Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


30 and not-yet-out


Me in my first teaching job in 86-87 — a snap from the Kingsway yearbook

I started teaching in September 1986, three weeks before my twenty-first birthday. I taught high school English and History at Kingsway College, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Oshawa, Ontario. I was young and naive and did everything wrong, but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey as a teacher.

When I walked into my classroom at The Murphy Centre this September, it marked the thirty-year anniversary of the first time I stood in front of the classroom as a teacher.

For a teacher here in Newfoundland, that anniversary has some weight. For a long time the set-up for teachers with the public school board here in the province has been “thirty and out,” meaning that after 30 years of teaching, you can retire and draw your full pension.

So, this would be it. I’d be done, finished, retired with a full pension while I’m still young and healthy enough to do lots of writing and travel, or even take up a second career. I’d be livin’ the dream.

Except I’m not. Not living that particular dream, the one where I retire at age 50.

In order to get “thirty and out,” you’d have to have been teaching in the public school system here in the province for all those years, consecutively. I think if you take maternity leave, that time counts towards your years of service, but other than that you have to have been working all that time. And that’s not what my career path has looked like.
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Too Many Funerals

If you live in the St. John’s area, you’ve probably heard by now this heartbreaking news story in which well-known local actors Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard talk publicly about the mental illness and suicide that took the life of their son, Louis, at age 28. If you’re not familiar with the story, please click that link and read (or listen to the audio) what this courageous family has had to say about a loss that people all too often cover up with shame.


Parents who lose a young adult child to cancer or a car accident are devastated, but open about their grief. They talk about it; they mourn; sometimes they start foundations. Parents who lose a child to suicide all too often feel that it’s not acceptable for them to talk publicly about how their child died, and I applaud Andy and Mary-Lynn for talking so openly about something so painful.

I didn’t know Louis Bernard; I met him a couple of times several years ago and thought he seemed like a bright, charming young man. Our acquaintance was so brief I can hardly say I felt his loss, except in that it echoed for me with the too-many other losses I’ve seen families go through. There’s no “right” amount of funerals for teenagers and young adults you should have to attend, because the only acceptable amount would be none. But I’ve been to more than my fair share as a teacher, especially since I’ve started teaching the the Murphy Centre, where the population of young people I meet is a little more high-risk than the average high school population. There have been too many funerals, and too many of those have been for young people who took their own lives, often after a struggle with mental health that leaves their families looking, sounding, and no doubt feeling, like refugees from a war zone.

One of the powerful points Andy Jones makes in that interview is that relative to other fields of health care, mental-health care “is still back in the 17th century.” While that’s obvious hyperbole (in the 17th century mentally ill people were nearly always just locked up, while today only some mentally ill people are locked up) it pinpoints an important truth; we understand far less about the brain, what can go wrong with it, and how to treat it, than we do about other parts of the body. And there is still far more stigma associated with mental illness than with other kinds of illness.

Mental illness is poorly understood and poorly treated in general (though of course improvements in treatment are being made all the time). It’s particularly devastating in children and young people, I think, because the impact of mental illnesses on their developing brains is even less understood. Also, I think, because teenagers have a strong tendency to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs, which complicates the mental health issues even further to the point where addiction-vs-mental-illness often becomes a real chicken-and-egg problem. Another thing to remember as you read or hear Louis Bernard’s story is that his is, in many ways, a best-case scenario, in that he obviously had parents who were aware of his issues, not in denial about the fact that their child was mentally ill, and were willing and able to advocate for him. Can you imagine what going through this hellish nightmare is like for a young person who doesn’t have family support?

I don’t know much about the medical or social-work aspects of how our society deals with mental illness, but one thing I do know is the school system, and I know that our school system has virtually nothing in place to deal with young people struggling with mental illness.  Think about the supports we have in place for young people with learning disabilities. If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia, the public school system has a whole array of resources and accommodations that are supposed to be put in place to help him or her — extra time for writing tests, the ability to have tests read to you and answers scribed, access to audiobooks, support from a language specialist, etc. Now, I realize that young people who have learning disabilities (or their parents) will be quick to tell me that these supports are not always put in place as and when they should be, and school systems vary widely in how effectively they actually use these supports. I get that there’s a lot of room for improvement.

But what gets me frothing at the mouth is that in the case of learning differences, at least a structure exists, even if there’s room for improvement in how it’s applied. With mental-health issues, none of this exists. When your junior-high student is diagnosed with depression or severe anxiety, there is no “Pathway” to send them down within the school system. There’s no ready-made list of accommodations for the school administration to look at and say, “What resources can we call on to help this student?”

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On Banning Books

It’s Banned Books Week! Or … is it? Yes, it is. But it seems just as we don’t all agree on what make a good book, we also don’t agree on what we mean when we say “banned” books.

Last night I threw a couple of tweets about BBW out into the twittersphere. I tweeted that, purely by coincidence, I was teaching the oft-challenged To Kill a Mockingbird during Banned Books Week. I also tweeted that I’d loaned a student a copy of John Green’s Looking for Alaska and asked, “Has that ever actually been banned?”

I got two responses to the tweet about Looking for Alaska. One was from John Green himself, who with admirable economy of Twitter characters, simply replied, “Many times.”

I’ll admit I got all lightheaded and fangirly when I saw that John Green had responded to one of my tweets (and rushed off to brag to my teenaged son, the one who loaned me Looking for Alaska in the first place). I mean, it wasn’t quite as exciting as if Harper Lee had tweeted back to me about To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was right up there in my list of exciting Twitter moments.

The next time I checked Twitter, another user had responded quite differently to the same tweet, simply with the word “No.” By way of elucidation he directed me to this webpage, a blog called “Safe Libraries” which seems to be dedicated to attacking the American Library Association and the concept of Banned Books Week in particular. Essentially they’re saying no, almost none of the books celebrated during “Banned Books Week” are actually banned; they have simply been challenged, usually by parents who have a right to voice an opinion on what their children read. Reasonable enough … isn’t it?

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My Life in Comix

We’re one week into the new school year (albeit with a missed day already for a hurricane) and it’s the usual mix of crazy-busy and fun. Last week I saw the following cartoon making the rounds among some of my teacher friends’ Facebook pages:

It’s pretty funny, but I’m lucky enough to be able to say I don’t really relate to this one. I love my job, my co-workers, and my students at The Murphy Centre so much that I actually do look forward to the first day of school … on that level. It’s fun to get back into the classroom in September, see my former students again and get to know the new ones. Since I started teaching there I’ve never dreaded the onset of school, even though I ALSO love my vacations.

I also don’t relate to the common theme of moms being glad the kids are going back to school.

(Yeah, I know this one’s not a comic, per se. But it is a popular sentiment).

Of course, since I’m going back to school myself it’s not like I’d be having the house to myself anyway. And yes, there are some hassles with having the kids home all day, every day in summer — mainly the sibbling squibbling and the “I’m bored” phenomenon — but despite those things I have always genuinely enjoyed hanging out with my kids in the summer. And most importantly, ANY hassles that summer vacation brings are infinitesimal compared to the school year grind of getting  them out of bed early, making sure they have school lunches, making sure homework gets done, dropping off, picking up, etc etc etc. And then getting home after work and trying to get everything done while preparing a meal that meets some kind of basic nutritional standards …

Oh yeah. In September, THIS is the cartoon I most relate to:

I guess we’ve all got some things to rejoice about, and some things to complain about, as another school year gets underway. Whatever your September brings, may you have a great one!


School’s Out … for the Rainy Season

School’s out! A time of relaxation, fun, joy, wonder and delight for this teacher and mom of school-aged kids. I love my job, but dislike the routine of getting everyone out the door to work and school each morning, so those last days of school are always precious, beckoning me towards two months of relaxation and a break from the routine.

This year, though, I didn’t have the usual elation on the last day of school. Could it have had something to do with this?

Yes, I know in a world of deadly tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes it’s petty to complain about a little rain, drizzle, and fog. And I know I’ve spent 46 consecutive Junes here (even the years when I lived away, I was always home for all or part of the month of June), so I know it’s generally pretty bleak compared to June in the rest of the world. But when it’s the 25th of June and there have been 22 days of rain … not warm summer rain, or rain showers interspersed with sunshine, but for the most part solid, grim, cold rain-drizzle-and-fog day after dreary day — well, it begins to tax the spirit.

It’s an interesting example, really, of how one single factor can shape attitude. After all, what’s different from any other end-of-June? I’m still getting two solid months off work, and as a teacher who works hard and enjoys teaching, I’m not going to lie to you, that’s a sweet deal. I still get my kids at home with me every day for two months. I still have the opportunity to sleep in during the mornings and do more of the things I want to do in the daytime. But my mood is different just because the sun, which is always shining , is temporarily obscured by a blanket of cloud.

Actually, I have this theory that Newfoundlanders are at heart a very primitive people. Just as, supposedly, our ancient ancestors had rituals at midwinter to entice the sun to come back lest they be lost in eternal darkness, I think every “spring” (and I use the term loosely) Newfoundlandes have a very basic fear that summer will not come, and the longer the warm weather and sunshine delays, the deeper our fear that this will be it — the year we finally won’t get any summer at all.

We always get a little. The scattered good day in July if nothing else. It just takes faith, sometimes, to keep believing it will come.

But now that school’s out, when it does come, I’ll be ready.


Sticky Notes

Since I posted my very minimalist Remembrance Day post a week ago, I’ve been kind of in shock, trying to cope with some terrible news that came in a phone call on the morning of the holiday. My boss, Tim, said, “You know if I’m calling you at this hour in the morning it can’t be good news,” and went on to tell me that one of my co-workers, Jeff, had died suddenly overnight. He had been at work the day before, apparently in fine health, so it was a complete shock.

(this is a pic of Jeff and me with our student Emily … it’s rare for staff to be in pictures together, though we get a lot taken with our students, so I’m grateful to Emily for pulling us together for this shot a couple of years ago).

This is the second time in just over a year that we’ve had this kind of news at work — another of our teachers, Bren, died suddenly on the Labour Day weekend last year.  Both men were dedicated teachers who were dearly loved both by colleagues and students. Jeff’s loss really made me reflect on what phenomenal teachers I work with. I know there are extraordinary teachers in all areas of the profession, and I’ve taught with some great ones. But before I came to my present job I had never met teachers who were so willing to go the extra mile for students, and who engaged with young people on so many levels.

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Loss in the Time of Internet

One of the weirdest things about this wired world we find ourselves in is that thanks to connections through blogs, discussion boards and Facebooks, you can find yourself mourning the loss of someone you’ve never met in real life.

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that I end up reading a very diverse array of blogs, often because of fictional characters I’m writing about. I don’t read people’s blogs to get ideas, as much as to test the character’s voice in my head against the voices of real-life people in similar situations, to ask, “Would a person like this really think/say that?”

I told you awhile ago that one of my odder research journeys had led me to reading weight loss blogs written by morbidly obese young  men, and when I posted about that before I shared a link to the blog of a guy called FLG (Kepa) who had an amazing success story to share (with a romantic twist for good measure!).

Success stories like Kepa’s are heartwarming and inspiring. Not everyone’s story ends that way.

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