Thirty-Five Years Teaching In Portage

I had driven through the city of Portage a dozen times through the years because it is a city on the Trans-Canada highway, just before or after Winnipeg depending on whether you are traveling east or west across Canada. It was not memorable—just a possible break on a long boring drive. As I have mentioned before, I chose this location, from the distant perspective of northern Manitoba, because it was only an hour drive from Winnipeg. I had absolutely no first hand knowledge of the city or its school system. For me, those were irrelevant details. My interest was in Winnipeg as being big enough, but not too big. Portage was going to be a nice, quiet place to live, and maybe work, while I commuted to and from Winnipeg for my real life.
Here I was, applying for a job as a high school teacher at the Portage Collegiate Institute (PCI). That’s what they had decided to name it when the building was constructed in 1896 . . . an ‘institute’. In 1994, PCI celebrated its one-hundredth birthday. That would actually be its 98th birthday, but the organizers either weren’t very good at arithmetic or were too impatient to wait for two more years to have a party. A lot of people behave strangely when they are being kept away from a party. Besides, I suppose a little dissemblance never hurt anyone, and it does seem to be totally acceptable in war, business and politics.

The school had about 600 students in Grades 9 to 12, with twenty-one teachers when I started there. Its student population increased steadily year by year for a few years to a maximum of about 1000 without increasing the physical size of the building. The halls were crowded during class changes. There was a strictly enforced ‘keep to the right, and keep moving’ rule.
As might be expected, I was assigned the less academically inclined students and Grade 9 Science—not a high prestige course. It took me until Christmas to catch onto this, but it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. I was low man on the totem pole. At least, I was teaching in a real school as a qualified teacher for the first time and I was coming in with some really good skills from my experiences in Swan River and Cranberry Portage. I had a good year and it was the beginning of a satisfying thirty-five year run. At last, I had found where I had been going all these years (although I have had a few misgivings over the years at PCI when I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to do when I grew up).
The high school program (Grades 9 –12) was organized with homogeneous grouping (students of equal academic ability grouped together in the same class). The classes were identified alphabetically from highest ability to the lowest. My homeroom was Room 9-I (the lowest grade in the school and the students with the lowest academic abilities). I totally loved the kids. They were open, honest and generally outgoing. So maybe they weren’t the best students, but that was why I was there—to teach them. It was a challenge but they responded well to demonstrations, real-life examples, experiments, games and general fooling around. Starting with my second year I moved more into teaching Grade 11 and 12 Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. However, I continued to have the lower academic ability classes (as in, 11-H) as my ‘homeroom’ class, usually held in the Physics lab, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I enjoyed the less academically inclined students and they enjoyed it that I would try out my Physics demonstrations on them before school started. Often, I put a contrived ‘magic’ aspect to them. The van de Graaf generator was a useful tool for studying properties of static electricity, but mostly was just for the fun for making hair stand on end on a student’s arms and head.

Errol and I started a school Science Club in my second year there. I enjoyed the less formal environment and the range of ages in the clubs. It was fun working with students in this way. I gradually started a variety of other clubs, including Chess, Touchdown Quiz and Reach For the Top. All I needed was four or more students with a common interest and I’d set up a club for it.

I found a room to rent upstairs in a house with two other people my age and within walking distance of PCI. My Triumph was a ‘chick magnet’ for eligible young teachers throughout the summer and late fall and I enjoyed taking dates to Winnipeg. Some of them, especially Shirley, loved the experience of going 100 mph (160 km/hr) for short periods of time on the way to and from Winnipeg. This was to be my first winter with my ragtop Triumph. I soon discovered that although England made excellent automobiles it did not have a clue how to make a heater for one. In fact, the heater, bought as an optional accessory, was almost useless. My trips to Winnipeg in the winter with a date were a wonder to behold. I had to drive with an ice scraper in one hand just to maintain a few inches of ice-free windshield to peer through. Winter boots and gloves were essential. As you might guess, for their second date most of them were happy to spend the time in Portage—a significant financial saving for me.
My first year at PCI was relatively uneventful. I think I must have had the help of a guardian angel to dodge most of the ‘rookie mistake’ bullets, because it certainly wasn’t due to any caution on my part. My car attracted lots of student attention and I enjoyed the unexpected popularity generated from giving them rides and letting some of the boys drive it on deserted country roads or parking lots. The tight steering and surprising acceleration needed a lot of empty space for that first driving experience.
I began making actual friendships with a few students (some of whom have maintained contact with me to the present time) in a school environment that was generally aloof and negative toward student-teacher fraternization. I allowed students to call me by my first name (not a common practice in those days) but ‘Charlie’ rather than ‘Bill’ as the teachers called me. That way, if I happened to be talking to a teacher and a student happened to call out, ‘Hey Charlie’, I could just ignore it and the teacher wouldn’t notice the chummy relationship.
There are so many students I would like to mention, but obviously I can’t mention then all and mentioning only some of them wouldn’t be fair to the others. They all enriched my life just by being themselves in my classes.

However, I do have to mention Phil because he taught me a lot about how to be successful, and I have shared this with many people, including student teachers. He liked me because he was addicted to playing pool at noon hour. No, we didn’t play pool together, but I was his teacher for the first class in the afternoon, and he was usually late for class. I was one of the few teachers who really believed that finishing a pool game could be more important than the first fifteen minutes of a lesson. Several years later, he became a teacher and then a school counselor in Portage. We had occasions to be together in meetings with principals and parents and I was curious as to how he made such a positive impression on everyone (except me, of course). So he told me about his working for the hydroelectric power company before coming to the school system. It went something like this:
“The first thing to do after you have driven out to where the repair is to made is to leave the truck doors open, take out your tool boxes and leave them open with tools spread out on the roadside. Anyone driving by, including supervisors, will observe that you are working.”
“OK. So what does this have to do with a meeting in the school?” I asked.
“When I go to a meeting, I always have a briefcase. The first thing I do is to put it on the desk. Then I open it and take out some papers, and look at them as if I am refreshing my memory about something. Then we can start the meeting. They are impressed because they think I am organized and know what I am doing.”

‘Little Portage’ was a popular gathering and snacking place on the outskirts of Portage. I didn’t know anyone, so I began going there soon after school started. I became friends with one of the more obviously attractive waitresses and got into the habit of picking Sharon up after work and driving her home. We went swimming at Delta (the nearby beach/cottage resort on lake Manitoba) a couple of times. It is fortunate nothing serious had developed in our relationship because it ended abruptly one day at school. I noticed a group of Grade 12 students blocking the hallway because the teacher hadn’t arrived to unlock their classroom door.
Being a helpful fellow, I worked my way through the group and was unlocking the door when I heard a familiar voice, “Thanks, Charlie.”
You guessed it. It was Sharon. It had never occurred to me she might be a student. Maybe we should have spent more time talking.

I was ‘adopted’ by Milt, Russ and their mother, Clara. They had moved to Portage about the time I did and when I met them they had a house but still no furniture. It was fun seeing them slowly fill up the house, complete with the big stereo system popular at that time. I also enjoyed spending time helping Milt work on his light blue coupe of questionable lineage.
Milt and I did a fast (in both time and speed) tenting tour straight south almost to the Mexican border, then to the west coast for Disneyland and home.
Later, when I went to Stanford, I left the Triumph with Russ to look after. Fortunately, the car couldn’t tell me any tales, but rumor has it that there were some stories to tell.

As seven years rolled by, I came to realize that for a lot of the students their lack of academic success generally was not so much from lack of ability as from emotional, personal or personality difficulties. When the provincial Department of Education decided to encourage more guidance and counseling in the schools by offering a bursary for teachers to take a master’s program, Grand Forks was the closest university with an appropriate program. I applied and Wilma and I set off to the United States for me to begin my program.
We had a self-contained suite in a lady’s basement. We had just nicely adjusted to our new life when a French teaching opportunity became available beginning the last week in September. It was in Arborg, a 2-hour drive north of Winnipeg. From then until Christmas, Wilma would meet the Arborg school principal in Winnipeg on Sunday night to go with him to Arborg. Then I would drive to Grand Forks for my week of classes. When the weekend came, we would reverse the process. We would meet in Winnipeg, have a nice dinner, and then drive home to Portage.
In January, Wilma and I returned to Grand Forks. She took some creative ceramics and fancy knitting classes while I was working on my thesis and finishing my course work. Wilma was expecting our first child, Ken, at the end of July and I had planned my program so I would be finished mid-July. It worked out well. We were both home when Ken arrived on the 23rd.

While I had been away getting my master’s degree in counseling and psychology, the School Division hired its first Superintendent of Schools. I had left under the impression from the School Board that I would be Supervisor of Counseling (or Guidance, or some such title). When I returned I discovered I might be called Supervisor but there was no counseling program for me to supervise and, in fact, no interest in having one. I made a compromise and became Guidance Counselor at PCI and was authorized to call myself Supervisor of Student Services (my toehold into a divisional counseling program) with a very modest extra pay allowance.

One of the aspects of the high school program was arranging a once-a-year field trip to Winnipeg so students could visit facilities offering post-secondary opportunities in education and employment. It took a lot of time and effort to set up the contacts and arrange bus routes (there were hundreds of students and dozens of places for the tours), but the day itself was pretty easy for me. There were always teachers to ride the bus and act as guides. The students knew where they needed to be and when. If they missed a bus it was their problem, not mine. If they had to phone a parent to come and pick them up or to take a Greyhound bus back to Portage, it wouldn’t be a big problem. At least that is what I told them and I guess they believed me. To my knowledge nobody ever missed a bus. But then, I wouldn’t have necessarily known, would I?
For five years, I served as counselor in both high schools (at different times) and then as junior high counselor for all the junior high schools. I always tried to leave a vacancy to be filled when I moved so that gradually the junior and senior high schools all had counseling programs.

There were young people in Portage who used drugs like LSD, pot and especially hash. Harder drugs were common in Winnipeg and there was concern they would reach the high schools in Portage. Thanks to my years of teaching, and my penchant for getting to know young people and their lives, I knew all the drug dealers and major drug purchasers in Portage, their modus operandi, and their suppliers. The first step in my drug control program was to meet each of the local dealers one-on-one, usually over a beer, and let them know that if I ever saw one of them in a school, on the school grounds or even near the school grounds, I would have to call the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and tell them everything I knew (which was a lot). They stayed away and out of sight.
However, drugs did sneak into the schools via student users. As in most schools, we had a drug information program and provision to help those who asked for assistance. A problem arose when a couple of student told me the hash suppliers in Winnipeg were lacing hash with small amounts of heroin to make it more addictive. I checked with the local RCMP and they told me they were aware of the problem but didn’t know how extensive it was.
We set up an agreement that I could purchase small amounts of hash from students or on the street and turn it over to them for analysis. I would then quietly announce in classes whenever there was a problem with the current supply. Needless to say, this was an informal (as in, secret) program. I’m sure if some administrators had known they would have opposed it on the grounds that I was encouraging hash use by saying when it was safe. The students understood I could never tell them if what they were buying or using was safe. I could only tell them when I knew it wasn’t. It also made a major point that they needed to think about what they were doing.
One effective lesson came about by accident. A former student (actually, he was the person who had introduced me to pot many years earlier by inviting me to one of his frequent pot parties) came to me and asked if he could talk to my students about the dangers of drug use. Being somewhat psychic, (or at least observant), I suspected he had returned to Portage recently to set himself up as an informal dealer and was looking to enlist users. I was sure of it when he said he would have to speak to the students without having me present.
His complexion was pallid and teeming with blemishes; his mouth moved constantly and his eyes were squinty; his voice, hands and whole body shook; he had a major face twitch; and he bounced around like a flea on speed. I decided that if he wanted to be ‘poster boy’ for drug use, I should let him.
So I took a chance and gave him my classes for the day. I checked with the class after my former student’s first performance. The response was along the lines of:
“Where on earth did you find that guy? He told us he’d been using drugs for years and they hadn’t done him any harm at all. But he’s a total wreck. If he’s what drug use does to you, no thank you. He said pot never leads to anything stronger, and then he says he’s been on every drug there is.”
I assumed they got a message. I firmly believed that young people can make good decisions it they have all the facts. Not all school administers believed that.
Unfortunately, personal counseling was gradually phasing out and being replaced with vocational counseling.
I had one guidance counselor say to me: “I don’t know why you bother with personal counseling. It is so much harder than vocational.”
I thought it was also more rewarding both personally and for society.

In 1972, the Portage School Division decided they should have a Special Education Coordinator to assist with the implementation of Manitoba Legislation requiring handicapped individuals be placed in the ‘least restrictive’ settings for education and living. And so I became ‘Coordinator of Special Education & Student Services’. In this role, I organized the activities of specialists such as psychologist, social worker, speech therapist, and other resource personnel.
My job could be summarized as getting students with any form of handicap integrated into the regular school program as much as was feasible. In short, I had to negotiate between parents who wanted a more ‘normal’ setting for their child and with schools who did not want that kind of person in their schools.
As one principal said, “The wheelchair leaves muddy tracks on our carpet.”
It was not an easy job.
Up until this time, I had been changing my educational role about every seven years. I liked that. I had discovered that after about five years I would be finding shortcuts and easier ways to do things. I would start to lose my enthusiasm and feeling of adventure. My stint in Special Education didn’t end until 1986. I tried unsuccessfully to get out of the position several times. Fourteen years was too long in that role.

My last six years in the division were as ‘Divisional Consultant for Talented/Gifted’, replacing the person who had started the program a few years earlier. We followed Renzulli’s philosophy and programs (described briefly on page xxx), which were based mostly on teacher support and encouragement.
I did set up and taught evening high school courses for talented and gifted students, which ran one night a week for three years. One was called, ‘Societal Issues’.
I began the course by saying, “I have no information to give you. It is up to you to share your knowledge and opinions with each other. I am just here to guide you.”
We discussed and debated topics of importance to them in a civilized and thoughtful manner—totally unlike our Federal Parliament during question period.
I tried to teach them precision in language usage, so they would avoid saying things like, “How could our hockey team lose?” Obviously, by putting the puck into the net fewer times than the other team. Was this really what you were saying?
Or, “Do you believe in UFO’s?” A person has to believe there have been observations of moving things in the sky, which have not been identified. Did they mean to ask, “Do you believe in extraterrestrial beings?”

I also ran a Saturday morning Science course for gifted elementary school age students. We dealt with observation, thinking and a scientific approach to practical problems . . . like making a jet propelled cars with sticks and a balloon. One time, the class included a pre-reading student and a junior high student together. Because the class was based on observation, ideas and thinking, rather than information, age was not important. Everyone could contribute equally.
I started teaching computer science and programming in the ‘traditional languages’ of BASIC, FORTRAN and COBOL languages about 1970 because Ken was ready to learn them. I thought I might as well make it available to all high school students. Ken was in Grade 6 and most of the other students were in Grade 11 or 12. I needed Ken there for the many times when my knowledge wasn’t as good as his. After their initial surprise, the students accepted Ken as a midget equal.
We used cardboard cards with columns of ovals to be pencil marked to select letters or numbers. Then the cards had to be sent away to a card reader connected to a computer to have the program run. It was a slow process, but it was fascinating to be on the cutting edge of the new computer technology. When personal computers became available and could run programs such as C++, I moved into teaching this language. As you might have guessed, I had little knowledge of this computer language, but I had read that they were best learned through experience. The students succeeded in writing complex programs with a minimum of teacher assistance.
About 1978, when Commodore, Radio Shack, and Apple started making personal computers a reality for ordinary people I became interested in making computer power available for education and communication purposes. Unfortunately, because many verbally handicapped people are also physically handicapped to the extent that they cannot operate a keyboard, they were unable to make use of this new technology. I found a company in the United States that was making pressure-sensitive computer keyboards. I begin customizing them by using a plastic overlay with holes cut in it for a person’s fingers to go through and press the individual keys. The software enabled the user to print words on the monitor—for some this was their first ability to communicate.
A few weeks after being set up with the system, one non-verbal young man typed on the screen for his social worker to read, ‘i am being abused’. They investigated and removed him from his foster home placement. The word board he previously used didn’t have the right options for his message.
For several years I distributed them widely in Canada and to several locations in the United States, mostly to schools and hospitals. Just for the record, the company was called, ‘Cacti Computer Services’. I assumed no other company would have that name, and so it saved the cost and nuisance of doing a name search.

After my official retirement from teaching, I started supervising practicum experiences in various schools for student teachers primarily from Brandon University and the University of Manitoba. It is an enjoyable way to maintain contact with the schools, students and educational changes.
A lot has changed in education over the years, but the one thing that has stayed constant is the dedication of the teachers and the delightful enthusiasm and originality of the students. It continues to keep me young . . . in spirit if not in body.

***

~ Cause Or Effect? ~

I was sitting in the staff room after a day of meetings and discussions in one of the schools. The principal had called me to the school as part of my duties as Supervisor of Student Services to mediate a problem between the parents of a student, the student and the school.
I was having a cup of coffee before going home when one of the older lady teachers sat down across from me and fixed me with a steely stare.
She said, with the utmost sincerity: “Every time you come to our school you cause a problem. Why don’t you just stay away and leave us alone?”
I got up, washed my coffee cup and left. What could I say?

***

~ Dealing With Problems ~

I was struggling with a computer program that wouldn’t do what I wanted, and asked Ken’s advice.
Me: “How do I fix this bug in my program.”
Ken: “Just say it isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.”
Ken says this isn’t an original line, but it has helped me to put a lot of my non-computer problems into perspective.

***

~ Friends ~

Me, in class: “What do people in this place do for recreation?”
James: “There is five-pin bowling.”
Me: “I’ve never tried that, but I’d be afraid of scraping my finger nails on the lane.”
James was waiting for me at the door after the class dismissed. “Do you want me to teach you to bowl?”
Me: “Sure, if you really want to.”
We went bowling a couple of times a week at about 5 PM when I would have finished at school.
Fast-forward a couple of months. James and I had a major confrontation in class and I ended up sending him to the office. He returned to class and sat down without comment. I was at the door as the class filed out.
As he passed me he paused: “See you for bowling at 5.” It wasn’t a question—just a reminder.
I never could get past my need to turn my hand at the last moment (to protect my fingernails) with the consequent spin toward a gutter. I did learn to compensate for the spin . . . somewhat . . . by aiming for the gutter.
James was very kind and patient with his inept student.


***

~ Guilty Conscience ~

On our yearly field day trip to Winnipeg there were two students who lived in a small rural town outside Portage who needed a ride back home. It was simpler for me to drive them rather than have them take the bus.
It had been a hot, thirsty day.
Student: “I don’t suppose we could stop for a beer before we go home, could we?”
Me: “Sounds good to me. Would it be OK with your parents?”
Student: “Yeah. He lets us drink anytime we want, so long as we don’t drink his beer.”
Me: “OK. But just one.”
Based on this rather sparse parental approval, we stopped at a small hotel and went into the beverage room. There were only a few people scattered around the room. The three of us sat down and ordered a glass of draft beer each.
We were about half through our glasses of beer when a middle-aged man in a business suit came over, pulled up a chair and sat down as if he belonged there. “Hi fellows. I see you are drinking draft.”
At this point I was trying to come up with a plan of action. I thought he was a liquor commission inspector, and I was there with two underage drinkers. I wasn’t doing anything wrong (they had bought the beer, not me), but they could be in big trouble. The three of us exchanged quizzical looks but that didn’t help.
Before I had time to formulate any kind of plan, he asked, “Have you tried Molson’s new beer? It’s way better than draft.”
We all replied emphatically in unison: “No.”
We weren’t going to admit to anything. We wouldn’t have even admitted that three glasses on the table belonged to us.
The man said: “Well, you should.”
He motioned to the waiter who brought three bottles for us.
As the man got up to leave he said: “He’ll bring you more if you ask. I’m sure you will like it. Been nice meeting you.”
Obviously, he was a salesman for the brewery and was happy to convert three young guys to a lifetime of his product.
We probably drank more than we had intended. I don’t remember much more of the trip home, except having to stop by the roadside twice.

***

~ Hopelessness ~

One of my former students, who had just been released from Stony Mountain Penitentiary, came to talk to me. He was thin, strung-out and with a major prison pallor. He didn’t know what to do now that he was out of jail. He hadn’t finished high school, had no marketable skills or contacts with any aspect of the work force, and no friends.
He said he needed to get back into jail because it was the only place he knew how to behave or what to do.
I tried to be helpful, but I really didn’t know what to suggest.
He asked if there was anything I could do to get him back into jail.
I couldn’t even help him with that.

***


~ No Problem ~

School Superintendent: “We can’t start that program until we get approval for the $20,000 funding.”
Me:  “We will get the funding.”
Superintendent: “ What if we start the program and don’t get the funding?”
Me: “Then just take it out of my salary —$100 a month for the next 20 years.”
Fortunately, the funding was approved, because I only taught 8 more years.

***

~ The Devil Made Me Do It  ~

I was sitting in the back row of the Grade 12 class, observing and writing a report on the student teacher who was teaching the class.
Student (sitting in the desk beside me): “Who are you?”
Me: “I work for Brandon University. I check on the learning process in the class.”
Student: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Writing a report.”
Student: “Oh.”
I had noticed the student’s behavior earlier. He was an obviously bright youngster, bored in school, and with a lot of excessive energy to burn off.
Student: “Who is the report on?”
Me (wanting him to go away): “It’s on you.”
He looked startled and turned away from me to watch the teacher. At this point, the devil in my head got the best of me. I took an extra blank form and started filling in the headings with comments about him— things like, ‘a bright student, but needs to pay more attention in class’ and ‘needs to spend less time fooling around and more time applying himself to the tasks at hand’ and ‘a showoff and disruption in class’.
Student: “Do you show this to the university?”
Me: “Yep.”
Student: “Does it determine whether or not I get accepted there?”
I shrugged and kept writing. “How do you spell your last name?”
He told me and I carefully printed it on the form. For the rest of the class he was the perfect student— quiet, cooperative, and answering questions seriously.
At the end of the class, he leaned over to me. “Are you really sending that to Brandon University?”
I relented. “No. I was just kidding you. My report is on the student teacher.”
He was too relieved to be annoyed at me. I showed my report on him to the classroom teacher and she thought it was hilarious.
She asked me if she could have it to show his mother, who, unbeknownst to me, was also a teacher in the school.

***

~ Help - Get Me Out of This  ~

A grade 10 student came to see me in my office: “I need to tell you something.”
Me: “It’s confidential unless you are going to tell me about something illegal that is going to happen. In that case, I would have to report it to the RCMP.”
Student: “Some friends and I are planning to rob a store.”
Me: “If you tell me anything more, I’ll have to report it to the RCMP.”
The student continued to tell me where and when it would happen.
Me (as the student was leaving): “You do realize I will have to report this to the RCMP.”
After he left, I phoned the RCMP and reported the information with the suggestion it likely wouldn’t happen because the student knew I was reporting it.
The robbery did take place several days later at a different location, but without the student being involved in it.