proposal as a lecture on his experience as a Shakespearean actor, and not as another Charly satire of the town. Later I learned that the editors of the local paper considered his performances to be ridiculing the extremely conservative town, and refused even to interview the famous guest of the Canadian Club.
Also during my stint at this school, I met and spent some time with Patrick Watson, another of the Canadian Club's guests, at a time when the Ontario Liberal Party was about to hold a leadership convention. Having listened to former evangelist and then radio host, Charles Templeton, I wondered if Mr. Watson knew whether or not Templeton was going to enter the race. Politely and dutifully, Mr. Watson sent a letter after his return to Toronto informing me of what he had learned of Mr. Templeton's intentions.
Another of my public opportunities came when the local Rotary Club sponsored a summer concert, fundraised, featuring Catherine MacKinnon, Don Harron's wife. My task as a member of the Rotary Club was to chair the advertising committee for the concert, which, if I recall satisfactorily, made a fair stash of cash for the Rotary projects around town.
My third secondary school, a recently opened "open concept" school featuring what was then known as "team teaching" offered different opportunities, under a former military officer, whose gait, speech and brain functioning were of a speed one had to work hard to 'keep up' to any or all of them. Younger, more vigorous and much more ambitious teachers had been hired into what was then considered an 'experimental model' of a secondary school. As one of three English instructors in the grade thirteen class, I was invited to 'teach' the large group instruction session on the novel Wuthering Heights. With some ninety students who had already been assigned the reading of the text, I invited two teachers from the art department to attend the class, for the purpose of listening and transcribing the responses from the students to the question of the hero's character onto a series of canvases. Heathcliff is a dominating and perplexing man, found deep in the psyche of the author, Emily Bronte, and brought into the light of day, through his roller-coaster relationship with Catherine Earnshaw. The students and the artists participated vigorously in the exercise, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, recalling its energy, variety and complexity even forty-five years later.
On another occasion, there seemed to be a "day without an assigned topic" when it was once again my 'turn' to prepare and conduct the LGI (as we all called it then). I had listened to the Simon and Garfunkel recording of Sounds of Silence, and it had moved me deeply, as I considered its import in the then current vernacular of the alienated, the isolated existentialist. I borrowed the recording from the local radio station, printed a copy for each student of both  The Unknown Citizen by. W. H. Auden and also T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men... and guided a discussion of the synchronicity that seemed to emerge from the reading of these three pieces. Judging by the energy, variety and subtlety of the many responses, as well as my own "feel" for the connection of the students to both the moment and the writings, I was satisfied with the experiment.
Moving to a different school in the same town and under the same board, I found a much older, more established faculty and administration, into which a new principal had been inserted, much to the chagrin of the teaching staff who wanted one of their own appointed principal. That conflict never really was absent from most conversations within the teaching staff, until the vice-principal who had not been appointed departed for a board some one hundred miles distant. Also departing after one year under the "principal-import" was the Head of the English department, who moved into the local liberal arts university to teach English, having found the new administration "not to his liking" to put it mildly.
After a move into the newest building for the city, the school took on more of the ambience or its new home. Athletics, including football, basketball, hockey and track and field played a very prominent role in the lives of individual students, as well as many faculty members. There was an active, if most friendly, competition among the local schools, insofar as athletic competitions were concerned. Coaching basketball, helping with the student variety shows, advising on the student yearbooks and eventually, my own  "walter-mitty" took me into freelance journalism in radio, television and newspaper, focussing on the local city council news. Combined, these activities consumed many hours outside of class time. From 1970 through 1978, three daughters were born to our family, and they provided hours of enjoyment and pride in their own accomplishments in all phases of their school life.
Summer employment in these years included retailing in a local beer store, in a local men's wear store and the latter spilled over into some weekend work as well.
In my last formal deployment in public education, I was offered a position in public relations in the local community college, with the title, Information Officer and  Assistant to the President. This title and post preceded the onset of the computer by a couple of years; I will still tied to an electric typewriter preparing text for radio ads, television ads, brochures and newsletters, along with Multi-Year Reports, detailed minutes of groups like the Innovation Centre, and the Executive Committee.
Under the tutelage of the then president, I adopted advocacy for three long-term goals:
  1. a measureable increase in the number of bilingual course offerings and students in that segment of the college community
  2. a considerable increase in the number of women in prominent positions both on the college board of directors and among college faculty and department administrators
  3. a measureable decrease in the frequency and number of students engaged in cigarette smoking within the college facilities
These three stated goals were ones to which I attached considerable significance, while continuing to attempt to design and execute marketing initiatives that would see the college maintain and grow its market share of potential students in a relatively highly competitive marketing scene.
Another significant project,  designed as part of my responsibilities, comprised a weekly public affairs radio program of ninety minutes, in which I interviewed guests from across North America in issues relevant to the public discourse, some in nutrition, some in provincial and national politics, some in women's rights, all designed to fit under the umbrella "a life-long-education" a theme we were working to integrate into the public consciousness of the 50,000+ community. The first forty-five minutes were dedicated to a one-on-one interview of the guest(s) with the second ninety minutes open to public phone calls to discuss the issues raised in the first half.
It was the freedom to innovate, the freedom to experiment, the license and the trust that was afforded me in various positions that helped me to grow intellectually, politically, socially and culturally. As a highly curious individual, and one born and raised on the vitamins of questions asked to anyone I meet, even if those questions seem, on the surface to be more than a little cheeky, I found my twenty-plus years in the classroom the most enriching, challenging and rewarding of my career.
It was only when I entered both the seminary and later the formal life as a clergy that my curiosity, and my questions, and my incessant challenges and provocations found a consistent and persistent brick wall, both in the pews and in the hierarchies.
In one of the last conversations I had, face-to-face with a bishop, I urged him to read Matthew Fox's writings which he admitted were "too radical for me''....and then I pushed even harder..
"It is time," I ventured, "for men to get to know their emotions, to become familiar with them and to know what they mean in their lives!"
To which he literally screamed, "That is much too dangerous! That must not happen!"
At which point, one of his lackies uttered these words, memorable words that effectively terminated both the conversation and my life inside the church, "Well there is much too much emotion in this room for me, I have to attend a meeting!"
Since 2000, when that conversation, I have reflected many times, on this proposition:
If humans are going to continue to "mess-up" then why does the church find that part of humanity completely unacceptable, intolerable and totally rejectable, under the dogma that identifies the sinner with his/her sin, and the faith with the abdication of its commandment to "love one another"....the church cannot love only those who "obey" its dogmatic dictates, and will never find a sustainable institutional life unless and until it finds a compassionate and just process for resolving even the most unacceptable, and most messy situations and the people whose lives are entwined within them.

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