Monday, November 25, 2013


People will always remember where they were and what they were doing when the Riders won the Grey Cup, at Mosaic Stadium, no less, in 2013.  The team designed to win it all at home did just that--against great odds.  Life doesn't often deliver the fairy tale ending.  Like so many others, I want to register my thoughts on this generational event.

1.  I am delighted for the whole team, but, in particular for quarterback Darian Durant and GM Brendon Taman.  Those two individuals bore the unrelenting angst of a dissatisfied vocal minority.  I admire the clarity of their vision, and their perseverance.  They deserve the unimaginable feeling of accomplishment in which I hope they will both revel today and in the weeks and months to come.  
2.  The Riders are a cultural phenomenon.  They galvanize an entire province, and the legion of their supporters extends around the world.  You don't have to know anything about football, or even like football, to get caught up in the magic.  Their aura transcends sport.

3.  I did my part to assure a Grey Cup victory.  Although I did wear green on Sunday, I could not wear my Rider shirt.   My intuition told me that the team did not have a winning record when I wore the shirt, so out it went.  Now, I need reliable data.  So the plan for next season is to wear the shirt for each game I watch, and track the team's success.

4.  I heard a few fans comment that yesterday was the best day of their lives.  Good for them. I'm glad they had a good time.  Although I applaud the convincing victory,  I will never measure the worth of my days by the success of a sports team, even the Riders.

5.  I will buy the book that will chronicle the alignment of the pieces that created the fireworks for Grey Cup 2013.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


The album in my mind still houses the photo of my Grade 5 classroom on the second floor of the convent where I went to primary school.  That photograph has not bleached or frayed with time.  There aren’t any cracks in it, either, and the colour is still vibrant.  Why would the memory remain so vivid fifty years later?

For one thing, that classroom had a cloakroom at the front of the room, to the right of the teacher’s desk as she faced the class.  Students fortunate enough to spend a year in that classroom had status.  They could store their coats, boots, and other paraphernalia in an enclosed space with glass doors leading out to the classroom.  Panels of windows opened up an entire wall of the cloackroom, and extended along the wall of the classroom.   Daydreamers had an unobstructed view of the convent gardens and the parish church just across the road.  As a result, that room mitigated the drudgery and tedium of Grade 5.  

It was in that room, as well, that I decided to become a teacher.  During the class study of  the countries of South America and their capitals, I noticed that our textbook cited Rio de Janiero as the capital of Brazil.  I knew that was false.  National Geographic had featured an article on the new Brazilian capital, called Brasilia.   “I’ll bring the magazine tomorrow,” I  assured a skeptical teacher.  So I did.  I couldn’t wait to get to school, and during the Social Studies work period, I walked up to the teacher’s desk, magazine in hand. My teacher looked up, smiled, and glanced at the magazine.  Then, she turned back to her reading of the National Enquirer.  What?  My teacher was more interested in gossip than in the new capital of Brazil?  How could that happen?  In my mind, a teacher was supposed to support curiosity and learning.   I resolved to do better than that.   When my turn came, I would affirm students who took the time to teach me things.  I would welcome the Brasilias that came my way.   Disillusioned, I returned to my desk.   Something in me died that day.

I was at that desk right in the middle of the middle row of desks, aligned with the teacher’s desk and the clock above it on November 22, 1963, when the principal came on the intercom and announced that John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Thanks to my father’s news addiction, I already knew a lot about Kennedy.  My ten-year-old mind wondered how a politician, especially the president of a country, could be so young.  Before Kennedy had been Eisenhower, and we in Canada had Diefenbaker and Pearson.   What a revelation—politicians didn't have to be old.  They could have beautiful wives, and small children running around the White House and peeking out from under their famous father’s desk.  I had already read a few books on the Kennedys that had come through my parents’ book club.  I felt I knew the family.  When JFK’s death was announced, I felt I had lost a member of my family.

In shock, I endured the afternoon and the bus ride home.  My parents already had the television turned on.  I spent the weekend glued to it, engraving forever the images of Lyndon Johndon’s oath of office aboard Air Force 1, with Jackie Kennedy at this side, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the cortège along Pennsylvania Avenue, the riderless horse improperly shod, a veiled and sombre Jackie Kennedy holding her children’s hands, and, of course, John-John’s salute.  My bereavement took an odd turn, and became an obsession with anything Kennedy.  I read Death of a President, by William Manchester, Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., books on the family, William Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (later adapted for the screen by Oliver Stone), even Steven King’s fictional 11/22/63.  Anything about the Kennedys snared my attention..

When we first visited family in Dallas in 2008, I only had one reply to the question, “What do you want to do while you’re here?”  See Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository Building.  So we did.  I felt that I was visiting a shrine, a sacred place, like the cathedral in the war cemetery in Verdun.  Both times we were there, I stood on the X in the street marking the spot of the assassination, and strolled on the grassy knoll, trying to visualize the circumstances.  Both times we visited the site, other people were milling about like me, as well, interacting with their own memories and images of that fateful today.

Whatever JFK’s personal weaknesses and transgressions, well-documented in the fifty years since his murder, I still associate with his memory a sense of possibility, that things others only dream of (as his brother Robert said later) could come to pass under his administration.  That same aura of change and idealism surrounded Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Robert F. Kennedy, both killed in 1968.  I remember watching RFK bleeding out on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles before leaving for school on the morning of June 5, 1968.    I walked, disconsolate, around the school yard during recess all that day, hoping against hope that he would survive, wondering how such horrors could happen.  Robert Kennedy died the next day.

I felt the same sense of loss in 1978 at the death of Pope John Paul I.  Once again, so much hope shattered.   Two years ago, in August of 2011, as I was driving into Regina for a shopping trip, I heard that Jack Layton had passed away.   The clerk at the framing counter at Michael’s was similarly subdued and preoccupied.  What would Canada do without him?  Who would have the charisma and the eloquence to speak up for the working class?   I was compelled to sign the guest book and send a message of condolence.   Once again, I felt  a personal loss.

So this morning on “Q”,  during his hommage to the JFK anniversary, as Jian Ghomeshi indicated that fewer and fewer people can answer the question, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?“, including his entire production team, I thought, “Well, I can.”  Like the filaments of the body’s lymph system,  a political event that occurs when you’re ten years old can imprint on you.  It can colour feelings and visceral reactions  in analogous events throughout a lifetime.  In my case, forever connected to a desk in a Grade 5 classroom, it has precipitated a veritable holodeck of bereavement memories.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, a time to think about an extraordinary woman and her gifts to me.

This fall, I have been wrapping myself in my mother’s long beige wool coat.  It was her signature, really, the elegant, timeless look that she always favored.  When she died, I just couldn’t give it up.  I tried it on.  It was a little short in the sleeves, but fine otherwise.  A pair of gloves would take care of the shortfall, and I could bask in my mother’s warmth.

I am so lucky to have had a mother who:
·  was 35 when I was born.  Her age allowed her to think outside the parenting box, to my great advantage;
· had a fifteen-year career as an X-ray technician: careers for her daughters were non-negotiable;
· monitored my language (see last blog post);
· insisted on doing things correctly, whether it was vacuuming, or turning the knife blade toward the plate when setting the table, or always using a bread and butter plate, or putting in a zipper;
· was creative—she could draw, make decorations with paper, create a Japanese wig with coarse wool and the balls from roll-on deodorant, as well as a luau pig from chicken wire covered with cloth and colored with pastels by coal-oil lamp during a spring storm power outage; 
· insisted that, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected”  (Luke 12 :48);
· always celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with a special meal and a homemade cake;
· used the good china for the family;
· never, ever, gave in to physical challenges she faced throughout her life;
· was indomitable;
· had a real, practical sense of God;
· had an innate sense of style, and could wear a hat with unmatched flair;
· told stories while we watched her sew;
· could do anything with fabric—sew wedding dresses, graduation dresses, coats, suits, quilts for her grandchildren, dance skirts.
· lived her life for others;
· loved with every fibre of her being.

All I can say is, “Thank you.”

Friday, November 15, 2013


Turns out my mother was right.  What comes out of our mouth defines us.

For that reason, she scrutinized our language more closely than a political organizer does the polls.  Participles had to agree with the auxiliary.  No “I seen” or “had went” for her.  In fact, grammatical faux pas were for her nails scratching on a blackboard.  She just couldn’t bear it.  She corrected us before the final sounds had escaped our lips.

Her secret weapon was that she could monitor proficiency in two languages.  She was just as demanding in French.  Should a wayward « moé » or « toé » slip out, she would insist on our repeating the sentence using « moi » or « toi ».  She would have nothing of patois; she insisted on standard English or standard French. 

I am indebted to my mother for her relentless insistance on correct speech.  Her high standards gifted me with a lifelong love of language.  Just ask my children.  I have subjected them to the same discipline.  In two languages.  My mother knew instinctively that “Respect for language is respect for yourself; it lifts you up” (Mikhail Barishnykov).  Language peels back the veneer of Armani suits, Coach handbags, and exquisite makeup to reveal a polished, articulate individual.  Or not.  Grammatical errors in speech prompt an axiomatic reevaluation of an individual’s true competence.

Even more important, the words we use communicate our values and our perspectives with respect to our personal and professional lives.  The word “allowed”, for example, that partners sometimes use to describe what one or the other can or cannot do, clarions control.  If I use tentative language, and suggest what options might exist, I suggest multiple pathways to an end rather than one singular vision.    If, in my work as an educator, I speak of my “markbook ” and talk about all the “correcting” I have to do, I am revealing my preferential pedagogy.  If, in the same way, my speech talks about “keeping records” or “providing feedback” or “reading student work,”  I am also telegraphing my philosophy.   Our words broadcast our approaches to our work and to our human relationships.

Dan and Chris Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, reiterate the point.  “Every culture,” the Heath brothers say, “whether national or organizational, is shaped powerfully by its language” (p. 247).  Our words transmit our beliefs, whether we are aware or not.   When a colleague might ask me to resend a document she can’t find, and I have a nagging feeling that maybe I forgot to send it in the first place, I feel bathed in balm.  The colleague assumed the positive about me; her words are proof of her belief in people’s good intentions.

I am so grateful to Maman for raising my awareness of the impact of language.   Our words do indeed reveal our inner selves, our values, and the quality of our interactions.

Monday, November 11, 2013


One of my current projects involves change.  Not change of the routine garden variety, like learning a new route around the supermarket when the floor plan has changed, or managing a new operating system, or even working with a new person.  We’re talking serious change that requires from the people affected a paradigm shift in thinking.   In that context, the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (2010) by the Heath brothers (Dan and Chip) has been a compelling read.

“Oh, Yvette, a parcel came for you,”  our office assistant says as she hands me a heavy, bulky brown envelope, padded with bubble paper.  I stare at the return address all the back to my office, but can’t make sense of it.  The weight  of the package and its odd shape point to books, but I can’t imagine a source.  I haven’t ordered anything, and I’m not expecting anything either.  I reach for the scissors, trim a sliver from the top of the package, and reach in.  I pull out a note from my friend and colleague:  Thanks so much for sharing your process and experience with us.  I reach in again—three books, the first of which is Switch. 

Now the compulsion to read kicks in.  Resistance is futile.  I can’t get a new book and just leave it alone unscanned and unpaged until I have time.  It will call me until I give in.  There’s no continuing  my work until I have succombed.  Perhaps you feel the same way.  Having now read the title and surmised my endorsment, you might be interested in tidbits from the book.  I would be happy to oblige.  Three critical snippets from Switch follow.

1.    The Fundamental Attribution Error
is an articulation of Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross who noted  that “people have a systemic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behaviour” (p. 180).      The Switch authors, Heath and Heath, maintain that, when things go wrong, we tend to blame the character of the people rather than factor in the contribution of the context to the outcome.  They extrapolate from Ross: “The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (p. 180; authors' italics).    
So, for example, if a colleague misses a meeting, we might assume negligence rather  than concluding that an emergency might have come up preventing the individual from communicating an absence.  In another context, we might ascribe a student’s inability to meet a deadline to lack of planning or foresight rather than to legitimate roadblocks to finishing on time.  Both of these cases would be examples of The Fundamental Attribution Error.  This principle underlines a belief I have long held: to cultivate a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace,  all must work from a positive premise, that every person in the organization desires a successful result, and is doing his or her best to bring that about.  In that way, people are able to assume the positive.  When challenges occur, they are able to focus on the problem and deal with it without letting emotions interfere.

2.    Communication and Change
Following from the Fundamental Attribution Error, people initiating change might ascribe any resistance to a person’s character.  The person might be obstinate and close-minded.  Not so, say the Heath brothers:  “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity” (p. 14).   People are skeptical of change they don’t understand.  The agents of change, therefore, have an obligation to break down the change into its component stages, and to clarify the expectations.

3.    Forget Punishment
If we want people’s behavior to change, for any reason, we must encourage rather than punish.  This would seem self-evident.  Apparently not.  The authors of Switch cite the work of writer Amy Sutherland, who studied the approach of animal trainers.  How might they “teach dolphins to jump through hooops and monkeys to ride skateboards [?]  . . . The answer doesn’t involve punishment.” (p. 250 – 251).  The answer lies rather in very small steps and, in the case of the monkeys,  bushels of mango.  In the same way, harshness and the threat of failure will not motivate students to improve. 
I can only give myself in example.  I continue to do what brings me success and satisfaction.  I reject those activities in which I believe I lack ability.  I have played golf only a few times because I am convinced that my poor play frustrates any foursome I might be a part of, even in a Texas Scramble.  I don’t play pool or video games, either, because  I am no match for the competition.  The experiences are not positive.  On the other hand, I love Scrabble because I can hold my own.  I became a better pianist when my hard work  brought me encouragement from my teacher, an exam mark I had thought unattainable for someone with my ability, and positive comments from professional musicians I respect.  Why would my students not react the same way?  They would want to continue to do what they feel successful at, be it playing video games, skateboarding, hockey, writing, or mathematics.  My job would be to structure that success in the classes I teach.

Switch, then, is a timely and absorbing read that explains key principles of change using a variety of examples in diverse contexts.  I am so grateful to my friend and colleague for her thoughtfulness.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


I’ve opened my Nepali journal, and retrieved my fountain pen from its cubicle on my desk hutch.  I uncover the nib, snap the cap on the top to maintain the weight, and I begin to write.   One word after another, the pen translates the day’s highs and lows, its details and insights, onto the thick, handmade paper.  It becomes an extension of my hand and a conduit for my thoughts.  I sit a little straighter.  I take the time to form the letters.  I write a long time, basking in the luxury of this simple, elegant poster tool for authorship and professionalism.    

It occurs to me that I’ve been writing in one form or another, for various purposes, all my life, and that the writing tools, the styluses, I have used since I was a child represent the chapters in the volume of my life.   Lost in reverie, I notice that, in the few seconds I have paused at the end of my sentence to ponder this thought,  the period has become a Rorschach ink blot.  A subliminal slip,  the ink stain on the pristine page authenticates the story.  My Life in Pens reads like a list.

1.              Wax crayons, a small box of Crayola basic colors to carry me through my childhood etchings and the drawings of primary school.  I remember feeling so grown up when my parents let me buy a bigger box of crayons with a dizzying array of shades.

2.              Thick red pencil, with a fat lead, appropriate for printing in Grade 1. A cousin of the flat, rectangular carpenter’s pencil my father always tucked behind his ear between measurements as he ran boards through the table saw, or nailed them in place, it connected me to him somehow.

3.              Sleek gold HB pencil, just like the ones my parents sharpened to do crossword puzzles.  I could write in cursive hand, and I felt so grown up. 

4.              Papermate ballpoint pen, my mother’s, a sleek design, with a brown bottom and a pearl top, which Maman let me use to write thank-you notes to my grandmothers and my godmother for Chrismas and birthday gifts.

5.              Fountain pen with a cartridge—the latest technology.  After all, finally, I had moved up in the school world to the wooden desks I had longed for, those with heavy lids that covered a cavernous hold for books, scribblers, and my all-important cartridge refills, with a hole in the top right hand corner to accommodate an ink well.   Out of deference to potential mess, we had to substitute a glue bottle for the ink well,  but even that  concession to practicality could not dispell the feeling that I was moving up in the world.

6.              Generic Bic blue pens in the cellophane packages, lots of them, for the serious work of notetaking, and homework, and compositions, and projects.  They accompanied me through Grade 6 and all of the studies beyond.

7.              Typewriter.  My father received one as a premium with a World Book encyclopedia he purchased when I was twelve.  My school library didn't have an encyclopedia, but I had one at home.  My father was a visionary, and a purist.  If I wanted to use the new machine, I had to learn to type properly using QWERTY fingering.  I taught myself to type when I was twelve, closeted in the den at my father’s desk,  working through the instruction and exercise manual that came with the typewriter like following a new and delicate recipe.  In my enthusiasm, I even began applying my new typing skills to some of my school assignments.

8.              Promotional ballpoint pens, in assorted fluorescent colours, inscribed with the business name and motto, retrieved from conference bags or the recesses of my purses.  Crammed into the pen jar on the kitchen counter or the storage bin of the car, these reminders of our travels and our service providers still corner the market on telephone messages, grocery lists, notes to family members and student fund-raising forms, even in the era of cellphones..

9.              Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint pen, Fine point.  Its smooth glide on paper made it my favorite pen for years to journal and generate ideas.  A pseudo-fountain pen, it preserved the feel and look of the real deal without the threat of mess.  Total convenience.  It had a professional look, and I could get ideas down quickly. 

10.          Colored pens, a few red, mostly green or purple, and mostly Pilot V5 Tecpoints too, as well as mechanical pencils, that I used for thirty years to provide feedback on student writing, and note potential corrections.

11.          Word processors, the first an Apple 2e, with which I have a love-hate relationship in the early years.  I treat it like a fancy typewriter that doesn’t need carbon paper or a correcting feature.  Not having shifted paradigms yet, I write my drafts in pen, revise, and only then transfer my work to the computer.  Now,  I can’t imagine my life without my MacBook, and I compose at the computer.  The keys have become my pens, and they can capture my thoughts as faithfully as their predecessors.  I’ve written eulogies, reference letters, bins of binders of lesson plans, a few articles,  workshop materials, many speeches, a thesis, a dozen or so special projects, some poems and stories, scores of emails, and, now, these blogs.

Today, I have come back to my fountain pen, a gift from the children for my sixtieth birthday, inscribed with Each decade better than the last.  This stylus is a public acknowledgment of the role writing has played in my life.  A bridge between the quill and the computer, it is a catalyst for writing.  I wonder if its aura comes from a connection I feel to those through the generations who have paused to record their impressions of life and the evolution of thought.  Its very presence and feel in my hand are an incentive to slip it from its special case and add my own thoughts to those of humanity.