When I was a kid, my mum was a single parent raising four of us. She worked full time, left early in the morning before we were out of bed, and didn’t get home until after six. Remember that old chestnut “it takes a village to raise a child?” Well, my mum was happy and grateful to accept help from the “village” in raising us.
Our “village” took the form of extended family, neighbours, teachers, bus drivers, and in my case, my older siblings.
My brother Terry taught me to fish, bought me my first bike, let me be his helper the summer he worked for my grandfather, and was generally the object of my hero-worship.
My sister Carolyn took me shopping, did my hair, and the summer she worked as a student-nurse in Montreal bought me a dress that was the envy of every girl in my grade seven class. She also taught me to jive. I eventually forgave her for letting go of my hand, thus ensuring that I went pelting across the living room and onto the chesterfield. Ha.
My sister Connie made up bedtime stories for me, bought my first artist’s paint set, my first makeup when I was fourteen, and when I was little was always the default babysitter. She too was often recruited to be Carolyn’s jive partner. I must remember to ask her if she ever went flying into the chesterfield.
My Sullivan grandparents hosted me during the school holidays when my mum worked. And even when I was old enough to stay alone, I spent at least a week there in the summer. My grandmother was the fount of endless family stories, taught me to crochet, to love strong tea and good books, and kept our household supplied with books.
My aunt and uncle (Mum’s brother and sister-in-law) and their family lived around the corner from my grandparents. I frequently spent overnights there as well. And my aunt will always stand out in my mind as one of the kindest women in my life back then. Not that my mum and grandmother weren’t kind. But Mum was busy and often stressed. And my grandmother, much as I loved her, was not kindred-spirit material for a sensitive, often fearful, and frequently whiny ten year old. My aunt stepped into the breach, so to speak.
When I started school I met teachers, coaches, and bus drivers I loved. And ones I feared but who taught me much. So yeah, I think I’m lucky to have had such a well-populated village. But sometimes I wonder if I ever told these mentors, guardians, guides through life how much they taught me, and how grateful I am. I doubt it.
As you may or may not know, my husband and I do not have children. I don’t often talk about not having children, but I did write about it here on the blog a couple of years ago. Anyway. Despite not having kids of our own, both Hubby and I, as high school teachers, were privileged to be part of the “village” that raised other people’s children. At least as long as they were in high school.
As teachers we were used to saying goodbye to students upon graduation. Whether we had formed a special bond with that kid or not, we rarely had occasion to encounter them in the years that followed. Oh, we might bump into them for a few years if they stayed in Ottawa for school or work. I met one former student in Australia in 2003. That was a shocker for both of us. Ha.
A couple of years ago, I ran into a former student named Louise who was working as a waitress in a local restaurant. That was a joyous reconnecting on both our parts. What a hoot that kid was. You can read about her here if you’re interested. Sometimes former students came back and worked with me for their student-teacher practicums. That was pretty amazing. But until the advent of social media, most students went off and lived their lives, and we rarely knew the outcome of their life story.
And you know, there are always those kids you never forget. And always wonder about. Louise was one such kid. And the girls with whom I shared coffee and lunch recently are three more. Let me tell you a bit about each of them.
That’s Melanie above. She’s a lawyer now, specialising in human rights law for Canadians with disabilities. “Of course she is,” I thought when I learned that had been her path. She was a really smart kid, with courage and kindness in equal measure. That she has based her entire career around helping those who cannot help themselves doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Melanie and I bonded in Writer’s Craft class. For her final project she told the story of her grandmother who was struggling with Alzheimer’s. I remember trying to read her rough draft through my tears. I also remember that she was always late for my first period class. Over coffee the other day, I asked her if she remembered the time she brought a big box of Fruit Loops (or maybe it was Shreddies) to class in her backpack. Breakfast. Ha. We talked so long on Sunday afternoon, that when I came home Hubby asked if we’d driven to Montreal for coffee. “No,” I said. “We just had a lot to say.” What a wonderful woman Melanie has become. But then again she was a wonderful kid, so I’m not surprised.
This is Allison. She is a comedian who saw the need for a record label that reflected the diversity of talent in comedy. So she started her own “female-centric” label, Howl and Roar. She hosts her own daily radio show “The Breakdown” on SiriusXM. As well as the weekly “BroadCast,” celebrating women in comedy. She is one busy and accomplished lady. Plus, she is funny (d’uh), smart, caring, and wise. So wise.
Back in 2020 when the you-know-what was hitting the fan after George Floyd’s murder, and Black Lives Matter protests were erupting all over the U.S. and even world-wide, this blogger was at a loss as to how to react. How should I use my online platform in a way that was useful and helpful and honest? I reached out to Allison. Her credibility in matters of social justice was well known to me. So I became the student and she the teacher. I wrote about all that in this post. Have a look if you’re interested. I just reread it myself. What a learning experience that was. How freeing to just confess that I did not have all the answers. Or any answers. How great it felt to admit that I had a lot to learn. Still do in fact.
Allison and I met for lunch the other day. We’d been attempting to do this for months. And months. But schedules, hers and mine, Covid, and well… life… intervened. Here we attempt for a third time to take a decent photo of us both. A task which, as she said, was clearly impossible.
That’s Jenny, below. Or Jen as I have to remember to call her now. My first memory of Jen was as a grade nine student with boundless energy and enthusiasm and bright red lipstick. Jen credits me with putting her on the path of journalism. But really, all I did was ask her a question: “How was she planning to use her writing talent after high school?”
She’d never thought of journalism as a potential career, so she tried writing for our school newspaper that year. Thank goodness. I was the staff supervisor for the paper, and she became our star reporter. And she never looked back. A journalism degree, two master’s degrees, one from the London School of Economics and Political Science, a stint at CBC, several years as a foreign correspondent based in Chili, and several more years at the UN… she is now turning her mind to other pursuits and hoping to focus on writing fiction.
And that’s partly what we met to talk about last week. Her current passion. Writing fiction that appeals to girls and young women readers. With a focus on young women around the world who need to be empowered to change their lives. And subsequently change the world, of course.
I am so proud of all these girls. Women, I should say. Proud of their achievements, of course, but also proud of the human beings they have become. And honoured to have been part of the “village” that had a hand in their development. And I’m very grateful to have become privy to their stories. To the paths they have taken post-high-school.
You know back in the nineties when I worked at the school where Melanie and Allison and Jen were students, there was a tradition. Before prom, the graduating class held a drinks reception for grads, parents, and teachers. This was usually held somewhere quite posh; the National Arts Centre was a popular venue. My friend Susan and I always dressed up and attended. We’d sip wine, chat with parents, and see the kids all dolled up in their prom duds. Other than the formal commencement ceremony, this was usually our farewell to the grads.
I remember one particular year, and one particular boy who was graduating. He’d been in my class that semester. And he’d struggled. I can’t for the life of me remember his name. But I can conjure up a clear image of him: tall, lanky, dark-haired, in his rented tux, propelled across the floor by his mother. “Tell her,” she said. He stood there weaving slightly, a couple of drinks under his belt no doubt, and looking embarrassed. His mother rolled her eyes in exasperation, “He’s been saying all evening that he wants to tell you how much it meant to be in your class. Tell her!” I looked at the boy. He swayed, and said, “Ms. Burpee. I just want to say. I just want to say.” His eyes filled with tears. “I just want to say… thanks.”
That’s one of my favourite teacher moments. Makes me well up just writing that. I seem to remember his mum laughing and saying, “I think he can do better than that.” Ha. No need.
So, yeah it takes a village to raise a child. And after all these tales from the village, whether the village which raised me or the village of which I was a part as a teacher, I just want to say… I just want to say… thanks.
I want to say thanks to all those who were part of my village growing up. To all my teachers. My sisters, brother, grandparents. My aunt Carol.
And I just want to say thanks to the parents who sent their kids to our school, to the parents who appreciated what we as teachers could add to the development of their children. Kind of like they were lending their kids to us for the day, and trusting that we, as members of their village, would have wisdom to impart. And thanks to the kids who let us teachers be part of their lives.
And to the ones, like Melanie and Allison and Jen, who came back to say … thanks. You’re welcome. Seriously. It was my great pleasure.
I’ve used up several kleenex trying to write this. Phew. I am officially done for the evening. I need a cleansing glass of wine and a good murder mystery to counteract all the soppiness.
How about you my wise friends? Any villagers that you need to belatedly thank?