A Poem Inspired by Learning Together
We tell a story about a mother who is seventy-four
and a daughter who is forty-nine,
adding up time and
along the line between them.
We share an open array of numbers,
imagining parts and wholes,
our strategies exposed by quantities
of numbers decomposing and
constant relationships in our minds
–before even holding a pencil.
Hand over heart we tap
until we see a place
in a string of familiar anchors
and friendly landmarks.
We can count back to see the value, partial
products of flexibility now.
Voices of facts and concepts
and ways to solve
burst with numerate enthusiasm
and joy, seeing how the teacher
draws our thoughts
together on a whiteboard.
We gasp at its simple magnitude.
Most pictures were taken on the south shore, Britt/Byng Inlet.
Some people might call it the woods, but our family has always called it the bush. Rolling granite, moss, and long grasses topped with juniper bushes, birches, maples, and pines extend for many kilometres from my parents’ place across Crown land.
Fall is the best time to go for a hike in the bush. The deer flies, horse flies, and mosquitos are gone. The bears are preparing for winter and most have gone deeper into the bush, beyond where our feet would take us in a day. I’ve never seen a rattle snake in the fall but we have seen other kinds of snakes–grass snakes, water snakes, fox snakes. We know there are wolves in the area but we’ve been lucky. It’s rare to see a wolf during the daytime. Usually it’s winter when the wolves are spotted by the residents. The most worrisome is the hunters. Dad always encourages us to wear bright colours when we go out in the bush in the fall.
Our hike is about 45 minutes each way. It follows a one-lane path or dirt road that cottagers use to get to their remote places. When my dad was a kid he had a family camp at the very end of the path. He remembers when the narrow road was made in the 1960s. Before that they would hike in, walking 45 minutes to an hour with their food and gear.
Sometimes at Thanksgiving it’s just dad, my brother Colin, and I making the trek out into the bush. Other years we have a big group of 15 going. It all depends on the weather, who is visiting, and the timing of Thanksgiving dinner.
Yesterday there were five of us. We decided to drive most of the way. Not everyone is able to hike that far these days.
Usually when we get to “our spot” it is quiet and the silence is the kind that fills you from your feet up through the top of your head. But yesterday was different. As we approached the beaver dam we heard gunshots. Lots of gunshots. Too many to be hunters.
Dad and Colin got out of the car to investigate. I shouted, “I have First Aid but we didn’t cover gun shots!”
Dad said, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing a red hat. They will see me.”
It was skeet shooters. Across the marsh was a big group of young people, as disks shot up into the air they shot at them with a rifle. We could see them. They could see us. They were shooting out in the other direction. It was safe to explore. But the sound of gunshots changed the peaceful silence I love.
Eventually the skeet shooters were done. We were able to soak in the beauty uninterrupted–just as it should be.
Not everyone has a chance to go for a hike in the bush on Georgian Bay in Fall. So I put together a slide show to share some of the photographs I took yesterday:
This summer I decided to attend as much theatre as possible. I wanted to reflect on how audiences responded to diverse titles, how directors used the space, how designers created a visual feast, and how the actors conveyed story in a way that connected with me. What impressed me in this quest was the vitality of theatre, the energy of the performers, the enthusiasm of the audience, and the magic created by the production crews. Theatre in Ontario is dynamic and alive.
The Spirit Garden, Cold Springs
My adventure started in June with The Spirit Garden, composed by R. Murray Schafer and presented by SONG. I’ve always loved outdoor theatre. This show was outstanding. Imagine walking through a path in a farmer’s field in the rolling hills of Northumberland as story and music envelops you from many directions. The show was set at Fifth Wind Farm in Cold Springs and the panoramic views provided the most beautiful backdrop. Schafer’s composition performed by a range of choirs and musicians was so moving to hear outdoors, the sounds echoing those I’ve heard in nature. I had goosebumps for nearly the whole show. This was certainly a special theatre experience and although it was the first show I attended this summer, it is the show that affected me as an audience member most deeply.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Hope
Next I went to see Crazy for You at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope in early July. I first saw this production in the mid-1990s in Toronto (Mirvish). My parents took me for my birthday. In high school I had deconstructed musicals for a major research project, looking at how the story is told through song in both of the acts, and tracing the trends in story structure in musicals from Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I remember watching Crazy for You years ago and thinking about the writing–but only after watching it this summer when I ended up thinking about the writing again. This time I wasn’t thinking just about story structure, but about humour too. I loved how the audiences laughed out loud at the cheesiest puns. It was as though we were looking for a moment to laugh, probably to release the joy inside us from watching the dancing. So as the high energy show rolled on, I had a wonderful time reflecting on comedic timing (in the writing, directing, and acting). I’ll return there at the end of the month to see Mamma Mia.
Driftwood Theatre Group
In the summer of 1999 I worked with Driftwood Theatre Group touring Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night around southern Ontario. It was an incredible experience. So I always try to find time to attend a Driftwood show each summer. There is something almost sacred about outdoor theatre. The breeze, the setting sun, and the open sky all heighten my senses, bringing my whole body into the theatre-space, rather than just my mind. My friend Shelly and I loved this summer’s Taming of the Shrew.
From the talented cast to the fun use of music to the exploration of theme (1980s Pride Week), the show was among my favourite Driftwood plays. The use of the stage fascinated me too: multiple entry points, shaped-boxes as furniture, audience sitting on three-sides. I loved the intimacy this created between the cast and the audience.
The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
My big theatre adventure this summer was to attend The Shaw Festival. I had only been once before as a chaperone on a school trip in 2006 to see Saint Joan. I remember being captivated by the town and Shaw. In university I took an Irish Drama course and studied a number of Shaw’s plays. I love how Shaw can go for the jugular in his writing. He tells a story that is entertaining while provoking the audience to see or think or feel differently.
So I booked a small trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake and brought my 15-year-old nephew with me. Four plays in two days at The Shaw Festival. As he said, “That’s going to be exhausting.” And it was! But we both found it exhilarating too! And the town was also a highlight. Great dining, beautiful flowers, and according to my nephew it was a hotbed of Pokemon Go stops.
First we saw Our Town by Thornton Wilder. We had never seen it before and I felt it was important for our theatre education. I loved the simplistic set, the storytelling to the audience, and the way the play sneaks up on you for an ending that leaves your spine tingling. You know, that whoa moment. Thornton Wilder is a playwriting genius. I get that now. I can see why this play deserves a spot in the theatre canon. At first I was resistant to enter this world of Grover’s Corners. I wasn’t prepared for the simplicity, the pace, the details. By the end of Act One I was hooked. Then by the end of the show I was disappointed to leave this town and these people. The story provides the audience with big spaces for reflecting. Shaw staged a compelling production that continues to haunt me nearly a month later.
Next we went to see The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. It was adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from Bernard Shaw’s short story. This play was a highlight of the festival for both my nephew and I–and our favourite of the four plays, which was a surprise to us both. It was a lunchtime one-act with the running time of about an hour. I had selected it because I’m curious about adaptations and I wanted to see something that was done by a current playwright. From beginning to end this show was outstanding. Natasha Mumba was AMAZING! Truly.
After lunch we attended a matinee performance of Alice in Wonderland. Kudos to the Shaw Festival and Peter Hinton for blowing our minds with the visual splendour of this show. Our jaws dropped many times from the gorgeous sets to the amazing effects. The beginning of the show is highly engaging, however most of the wow moments happen within the first hour so as the story progressed our interest waned a bit. I think it’s the classic story structure idea of building–when a show starts at such a high point of engagement (and for such a lengthy time–nearly an hour of visual surprises) our mind comes to expect it. So when the story is told through ways we expect in theatre (after an hour of surprise) it feels flat. We were glad to see the show and I still recommend it.
Finally, we watched an evening preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street–the play that led us to the Shaw Festival in the first place. I’ve been taking my nephew to plays since he was three. Literally. We’ve seen many productions together over the years. Each year I ask him, “So of all the plays we’ve seen, which is your favourite?”
And he always answers, “The one with the blood.” Macbeth. It was a Driftwood Theatre Group production we attended on the grounds at Trafalgar Castle in Whitby years ago, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged. Sabastian was probably six or seven…very young. He LOVED the Macbeth scene. He NEEDED to see Sweeney Todd.
First we loved that Benedict Campbell played the Stage Manager in Our Town and Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. (In fact, we loved seeing many actors in multiple productions over the two days.) Sabastian also commented on the dramatic transformation of the stage from Alice in Wonderland. It was a fascinating sharing of worlds that you can only get from festival productions.
We were both very tired when the show began (from already seeing three shows…haha!) but within minutes of the show Sabastian turned to me and whispered, “Whoa. I won’t be falling asleep in this one.”
Sweeney Todd was new to him and he loved it (we sang all the way back to the hotel).
My favourite performance was by Marcus Nance who played Judge Turpin. His presence, voice, intensity–all were of Broadway calibre. Sabastian loved Kyle Blair who played an energetic Adolfo Pirelli.
It was an excellent production and our favourite of the big shows we saw at Shaw Festival.
So what is the big take-away from a summer of adventures at the theatre?
Ontario has no shortage of talented theatre-makers, choice of shows, and theatre audiences. Each performance was well-attended. In an age of Netflix and ubiquitous entertainment, I am thrilled to see so many people going out to watch live theatre. Theatre is alive and well in Ontario. I barely scratched the surface on what’s out there. Which shows did you enjoy this summer?
Technology gives us the ability to learn nearly anything. I love that we can access information, processes, and thinking that for many centuries was available only to few. Technology is taking the lid off learning and redefining education.
There is a major shift in the ways we can learn about anything at anytime happening right now! Today. Part of it is due to the evolution of our electronic devices and part of the shift is due to how educators are using the technology to create learning platforms.
John Hattie says that “the computer is not the teacher.” My iPad doesn’t make me smarter, but how I use my iPad could change my life. Innovative teachers are using technology to make the world their classroom and providing access to learning experiences for anyone with a device and Internet connection. Our traditions in education need to change too!
This list is big. Be sure to take it in slowly, coming back to try another hyperlink. I thought about sharing fewer links but changed my mind. One of the best things about online learning is choice. There are so many choices out there!
Here are 7 amazing learning experiences online:
- Google. Most people use Google to research, but are you maximizing what Google can do? Did you know that Google algorithms predict what you are looking for so your search results may be different than someone else’s? Did you know that Google has country codes? Take a free online Google course in Power Searching or Advanced Power Searching or use Google Search Operators to broaden your options. I promise you will find things you didn’t even know were out there!
- Free or very low cost Virtual Schools. Earn Ontario high school credits through the Independent Learning Centre or in the United States try Stanford University High School. But this is the one that has me most excited: Take free online courses from the world’s best universities through edX, a site that has the super power of Harvard, MIT, and other education heavy weights.
- Online workshops, tutorials, and webinars. A number of fabulous sites are popping up with outstanding learning opportunities. From Lynda.com that offers online video tutorials to Udemy that offers more than 32,000 online courses, the opportunities to learn are vast. And many teachers are utilizing these platforms to expand their classrooms. I love that I can create a course on Udemy too (I’ll have to add that to my bucket list). A favourite of many high school teachers is Khan Academy where there is a diverse collection of lessons on a range of subjects (Math, Science, Computer Programming, History, Art, Economics, etc).
- Industry specific professional organizations. In Education there are a number of amazing places to go to learn and connect with educators around the world. The articles posted through ASCD are awesome and if you’re like me and too busy to visit the site, it will come to you. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter so their articles appear in your feed. From collaborative blogs (Connected Principals) to MOOCs to resource databases like Edugains, quality professional learning is no longer limited to which workshops you attend on a PA Day. Seek out your industry’s top learning sites.
- Social Media. I learn a lot from Facebook and Twitter because I try to find people and companies to follow that have something that I need to know. Or I use social media to connect with and engage with other educators. Twitter has some great chat feeds. I really like #amwriting to connect with other writers. My favourites in education are: #onted, #ontedleaders, and #edchat. Many groups will designate a night when everyone is online. You put the hashtag into the search box and follow/respond to each other. Twitter interviews are also becoming common, where an expert is asked questions by a host as well as anyone else who joins in the discussion. Find out where your people are (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and connect. (I find Twitter or Pinterest are the best places to connect with educators right now).
- Technology tools can make learning easier. A current trend in education is blended learning, where some of the learning happens with technology and some of the learning happens face-to-face. Whenever I explore the tools to use with classroom learning my eyes pop out! Truly. Check out Diigo, a site that helps you sort, tag, annotate, and share research. Verso helps to give every student in your class a voice. Edsby is an amazing learning management system our board has just started using. Prism promotes collaborative interpretation of texts and would have been a dream when I was teaching English. The WayBack Machine allows you access news from the day an event happened. Wolfram Alpha is incredible too–it will solve any Math problem and can answer questions in a variety of other subjects. WRITERS: you will love Wolfram Alpha!!!!!
- Text, audio or video content sharing sites. I’ve always been a big fan of Audible for downloading audio books–for me it’s always non-fiction. I’ve recently discovered Sound Cloud a site with lots of new music and podcasts. YouTube has always been a go-to, especially when I get stuck with my technology. There is always a video to bail me out. Blogs are more popular than ever and by subscribing to the ones I love, updates appear in my email inbox. Many people love article collecting apps like Zite or Instapaper or Flipboard too.
The Good News
This summer I spent a lot of time with my cousin who wrote a six-part blog series about collective impact that I followed in August. It got me thinking about how this type of intentional work within schools and within our broader school communities could better support students.
Promoting well-being is a focus in Ontario schools. It includes supporting the whole child: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The most challenging area is mental health.
We have access to more experts and resources than in the history of schooling. We have processes in place to support students in crisis and ongoing training for all staff. There is a lot to celebrate. But I think everyone would agree that there is still more work to do. Our kids still need more.
Many adults in a school may be working independently or as a team to support one child. Each person has a different role to play. Imagine the jobs and skill sets of these people:
- Vice Principal
- Special Education Resource Teacher
- Classroom Teacher
- Guidance Counsellor
- Student Success Teacher
- Child and Youth Work
- Educational Assistant
- School Board Counsellor
- Student Retention Counsellors
- Board Interdisciplinary Team (including a Psychologist and Mental Health Nurse)
- Special Education Consultant
- Behaviour Specialist
- ….and we are part of a special Promoting Mentally Healthy Schools project.
In the community we have access to various services and supports:
- Kinark: Child and Family Services
- Rebound Child and Youth Services Northumberland
- Victim Services
- Highland Shores Children’s Aid
- Northumberland Child Development Centre
- Five Counties Children’s Centre
- Northumberland Hills Hospital
- Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre
- Champions for Youth Mentoring Program
- Local family doctors
I’ve worked with each of these agencies and utilized every support available to help kids and they are all amazing.
Schools have access to resources I fantasized about at the beginning of my career. The new Ministry document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health is fabulous. The much talked-about Health and Physical Education curriculum integrates mental health concepts into all content areas of the Healthy Living strand. Edugains has expanded its resources to include Mental Health resources for teachers. Our board offers staff access to training in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. From CAMH to TAMI to Stomping Out Stigma student groups, we have hit a much needed tipping point for gaining support in schools.
But despite all the agencies, expert support, and caring parents, kids are still in distress and there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness in schools when trying to support students who struggle with mental health issues.
My Big Question
We all want the same thing: healthy whole-hearted children and youth.
I wonder if we’re making an impact. I wonder if we’re missing something. I wonder if there is more we can do. I wonder if we’re trying to do too much too fast. I wonder if we are being intentional enough about the way we are working alone and together. I wonder why sometimes even when a student has access to every support, s/he still suffers every day. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep me up at night.
Is it that more students are struggling or that we’re getting better at noticing? According to an in-depth CBC feature anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. Twenty-two percent of children will be affected by anxiety in their lifetime. The buzz in school staff rooms and on social media is that it feels like more students struggle with anxiety now than in the past and the cases seem much more complex. So it might be both: more students are struggling and more educators are noticing just how complex mental health issues can be.
So my big question is how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
Autonomy AND Collaboration?
This is too big a problem to solve alone. Supporting student well-being is a job for the whole village.
What is my role? I am one person in the village with a specific skill set and knowledge base. We need to better understand the roles of each individual in our village and be clear about what collaboration can look like.
A couple years ago at a high school we tried looking at this with our Student Success Team. On our team were vice principals, guidance counsellors, special education teachers, coop teachers, attendance counsellor, school board counsellor, consultant, and a student success teacher. We met weekly to discuss students who were struggling with academic and socio-emotional issues. Classroom teachers referred names to our team, we collected information, looked for trends, brainstormed supports, and followed-up with the student who needed support. I understood my role as a vice principal but I wanted to know more about the other roles. I wondered if there was overlap or gaps in service.
We created a google-doc and sat around the conference table with our laptops. The headings were something like:
- Name: Jessica
- Role: VP
- Goal: what is the purpose of your job?
- Meetings: what information do you require at a Student Success Meeting to do your job?
- Strategies: what strategies do you use to support students?
- Students: which students do you serve?
- Successes: what works well?
- Challenges: what is most challenging?
We went round-robin and filled in the chart with as much detail as possible. Then I synthesized the trends and patterns into this summary document so we could make decisions about next steps: Reflecting on Student Success Meetings.
This thinking was a good start for our team in being more intentional. Where we fell short was on taking the time to really develop a solid plan from here. We had some great ideas and implemented some changes, but we didn’t have metrics. We needed to return to these questions and better monitor our work along the way. We needed to measure what impact our changes made. The second year would have been crucial in consolidating this thinking/learning and maybe the team continued to refine their collective work but I moved to another school.
Collective Impact as a Possible Solution
If supporting students with mental health issues in schools is something I can’t do on my own, then how will we work together? How will we ensure efficient service delivery? How can we prevent students from falling through gaps in service?
We rely on the strength of home, school, and community partnerships. We rely on the expertise of others–I think that can be the scary part for us as educators. We like to be in control and to support students well we have to acknowledge our limits in schools and trust our community partners. We have to learn what success looks like and even though our hearts cry out that it looks like happiness for all, that may not be realistic. We live in a complex world with complex problems.
The first step is to develop a clear vision and ensure a common understanding. We need to put all our questions out there even if they fly back at us like boomerangs without answers.
Ontario has a comprehensive strategy called Open Minds, Healthy Minds that includes building resilience through schools. Our board has an amazing leadership team supporting schools. I am blessed to work with a dedicated school staff. This collective work has already started and I feel confident that we will all get better at supporting students in time. We need to persevere.
In my humble opinion here are some other things I think we need to start doing together:
- Teach parents how to advocate for accommodations and supports for student mental health issues the way parents have learned to advocate for special education needs. We need to help parents navigate the systems. I want to learn more about what parents need.
- Prioritize meetings with school teams, board teams, community teams, provincial teams, national teams, and/or global teams to strategize how to work together with more intention, to learn from each other, and to check for gaps or overlaps in services. (Perhaps we need collective impact consultants like my cousin to bring teams together. An outside facilitator can help us stretch our thinking, build trusting relationships, and bring more purpose to our work).
- Communicate better what everyone is doing to support mental health issues in children and youth…and in a simple, efficient way. (Some days I feel I don’t have enough information and others I’m on information overload).
- Leverage technology to build online learning communities that include stakeholders learning together and problem-solving from various perspectives. I know these must exist but the people I know don’t know where they are. We need to know. I would love a safe, confidential forum to discuss student well-being with other school leaders and experts as need arises.
- Plan for how to support students in moments of crisis at school and to support students with ongoing mental health issues. (I am learning how to support students in moments of crisis, but I am unclear of my role as an educator when a student demonstrates a mental health issue over time–from months to years.)
- Learn how to better cope or where to go next when nothing changes when interventions are utilized. How do we know when we’ve done enough? As one doctor told me, mental health issues can be fatal. I struggle with accepting that. I struggle with knowing what to do when a student is receiving treatment but we are not seeing changes at school and years pass–this is why we sometimes feel helpless. We want our support to lead to change and sometimes it doesn’t.
I’m optimistic that in my lifetime we will continue to see more supports for children and youth. I’m optimistic that educators will feel more confident in the role they can play in supporting student well-being. I’m optimistic that if we are more intentional within our schools and communities good things will come. We will reach another tipping point.
Questions are good. Let’s start there. And my question remains: how can we use a collective impact model to support student well-being?
The answer lies in our collective commitment to action. Commitment is a promise to do or to give something. Are you committed or just interested? We need people who are going “to do or to give” sitting at the table. What are you willing and able to do or to give? We each have a role in this village.
The Lamondin family has lived in Britt, Ontario since the beginning of Britt’s history. I’ve heard stories about when Britt was a logging town, when the coal docks were the centre of activity, when the railway was installed, when electricity arrived, and when the lighthouse became automated and no longer required a keeper. As my parents drive up and down the Britt road, they recite histories of the buildings and the families, sometimes going back a hundred years.
My grandfather, William Lamondin, lived at Gereaux Island Lighthouse as a child. His father, Louis Lamondin, was the lighthouse keeper there for at least 29 years. My grandfather died before I could ask him about his experiences there. It was so much a part of the family story that no one talked about life at the lighthouse much.
Grandpa’s sister, Bernice, also lived in the lighthouse. We were lucky to spend lots of time with her each summer. I often asked her to tell me stories about her life growing up in Britt and living in a lighthouse. In June 2002 I took notes on our conversation. Aunt Bernice was in her eighties at the time. Here is what my great-aunt Bernice shared:
Aunt Bernice’s grandfather, Joseph Normandin (1835-1912), piloted the first ship into the Britt Harbour. She didn’t remember the name of the ship or the year and I haven’t been able to find any sources to verify this. Joseph Normandin became the first keeper of the Gereaux Island Lighthouse in May 1875.
The year he was born, Joseph moved to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island as a displaced Metis family. (His father, Joseph Normandin Sr. (a Voyageur born in Quebec, 1797), describes the move in a documented oral history. And it’s likely that Joseph Sr.’s father was also named Joseph Normandin and a Voyageur.
In 1858 Joseph Normandin Jr. married Scholastique Berger (1839-1923) in Simcoe, Ontario. It is likely that they moved north to find work and they were probably in the Britt/Byng Inlet area from the beginning of its history in the late 1860s when the sawmill was built. Other families had also moved from the Penetanguishene area during this time too.
Joseph Normandin and Scholastique Berger had six children:
- Charles Napoleon Normandin (1863-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- Marie Josephine Normandin (1866-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
- George Normandin (1872-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Gregoire Normandin (unknown)
- Jean David Normandin (1874-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
- Louis Normandin (1877-1948); born in Byng Inlet
- Adelia Normandin (1879-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
In the records, the family name can appear as Lamondet, Lamondin, Narmandin, and Normandin. Even my grandfather, William, often interchanged between Normandin and Lamondin.
I wonder if the name changed because the family felt out of place. After generations of living in a community of Métis people in Michigan, the family was given land but not jobs in Penetanguishene. I wonder if they tried to hide their Métis heritage by using “Lamondin” to appear more French and less Métis. Or maybe I’m over thinking this and it was simply a family feud among siblings trying to create space in a small town by changing their name. Or maybe it was just bad spelling skills!
Aunt Bernice’s father, Louis Lamondin (1877-1948) lived in Britt all his life. He worked at the lighthouse for about 30 years. Aunt Bernice says Louis was upset and disappointed when his term as keeper came to an end in 1946. Perhaps at 69 years old, the work was getting too challenging for him to manage. He didn’t want to retire. Louis wanted to keep working.
Some other details:
- At some point Louis worked as a Tug Captain for the lumber mill Graves Bigwood.
- Aunt Bernice talked about how he won a sail ship race and received a silver medal.
- During the winter, Louis worked for a lumber camp in Britt (located behind St. Amant’s current store).
- He earned $62 per month to feed the whole family.
- Louis and Cecilia (1888-1966) had five children: Alcide, William (my grandfather), Florence, Ernest, and Bernice (1921-2012).
- Louis was a self-educated man. Cecilia only learned to write.
At the Lighthouse:
- In the early 1900s, when the railway came to Britt, the town became a centre for coal. Louis would notify the coal docks when he could see boats six miles away. He would keep the town posted on their whereabouts so they could be greeted and receive help with tying. (There was a big boom on the coal ship, a deck hand would jump from it as it swung to the dock to tie the ship.) The coal served all of Northern Ontario. Sometimes there were up to 5 ships at the coal docks in Britt. Aunt Bernice remembers going to the coal docks to play, sliding down the coal dumps in her new silk pants.
- Louis hauled five gallons of gasoline up the lighthouse stairs. She described it as an inside and outside staircase.
Childhood Memories at the Lighthouse
Aunt Bernice said they sometimes ate seagull eggs as they were “very poor.” The eggs were grey in colour and some eggs had real seagulls in them. (We always wondered if this was a long “I remember when I was your age” story like the classic walking to school six miles in the snow story.)
When they were on the island, they used ashes to brush their teeth. The kids bathed in big metal tubs; the water had to be carried in jugs from an outdoor waterhole.
The kids began working at a young age. Her brother, Alcide, began working in the tower at the coal docks at 10 years old. He would dump coal from the ship into a moving car (that went by like as a conveyer belt). My grandfather, William, would take the cars of coal and help dump the coal into train cars. The boys made 20 cents an hour and when they came home they were all black, covered in coal from head to toe.
Louis put a swing for the children in the boathouse on Gereaux Island. The kids would swing for hours on a rainy day. Louis also made candy out on the rocks. He boiled water and added brown sugar, waiting until the sugar was stringy. He put the mixture outside in a puddle in the granite. Then he would pull and pull and pull. He broke off a piece of candy for everyone. Aunt Bernice said it tasted like caramel.
Her brother, Earnest, sometimes tied a string to a leg of a huge turtle. When Aunt Bernice was a little girl she would stand on the back of the turtle and Earnest would lead her around the island, taking her for a turtle ride. The boys also played with snakes as though they were pets. Turtles, snakes, fish, rock, windblown spruces, water, and each other were all they had to pass long summer days.
Louis would often make eggs for the kids. He’d put the eggs on toast. When the eggs were ready, Louis would clang a pot and yell, “Okay snakes and rabbits, chicken ass on toast!”
They all slept in one room in the lighthouse. They ate a lot of local fish, so much so that Aunt Bernice wouldn’t eat fish as an adult for many years.
Aunt Bernice went to a school that was in the same location as the current Britt school. It had three rooms for Grade 1-8. She remembers there being 3 teachers. It was common for students to skip grades. After Grade 8, Aunt Bernice took extra lessons at the school in Latin, French, Geometry, and Algebra. Aunt Bernice wanted to continue her education by becoming a nun. It cost $54 to buy a habit to be able to join the convent. Unfortunately, the family didn’t have the money for a nun’s habit to help her achieve her dreams of becoming a teacher or a nurse.
The local youth went to weekly dances hosted on Salem’s Island, not far from the lighthouse. Boat access only.The island dances always fascinated me. Aunt Bernice talked about these the most over the years.
While her brothers worked at the coal docks, Aunt Bernice worked at the local store for 10 or 15 years. She said she worked for $20 a month and worked 14 hour days. After she got married she negotiated 6 hour work days and $75 a month wage.
Aunt Bernice spent a lot of her time sitting in a docked boat at Gereaux Island, watching the ships roll into Byng Inlet. She ended up marrying a ship boat Captain, an American named Art Armstrong. She had only danced with Uncle Art a few times before he proposed.
Dad took us out on a beautiful August evening for a sunset cruise around Gereaux Island Lighthouse. What makes the water look like a mirror? Why do sunsets feel so much like coming home?