Cranberry Portage

The bus ride from Winnipeg took me through Swan River on the way to Cranberry Portage, which is a small settlement half way between The Pas and Flin Flon. The town had a hotel that sold beer, but few other recreational activities, except for curling. The surrounding area provided an abundance of lake-related activities. I was back to living without hot or cold running water and bathing in a metal washtub using a sponge. At least there was a diesel-operated electric generator for lights and other limited electrical uses.
I did some boating and fishing—mostly just holding a fishing rod so it would look like I was doing something—but not curling. Midwinter, I found out that a few of the school students were on a curling team that was highly regarded by the community. There was no one interested in arranging for them to go to Winnipeg for a bonspiel, possibly because it was a 10-hour drive to Winnipeg and this being 1959, it was considered to be quite an expedition. Up to this time, I had never even watched a curling game nor touched a curling rock. Who better than me to chaperone and coach them?

I arranged to borrow a car, reserved two rooms in a downtown hotel, so we would be able to get the big-city feel within walking distance, and looked after the entry details. When we arrived in Winnipeg, I discovered that bonspiels start very early in the morning. Why did nobody think to tell me that? I was counting on having a nice holiday, but found I had to get up early in order to drive the team around the city to the various rinks. They won a couple of games, but were clearly outclassed. It was a good experience for them anyway, and even some fun for me.
A few years later, when I was teaching in Portage la Prairie, one of the teams was short one member. Emboldened by my experience in Cranberry Portage, I volunteered. It was the first time I had touched a curling rock, but as lead there seemed to be only two things I needed to be able to do: either aim at the broom and try to make the rock stop where the skip indicated, or aim at a rock belonging to the opposing team and knock it out. Big deal. We won a cup (it was in the consolation round). Wilma was not pleased because she was from a curling family and had curled for years, but I was the only one in the family to win a trophy. Of course, I never curled again. Why should I? I had my trophy.


I was employed as principal for the Grade 1–11 school and teacher for Grades 9, 10 and 11, with all three grades in one room at the same time. I also ‘taught’ Grade 7 and 8 French, mostly as a way of having contact with these students who were in a different building about 100 yards away on the other side of town. I had a fair reading and writing knowledge of French and with the assistance of tapes managed to provide an appropriate spoken French experience. The students enjoyed it and, although they maybe didn’t learn much French, it wasn’t harmful for them.
The Grade 4 teacher did not like Art and so I took his class in exchange for his doing Physical Education with my class. I knew nothing about teaching Art so I improvised by reading them descriptive literature or poetry and had them draw or paint the imagery.
As principal, I had to fill out monthly attendance reports for all the grades and numerous other departmental forms designed to keep full-time principals busy. My courses in the Faculty of Education had not provided me with any information about being a principal, so the first month I just pretended I knew what I was doing and filled the forms out as I saw fit.
After a pointed letter from the Department of Education asking me what I thought I was doing, and a phone call from me to them explaining that I didn’t have a clue, everything went along smoothly on that front. They were very understanding and helpful, and I soon learned the shortcuts.
Keep in mind I had only really taught that one year of High School in Swan River and that was to a class of twenty-some students all of them taking the same grade and subject together. Here I was expected to teach three grade levels all in the same room at the same time. Granted, it was only eleven students, but how does one teach three different lessons at the same time? It’s very simple. You don’t. By the end of my year at Swan River I had begun to realize that the less I taught, the more the students learned. It became crystal clear in Cranberry Portage that my role was to organize work activities for the three grades. I could teach a short lesson to one-third of the class while the other two-thirds worked. Most of my time was spent working individually with the students interspersed with five-minute mini lessons.

While I was at Cranberry Portage, the School Division completed a new modern school building—with running water! We moved into the new building midyear. Most of the younger students had never seen water flow out of a tap. The flushing process of a modern toilet was fascinating to them. They could watch the sight of swirling water for hours at a time. For the first couple of days, checking the washrooms I would frequently find all the stalls being used by elementary grade students continually flushing the toilet and staring mesmerized by the continuous swirl of disappearing water. At our regular student assembly I explained the situation and pointed out that if water rationing were required it would be very inconvenient for everyone. Most of then understood and helped monitor the use by the ones who didn’t.

The new building had one long, shiny, slippery hallway. It cried out to be raced on . . . and it was. There did not seem to be any logical reason not to allow races (except that the elementary grade teachers didn’t approve of racing on principle) so the students and I made a compromise. Races would be held only at authorized times. I considered it to be part of the Physical Education program of the school.
It was fortunate I had the experience of High School at Swan River so I knew what was necessary to prepare the Grade 10 and 11 students for the departmental exams that determined their passing or failing. I had gone to high school in Saskatchewan in a school that gave exemptions from final exams for students with good grades, so I had never written a Departmental Exam. The Faculty of Education at UBC had deliberately given me no instruction or practical experience with my chosen field of high school. The Dean of Education must have been right again because things did work out for me . . . eventually and with a lot of work.

My landlady was a motherly lady and always helpful. She would nag me about writing home and one time when I balked, she dictated a letter to my mother for me to send. My mother always said it was the best letter I had ever written. My landlady reminded me to leave my door open if I had a visitor, and was disappointed that such a nice boy as I would drive a ‘show off’ car like the Triumph.
She also introduced me to a delicacy of the area—pickerel livers. They were a delicacy because they were good only in the spring when the water was icy cold, and were scarce because it was a lot of extra work to obtain because they are very small. They were similar to mild chicken liver but tastier. I had never had them before or since.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) in Flin Flon and I collaborated in setting up a local branch in Cranberry Portage. This was my introduction to a professional organization, but for me, it was more of a social gathering as far as I was concerned.

It was a good year with nice people, but I missed the level of civilization offered by big cities. I did not like living in a really big city like Toronto or Vancouver. They were too big for me. At one time, I had a girlfriend across the city and it was a two-hour drive there and back for a three-hour date. I did like the cultural activities only a big city can offer, so I decided I should live in a small city reasonable close to a biggish city like Winnipeg. I studied maps in my spare time and decided on a small city, Portage la Prairie (usually just called ‘Portage’), about an hour drive from Winnipeg. As luck would have it, they were advertising for a high school science teacher. I was hired by mail, subject to an interview during the summer. It was a fortuitous decision and one that led to my 35 years working in the Portage School Division in a variety of roles.
I also met my future wife while we were both teaching at the Portage Collegiate.

***

~ Diligence Is Important ~

Primary grade teacher (accosting me on the playground with a burnt paper match clutched accusingly between finger and thumb): “I found this right over there. What should we do about it?”
Me (taking it from her gingerly between thumb and finger): “Thank you. I’ll look after it.”
I was diligent after that to tour around the area before school every day to pick up any droppings from the real world. Problem solved.

***

~ Inspector Reports - The Wrong Way ~

Up until 1985, The Department of Education employed school inspectors whose job it was to inspect the educational program in every school, including the teachers. They arrived twice a year and would spend an hour in each classroom.
I was teaching in Cranberry Portage in a classroom with Grades 9–11 all at the same time. I met with my inspector prior to his visit.
“I want to see you teach a full length class,” he suggested.
“But I never teach for more than ten minutes at a time,” I countered.
“I want to see you teach an hour lesson.”
“But what about the other two grades? What are they supposed to be doing while I am teaching a lesson to one grade?”
“I want to see a full lesson.”
“Wouldn’t you rather see what I usually do on an average day?”
“I want to see an hour lesson,” he announced as he left.
He saw me teach the class several five-minute lessons, as I always did.
I got a really bad report.

***

~ Inspector Reports- The Right Way ~

A couple of years later, when I was teaching in Portage, one of the staff members told me the Inspector liked to see things posted around the room.
I taught in the Physics lab because we were short of actual classrooms, and there wasn’t much actual wall space. Most of the walls were cupboards or windows. I covered every vertical surface with charts, diagrams, and student work without any regard to relevance or logic. I even put them over all the windows. It was inconvenient that I couldn’t open any of the cupboards without taking down some display and I ended up with lab equipment piled on the floor.
“Uh, don’t you think you’re overdoing it?” the vice-principal asked me apprehensively.
I looked around, laughed inwardly, and said, “It looks alright to me.”
The inspector came in, said hello and started scrutinizing my wall displays. He went slowly and methodically all around the room, ignoring the students and me. I tried to talk to him but he would have none of that. He spent his whole hour studying my displays and left without comment.
I received an excellent report from him on my teaching skills.

***

~ Gardening In Manitoba ~

I was planting seeds in my new Manitoba garden with ‘help’ from my new mother-in-law. I noticed she was going along behind me, picking half the seeds out of the row as I was seeding.
Me: “Why are you taking the seeds out?”
Frances: “This is Manitoba. Seeds will germinate here.”
Me:  “Oh, right. I’m used to Saskatchewan where most of the seeds never germinate because it is so dry.  And half of the new plants are eaten by the grasshoppers.”