Thursday, September 25, 2008

Praising My Pedagogues

With the new school year upon us, I thought I'd devote an article to something I think is very important: teachers.

My success in school is thanks in large part to a few outstanding teachers I was lucky enough to be placed with. Folks talk about the value of teachers all the time, but not many receive the appreciation they deserve. I'd like to give shout-outs to a few of my favorites.

My very first teacher was Mrs. Tena Touesnard from River Bourgeois. I came home from school every day and told my dad a new story about the famous "Mrs. Twa-nore", so much so that a variation of the word "Twa-nore" is his nickname for me to this very day. Had I had any other teacher my first day, I might never have had a positive attitude about school like I did. So thank you, Mrs. Touesnard.

In grade one, and in later grades as well, I had Mme. Madeline Boudreau. She is largely responsible for the successful formation and promotion of a dance group I was in with two friends, called "The Awesome Threesome" (insert snicker here, but being 11 we didn't know any better). We danced to popular mid-90's music, even travelling to other schools in the area to perform. We wore black stirrup pants and neon t-shirts, on purpose. I'll give you a moment to regain your composure.
Done laughing yet? Good, thanks.

As I was saying, Mme. Boudreau was a great advocate for girls in our school, and she encouraged us to use every skill we had, be it essay writing or dancing, to better ourselves. Thank you for that, Mme. Boudreau.

One of my favorite teachers ever was Mr. Marcel LeBlanc in grade four. He wasn't big on homework for the sake of homework, especially if you knew how to do it already. His class was fun, and he even gave us gum sometimes, which is a big deal in grade four. I got my first 'B' in Mr. LeBlanc's class, and I remember him trying not to laugh when I stood bawling at his desk in anguish. He "reworked" the numbers and bumped it up to an A-. I've never forgotten than, Mr. LeBlanc.

Since Language Arts was always my favorite subject, Mrs. Leona Campbell & Mrs. Lynn Wambolt were probably the two most influential teachers I ever had. Both decided early on that they would not settle for less than I was capable of, and when I got lazy with my work, they called me on it and quickly put me back in gear. They fostered my love of books and writing, and made me believe I was smart. For this, I will be eternally grateful.

Also on my favorites list from elementary school is a rather dry fellow by the name of Mr. Joe Cooke. At 13, we weren't old enough to appreciate his unique brand of sarcasm and humor, but looking back, he was quite funny. All I can do to thank you, Sir, is to apologize for being so terrible in math. It just never took.

High school, as it was for most people, was less about education and more about socializing for me. My record isn't quite as stellar from my time at SPDH, but there were still a few very patient teachers who kept me on track.

Shout out to Mr. Dave Fraser, who I know is reading this. Hi, Dave! We all loved his computer class, probably much more than it loved us. But thanks.

Mr. Hilary Campbell was everyone's favorite. He worked you hard and didn't put up with much baloney, but man, he was good for a laugh. Every day he had a joke to tell us, and when we got too rowdy, he'd say, "you guys be quiet, it sounds like Wal-Mart in here!" My friends and I talk about you often, Mr. Campbell.

Last but not least, Mr. Keith MacDonald, my grade twelve English teacher. He had little patience for people who didn't apply themselves, but what an amazing mentor for those of us who enjoyed writing and being nerds. I could have conversations with Keith that were at once educational, practical, and inspirational. More than anyone else, he made me want to succeed in whichever field I chose. In fact, when I first started writing for The Reporter, Mr. MacDonald is one of the first people I contacted to share the news. It's amazing the clarity and motivation that comes with having pieces of chalk thrown at you until you get an answer right. Thanks, Keith.

Next time you see a former teacher, it's worth your time and energy to stop and say hello, I'm sure they'd appreciate it. And God knows, having put up with us, they deserve it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Dreaded Nunavut Articles, Part 2

In my last blog, I outlined my lonely 10-month stay in Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island.

As I mentioned, I was very optimistic about my move to Iqaluit. I had been hired for a job so very out of my league, that I almost couldn't believe my good fortune. While I did have some experience in the legal field, the position of Executive Director of the Law Society (the Nunavut equivalent to the Nova Scotia Barrister's Society) was a job professionals in "the South" aspired to after many years of education and experience. Here I was, now a 22-year-old, never having made more than $10 per hour or so as a waitress, earning a salary higher than most people who work at NewPage.

That probably sounds great, doesn't it? On paper, it sure seemed to be. It was only when I actually got to know Iqaluit a little better that I realized the cost of making close to six figures.

When I first moved to town, I lived in a place called "White Row", and it was about as glamorous as it sounds. It was a bargain at $800 per month, but it required me to have two roommates, and there was no room to be choosy in that department. The result was me living with a girl around my age, and a much older woman with severe personal hygiene issues.

Since Iqaluit's population was 60% white, I didn't have to deal with a fraction of the racial harassment in the city as I did further North, but the underlying tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. And it was easy to imagine why the native people would harbor such resentment; people living off the land for centuries were suddenly thrust into a completely different lifestyle, and forced to deal with the by-products of that change, many of which were understandably difficult for them to adjust to. I sympathized with the Inuit, and I still do.

The landscape, both in terms of geography and infrastructure, was bleak. Iqaluit is a very barren place. The land itself is always one of two things: white when there's snow, and brown when it melts. There was not even a single tree. You'll never realize how beautiful trees and plants and grass are until you make your home in a place with none.

As far as amenities went, the view wasn't much better. There were a few stores, a bank, a post office, a small movie theatre...necessities, but not many luxuries. When Subway set up camp, a foot-long would set you back an easy $15, but the high cost was welcome considering the frightening local restaurant practices.

Nightlife, while easily a novel in itself, consisted of a bar and the local Legion. So much chaos, misery, destruction, crime, death, and trouble of every variety was generated as a result of alcohol consumption in that city, I can't even begin to describe it to you. Trust me when I tell you, even Cape Breton (with it's reputation for turning out epic partiers) doesn't hold a candle.

I can tell I'm running out of words, and I haven't even made a dent in the story of Iqaluit.

The Arctic is much like a diorama - a world within a world. You can tell people stories about it until you're blue in the face, but no quantity of information can make a person understand life there unless they've lived it themselves.

It's amazing to me, in hindsight, the things we all take advantage of.

Sometimes I find myself just staring outside in the spring. Green is a beautiful color.

To be able to jump in your car and drive somewhere is freedom. I've heard people who live in Fort McMurray complain about isolation, when in fact they have no idea what isolation really is. Isolation is living on an island in the Arctic where there are no roads out. Isolation is having no access to the civilized world unless and until the finances are in place, plans are made, and the weather cooperates. Isolation is having a death in your family in Nova Scotia, and not being able to make it to the funeral on Tuesday because of fog, or because the next flight out only leaves on Wednesday.

To close, I'll tell you there are three very important things I took with me from Iqaluit.

First, I can better appreciate lovely and serene Cape Breton Island.

Second, I have a comaraderie with other "troops who have made it through the war", whether or not we like each other.

Lastly, and most importantly, money can not buy happiness, and don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

I'd love to have Iqaluit's money, but the cost of wealth is greater than I'm willing to pay.

The Dreaded Nunavut Articles, Part 1

I've been asked numerous times to write an article about living in the North. I've been avoiding it like the plague, partly because I don't enjoy reminiscing about my time there, and partly because I know I'll never be able to explain it properly in a single newspaper article.

I've decided to tell you about the Arctic by describing life in the two communities which I called home.

To be clear, in 2000, I moved to a very small town (pop. circa 300) called Qikitarjuaq, a tiny hamlet on the eastern coast of Baffin Island. You'll spend a day trying to figure out how to pronounce it, so let me help: kick-kick-tar-jou-ack.

My record of employment described me as "college professor". I worked at the satellite campus of Nunavut Arctic College, and I was hired to teach an English foundation program for the Inuit students in the community. My lesson plans included Law, Human Relations, Math, and Accounting.

Now I'll tell you what I really did. That "college professor" was just a 21-year-old from Nova Scotia with no Education degree or teaching experience. The satellite campus was a building roughly the size of my living room. The students were random adults who would get a monthly Co-op grocery credit if they enrolled in post-secondary studies. And my lesson plans ended up being scrapped in favor of "this is the letter 'L'. It sounds like 'l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l'."

I was paid almost $50 per hour to teach phonics to non-English-speaking students who had no interest in listening to a single word I had to say.

It's a good thing the money was so over the top. Since there was only one store (the grocery store, with a very limited selection of food and a bit of giftware), I was able to save almost every dollar I made and pay off my astronomical student loans. Thank you, Government of Nunavut.

However, had I been paid even a dollar less, I would have said goodbye to Qikiqtarjuaq long before I actually did. So miserable was my experience there, it couldn't even be thoroughly described in my first, 1800 word draft of this article. I've left out the parts about suicide rates, nail polish remover under lock and key due to substance abuse problems in the community, liquor bans, polar bears, crime, and $70 cans of expired lobster meat. There are bigger issues to tell you about.

Like how, for the first time in my life, I was a very visible minority.

I was one of only a handful of white people who lived in the community. There were only five other women, and none under 40.

You can imagine how much I was liked by the local female 20-something crowd.

My term lasted ten months, and those were the longest, loneliest ten months of my life. I didn't have a single friend. I never left my house once, aside from going to work or the grocery store, mostly because people would call me vile names, accuse me of "stealing their jobs", and throw rocks at me from the open windows of their houses. The only way out was by plane, a once-weekly flight on a five-seater plane that would take you to Iqaluit, from which there wasn't any escape either. It was isolation the likes of which I could never have imagined.

Adding to my experience was the weather. North of 60 degrees latitude, winters cloaked the land 23 hours of darkness. In summer, the opposite, and garbage bags had to be taped to windows since the sun streaming into your bedroom at three in the morning made it too hard to sleep.

I'm sure I don't have to describe the cold, the many days of -50 degrees and icebergs in August. It was misery.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time reading and missing home.

But what was my alternative? I could come home to toil for minimum wage in Cape Breton, spending almost $2000 on my trip home and never getting ahead; or, I could suck it up, make a mint, and then leave when I was finished. I chose the latter, and at times, I'm glad I did.

After nine months or so, I started applying for jobs in Iqlauit. At the time, a city of a few thousand seemed like a huge metropolis, and I dreamed about the possibility of career success, a great salary, some shopping (finally!), and even some friends. I was hired to be the Executive Director of the Law Society of Nunavut, and after finding an apartment, I booked my flight, packed my things, and left with a big ol' smile on my face knowing I'd never have to set foot in Qikiqtarjuaq again.

Stay tuned for Part 2....


It started with a particular dress I had been looking for. Over the next few weeks, it grew to a few pair of pants and one or two shirts. Three months later, it has escalated into full wardrobes, literally.

Friends, I'm talking about eBay.

I blame the whole thing on my friend Tracey. Should a full-scale intervention ever become necessary, I expect her to be at the core of the rehabilitation efforts.

I had never ordered from eBay before Tracey, like a paid promoter, filled me in on the benefits of shopping on the site. As a huge fan of instant gratification, I wasn't sure that waiting a few weeks for a sweater to be shipped from Kalamazoo was the right move for me, but she assured me it would be well worth the wait.

And she was right. To see the, "Congratulations! You're the winning bidder!" announcement pop up on my screen was pure online bliss. Soon I found myself seeing it more, and more, and get the picture.

Once I had already sold my soul to the eBay demons and was officially addicted, she managed to make things even worse. "Type in 'lot of Old Navy size 10' and watch what comes up," she said. It seemed innocent enough at the time, but little did I know what a massive can of worms I was opening.

Had I known I could buy clothes in lots for my rapidly-growing, notoriously-unconscientious children (who go though clothes as if there are Gap trees growing in our front yard), I would have jumped on that bandwagon long ago.

I won't tell you how many hours I've spent searching that web site for deals on clothes. I won't tell you how many lots I've bid on and lost. Nor will I tell you how many I've won, you'd be disgusted. However, I will tell you that neither of my kids will require new frocks until at least the end of the century.

It's not that they didn't need new clothes; on the contrary, especially with school starting in a few weeks and shorts season winding to a close. But normally fall involves a few new pairs of pants, a few new shirts, a jacket, and a pair of sneakers. This year, some of those items will number in the dozens, which is grossly excessive for a penny pincher like me.

But really, how could I leave it there? Someone is going to make off with a bunch of brand name clothes, most of which aren't even available for purchase in Cape Breton, and sometimes for less than what you'd pay for gas to get to the mall and back. Why shouldn't that person be me?

At least that's what I tell myself to justify my actions. I know how ridiculous it is.

After all, it's not only clothes I buy. A simple conversation about teeth whitening strips, which are available in at least four stores in Port Hawkesbury, turned into a wild eBay goose-chase, in an attempt to find them for cheaper. Thirty mintues and 10cc's of dentist-strength, 65% potent whitening gel later, I had saved myself $25 and a trip to the drug store. Waste of time and energy, when I could have just gone out to buy them that afternoon? Maybe. Waste of money? No way. I'm all about a bargain, waiting or no waiting.

It's actually quite a thrill to go to the post office these days. Will I have a package? Perhaps an envelope? The drive to Pitt Street is filled with the anticipation of finding a little white parcel card in my mailbox. It even feels good when it's jammed in between two bills.

It was at that very place last week when I realized my eBay habit might be a bit much. The woman behind the counter actually commented on how many packages I receive, so after assuring her that the customs declarations were proof of the legality of my transactions (one can ever be too careful in matters of suspicion when it comes to Canada Post), I decided I might need to re-evaluate my shopping situation.

I have vowed to not search for or buy anything else from eBay at least until the rest of my shipments come in. I know that doesn't sound very impressive an act of restraint, but if you were home all day with a laptop, you'd understand. And the way I see it, once I receive all the jerseys, video games, cosmetics, books, Halloween costumes, electronics, kitchen decor, computer software, and action figures, that will probably hold me over for awhile.

In the meantime, I'm going to ask Tracey to help me organize a really successful yard sale. It's all her fault, you know.