Wednesday, 24 December 2014


It's a quarter past midnight Christmas Eve and I am awoken by an incessant tapping at my door. It's my three adult children. "I can't believe this didn't wake you up!" they exclaim. The air around us is alive with fireworks. From the concrete balcony of our restored colonial hotel in Casca Viejo, old Panama, we watch the city skyline across the water. Fireworks explode off high rises.  Explosions rock the air just meters away.  The fusillade of firecrackers, set off by young boys on the street beneath us, drowns out the rock music blaring from the nearly rooftop bar. It goes on and on. Christmas Eve in Panama City.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Christmas. I love Christmas baking, Christmas shopping, Christmas decorating, Christmas cards and Christmas wrapping. I love the traditions and cherish the memories. When I was a kid, we spent Christmas with grandparents. There were some firmly established rituals in my family and every year we did everything the same way. By the time my grandparents passed away, there were a couple years with my aunt and then we split Christmases with my parents and in laws, packing in and out not just kids and dogs and clothes and baby paraphernalia, but also gifts, stockings, and baking. Every year I grumbled. Why wouldn't everyone come to OUR house? Our house that was beautifully decorated. Our house where I would have meals prepared in advance. Our house where my husband could play his our music. Our house so I wouldn't have to pack diapers and wrapped gifts and worry about letting the dog in and out. But that was never our way. I looked forward to the day when I could establish my own traditions. And then my mom died and I just didn't want to do Christmas any way at all.

And so it is that we find ourselves on Christmas in Panama City. A place where they decorate Christmas trees imported from Canada. Where Santa and snowmen grace the homes of people who have never seen snow. Where Christmas Eve is one big street party. Where there are very few traditions I recognize.

Rituals and traditions bind us to each other and connect us to our past. My family's traditions will continue to evolve. I have no idea what next year will bring, but so long as I have my family, Christmas will be Christmas.

Whatever your traditions are this Christmas, I wish you and your family the very best!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

What matters?

Kim Kardashian is trending right now on Twitter. The story of the guy who fraudulently posed as a decorated war hero at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day was the lead story on CBC radio this morning.

Also in today's news, buried deep, news of the torching of the state assembly in Guerrero State in Mexico over the disappearance of 43 student teachers on September 26, well over a month ago. On Monday, authorities announced that they suspect these students from Ayotzinapa Normal School, a long serving rural college dedicated to the emancipation of the poor, were murdered

43 student teachers on their way to protest a lack of funding for their school. 

43 student teachers who were allegedly abducted and killed.

43 student teachers whose remains were reportedly burned at a garbage dump and thrown into a river. 

Protesters carry images of the missing students, yet their own faces are masked
for fear that they themselves may disappear. Image from El Nuevo Herald.
The disappearance of the 43 would-be educators has ignited Mexico over the issue of the "desaparecidos"- the disappeared ones. While the Mexican government itself has reported that more than 22,000 people have vanished in Mexico since the drug wars began in 2006, the story goes largely unreported in the North American press. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Mexico City this last weekend in protest. Airports have been shut down. Roads blockaded. Leading the charge are Mexico's teachers and university students.

I could not find the Mexican story on CBC or CTV. But it made headlines on Al Jazeera. Why does this story matter to a news channel based in the Middle East, but not to Canada with its geographic proximity to Mexico, NAFTA, and the thousands of Canadian vacationers who visit the country every year?  Why doesn't the disappearance and probable death of 43 student teachers matter to us?

And yet we have our own "disappeared ones"- the over 1000 documented cases of murdered and missing aboriginal women. Our prime minister refuses to call for a national inquiry despite pleas from Canada's premiers, aboriginal leaders and the general public.

What matters?  Who matters? And who decides what stories Canadians should hear?

Note: Since I first published this post, the disappearance of the 43 student teachers has become a catalyst for nation-wide protests in Mexico about the failure of both the left, the right, and the centre to represent the interests of the citizens of Mexico.  Yet both the Canadian and the American press continue to ignore what is happening.  See this Chicago Tribune article from November 20.

Friday, 7 November 2014


People ask me what I do.

It's hard to explain what “instruction” looks like in distance education.

Alberta’s Teaching Quality Standards says that quality teaching occurs when teachers understand the contextual variables that affect teaching and learning and respond by making reasoned pedagogical decisions that result in “optimal learning.”
My great aunt Isabel Perry in her classroom in Beaverlodge Alberta.
For a traditional teacher in a typical classroom in Alberta, there are many contextual variables. Classroom teachers know that each class in a public school in Alberta will have, among other things, students with a wide range of reading levels, a few ESL students,  a few gifted students, children from a wide variety of income levels including those in poverty, children from broken homes, kids with mental illness, some with physical disabilities, a couple who may be repeating the course, some struggling with bullying, some with family issues, perhaps one or two with addictions issues, and a handful who have been coded with special needs. Yet once those students are in the classroom, the impact of many of those variables can be lessened because each of those kids is in a classroom, probably sitting in a desk, surrounded by his or her peers, receiving group and one on one instruction from a teacher and/or teaching assistant who can gauge the student’s learning through verbal cues, body language and interpersonal interaction. A classroom teacher will make decisions about how to teach these children so that all will learn.Those students also have, for better or worse, a community of their peers who may support or hinder their learning.

Now put that same teacher in a distance education environment. The teacher is faced with the same variables as the classroom teacher and more. For instance, at least 40% of my students are repeating Social Studies 10-2 and close to 60% of them have special needs of one kind or another. And because I am not in control of the daily learning environment, there are even more variables outside my control. Mary has a baby at home, Randy has crippling social anxiety, Jason is working on his own in the library, Jodi has physical disabilities so severe she cannot actually get to school, Siobhan is caring for an ailing parent, Rajan is looking after his grandpa with dementia and Saleem lives in Qatar. These students do not live in the same town and do not have a community in common.  I do not have control of the contextual variables of time and space that the classroom teacher has. Instead of all sitting in desks in the same room at the same time, my students are working in an almost infinite variety of settings. One may be completing a couple of question while on break at Mr. Lube. One maybe work from home with no English speaker in sight to talk to. Another may be wrestling with an elusive concept while changing a diaper or working late at night at the kitchen table after farm chores are done. Another may be on a sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico or working in a compound in the Middle East with limited internet access.

When teachers create lessons, they have pictured in their heads the students who will be interacting with the lesson contents.  Based on their experience, they predict what these students will put into their learning, and imagine what they will take away.  Distance educators are no different, yet the contextual differences mean that far more must go into the planning of lessons because teacher is not in front of students to fill in the gaps in learning, to check for understanding, to provide immediate classroom or individual instruction when a lesson goes wrong, or to reteach a concept when formative assessment reveals the lesson taught did not achieve the desired learning outcome.

As distance educators, we try to predict every possible way in which our students might read or misread what we create, the mistakes in completing an assignment, the errors in thinking they may exhibit, the shutdown that may result from material that is too complicated and from directions that are hard to understand. We constantly remind ourselves that we are not there face to face with our students. We cannot hear the little comments made under their breath or out loud that show they just don’t get it. We cannot judge their body language, or observe the moment when the student is no longer engaged in the task at hand. We also know that our students frequently work in isolation. A student cannot turn to his seatmate and ask “what did you get for question 3?” or “how long is your paragraph? or “remind what page the teacher said that tutorial was on”. There is no adult nearby to gently nudge the child in the right direction or assist in the review of a concept or restate the task to be accomplished in a different way. We know that if our lessons are poorly crafted, there may be no “do over” the next day. Our students may easily become lost to the point of no return.

Far beyond being  simple lesson plans, for a distance educators like me, the materials we create become our voices, reaching out to our students and speaking to them in a language we hope they will understand. While I may use Dreamweaver and Photoshop and html and a myriad of other software programmes, I still try to engage my students and capture their interest with my words. I endeavor to scaffold instructions so that my students experience success by learning in increments with as much positive feedback as I can provide, to keep them motivated and interested and achieving. I tell my students that when they read their materials they should think of them as me talking to them.

Yet despite this careful scaffolding of instruction, despite our carefully worded and planned lessons, our focus on formative assessment, our encouragement to phone or email or Skype for extra explanation, despite our meticulously written, peer edited, revised and rewritten assignments, our use of images, audio and video, our students make errors. They do not always exhibit a full understanding of the concepts. They must be retaught. In the classroom, the teacher can discuss these common errors with the entire class. The distance educator, however, must reteach one child at a time. While we do try to automate some feedback, in many cases, the comments we make to our students take the form of mini lessons that teach a prerequisite skill the student has not obtained, or ask guided questions, or explain a concept again in another way, sometimes with video and/or audio explanations. "Marking" assignments in this way is a very different process than that practiced by classroom teachers. 

Another area in the realm of the distance educator is nagging. Distance education programmes have notoriously high attrition rates. Trying to keep students moving forward when they are at a distance is a challenge. We phone and email and video-conference and instant message and use the built-in online pager and contact parents and partner schools. We even send letters by postal mail.We track down lost exams and missing phone numbers and lost kids and assignments gone astray. We encourage and cajole and try to pique interest.

In all of this, what is considered "teaching"? What is considered "lesson planning"? What is "marking?  What is "clerical work"? 

There are many similarities between what a classroom teacher does and what a distance education teacher does. But there are many differences.

People ask me what I do. It's a complicated question. But it has a simple answer.

I teach.

Monday, 3 November 2014

weep with me

Many years ago my family experienced many tragedies. Deaths. Incarceration. Terminal illness. Family members taken before their time. After one such event our minister arrived at the door. He threw his arms around each of us in turn and hugged us. Then he stood there wordlessly, crying. 

Where we expected words of wisdom that would console us in our darkest moments, there were none. 

Yet his act of grieving with us gave us more comfort than any words.

Sometimes there nothing that can be said. No words to express the enormity of loss. No deeper reason why things unfold the way they do. All we can do is mourn. God also grieves.

weep with me

Friday, 24 October 2014

I feel the winds of God today

My mom loved the wind. On a winter day, the chinook winds would rattle the panes of the windows in our big two story Dawson Creek house, set on a rise next to a big field at the edge of town. The wind would drive the snow across the field, creating massive snowdrifts that would block our driveway and the street that curved around our house.  “I love the wind,” she would say. “Maybe it’s from growing up on the prairies. But on a day like today, I feel like I could take on the world. I feel like I could do anything.”
Usually, I hate the wind. It unnerves me. I hate how it blows the leaves off the trees in autumn, just when they are at their peak of loveliness. I don’t care for the drifting snow that makes winter driving dangerous and creates bitter wind chills that make my daily walk painful and unpleasant.The spring wind that desiccates vegetation and fuels wildfires jangles my nerves. It reminds me of how powerless I am against the forces of nature. It frightens me.
Strong winds often come when there is a change in weather. Maybe it is really change that I don’t like.
Today as I walked the trails near my house, the winds were kicking up. The dry grasses rattled and the fallen leaves whipped by. The dog put her nose up to the wind, embracing the new scents the wind blew by. I too breathed deeply. The air smelled of fallen leaves and pungent cranberries. With the wind came a reminder of the change in the seasons and with that, the reminder of change in the seasons of my life. I have embraced every change that has come in my life so far but I’ll admit it. I don’t like the current changes. I don’t like those winds that have blown my kids away. The winds that have taken my parents. Those winds unnerve me. And today in particular with the news from Parliament Hill, the winds of change in our nation were unsettling.
But the wind also reminded me of the following hymn written by the Quaker teacher, Jessie Adams:
I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.
It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.
If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.

Music by Ralph Vaughn Williams

 Larry Ellis 

The winds of God. Not just the powerful destructive winds of nature. But also the freshening life affirming winds that lift our wings and give us flight. The winds my mother felt. The winds of hope that let us take on the world.

Friday, 10 October 2014


Sitting Bull with his mother, Her Holy Door, his daughter Many Horses
and his grandson in 1885. William Cody Archives.
Look for pictures of “Sitting Bull” and you’ll find dozens of images of the iconic Lakota holy man, known for uniting the contentious aboriginal tribes of the northern United States into a doomed resistance against the U.S. government in the late 1800s. Renowned as a martyr who lost his life in the battle against U.S. colonialism, Sitting Bull was a holy man and a leader, a singer, dancer and artist- and a man renowned for his wisdom. Sitting Bull is a hero not only to the first peoples of the United States, but also to those who seek inspiration from those who stand up for what they believe in against impossible odds. His story has been featured in books and movies. His place in history is secure.

But look at the original photo from which the well-known image of Sitting Bull was cropped. An image of a family man, seated with his mother, daughter and grandson. Not much is known about Her Holy Door and Many Horses. What role did his mother play in raising her son to fight for his people? Why is there no wife in the picture? What happened to the beautiful Many Horses and her son? What is their place in history? Aside from one or two speculative references in Sitting Bull's story, a few genealogical records and a handful of photos, their story is unknown. Like hundreds of aboriginal women today, they are invisible and voiceless.

What do we choose to know about the past? How much is chosen for us? Who decides what matters in the sweeping narrative of history? Historians and archivists and politicians and the croppers of photographs have their own story to tell. They have their own narratives in which characters such as the brave and proud Sitting Bull figure prominently while women like his fierce, noble, nurturing mother disappear into nothingness.

My parents both passed away recently and I find myself the bearer of their history. As I sift

through their photos and letters and documents, I find myself wondering why certain things were saved while others were discarded. I have my dad’s love letters to my mom, but not her letters to him. I have all the letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother- from the Front during World War One, from far flung northern outposts where he relieved for bank managers on holiday-yet I have not a single letter written by my grandmother. The narratives are told by the men in my family's past, secured by their female counterparts, their archivists. These primary source documents tell the story of their lives, but is only part of the story. Like the photo of Sitting Bull, part of their story stands out while the rest has been cropped away, leaving me with only one perspective on their shared story, an unclear version of the past. 

As a Social Studies teacher, I wonder what part of history we share with our students and how much we leave out. Adam Smith is known for the concept of the invisible hand, yet do we teach our students he was an absent minded fellow who lived with his mother, a woman whose own invisible hand fed him and cared for him when he sometimes forgot to eat? We know Karl Marx was one of the most influential thinkers in modern history, but what do we know of his wife Jenny and their housekeeper Helen? Do we teach our children that Jenny was an educated and political woman in her own right who gave up an aristocratic lifestyle to pursue the rights of the underclass, living in poverty and witnessing the death of most of her children? Or that Helen, after most probably fathering Marx's child, continued to live with the Marx family for her entire life and now lies buried in their family plot? Or that two of his three daughters committed suicide? How does that knowledge colour our understanding of Marx's statement "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? We teach our students that Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers, but what do they learn of Francoise-Louise de Warens, his mistress and benefactor? Would his ideas have seen the light of day without her financial support and commitment? And did Rousseau's own dependence on an older woman at an early age lead him to his belief that "man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains"?

I think about my own daughters. Who will tell their story? Will they be the archivist or the narrator? Will they have the right to choose the role they will play? 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Republic of Uzupis

Uzupis, meaning "on the other side of the river," is an area of old town Vilnius. It is literally and figuratively on the other side. 
We reached Uzupis via a graffiti embellished set of stairs and a rusty old bridge over the river Vilnia. We wandered around its quiet streets and enjoyed beer and mussels at a lovely river-side cafe. It was as pleasant and laid back as a place could be. 

Uzupis was originally a Jewish area when it was settled in the 1600s. Most of its inhabitants were killed during the Holocaust, and during Soviet times, the area was one of the most neglected parts of the city, home to its most marginalized people-young squatters, the homeless,criminals, prostitutes, and the unemployed. 

Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site is home to 7000 people, 1000 of whom are artists. It's a world unto itself.

Not long after Lithuania declared its independence from Soviet rule, Uzupis declared its independence. April 1 is its Independence Day. Protected by a mermaid AND an angel, it has its own army of 11 men, its own flag (one for every season), its own mayor and president, and its own constitution published for all to see in fifteen languages on a wall in a side street. 

My daughter Jordan reflected in the Constitution.
I love the constitution of the Republic of Uzupis.  It gives its citizens rights that most people in the western world would never dream of. I  love the fact that people have the right to be in doubt and to be unhappy. I love that being "undistinguished" is one of their rights. I love that people have the right to cry and the right to be be misunderstood- to accept both their negligibility and their magnificence. I love that dogs and cats have rights. I love that people have the right to understand nothing. 

On our side of the river, everyone is mad about success. People are told to "be the best you can be" and that "you can have anything if you just want it badly enough" and that "the only thing holding you back is yourself." The idea that everyone must relentlessly strive to reach his or her potential is considered a worthy goal to which all must aspire. It was wonderful to find a place where people have the constitutional right to just BE.

Here in the Republic of Alberta, the articles of our unwritten constitution don't have much in common with that of Uzupis. Here, we focus on the things we should do and be and have. We should be leaner and fitter and smarter. We should entertain more often. We should volunteer more and donate more to charity. We should have a cleaner house, a newer car, more fashionable clothes, better behaved kids and dogs that don't jump up on people when they enter the house. Having doubt and recognizing your insignificance are articles we would never condone. 

Teachers, parents and students should read the Ministerial Order mandated by the Minister of Education.The list of qualities that should be present in every "educated Albertan" is exhausting. Beyond skills and knowledge, our young people must also be self-reliant and confident and bold and take risks. They need to be innovative and motivated and never hold back. They must be adaptable and self disciplined and successful and competitive and optimistic and resourceful and tenacious and compassionate and have the courage to dream. They should always be growing and learning. They should contribute to the economy of their province. They must always be in a state of becoming. They cannot just BE. 
The Mermaid of Uzupis

Alberta is a long way from Uzupis. Across not just a river, but a sea, an ocean, and the better part of a continent, it's a long way figuratively as well. Here in Alberta, few people have suffered the privations of the people of Uzupis. Few have lived through genocide and tyranny, or fascist and communist rule. Very few have been forced to live in rundown old buildings where there seemed to be no chance of freedom and no hope for a better life. While there is certainly a gap between rich and poor, few people are destitute and without hope. Yet perhaps because of everything we have, we can't think of anything to value but having more. 

Yet our young people are crying out.  Our post secondary students suffer a preponderance of mental health issues. Fully half of the students at the University of Alberta experience feelings of "overwhelming helplessness". Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people, and rates for those under 18 doubled in Alberta in recent years.

On our side of the river, perhaps we experience our own forms of poverty and tyranny. A poverty of the imagination that does not allow us to explore other ways of being and knowing. A tyranny to conform to a culture of continuous improvement that can be damaging to the soul.  

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Illumination of the Gardens

“The illumination of the lower gardens will begin at sundown,” read the small signs all through the park.  How do you illuminate a garden?  My family pondered this question as we strolled through a British town on a hot July day almost 30 years ago. We weren't planning to stay in Bournemouth, but illuminated gardens?  That had to be good.  So we stayed.

The first day I stood in front of my first classroom, did I have an idea of who my students were or who they might become?  When I began my career as a teacher librarian in a small northern town, did I envision my current work writing online course materials on globalization? When I met and married my husband, did I imagine the richness of our experiences together? When I gave birth to each of my three children, did I see the entirely unique and surprising people they would become?  I pictured none of these, any more than I envisioned those illuminated gardens.

If I had begun with the end in mind, I would have forced myself down a far different path than the one I have trod.  I would have continued on my schedule, driven on to the next town, and missed the thousands of colored tea-lights on their metal frames.  I would have missed the glowing Union Jack, the sparkling roses, the brilliant Chinese pagoda and the sense of community created by hundreds of people lighting candles to create a magical night world.

If you have ever composed a song, or woven a tapestry or painted a picture, you know the creative process has a life of its own.  You don’t start knowing what the end product will be. If you have ever taken a trip to an unknown land, you will know that the true value of your journey lies not in seeing the sights you knew were there, but in following the little byways that lead to somewhere new and surprising.  It’s the unexpected experiences, like the illumination of the lower gardens, that enrich your understanding of the world and of yourself.
My most recent journey took me to Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

Teaching is a creative journey.  Although we begin the school year hoping students will acquire attitudes, concepts and skills and spend the year concentrating on those outcomes, the path we take is shared.  Because we don’t travel it alone, we cannot predict exactly where it will lead. While we set up the framework, our students light up the path in their own unique ways, providing its color, warmth and community. 

With apologies to Dr. Covey and his disciples, “begin with the end in mind” is perhaps the most misguided of the secular commandments.  We living beings are our own most precious works of art. Like any work of art, we are the result of a magical evolutionary process of creation and discovery that includes all the forces that shape our becoming- good, bad and unpredictable.  In our lives and in our classrooms, we share a journey of discovery of what is, what could be and what is meant to be. We cannot know what that journey will hold until we walk it ourselves.

Carpool Confidential

Mothers in minivans,
The first day of school.
Hold little hands,
Explain all the rules.
“Listen to teacher,
Be good girls and boys.
Don’t run in the hall.
Don’t make too much noise.”

Mothers in minivans
Wait on the street
Look for that one face,
That one pair of feet.
“Did you have a good day?
Was it fun? Did you play?
Could you eat all your lunch?
Don’t you have more to say?”

Mothers in minivans
Parked by the gym.
“How was the game?
Did you win? Did you score?
Did you fall? Are you happy?
Can’t I do something more?”

Mothers with minivans
Outside the dorm.
“She’s got clothes, socks and blankets
All she needs to stay warm.
She’s got money, computer
The will to keep trying
Her friends and her future…
Now what? Am I crying?”

Mothers with minivans
Gathering dust.
The children are doing
What children must.
They’re growing up,
They’re drifting away.
Mothers with minivans
Hoped they would stay.

Mother with minivan- Mother at home.
Mother with minivan- Mother alone. Why didn’t they tell her? Why didn't she know? How hard it would be, Letting them go.

Friday, 22 August 2014


(The Pedagogue?)

Within the icy clinic of his mind a tiny spark endures,
Encompassed by a wall of puerile trash.
He sees a child-and to his clinic comes a view envisioned by the wall.
The wall:So thickly cluttered with the garbage
Of a thousand empty verbal cans that jangle in his brain.
And round this pile the vile stench of jargon permeates and cloys.
The spark flickers, but still breathes.
The wall responds-and from this mess erupts the plaintive babble:
Evaluate, structure, socialize, ready, organize, label-and pass on.
The precious spark glows wanly in the gloom.
Louder now the cacophony of verbalism in his sterile world
Drowns out the faint sound of the pure breath of air.
He sees another child.-The spark quickens to evoke the paralyzing evolution of a thought.
But through the clanging fetid hole no fruit is born.
Once more the wall responds and does its hollow job.
The label pinned-the spark goes out.
The garbage heap will rot for years to come
And to this steaming pile will children come to learn.

Written by my father George Hartford in 1956 when he attended a post-secondary course on special education in Syracuse New York.  My dad hated educational jargon throughout his 38 year long career as high school math and physics teacher, special ed teacher, school and central office administrator.

Thursday, 21 August 2014


Beloved. If I should die
leaving unsaid, the many things
my heart would say
But lips refuse to utter
Think well of me
and in the silence of the night,
Think of those days not so many years ago
when you and I were wed
The world at war
The wonderful times we had
The precious hours snatched
as best we could
Then came the time that I must go
To where the war was real
and you remain to do your best
In my own native land.

My grandfather came from England as a young man and worked for the Bank of Commerce in Lake Saskatoon. He married my grandmother, a third generation Canadian in 1915.  After my grandfather enlisted to fight in WW I, my grandmother went to England to be near him. She lived with his brother and sister-in-law and worked in a munitions factory.  My grandparents were married for 62 years.

I found his poem in my mom's papers. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


by Elizabeth and Jordan Ramsey

Grandmother with Jordan and Elizabeth

The one thing that always sticks out to me about my grandmother is her stubbornness. If the woman had made up her mind about something, that was it. Grandchildren were to be spoiled. If you’re going to have a party, you have to invite every possible guest. She was not sick. She did not want to eat…unless you were offering her cookies or coffee. She did not need a walker, she didn’t need help with anything. Even when maybe, she might have needed a little help, and she might even have eventually accepted it, but she would never admit to it. I might relate to this a little.

I think this got everyone a little annoyed, from time to time. Especially towards the end of her life. Or ask my dad about what she’d do when he told us we couldn't have ice cream before dinner. But actually, I think that was one of her more admirable qualities. According to my sister, she did her Master’s thesis before Cambridge even recognized women as full students. Despite being a fairly shy person, she still seemed to belong to every organization. She married late and still had a full family. She did what most people wouldn’t have had the courage to do.

Some of my happiest memories as a child were visits to their house in Tumbler Ridge. We’d arrive late at night and I’d  wake up to see their big brown house on the hill lit up by the moon, and quickly pretend to be asleep again so my dad would carry me inside. In the morning we would have our mandatory bowl of cereal with granddad while he entertained us with what were apparently inappropriate songs and stories. Grandmother would scold him as she scurried about preparing for whatever her next event was. Even as I kid I knew she was trying not to laugh.
Kieran, Jordan, Hart, Eric, Kyla, Darby and Elizabeth
Their job was to spoil you, and they did that job very well. I remember one time they took us to the grocery store and let us pick out whatever kind of cereal we wanted: even one Mom and Dad would never have allowed. The box of Trix came with a fee toy, so of course they had to get a separate box for each kid. Turns out Trix is actually a terribly disgusting cereal, and we rediscovered the boxes of Trix months later in the cupboard. This time the box came with a new surprise: moths. Our trips to the store always took what seemed like a lifetime. They knew everyone. And everyone needed to meet their grandchildren. I felt like a celebrity.

Jordan and Elizabeth with Grandmother
Chaos reigned in their house. There were no rules, and an endless supply of sugary treats. There were treasures and half-finished projects everywhere that you were free to explore. No surface, horizontal or vertical, remained uncluttered with books, paintings, old photos, old newspapers, stuffed toys, and potted plants. Everything had a place. And everything had a story. Jordan and I were once told to go through my grandmother's mugs with her, to make more room in the cupboards. None of them were particularly nice. But every single one had a story. Which she told us. After a few hours of this I think we finally gave up. There might have been a couple she allowed us to remove. And to be clear we weren’t planning to throw away the mugs, we were just going to put them in the basement.

The first time I realized something wasn’t right with my grandmother was when I saw her napping one day. She rarely sat, so sleeping was pretty alarming. She was never quite the same after that day. She still tried to do everything she did before, but it became a struggle and frustration was not something she liked to deal with. My granddad bought a smaller house without telling her. Eventually she agreed to move into it. As long as she got to renovate it the way she liked. The day I saw her actually watching television was even more alarming, and not just because of the volume.  We used to dread grandmother coming into the television room. She’d walk in, coffee in hand, take one quick glance at the screen, and you knew your television programme was about to come to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. Grandmother would immediately turn to the person sitting next to her and begin to regale them with tales of Jean, Aunty Peggy and the Beaverlodge crew, or something happening in the community. It was astounding how long she could carry out a conversation with little to no encouragement and undeterred by the television, three grandchildren running through the kitchen and Granddad yelling after them, two dogs barking, three more family members barging through the door, and countless other distractions that were common occurrences at any family gathering. At the end of her story Grandmother would always pause and laugh, she would reflect on what she’d just said, another thought would come to her, and she’d be off again.

Through the breast cancer, her days with the walker, her stroke, and her dementia, certain key traits of grandmother always came through. Her stubbornness was one, of course. Another was her love for her family. I wouldn’t call her affectionate (that’s an understatement), but there was always an unspoken understanding that nothing could ever be more important than us. We saw it when Grandmother and Granddad would drive for miles and miles for the ‘Ramsey family birthday’ and Christmas concerts; we saw it when she would proudly show us off to anyone we encountered in town; we saw it in her face when we showed her our latest report cards or shared our latest achievement (let’s not count the time Hart failed Grade 3 Social Studies). And we saw it in the understanding that we would always be together for Christmas, playing canasta until late, surrounded by family, accepted and loved. 

Jordan and Grandmother
Other people have a granny or a grandma – I had a grandmother. For some reason, that name was what suited Janet Hartford and for that – with everything it came with: the stubbornness, the stories, the competitiveness, the hoarding, the altruism, and the loyalty – I am grateful.   

Monday, 18 August 2014

Janet Isabel Hartford

Janet Isabel Hartford

July 9 1922-July 16 2014
Eulogy by Nicola Ramsey and Crosbie Bourdeaux

When I was a kid, every summer we would go to my grandparents farm now owned by my cousin  Peter and his wife Eileen.  My cousins Sarah and Jansi and I used to play dressups in a room upstairs that was called “the long room”.  One day we were poking through some boxes and we found a box of dolls. Beautiful old china dolls. Knowing these must have belonged to our moms, we took them to our grandmother. Ah yes, she said, this one - a beautifully dressed blonde with perfect hair- is Peggy’s. The totally bald, undressed doll with broken fingers and a cracked finish on her face was my Mom’s. Why were the nice dolls all Aunty Peggy’s and the old broken one was my mom’s? It wasn’t fair! My grandmother told told me “Your mother was hard on her things. She played hard. She loved that doll to death.”
Mom and Peggy with their dolls
That doll told me something about my mom. It’s just taken me a few years to know what. Mom did everything hard. Everything she chose to do, she did full tilt, with all of her amazing energy and intelligence and determination. And although she didn't show it, she threw herself into everything she did with love-love for her family and love for her community.

Janet Isabel Martin, or Jimmy, as she was known to her family, was born July 9 1922 in Delia Alberta. Her dad was an orphan from England who worked for the Bank of Commerce and her mom was part of a pioneer family who settled the Beaverlodge area. Gramain, Grandad, Aunty Peggy and Mom lived in a few small prairie towns until they ended up in Edmonton. Every summer Mom, Peggy and Gramain would come back to visit the farm. After suffering from meningitis as an infant, Mom was small and frail, but according to my aunt, no matter what they did, Mom was always one step ahead. She ran faster, climbed higher, and was afraid of nothing. She was an excellent student, skipping several grades in school. She graduated early and took a secretarial programme. Then she completed a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta and worked for the American Army during WW II. She went back to school to become a teacher. She taught school and was girls’ guidance counsellor in Athabasca and Grande Prairie before returning to the U of A to obtain her Masters degree- in which she tried to discover what qualities make a person a good teacher, finding that aside from spelling and overall intelligence, it’s almost impossible to predict what people will become good teachers. 

At their wedding in Beaverlodge
She moved to Dawson Creek where she met my dad. After an on again off again relationship, my mom took a cruise to Alaska. While she was gone, my dad wrote to propose. They got married and moved to Victoria and then Trail BC where I was born. 

Then it was back to Dawson Creek and the birth of my brothers Rob and Doug and my sister Crosbie.

Me, my sister Crosbie, brothers Bob and Doug
Mom and Dad built a big house in Dawson Creek-at least, it seemed big to me- where our family lived for more than 20 years. It was the setting of coffee klatches, meetings, parties and teacher gatherings. Always one to host big events, Mom wasn't much for housework, saying that “Housework is for people who can’t think of anything better to do with their time.”  So a few hours before any big gathering would come the dreaded cry “All hands on deck’” followed by all of us racing around tidying up.

Mom registered the four of us in almost every activity the town offered. Hockey, lacrosse, curling, swimming figure skating, soccer, boy scouts, volleyball, basketball, guitar lessons, candy-striping, choir, brownies, piano lessons, you name it, we did it.  One of us even took accordion lessons. And it wasn't enough to just sign us up for these activities, Mom had to volunteer herself and my Dad. In the figure skating club, Mom was in charge of the costumes. She and her good friend Jean Cameron would take the Greyhound to Edmonton, returning with bolts of theatrical satin and glitter and our house would be transformed into a costume making factory for several weeks, to the point my dad would answer the phone “Mile Zero Figure Skating Annex.” When we joined the swim team, for years Mom ran the marshalling area swim meets and Dad was the head judge.

She was also very involved in St Mark’s Anglican Church. Among other things she made gorgeous stuffed animals for the fall craft sale with leftover fabric from the figure skating carnival. Through the church, she and Dad helped found an organization called “Fish”. Through Fish, our parents would be called out late at night to help total strangers in need. Once it was a suicidal young mom with no one to turn to. Another time it was a guy stuck at his farm in the bush who couldn’t get his car started- and my cousin Geordie suddenly found himself enlisted to help.

My mom was very attached to her parents, aunts, sister, nieces and nephews and our Beaverlodge family played an important part in our lives. Many Sundays were spent at the family farm. Many summers at the family property on the Red Willow River. Many hands of canasta played around the kitchen table-a game my parents continued on into their retirement and with their grandchildren in later years.

Mom and Dad were partners in everything, including school. Apart from the staff parties, there was the early morning grad breakfast at our house for dozens of grads, once with a rooster. When the high school burned down on a Friday, she spent the weekend creating a mascot, and Palmer the Penguin was ready to greet students and staff at Monday’ assembly. When she went back to work, I remember her dismay at the level of work her students were handing in. Should I lower my expectations? she asked my dad. No, he said, make them rise to yours.

And speaking of high expectations, mom had high standards for her own kids. We were to do our best but when we failed, we were forgiven. If we took on any project, big or small (preferably big), she was there to help. We were to be compassionate. We were to be humble but at the same time know we were just that little bit better that everyone else. And God help the teacher who did not recognize our talents.

Mom didn't do anything by half measures. She did everything with her whole self, including being a mother and a grandmother. She wasn't an affectionate woman and she never hugged me or told me she loved me. She didn't have to.  But she was unwavering and unconditional in her love. She had the kind of love that was expressed through faith, example and action.
Mom was so involved in this community, a community that she quickly grew to love. Her tireless efforts in fund raising and sitting on boards was all done to ensure that Tumbler Ridge became a community that one wanted to settle in and raise their children. Those that knew her well, were never surprised to see her volunteering for yet another project, and volunteer dad to help with her many projects. Often seeing her with Cotton Candy flying in her hair. She dedicated her life to her family and the four of us kids and then her 8 grandchildren. As a teacher and librarian she was dedicated to the youth that she taught, taking personal interest in who her students were, they weren't just names in a role call. She was vibrant, positive, active, energetic, supportive person and dedicated to everything that she did.

Mom was truly her happiest when surrounded by her family and extended family. Mom and Dad were once asked by a reporter, What would you say your greatest accomplishment was? Their answer was not the pool, the numerous boards she sat on, the craft fair that became a huge yearly event, not the Ten Thousand villages sale, the many groups she helped establish or the articles they wrote for the paper their answer was simply "our 4 children"

Our parents were both very humble and never felt that they deserved to be recognized the way that they were here in Tumbler Ridge, through Hartford Gardens, Hartford Courts, the display and story of mom in the foe of the centre here and George Hartford forest of Knowledge, outdoor classroom at the school. When I talked to them both about the naming of Hartford Court, they both said Tumbler Ridge gave far more to us then we did to Tumbler Ridge.

Mom passed away quietly in Victoria on July 16 at the age of 92, she has gone forward to once again be by dad's side, the man she loved and stood beside for over 50 years. She leaves behind to mourn her 4 children and eight grandchildren. Daughter Nicola (Len) Ramsey and children Jordan, Elizabeth and Hart, son Rob (Juanita MacNeil) Hartford and children Kyla and Darby, son Doug Hartford and children Kieran and Eric and daughter Crosbie (Tony) Bourdeaux and child John. Niece Kerry Doidge (Terry Korman) as well as many nieces and nephews great nieces and nephews.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

nothing compares

you can't scare me with your tales of heartbreak, injustice and horror

nothing compares to the heartbreak of looking into your mom's eyes and seeing not a glimmer of recognition

nothing compares to the injustice of hearing this previously articulate woman say "Actually, I would prefer..." before the rest of her so carefully thought out speech deteriorates to an incoherent babble of sound.  

and you sit beside her, guessing and at the same time trying not to guess at what she would prefer. to still have her independence? her speech, her mobility, her logic, her memories, her dignity? 

nothing compares to the heartbreak in your sister's voice as she murmurs "she never wanted this," and the sinking feeling as you wonder if what she would prefer is just not being alive.

nothing compares to the horror of listening to this once proud woman weep, unable to tell you if she's in pain, or if these are tears of frustration or hopelessness

and nothing compares to the heartbreak, the injustice, the horror of knowing that one day the once proud, once independent, once articulate woman in the wheelchair will be you and those siblings gathered by her side will be your children, just wanting their mom to say the one thing all moms tell their children "It's going to be all right." because you know it isn't. it isn't going to be all right. it's never going to be all right.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

You've Only Just Begun

It's that time of year, students. The time of year when your dad will get misty eyed watching his little princess, suddenly mature and beautiful. When your mom will beam with pride at the tall young man you have become, even though in her heart you will always be the little boy who makes  her smile. Yes, it is your graduation. And as you take the stage to receive your diploma, behind your parents' tears and smiles, we wonder where your life's journey will take you as you make your first faltering adult steps.

Yes, it's your high school graduation. Across the land, banquet halls, gyms and community centres are unrecognizable beneath swathes of streamers and rosettes, splendid backdrops, aromatic with fresh flowers, glittering with candles and mirror balls. So many decisions, so much work has been done to bring you to this day. Grad colours? Theme? Song? Guest speaker? Invitations to local dignitaries? Diplomas? What to serve at the banquet? How many tickets to allow? Decorations? Class gift? Awards? Scholarships? Location for group photo? Fund raising? Fall grad, full grad, spring grad, safe grad, dry grad? 

Teaching colleagues and parents, I ask you-what do you remember about your own commencement? The loser escort who threw up on your shoes? The dress you bought in another city only to find another girl identically clad? The valedictorian who reiterated every cliché in the book? The hopeful youngster- suit rented, girl invited, flowers ordered, grandparents en route-saying "What do you mean, I need phys. ed. to graduate?"

I nearly missed my own grad when my school camping group got snowed in off a back road and no one knew where we were. The theme song at gold old South Peace Senior Secondary was Diana Ross’s "Do you Know Where You're Going To?” My escort wore a polyester leisure suit and fell asleep at the party. Three girls got engaged, two others were hugely pregnant. Nobody laughed at my class prophesy. And yes, my parents were misty eyed and proud.

Me and my friend Teresa on our graduation day.
Grad was simpler then. Maybe life was simpler too. You finished high school or didn't, got a job or didn't, went to university or didn't.  You may not have known where you were going to, but the world waited. Life, like grad, is more complicated for the kids of today. But the world will wait for them too.
But today is not about me.  It's about you, high school graduates.  Webster's defines grad as the act of receiving a diploma, but it's also the official statement that you have come to the end of your publicly funded education.  Now you have received that gift, what will you do with it? Because today is the first day of the rest of your lives. Every journey begins with the first step. Follow your passions and never lose sight of your dreams. The world is in your hands.

You've only just begun.


Original dust jacket of the novel
When I was eleven our class read Madeleine L'Engle's novel A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first novel of a sci-fi trilogy in which a kid gets trapped in fold in the space-time continuum, which is referred to as tesseract- a fourth dimension in geometry. Our teacher asked "If there was another dimension, how might beings communicate?" The idea of another dimension threw me. Another dimension? Dimensions that could exist alongside us that we can't see or know? Say WHAT?  And what was she getting at with that question? It seemed like something just on the edge of being knowable. I couldn't reach it. But I couldn't have no answer. She expected me to have an answer. I always had an answer. I guessed wildly. "Music?" I was sure I was wrong. Music isn't a language! The other kids said things like French and Spanish. I knew that if I was wrong, at least I wasn't as wrong as they were.

Flash forward to today. I have three adult children. They can speak a bit of French. They know the language of music. And they know another language as well.  One is a PhD candidate in biotechnology at Cambridge. One is a geophysics summer student working with a 1.8 million dollar data set. The third is in computer science. They speak the language of science. They have understandings in another dimension, a dimension I was unable to enter.

When my kids get together they talk about math and physics and chemistry. They have real conversations about these things. They tell jokes about these things. I did not know these things could be be discussed, especially not with enthusiasm, humour and passion. When I listen to my kids talk, I feel as if I am the person in the fourth dimension, trapped in my own tesseract.

How did my children enter this other dimension? Where did they learn the language of science? They did not learn it from their parents. They learned it from their teachers, teachers with knowledge. Teachers with  passion for their subject. Something about what they taught triggered something in my children, encouraging them to push on and learn and grow and speak that other language, a language that is not their mother tongue. My children's teachers showed them that other dimension I still do not grasp- ideas that for me have always felt beyond my ability to comprehend.

Would these teachers have been considered "excellent? They were traditional in their approach. They used textbooks and the blackboard and lectures and experiments and sometimes even worksheets. They had higher than average participation rates and lower than average diploma marks. Yet despite their lack of the inquiry approach, their limited implementation of technology, or failure to be "architects of learning," many of their students are engineers, doctors, geologists and geophysicists. Their former students have an understanding of that other world thanks to their instruction.

When Madeleine L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she was reading quantum physics. She made the realm of science the setting for a children's novel. She worked to make the unknowable knowable. And she had a hell of a time getting published. My teacher opened my mind to the possibility of other dimensions of knowledge by pushing me to think.  I may never understand quantum physics, but I did learn that there are other dimensions inhabited by others that may be unknowable to me. And I want to thank my children's teachers for opening their minds to that other world.