Long ago, in another time and place -- seems now like another universe as well as another century -- I was an Ontario high school teacher, in places as diverse as Oakville, Scarborough and Timmins. I taught English and Theatre Arts and what was then called Mass Media -- remember those days?
In the decades since then, I've been much happier using whatever skills I acquired in the classroom to lead creative writing workshops instead -- smaller groups of motivated students make an enormous difference to a teacher's ability to transmit information, to encourage and direct and support. Everybody ends up happier and healthier when class size is limited... And so I watch with much interest and concern and sympathy the struggle going on right now for Ontario secondary school teachers in their negotiations with the provincial government.
This week, I visited a local high school, the Lycee Jacques Prevert, in St. Christol-les-Ales, a small town a few kilometres from Tornac. Through my friend Aline at TEAPOTES in Anduze, I recently met Edith, a young Frenchwoman who teaches English, who asked me to come to her class to speak about Canada. In the designated program of study this term there's a chapter on "Britain and the Commonwealth", and it was in this regard that she asked me to talk with the students. For one thing, so that they could hear a Canadian English accent, as opposed to the English-English they might hear on this side of the pond... and for another, so that I could talk about how Canada was "a colony" a long time ago, but nowadays enjoys a very different relationship with the "mother country"... and perhaps explain how the Commonwealth was exactly what the word implies... an economic sharing of financial bounty among 54 countries in a fashion much more equal and mutually beneficial than in the days of the empire.
Edith chose only 15 students (from a class of 35) who had prepared by reading a short story of mine called "End of the Empire" (included in my second collection YOU NEVER KNOW), which concerns the way that Canadian affilation and affection began to switch from England to the United States during the 1950s. But this period seemed so distant to the students, who had none of the cultural references (King George VI or Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys), that I had to do much explaining of "how times were different then".
The students -- all of them 16 -- were terribly shy and embarrassed to speak English even though I amused them by speaking their language in my awful "Anglo" accent, assuring them that they couldn't do worse in mine. As we spent our hour in the library, the agony of being a high school teacher came back to me full force, and this was an EASY, pleasant little visit... Trying to capture and keep the attention of teenagers is a hellishly difficult task!
But we did have a pleasant hour in the end, although I must say their interest in the Commonwealth -- or in Canada's role -- was minimal. Their questions for me about my country were steeped in stereotypical imagery (snow, mountains, Niagara Falls, hockey, maple syrup) and when I asked if they knew any Canadian artists, writers or musicians, you know what they said. Yes, Celine Dion.