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Full circle


One day last week, I left work and was on my home when I realized I really needed to stop at the grocery store and pick up a couple of cans of soft cat food or face the wrath of three hungry critters waiting for me inside the front door of my house.

As I left the store, I encountered a woman looking at me with a big smile on her face. She spoke my name and then leaned in to give me a hug. When we broke our embrace, she reminded me who she was. Mrs. Simms - my Kindgergarten teacher.

Interesting aside here. Mrs. Simms taught me Kindergarten at Gander Academy. She also taught Kindergarten to my aunt Terri, whom I'm named after. My late sister Laurie-Ann's Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Seaward, taught Kindergarten to my father, Lloyd.

The relationship between student and teacher is a fascinating one. I often wondered if any of my teachers would remember me years after I'd finished school. After all, each of my teachers got to know 25 or so new children each school year, and over the course of a career that spans 30 or 35 years, that's a lot of kids to remember. For me, I had less than 25 teachers between Kindergarten and Grade 12, and that makes it a lot easier to remember them.

But running into Mrs. Simms made me think about each of them and the impact they had on my life. In Grade 2, my teacher, Miss Anstey, taught me two very important things: the art of storytelling and the rewards of hard work. At least one day a week, she would gather us together and, in an incredibly animated way, read a Mr. Men book to us. For those of you who might not be familiar with the series, Mr. Men is a series of 49 children's books written by Roger Hargreaves with delightful titles such as Mr. Tickle and Mr. Uppity. In the 1980s, the author released a series of Little Miss books, and I, while having not been introduced them as a small child, eventually gained an appreciation for the tales of Little Miss Naughty and Little Miss Chatterbox.

In hearing Miss Anstey read those stories, I gained an appreciation for the written word and how a writer could impact the lives of those who read his or her stories. Those books, through that teacher, were among my introductions to the professional life I would come to lead.

Miss Anstey also had a knack for pushing her students past the limits set for their ages and grade levels. On a shelf in her classroom, she had placed just a half dozen Grade 3 math textbooks. They were used as rewards for students who finished their math assignments ahead of others in the class. When she told us to solve three problems in our Grade 2 math textbooks, we would race to be among the first to provide her with the correct solutions. If you were one of the lucky five or six kids who made it to her desk first, you could claim your reward - a Grade 3 math textbook from which you could pluck problems at will and try to solve them as the remainder of your classmates finished up the original assignment. Perhaps one could look back on that exercise and focus on how the other 20 or so kids must have felt at not having the chance to be granted access to the coveted Grade 3 books. But for me, I think it taught us all to strive for excellence, as we realized it's not possible for every single person to win first place. Life is not like that. Life is about doing the best you can do in the hopes you will be rewarded at the end of the day. Sometimes you are and sometimes you are not. But a desire to be the best is a great trait to instill in a child.

In middle school, I began to appreciate music from a performance perspective. I joined the school choir at Gander Junior High and begged my parents to buy me a clarinet so I might be in the school band. My homeroom teacher in Grade 6 was Mr. Gamwell, an Englishman who somehow found himself teaching in a small town in Newfoundland. He was tall and sported a thick beard and dark-rimmed glasses. One day, he asked us all to bring a jar to class. He then provided us with paper towels, some water and some beans. We all put the beans in our jars, moistened the paper towels and placed them on top of the beans. We punched some holes in the lids and fastened them to the jars and put them on a shelf in the back of the room. As you can imagine, considering we were a bunch of rambunctious and curious 12-year-olds, it didn't take long for other things to grab our collective attention. Every now and then, one of us would add some water to the jars but we didn't think much more of them until the day Mr. Gamwell told us to get our jars and bring them to our desks. Inside, to our amazement, the seeds had sprouted and what looked like tiny replicas of the beanstalk Jack must have seen after planting his seeds in the soil outside his humble home were crawling up through the mushy paper towel in the jar. We had grown something. We had created something. We took a bean and turned it into a tree. Through this lesson, we learned anything was possible, even those things which, at first glance, seem impossible.

When I finally walked through the doors of Gander Collegiate at the age of 15, I was terribly nervous. High school can be daunting for even the most confident teenagers. I had never been what you would call an A student. I had often struggled to make it through many of the courses taught me in the younger grades. The great thing about high school was, alongside the core programs such as math and literature, students could make choices regarding the subject areas that interested them. In Grade 10, I opted to study history, knowning it was a course based on one's ability to read words on a page and write them down on a piece of paper. This sounded much better to me than more math and more science.

Mr. Keough was my history teacher. His teaching style was fantastic. He would spend most of our class time taking us through the textbook, which mainly focused on American and European history, but he would always spend a few minutes at the end of each period regaling us with stories of growing up in Ferryland on the eastern edge of the Avalon Peninsula.

But what I remember most was the day he surprised us with a pop quiz filled with questions on a chapter we'd just studied which focused on the British imperialization of Africa. To that point, I had struggled to keep up my grades in his class and, for some reason, I had fully immersed myself into that particular chapter in the days just prior to the quiz. When he handed out our marked quizzes  a few days later, he announced each student's grade as he dropped the quiz on his or her desk. As he approached me, I cringed. I already had a number in my head. Maybe 72. Perhaps 74.

"And Terri-Lynn Saunders ... who obviously cheated ... 98."

I looked up at him in absolute shock. He winked at me and smiled. In that two-second gesture, he taught me one of the greatest lessons of my academic life. What he really said to me was, "See what you can do when you put your mind to it?" It was an experience I've never forgotten and a lesson that continues to serve me well.

The men and women who were my teachers as I was growing up had profound impacts on my life. They taught me to love language, to strive to be better, to never stop creating and to never convince myself I can't do something.

Thank you, Mrs. Simms, Miss Anstey, Mr. Gamwell and Mr. Keough, and all the other teachers who floated in and out of my life during those years. I hope you know how important you have been to all of us who had the privilege of being taught by you.

tsaunders@ganderbeacon.ca

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