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.

The human-rights lawyer.

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.

The comedian, entrepreneur, and radio personality.

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.

Take two trying to get a good photo of both of us.

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.

We finally gave up. Ha.

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.

The journalist, author, and university lecturer.

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.

Okay. Enough.

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?

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62 thoughts on “Tales from the Village”

  1. Your introspective posts are my favourite. Posts where you weave a tale around your life & experiences , bringing us up to the present day . You must have been an inspiring teacher . One who felt there was much more to education than getting the most letters after your name & earning the highest salary . You must be very proud of the young people you set on their way .

  2. This is such a beautiful post. It made me cry, too. We have something in common, too, in that I don’t have children. (I appreciated your linked piece and am very much on the same page about it.) I joke that I can own more clothes because I have climate credits having not overpopulated the earth, although of course it is a much more serious issue that I have thought about in great depth.

    I spend a lot of time mentoring younger employees and have many young friends. My life is rich with connection, as it was as a child. I loved my grandmothers, with whom I spent a great deal of time, and looked up to my brilliant aunt and uncle, the environmental scientists.

    The most influential people in my life, apart from family, have been women without children who pursued passionate lives and provided me with so much wisdom (diplomats, artists, generally wise women). One of my favourites was the calculus teacher who taught me through high school. I was going through a very difficult time with a terminally ill parent as a teen. She nurtured my math capabilities and nurtured me. I would not have the career I have now had it not been for her. I will never forget one time that she was working with another student and she overheard me putting myself down in some way. She looked over her glasses at me and said, “There will always be someone else ready to do that for you. Never do that to yourself.”

    I tried to find her a few years ago to say thank you thank you thank you. I discovered online that she had worked as a statistical officer for a federal election ten years earlier, so knew that she was in the same town, at least at that point. I reached out to the school board and asked them to connect me with someone who could send a note to her from me, but they never followed up. I was very sad about that. Her name is a rather common one in the area where she lives and so it’s never been clear that there’s an obvious way to find her, although I suppose I could send letters to multiple addresses!

  3. I enjoyed reading about the students you mentored and the tributes to those who had similar roles in your own life. I think that one of the advantages of getting older is having the distance and time to ponder such things. Thank you.

  4. As a former lower elementary school teacher, I enjoyed this post. My school was a K through 12 situation so I was able to follow many of my second graders through to graduation. Now, I’m thankful to social media for allowing me to keep in touch with former students. At age 82 and long retired, it is a joy to read about their life journeys. Just this week, a former student posted a photo of his son on the first day of second grade. It brought back many memories of this lovely dad during his own second grade year. Thank you for your words and memories!

    1. Thanks, Jan. You definitely saw. kids at a different stage of their development than I did. Lovely to see your student’s son at the same age as when you taught his dad.

  5. In days of yore, I had one student ask me why I had no children. “I looked at the grade book and replied I have 135,isn’t that enough?” When one is a teacher,one does not need lots of children.It is a huge family with all the vriaints! However most of the ones i run into married early, have big families of their own,BUt a few are shining stars. dont’ know about the ones I still wonder about. BUt i may find out soon.

  6. Oh the joy of reading about your perspective of being a teacher. I of course remember specific teachers who were prominent in my young life – the one who I can’t remember her name, but she told really scary stories in class; to the one who instilled the times-table into me at age 7-9 – but who made it fun. (I have reconnected with a girl from those days recently, and her memory is far different to mine! LOL. Time is a very strange thing and memories mixed into time is even more complicated.). Plus the male teacher who had just left uni and made the English exam reading much more interesting (Hobsons Choice, Merchant of Venice and Lucky Jim!!!. NB: I’m in England!)
    I enjoyed reading this – I’m a bit behind on all your blogs over the last few months, as we’ve had our busiest summer yet – I’ll catch-up over the autumn and winter! (NB: We run a B&B and Campsite, with wedding venue – so we’ve been hosting weddings postponed due to you-know-what!) 😉

    1. Lucky Jim… what a funny book that was. I still can conjure up an image in my mind of the character Jim trying to speak in front of parents after too many glasses of sherry. Good luck with the rest of the summer, Fiona.

  7. Also a childless retired high school English teacher here. Your piece captured exactly the joy of relationships with former students. One young man has made himself our son, checking on us periodically, giving his daughter our last name as her middle name, never forgetting birthdays. It’s a great honor to be thought of with respect and fondness by students we sometimes didn’t think were even paying attention.

    1. OK. I want to make an edit to my post. I just read your post about not having children of your own, and I see that you are not fond of the term “childless.” Fair point. After all, we are part of the village, and as teachers we had hundreds of children. The term “childless” does not bother me, but plenty of other attitudes related to the topic have!

  8. I am so jealous of your family1 I’m an only child and both parents were only children. There were no aunts or uncles, no siblings and even no grandfathers so I missed all that support. We moved a lot so not even long time friends to fill the gaps. I did marry and have my two boys who, at least at this point, have chosen to be childless. To be truthful, I’m a bit sad about that, but it is their choice.
    In my 40’s I changed careers and became a college professor and what a joy to be with young people on their way out into the world. Some I keep in touch with and some I just wonder (and worry) about. It’s amazing to watch them establish careers and families, to be invited to weddings and baby showers, to write recommendations and, best of all, receive notes about how much my classes meant to them. I do feel part of a larger community.

  9. Your experience reminds me so much of my sister who spent her entire 30+ year career as a kindergarten teacher. There isn’t a time when I am visiting her that we don’t run into some of her former students. Most of them give her a hug when they see her. I’m always amazed that she knows them by name and then she launches into sharing with me something special about them. She taught 3 generations! She clearly was loved by her students. She was asked to be the commencement speaker by one of her classes when they graduated from high school. She has been invited to so many graduation parties, weddings and other monumental events in her students lives since they have become adults. During most of her teaching career, kindergarten was still half days. She averaged between 40 and 60 students each year, so you can do the numbers of how many students she had. A few years ago, she received a letter from a man who had been her student, telling her the difference she had made in his life. I know it makes her feel good to know the impact she made in their lives.

    1. When I first retired and shopped in the same community where I had taught I ran into kids and their parents all the time. Less so now that all the students I taught have mostly graduated from postsecondary education and left home. I kind of miss that.

  10. This is such a beautiful post, I don’t have children of my own but am blessed to have two-step children, two grands and two nieces and one nephew. All of which I try to help and mentor whenever I can. I am lucky because my family is a village, I have 9 aunts and uncles blue their spouses and 21 cousins and that is just on my mothers side.
    AS for teachers, I think we all have at least one that has impacted us in one way or another. All teachers are special but there is always one that imprints on our hearts.

  11. Interesting that having child-free adult children, meaning no grandchildren, is also conversation-stopping I find.

  12. What an absolutely lovely, intelligent and well-expressed post. As a sister of two and mother of 4 daughters, each of whom has made a different choice about having children, I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I do love the word choice! I also enjoy reading your older posts and feel grateful that you, and a few other women bloggers that I love to read, are so adept and honest at sharing your personal thoughts and beliefs, trials and errors, happy successes, travels, hobbies, and clothing adventures with your many, mostly unknown, followers. You are part of our “village”, and I am older than you, perhaps more than you know! Thank you.

    1. Thanks for that, Marcie. Like when I was teaching, I am mindful that what I write can have unintended effects. Hopefully good ones… but I’m sure there are women out there who have clicked away in exasperation. 🙂

  13. Dear Sue,
    Your passionate way of being gave birth to so many. May your continued nourishing of your “village children” give you joy in all that unfolds.

    With loving admiration,
    Diney now on Mercer Island

  14. Beautiful post, Sue! It reminds me of a number of my ex-colleagues who played an important part in raising young women, in particular. Young men as well, sure, but it was the young women especially who often got their first glimpse of possibilities for a satisfying life that wasn’t necessarily predicated on having children. Or being married. Or having a boyfriend, or girlfriend. Or conforming in whatever ways they’d so far believed they must.
    One of my own biggest regrets about having moved, twice now, from communities in which I’d taught for many years, is that I’ve lost the opportunity to bump into former students easily, as you do in smaller cities. Wonderful to read about the relationships you’ve sustained all these years since retirement, obviously enjoyable to both (former) student and (former) teacher.
    And somehow I’d never read your linked piece from May 2018 — it’s also very good, important, I think, and deserves to be posted again from time to time or linked to as you did today. xo

    1. Thanks so much, Frances. I love that I have reconnected with old, old friends who still live in Fredericton, and even those who have moved back. My two best friends from high school have both moved back to N.B. I hope you are enjoying your blog break, my friend. 🙂

  15. I love this! My high school English teacher had a great impact on my writing development. I was able to propel myself through a couple of careers and a university degree using what she taught me. I was so pleased to meet her a couple of years ago at the school’s “50 years as a school” event and I thanked her for what she had taught me and how that had impacted my life. Having later worked at a university I understand the impact teachers can have on students, but also how much we, as teachers, learn from our students too.

  16. Oh my, what a moving post! I was not as fortunate as you to grow up near my extended family, but cross-country road trips to visit the relatives were the only vacations we could afford on my dad’s teacher’s pay (because kin could be counted on to put us up and feed us). Mom’s family all lived in a small Kentucky town where, once we arrived, we kids could wander as we pleased between the homes of our two aunts and our grandmother. My two cousins weaned me from wearing shoes, cut my hair into stylish bangs, forced me to climb on a horse, and introduced me to soap operas (which they called “the stories”). All we needed to do was report in to our parents by the end of the day and confirm at whose house we planned to sleep. It was heaven to feel so free.
    Dad was an educator for 40+ years. One of the most touching letters we got when he passed in 2009 came from a former high school student who said his life had been forever changed for the better as a result of Dad’s guidance. From a young man on the verge of failing school, he went on to a career in engineering. It’s one of the only sympathy cards I kept.
    I’m still in touch with my three favorite teachers from high school, fifty years after graduating.
    We all have the capacity to be part of a village if we focus on what binds us rather than what separates us.

  17. Sue, your experiences and mine are identical!

    My husband and myself did not have children ( not by choice) and I was in secondary education for 30 years. It makes me feel so happy when I encounter a former student. Those moments are what makes me happy I chose a career in education. In my opinion, teachers (caregivers, service, etc) are not given the respect they deserve.

    At times I also become sensitive when referred to as “what do you know, you’ve never had children.” Do those individuals even consider that I managed more children than they will ever have to? A minimum of 25 (usually plus) at a time, for each class period!!!!

    A very wise friend’s response to someone who had said to me the no children statement, “It doesn’t take a carpenter to know a good table!”
    Bless her

    Thanks for your thoughts. We live hundreds of miles apart (I live in Texas) but I feel we are kindred souls!

    Have a great week😊

  18. An uplifting and tear-inducing post. It was a joy to read stories of what some of your former students are achieving. Thank you – for the post, for your love of teaching and your valuable contribution to the lives of so many young people.

  19. Those three wonderful women you introduced us to make me hopeful for my own grandkids in this crazy world of ours. Thank you for giving us that and for the journey you took us all on, reminding each us of to be grateful to those who helped us along the way and to continue their work by passing it on.

  20. Thank you for such a wonderful blog post. All are now great role models for the next generation, having learned from you. I have made it a point to track down several people from my “childhood village” to say thanks ( all seemed surprised to learn they had such an impact). I regret not starting sooner as my 2+Girl Scout leaders passed young. Thanks again.

  21. Wow! Thank you for sharing your student stories. How great to have been able to connect with and spend time with them as adults. I have taught with several former students (one of them is now a Superintendent of Schools,) one is a singer-songwriter in Nashville, another is an award-winning photographer, and so on. I do not claim any influence in their career choices, I just revel in their success.
    My village was my best friend’s family, primarily her mom. She was also my Girl Scout leader. Because she is 93, I have thanked her for teaching me to make hospital corners when making a bed, and how to make a fire that does not fizzle out (it’s all about the kindling,) taking me camping with the family, and to church to sing in the choir after college.
    You have said what I’ve been thinking as back-to-school season is underway. One story: I sometimes run into former students (I was an elementary teacher) in our area, much smaller than Ottawa, to be sure. Sometimes I can recognize the student, usually the girls, but sometimes I need a name from the boys. I do say in that instance, “In my defense, you did not have a beard in 3rd grade.” Thanks for sharing. Carol in VT

  22. Sue
    I love reading your blog.
    What a wonderful connection for all of your students. I feel the same. You never know what life you are changing as you go along in your job and in life.
    I am not sure why but I am having a very hard time staying engaged in the book you suggested…”Still Life” I get tired, I put it down and go back to read over and over.
    I cannot keep the characters straight.
    I am disappointed as I usually love your suggestions. Maybe something is wrong with me.

      1. I, too, adored the book “Still Life”, and was happily anticipating some shared fondness for it when I suggested it for my book club. I don’t think I can describe how stunned I was when at least half the group hated it… no, they HATED it…and for the same reasons as Judy mentions above. It was a gift of a book to me but obviously not for them. “Good books” are not a universal choice but a personal taste I guess.

        1. You’re right, Susan. I’ve had the same reaction at time from my book club to books I adored. Pure hatred. Ha. Totally NOT the reaction that I would have predicted. 🙂

  23. Thank you Sue, big hugs from my neck of the woods. You wrote this post days ago and I am finally reading it. Up at the crack of dawn, getting ready to go take care of newest granddaughter. My grandmother was the hugest part of my village, I miss her daily. I try to be the best Grumma I can to all my granddaughters because of her. Personally, you have been part of my village since I found your blog at the beginning of covid…thank you.

  24. Sue,
    What a wonderful, wonderful post. I’m a little teary and so glad that I headed over to high heels this evening. I’m so glad that you’ve connected with those three amazing women and former students.
    It does, indeed, take a village and we are all the better for it. I recently read a great article called Oxygenate the Family Unit and it was about how letting others participate in the raising of our children is such a good thing. I reminisced about our next door neighbors and how glad I was that our son was able to be part of their lively, joyful family. I mention it in this post: https://seasaltandsailorstripes.com/its-the-weekend-257/.
    How lucky you were to have a large family to participate in your childhood and to help your mother out. Everyone had something unique to contribute.
    I left home as a teenager and lived with the family of a classmate. They couldn’t have provided more support and comfort and I will always be grateful for my little village. They remain part of my village to this day.

  25. Such a timely post, Sue. Today, I had lunch with a former student and her toddler son. It was a great time of catching up and remembering why she was such an outstanding student…and, just a thoroughly wonderful person. 💕
    I remember during my last days before retirement, some students insisted I join something new called Facebook. I told them no. “Then how will we stay in touch for you?” Thankful they logged me on and how they continued to stay in touch.
    Such a blessing for a retired teacher!!

  26. Well, I am the granddaughter, daughter, sister, and aunt of teachers, so . . . this resonated. Thanks!
    (If you’ve never read “In Praise of Teachers” by Mark Medoff, in the New York Times, I recommend it. Of course I do: he describes my father, Fred Shaw, perfectly.)

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