A day before the January exams started, my daughter Rachelle was quizzing her friend Malaka’s knowledge of twentieth century world history.
“What nationality was Francisco Franco ?” Rachelle started the interrogation.
Malaka’s eyes darted about, desperate for any kind of hint or clue. She spotted a pastry on the kitchen table.
“Danish ?” she offered up, a little uncertainly.
Rachelle chuckled and shook her head. “Try again.”
“Polish ? I know Poland has something to do with twentieth century world history,” was the next stab in the dark.
Unable to continue with the current questions from the Grade Ten History curriculum, Rachelle decided to change the subject and appeal for help. “Dad, what do you take in Grade Eleven History ?”
I had told her that I had taught for thirty one years, so she figured maybe I had some idea.
“It’s Ancient History… Egypt, Greece, Rome, that sort of thing,” I called out, exhilarated that my life’s calling was now being recognized by at least one of my children. I stood up, ready to move into the kitchen and continue the conversation.
But they were already discussing what they would eat for lunch. I sat down again and re-opened the newspaper. The only consolation that I took was that I had not been Malaka’s teacher for the past four months. But believe me, I had been there and done that.
I thought back to a time twenty years earlier. The French Immersion program had just started at our high school and I was handed the Grade Nine Geography curriculum to deliver ‘en francais’: sedimentary rocks,eskers, moraines, contour lines and manufacturing in southern Ontario. It was a subject of which I knew little and cared less. As for materials, I was handed the twenty six textbooks, direct translations from the English version.
“What about all those curriculum aids that you have in English… magazine articles, games, that sort of thing,?” I inquired desperately, marooned alone on my French Immersion island.
“Feel free to translate ’em,” came the reply from the head of the Geography department. He was a small town Ontario boy who told me that he dropped down into the States instead of crossing through Quebec on his way to the Maritimes every summer. I think I had once accused him of being an anti-French redneck.
Right, I said to myself. So I submitted one article on the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway to a translator friend of mine. It would serve as the material for one lesson.
A week later I handed over the translator’s bill to my redneck department head buddy. It came to $700.
“What’s this ?” Mr. Department Head blustered as he spewed coffee all over some contour maps.
“It’s the bill for one of those articles you told me to translate. That’s not a reasonable amount of extra work.” I didn’t know whether to be terrified or truculent. I had once seen this man throw a coffee cup against his office wall in frustration. The problem had been that one of his more backward students was showing more interest in his lunch than in his lesson. I backed towards the office door and ducked instinctively.
He calmed himself down. “Why don’t you come in to Dan’s classroom tomorrow and see how we teach geography.?” Dan was considered the bellwether of the geography department.
The next day I approached Dan’s desk while he talked with a student. He smiled smugly at me and patted his stack of curriculum aids, piled high on his desk. “This is the unit on Natural Resources…. fishing, mining, lumbering…” he began.
His student interrupted. “That looks interesting,” she offered up, obviously keen on building up some brownie points. “When do we start that unit ?”
Dan shook his head quickly, clearly taken aback at such woeful ignorance. “We just finished that unit,” was his sharp retort.
A year later I was mercifully removed from the geography file and allowed to concentrate on the History department. A few years later my family and I re-located to Ottawa, which had been our desired destination for quite some time.
My new principal handed over my timetable for the upcoming semester. I grabbed the schedule,eager to see what adventures awaited now that I had finally entered the promised land flowing with milk and honey.
“I was delighted to see on your resume that you’ve had experience teaching French Immersion Geography,” she beamed. “Welcome to Nepean High School.”