Sunday, January 17, 2010

School's Out ... Forever

Parkview Public School, Midland,
 where I attended from kindergarten to grade 4, where I won a poetry contest, where I rode in Mr. Avery's green Mustang convertible, where I got sent out in the hall by Mrs. Drennan and where I got in trouble for fighting with some other girl in the playground. 
It's where I was during Canada's Centennial (we got pins and we sang "one, little two little three Canadians under big maple trees), where I had my first crush (first on Spencer Brown, later on Tom Jones), where I had snowball fights, where my best friend Kim Scott was and where the schoolyard was divided: boys on one side, girls on the other. 
It's gone now, but never forgotten.

Old newspaper stories never die, they just turn yellow and disintegrate.
As a reporter for a lot of years I wrote a lot of stories and, because they were mostly written before the electronic age, they are only available on yellowing newsprint and in my own fading memories. 
I think I'll post one here every once in a while for the sake of posterity. It's also fun to revisit the people whose lives I touched, however briefly, so many years ago.
This is one of my favourites, about the closure of Dorset Elementary School. I was working for the Haliburton County Echo at the time, covering school board, when Trillium Lakelands Board of Education announced it would spend a year having public meetings and hearings to decide whether or not to close several small public schools.
Trustees and administrators promised they would keep open minds on the subject and, if a strong enough case could be made for keeping the schools open, the schools would remain open.
Dorset is a strong, proud, vibrant community. When people heard what was going on they reacted immediately. Committees were set up, research was done, phone calls were made, meetings were attended en masse; in short, everything that could humanly be done to save Dorset's school was done.
To no avail.
After a year of emotional pleas from the community, the school board voted unceremoniously to close it down.
The people of Dorset were devastated. They knew that a community has no heart if it doesn't have a school.
You're supposed to be unbiased when you're a reporter but I couldn't help cheering on the "underdog" in this issue and I was just as depressed as they were when the battle was lost.
There was lots of coverage in the media of all the meetings, but I was the only reporter who visited the school on its last day.
I hung around the school all morning, talking with everyone I could. I was surprised at the low-key atmosphere. Very few of the people who had waged all-out war were at the school to see it through its final moments. A few parents, that was about it. The regular roster of volunteers.
The kids, of course, who were happily oblivious to the drama that had unfolded on their behalf.
One of the public schools I attended as a child closed a few years ago. I admit I cried a little when I heard. I hadn't given that school a second thought for decades but it was nice to know that it was there. Like parents. Like friends. You might not always see them, but they are a part of you, a part of your present, your future, your past. They make up who you are and you imagine that they will always be there.
As adults we know all too well that nothing is permanent.
And even though we know that, when we lose someone or something we love, we are reduced to being orphans, to feeling alone in the big, bad world. 
A school is just a thing. A building. Bricks and mortar. 
But like an urn it contains the ashes of our childhood. 
And when it is broken, the last remnants of all our childlike hopes and wishes are thrown to bitter winds.

Dorset's Last Day

Kathy Morris is putting on a brave face.
It is shortly after 8 a.m. on Tuesday June 26, the last day of classes for just about every school in the district and the last day of school, forever, for Dorset Elementary. 
Morris is updating yearbooks, adding new pages then spiral-binding them together. It's a project she has worked on at this time of year for almost longer than she can remember.
A working mom and active member of the Friends of Dorset School, Morris collects photos and stories, poems and school memorabilia, lays it out in page form, then photocopies enough pages for every student and teacher in the school, the secretary, the janitorial staff and the school bus drivers – maybe 35-40 yearbooks at most. 
And that's the whole problem. Forty yearbooks aren't enough to keep a school open. Trillium Lakelands District School Board trustees slated it for closure, organized a year of meetings, investigation and public hearings, then unceremoniously voted it closed.
Morris was one of the many people in the community who fought to keep the school open and she's still angry about the board's decision.
She works away at the yearbooks, cranking the handle of the binding machine, making small talk with people who wander in and out of the school office. But alone, inside the smaller photocopy room, she lets her frustration show.
"They have just slowly killed our school," she says. "The board says it cares about the kids in our community, cares about schools." She grimaces. "If they cared, they would have done something." Something, she means, other than shutting the school down.
"They shouldn't be allowed to say they care when they don't."

Back in the office another parent wanders in. 
"It's very emotional," Joyce MacKay says about the last day. She's trying to stay upbeat, and says her family is "excited about going to a new school" in the fall. Irwin Memorial is about 15 minutes up the very curvaceous Highway #35 in Dwight.
MacKay and Morris agree it's a good school. "Every school has its pluses and every school has its downfalls," Morris says. 
When asked if they plan to do volunteer at Irwin Memorial, MacKay thinks she probably will. Morris' answer is an unequivocal "no."
"I am taking a year off," she says. "After 3:30, I'm done. Three months of looking at heads is over."
She's talking about lice inspection – it's one of those glamour jobs that volunteers do, getting up close and personal with the heads of every single student at the school, trying to nip any possible lice infestations in the bud. 
This is why parent volunteers do the job, because there isn't enough money in the world to pay someone to do it.

"You want a tart?" Principal Kevin Cutler comes into the office with a plate full of homemade butter tarts.
Millie MacEachern has made them – she's a lady who often does nice things for the school and she's a local legend when it comes to tart-making. "They're awesome," Cutler says, chowing down.
He admits there's something about schools, not just Dorset, that attracts food. Birthdays, Hallowe'en, Christmas – no matter what the occasion, there's plenty of food.
"If it's somebody's birthday, the mom usually brings in cupcakes," he says.
"But in Dorset," Morris adds, "the difference is they bring in cupcakes for the whole school. Not just the class."

None of the staff have been laid off. Secretary Deborah Roberts retired in January. Custodian Marilyn Roche, who came to Dorset to be a custodian for only one year and stayed for 21, has also retired. Principal Cutler and teachers Doris MacDonald, Shirley Cunningham and Annette Schumacher are going with the students to Irwin Memorial.
Schumacher is standing at the front entranceway of the school, helping students bring chairs out on the lawn for the last assembly. 
There's not much left inside the school at this point other than chairs and cardboard boxes. In the last few weeks both students and teachers have spent a great deal of time packing for the move to Irwin Memorial. There are no plaques on the wall. No pictures. No awards. Some of it has gone home with students. Some will go on to the new school. Some is going to the local museum. 
Empty of everything except boxes and chairs, the rooms echo.
Schumacher points to one of the students carrying chairs out. "That's him," she says, pointing out Grade 1 student Curtis Bennett. "He said the school looks like it's been hollowed out. Isn't that a great observation? That's exactly how it looks. Hollow."
The kids walk by with their chairs, excited because it is, after all, the last day of school and they have a whole summer to look forward to. It's the adults who seem most emotionally affected by the closure. The students are just plain full of beans, jostling with their friends, gabbing and fighting. Maybe some day they'll understand the significance of this day ... for now, it's all fun. After the assembly, they get to walk downtown to the frozen yogurt shop.
Schumacher watches them, expressionless. 
"Last days are hard," she says, "but this last day is harder."

The kids are settled restlessly in their blue plastic chairs set out on the lawn outside the school, waiting for Cutler to begin the last assembly.
"Let's bow our heads and think of all the wonderful times we've had at this school," he says, after the singing of O Canada. Everyone – students, teachers, parents – do as he asks. There is a minute or so of silence. It is like an act of respect for the school.
"This is really a special day for the people of Dorset," he says, breaking the silence. "This is the last day the school will be operated."
"What's operated?" one of the students interrupts.
"Good question," Cutler says over the laughter of the 30 or so people in the very small crowd.
Teachers are presenting "Top Banana" awards to their students. The banana awards are based on whatever qualities the teachers most admire or whatever sticks out most about the students' personalities. For example, one student wins because of "scientifically testing the effects of mud and snow on every pair of snow pants ever worn to the school." Others win for being most improved, or best attendance. Courtney Morris is called up to accept the banana award for making sure the Canadian flag is raised every day.
Suddenly everyone is laughing. Courtney's face goes red, then she runs into the school. A few minutes later the flag is seen inching up the flagpole.
When all the students have their banana awards, the Friends of Dorset have surprise banana awards for the staff. Members Lori MacKay and Morris have presents as well – perennial plants that live on year after year. 
"They're like the trees we planted," MacKay says, her voice breaking. "They'll help you remember Dorset."
All the awards are not quite handed out. There are special certificates for the Grade 6 graduates: all two of them. Teacher MacDonald makes the presentation because "they have put up with me for six years of the seven" they have been at Dorset. Nathan Reid and Sarah Parniak step up to the front of the assembly. Their parents take pictures. Sarah's mother wipes away tears. Both students accept hugs from their teacher. Nathan, being a boy and trying to be cool, makes a pretend face as "Mrs. MacD" hugs him. Hard.
"It's sad that we have to let the school go," she says to everyone. "Unfortunately with the funding formulas that the board works with, it was impossible [to keep it open]. But I do think it's neat that we'll all be going to a new school together. Let's make Irwin Memorial our school now."

Mrs. MacD has the task of wrapping up the assembly.
"So, let's close now," she says, then looks around at the other teachers. "Any last words ... ?"
Like a stage prompter, teacher Schumacher loudly whispers the words her co-worker is searching for. They are words that are real and true for the students and teachers and principals who will reunite after summer holidays and find their niche at Irwin Memorial. But those words will never again be true for the red brick, four-room schoolhouse in Dorset.
"Until September," Schumacher says.
Until September.
– 30 –


  1. This was a very moving piece. Wow! I must be emotional in the morning, I even got a little teary-eyed (my gradeschool was closed a few years ago also). Beautiful article with a lovely "introduction" to it.
    I don't envy you in the slightest having to report on this, it would have been very difficult. If you think about it, all over Dorset (probably all over the WORLD depending on how long the school was open and the range of the graduates), there are clippings of YOUR article on the last page of yearbooks, stuck in with Banana Awards, folded into fancy old-lady envelopes and sent to elderly classmates. That you had a hand in that, and wrote an article with such obvious care and compassion, is a very comforting thing.
    Absolutely wonderful - thank you for letting us out here revisit your reporting years with you.

  2. Thank you, CJ. Your comments mean so much to me.

  3. Hello Cathy! It was nice to see a new visitor on my blog today and doubly nice when I see you also live in the same neck of the woods. I enjoyed this posting very much!

  4. This is an interesting post. I grew up in downtown Toronto and an artist memorialized the school.
    Christiane Pflug (née Shütt) is a Canadian artist
    That said, I look at a school as the vessel, and our memories are intact. It is the spirit that is important.
    My 1st teaching assignment was in a school that had bad water and was rightly shut down!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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