BARBARA BAKER GRAHAM
Somehow, you do tend to remember a few more things just at the beginning, and then there’s that great blur in the middle. At the end, things start to get specific again. My entire career has, in some way, been involved with the teaching profession.
When I went to Beck in 1959, it was my second year of teaching, and my first year of teaching in London. I had three grade nine classes and two grade ten classes. I remember I got two spare periods a week. The rest of the time was involved in teaching. It was really quite a heavy load.
I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people in the world to have started teaching at Sir Adam Beck because it was a very warm and friendly school. With few exceptions, I can very honestly say that students there were also warm and friendly. Later I learned that this characteristic was indeed, part of the ‘Beck family’, which was a very nurturing start for me.
When I started, there was not a common room where the men and the women would meet. In 1959, the women’s staff room was on the second floor, just behind Mr. Groat’s classroom.
As a young teacher, I went in the staff room and sat on a fairly comfortable chair in a corner by a mirror. I’d just started to eat my lunch when someone came in and said: “THAT is not your place. That is MY place!” and that was Miss Edna Durrant, who had apparently sat in that corner for years and years and years and years! Of course, I knew no better.
I jumped right up and immediately asked which seat could I sit in. At that point, they were all empty. She pointed and said: “I think that one’s free, dear, but all the others are spoken for.”
At first, I was a little mad, but afterward, I laughed and laughed. I thought: “Isn’t that great!” She wanted me to get in that seat, but she also wanted to be sure I wasn’t getting in the favorite seat, which was hers in the corner.
Most of the women’s staff were quite a bit older than I was when I started. They were very nurturing too and helpful.
The first day after we’d started school, I went out to Fred and Ottes Langfords. Traditionally, they had all the women staff out, and particularly the new teachers. We had some kind of fruit soda, which was absolutely delicious, and I thought: “Oh, am I in a really great place!”
I really was because, among other things, how wonderful to have Mr. Langford as my first department head. A kinder, more helpful person you just couldn’t have met.
I was one of those teachers who, because there was a shortage of teachers, had got my Honors degree in English, then went to summer school. I taught for a year, went to another summer and then I went to Beck. I was also supposed to have a Specialist’s Certificate, but I didn’t get it because I went to summer school. You were allowed the option of teaching that year and then writing the exams with the regular OCE students. At that time, there was no Althouse College.
While I was teaching that year, I was also studying for the Specialist’s Certificate examinations. Mr. Langford had me in to teach his classes so that he could see and help me. As did, by the way, Paul Cropp.
Then the inspector came, Miss Gladys Munnings. She came before nine, stayed until after five and watched me every single moment of every single class. At the end, the kids were quite interested because they knew what was going on. One of Mr. Langford’s kids said to me: “I don’t think you’re a very good teacher. I don’t you’ll make it, Miss Baker.”
I was very shocked by the singing auditoriums, because I had gone to Central Secondary School. We had good auditoriums there, but they weren’t like these. The Beck ones seemed to be more homegrown. Central seemed to be just a little bit more sophisticated.
I was engaged and got married December 24th, 1960. The students were well aware of it. Mr. Langford retired in 1959 or 1960, meaning there was an opening for teaching grade thirteen English. Mr. Armstrong --a real gentleman who demanded respect in the very best sense of the word-- talked to some others and me on the staff. That was in the days when you had to win your merit before you taught grade thirteen. Now anybody and his brother can do it.
I was chosen to teach that class. At that time, it was a tremendous honour. I really felt proud about that. I had one of the brightest classes. If not the brightest, then the most intelligent and interested of classes. When I taught that first class, some of them were not that much younger than I was, but I went in there with guns-a-blazing. I heard Stuart Cunningham say at the end of the class: “You know, she’s going to be okay!” Even though he was just talking to another guy, I felt so good.
This was the time of Romances. I like to laugh, I like to tease, and I certainly do like Romance. We had a lot of things going that year that were particularly interesting, as well as my marriage. There was Rich Hawkins and his girlfriend Sue. I had to boot them out before school started because they’d hang against the wall outside my classroom. There were several kids like that.
There were people on the staff too. Janice Earle and Dick Blosdale at the time were sort of looking at each other, and the kids were all aware of this. It was fun!
Just by listening to what I had to say, Paul Cropp helped me a great deal. We were teaching ‘Wuthering Heights’. Paul suggested it might be good to dramatize the Heathcliff and Catherine sequences. I wasn’t too sure about that, but he used to come in at noon hour. I don’t think we ever did anything with these sequences, but Paul got into the habit of calling me Catherine.
When I got married on December 24th, 1960 at my home with Christmas tree lights and the fire burning, it was very, very pretty and lovely. At the end of the saying of the vows, the doorbell rang. A gentleman appeared with a telegram and a huge bouquet of roses. The telegram said: “How can I bear it? Heathcliff.” I loved that!
Paul also did something else for me that was very good. He marked my grade thirteen English papers that Christmas. He did so because Charlie and I were going on a honeymoon to New York. There was only a week at that time between the ending of one term and the starting of another. We were marking exams right up to the day before, a Friday, and my wedding was on the Saturday. As a result, I always had a very soft feeling in my heart for Paul for being so very kind.
Mr. Langford was one of my mentors, simply because of the quality of man he was and the quality of knowledge. When I talked to him and he looked at me, he looked at me as if he was really interested in what I was saying. He gave me some very good hints. I considered myself very lucky.
I had an extra degree in Latin. Although that wasn’t my main field of interest, I taught some Latin for Dennis Groat. Dennis was very quiet and had a wry sense of humour. He was one of the kindest men I ever met. I was extremely fond of him. When I started out, he gave me all his notes. Can you imagine! Often there’s a lot of professional jealousy, not just in teaching, but in every type of profession. I learned from that, because I gave things out too and that was because of Mr. Groat.
Then there was Wilda Graber. She had --and still does-- a great sense of humour. Wilda gave me a lot of practical advice about teaching and about staff and about relationships and how to get along with people. The difference that must exist between teachers and students.
At the beginning of one’s career as a teacher, you’re in a very blessed position. You’re not very much older than the students. You understand their music, you understand their way of talking and you understand the things they look at because they’re very often the same sort of things you like too.
Wilda told me it was very important to keep that distance, to know what was going on. To this day, Wilda is somewhat of a mentor, although I don’t see her quite as often. Not too long ago, I was telling her about my husband’s interest in W.W.I poetry, and before too long, an envelope arrived with a pile of clippings and all sorts of things.
In a grade nine class, I dramatized ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and had my students go in to the auditorium to do the play. I believe Brian Matinnis was Bottom. I remember Fran (?) and Dennis May dancing at a school dance in a very passionate way and wondering whether I should do anything about it. They were having such a good time, I didn’t.
One time we teachers had to dress up funny for a volleyball game. The whole gymnasium was filled with kids. None of us thought very much about how stupid we looked. I wore a Shakespearean costume with those big puffy pants. Oh, it was a terrible looking outfit! The students cheered us, and later some of the students played with the teachers.
School spirit with the singing auditoriums was great, but there was just a general enthusiasm, much more interest in their school and their education. Yes, people did have jobs, but they also had time for school. I notice now there isn’t quite as much time, particularly in schools in which working class students predominate. They have to go out and get jobs, and those jobs are so important, they almost leave before school’s over. That sort of thing wasn’t as prevalent in the late fifties and early sixties.
At Beck, everybody went to the games, particularly football games. Even kids who weren’t all that interested went because it was a thing you really went to.
I had some great mischievous classes and found that in the teaching of English, English isn’t the first love of boys. It really is rare to see a teenage boy with sensitivity for English Literature. The best way I got along with them was to sort of tease them and expect at the same time they would certainly do their work. I treated them in a way to which they responded.
When I got married, one of my grades ten or eleven
classes gave me a shower. I got a great wash basketful of so many
things. The kids were so excited. In the classroom, I remember Brian
I took the basket to the women’s staff room. Kay Dolan --my library mentor-- was there. Kay exclaimed: “That is terrible!” I was so overjoyed with happiness that her concern didn’t matter. She said: “You can NOT take gifts from children. It’s a rule!”
“Oh, what am I going to do? Their hearts will be broken if I give them all back.”
“What we can do,” replied Kay, “is sneak them out and get them in the back of my car. I’ll get them home to you, but we’ve got to do this quickly or someone could report you!”
Off we went and put it in Kay’s car. I shook for two or three days wondering if anyone was going to report me. I remember that, but I remember the shower MORE and the fun.
Kay was more complex than people realized. She was
also a very bright woman. As well as her degree in Library Science, she
had her M.A. in History and continued to be interested in the subject.
In the early days, the Dolans had a home on Adelaide Street, which was very close to Frederick Banting. Kay mentioned that when Banting lived next door, they remembered him as a very peculiar character. “He didn’t really know much about anything. Of course we knew he was a scientist, but he really wasn’t an asset to the community on Adelaide Street!”
When I visited the Banting house, I was very pleased that as part of the artifacts was a letter or Christmas card from Banting to the Dolans. I think there was a response by Kay’s sister, Margery, to Banting. Seeing those artifacts reminded me again of Kay’s story and her saying that at that time they didn’t think he would amount to very much.
Kay had almost always been at Beck. Living at home and being a teacher, I don’t think she had much chance for romance. In those days, you just wouldn’t go off and get an apartment alone unless you wanted one for illicit reasons.
In addition to Kay’s sister Margery being her best friend, Kay’s closest friends were Gladys Colwill, the Math teacher, and Frances Wiancko at Central. The three women were bosom buddies.
Frances had been my Guidance teacher at Central. Up until the last moment, I was not certain whether I was going to university or whether I’d be going to Teacher’s College. My parents did not have an overabundance of money. Miss Wienko called up in the summer to ask what was happening. When I said I didn’t know, her response was to speak to my parents. As a result of that, I went to university. I was always grateful to her.
Gladys and Kay were definitely party girls. They entertained all the time. Gladys would have all the women staff out, sometimes all the women and men staff and sometimes all the women, men, wives, husbands, EVERYONE out to her place.
At other times, Kay would hold the party, but she wouldn’t have the whole staff. She’d start on it systematically and work her way through. In this mix came Margery, Kay’s sister, who had a bad heart. She was a scientist and had had her own place, but after her bad heart, she took an early retirement, came back and lived with Kay.
Margery was in on all the parties as well, and as the years went on, the two sisters did a lot of travelling together when Margery was able. Sometimes she was very good, and other times, she wasn’t. In this mix were their dogs, but the dog I remember most was the cocker spaniel, Duffy Dolan. Duffy was also part of the party and would sit and look very intelligent while the rest of it was going on.
Kay was also given to tea parties and REALLY loved to get out her silver and china and do it up rather splendidly. Kay had many parties, and I was involved with them until I left in 1966.
Anyway, Kay and I loved the same colours, which were blue and rose and cream. She had two rugs. One was in the living room and the other in the dining room. They were beautiful. I teased her once and said if she ever gave up those rugs, to give me first chance. I never thought any more about it, and as Charlie and I never had children, we go to Europe every summer.
One Sunday, we were getting ready to leave the next evening for Europe when I received a call from Kay. I was so surprised because I hadn’t heard from her for a while.
Kay said: “Barbara, do you want those rugs? I’m going to give up the house.”
“Oh yes,” I replied, “but we’re just going to Europe. Could I see you when I come back?”
“No. You’ll have to look at them this afternoon, decide whether you want them and get them out of here. Could you and Charlie come over?”
I could hardly believe it, but Charlie and I went over. Kay didn’t look very well. She had a beautiful wool shawl around her, but she was sitting in her den at the front and just not looking as perky.
She still had her smile and twinkle and said: “I’ve decided I’m going to go to a retirement home.”
I looked at her and decided it was probably a good idea.
“I’ve sold my house,” she continued. “You’ll notice
that some of the furniture is gone, but these two rugs are here. If you
want them, you’ve got to get them out now.”
They were big, and they had the under rug with it too. My husband wasn’t that big, nor am I. We called our brother-in-law who was usually at his cottage, and by gosh, he was home! Howard said he’d bring the van over. Charlie and he rolled up the two rugs and got them in the van. They were hot, they were sweaty, and Howard was also rather dirty because he’d been working in his garden when he came running over.
The men hauled the rugs over to our garage, where the rugs were staying while we were gone. I paid Kay a small sum because she didn’t know what she wanted to charge. She wanted to give them to me, and I didn’t think she should. (I didn’t know how bad she was, or I might have taken them!) She also let me have the bench she had in front of the fireplace. She’d done some needlepoint on it.
Kay said: “Well, Barbara, I’ve been told I’ve got cancer.” That really floored me. Then she added: “It’s breast cancer. I’m too old. I don’t want to be bothered with this. I’ve had a wonderful life and enjoyed it thoroughly. I just simply do not want to be bothered with chemotherapy, so I told the doctors I don’t want any treatment for this. Oh, there’s something else I should tell you.”
I was really taken aback by this whole thing but asked: “What is this?”
“I’ve got pneumonia.”
“What are we DOING over here?” I asked.
“Well, I’m just pretending I don’t have it right now until I get this house straightened out. By the way, we’ll have tea when the boys come back.”
Thinking of them and knowing that neither of them wanted tea at the best of times --let alone at the worst of times-- I said: “Oh no, Kay!”
“Oh, I’ve got it figured out. You’ll make the tea. I’ve got the silver all out and the teacups. All you have to do is put the cookies on the crystal plate, then get the cream and sugar and all that stuff.”
So, out I went and did it. When the fellows came back, I took my husband to one side and said: “Don’t you say a word! Kay wants you to have tea.”
You should have seen their faces! I told them they were both going to have sit at the dining room table, “…and I want you both to behave!” They did.
Charlie took one side of Kay, and I got the other. The tablecloth was lace. The candelabras was out but not lit. We sat there, those two grubby, sweaty men, Kay and me all sipping our tea and making fine conversation about what we were going to be doing in Europe.
When I kissed her goodbye, I said: “I’ll come and see you at the Grand Wood when I come back,” and off we went to Europe.
We were away four weeks. When we came back, she had died. I really do not know what killed her. I don’t think it was the cancer, but it might’ve been. Who knows? She might’ve had a heart attack. I never did find out. Everything was so quiet. If people knew, they weren’t talking. No one told me, and I didn’t ask. I was in shock.
When I was telling Wilda the story a long time ago, Wilda said to me: “You know, I think that was probably her last tea party.”
After Kay retired, her sister and she went up to Baffin Island. The trip was under very rough circumstances. I don’t know whether they slept in a teepee. I don’t even know if there was snow, but I do remember wondering why in heaven’s name was she going up there?
It was one of the places she’d never been. She had travelled in Europe a lot. She was an historian and loved ancient History particularly. I think she spent some time in Italy and Greece. She travelled all over Canada. Margery and she liked nature and wildlife, Margery particularly. Kay must’ve too, because they’d go and do that.
I first met Kay when I started at Beck in 1959. She gave me a shower and invited my former Guidance teacher Miss Wienko too. I was really, really pleased. At the time, it was an unusual shower. It was recipes. Everybody was supposed to give two of their favorite recipes. (They do that a lot now, but they didn’t then!) Every one of those recipes was good, and I’ve used them over the years. They were very practical and really nice recipes. I remember Kay for that because she gave me the shower.
When she retired, I was still at Beck. The library club had a party for her, and she was so touched, because she couldn’t imagine anyone having a party for her, especially children! By gosh, didn’t she in the next week invite everyone out to her house for another party! She really enjoyed entertaining.
Selwyn Dewdney quit teaching at Beck related to the treatment of Dr. Goldstick. I inherited Dr. Goldstick because he came to Central. I have never disliked a man more. I was rather good at French, and he always called me ‘Miss Brains’. That’s not something I wanted to be called in front of a class.
In my immature way, I thought out that I would talk to him privately, tell him that this really bothered me and would he please not call me ‘Miss Brains’ again. So I did.
The very next day, he called me ‘Miss Brains’. Then he said, “Oh yes, you had a private conversation and asked me not to call you ‘Miss Brains’ again, and here I am calling you that.”
Oh, I disliked him. I thought if he was anything like that at Beck at the time, then it might have had to do with the way he treated people.
Now John Askew I really admired! He was a marvelous principal. I had him over at Laurier. When Laurier started, he was the first principal. John negotiated that I get half a year to organize the library. It was most helpful. I was impressed that someone would fight for this.
Of course, my being a librarian all went back to Kay Dolan. I think the first week I was at Beck, I was in the old library on the southwest side of the school. I went in to Kay and said I’d like to give my students some projects. Her eyes opened wide, and she looked very pleased. I explained I wanted the children to do things with Shakespeare, not just little essays but dress dolls or make theatres.
Kay and I worked well together. All the projects were displayed in the library. Everything looked authentic, plus the essays of those who didn’t want to make something were on display.
Mr. Armstrong decided it was time for Kay to have an assistant. Kay was a little concerned about whom, but because we had worked together so well on the Shakespeare project, she thought I might be okay. She asked if I’d think about working part time in the library. Well, I had got married, and the marking in English is horrendous. Library wasn’t what I’d thought of doing, but I had enjoyed working with Kay and agreed to try it.
That was one of my most interesting experiences. School librarianship was just changing to the point where teacher and librarian worked together on projects for students. For me, that was a very creative thing. Kay allowed me to work with a teacher, and this worked out quite well.
One day she commented that she hated doing bulletin boards: there were two in the new library. She thought this would be a good challenge for me. I had never done a promotional bulletin board before, but I tried. She was so pleased that she took photographs and sent them off the Ontario Library Association as a submission to their monthly magazine. OLA liked the submission, and Kay was pleased. I had to develop a library reputation, she said. In our competitive world, it was really rather splendid that one teacher would do this for another
I started taking library courses in Toronto. I took Part One, Part Two and Part Three. I really liked it, and with Laurier opening up, I wanted to go there and open up a brand new library. With John Askew’s reputation, I was very pleased he’d chosen me to be in charge of the library. I remained at Laurier until 1977. By then the Board thought I was good enough to make me Consultant for Elementary and Secondary School Libraries. At the time, this involved 82 libraries in London. I was very pleased. I had been trained well by several people, but Kay Dolan REALLY helped.
I went back and got my Master’s Degree in Library Science. It has certainly served me well in different career moves and all started with Kay’s being willing to give me the credit.
Back to Romances. Nadine Dickens and Phil Bedell. I remember their romance so well. Everyone was talking about it, liking it so well and they were both in my class. That was sort of a fun thing. Another extremely creative girl was Erna Van Daele. She did the most marvelous Roman soldier for me and brought it in with her boyfriend Lawrence Herne. I remember them holding hands and going up the street towards the Psychiatric Hospital when they were supposed to be going to class. I remember thinking: “Should I say anything?” but decided I wouldn’t.
I have always liked mischievous students. One of my very favorite and supreme mischievous boys was Joe Wilson, AKA ‘Gum-in-the-Keyhole Wilson’. One day I was late coming to my class at noon hour. When I got to the door, all the kids were there. I felt something was the matter. I put my key in the door, and it wouldn’t open. The keyhole was filled with gum. All the kids thought this was really great, and I thought it was sort of fun myself. We couldn’t get the key out and missed a whole class. Nobody knew, nobody explained, nobody did anything.
I think it was in grade thirteen English that Joe asked me after school was out if I remembered the gum in the keyhole. I assured him I’d never forget it, and Joe’s response was: “Well, I could tell!” I asked him to, but he never did. So, I always thought he had done it.
Then he spoke at my retirement. By then, he was head of the English Department at Westminster, and when he spoke, he said: “You know, I wasn’t really the one who put the gum in the keyhole.” Nobody except me knew what he was talking about. To this day, I still do not know who really put the gum in the keyhole, but I never forgot it.
When the Beck renovation took place --and I don’t remember exactly when that was-- we had a common staff room. Although the women’s staff room was still up on the second floor, very few people went to it. Everything just changed. In addition, because of the change in student population, there was a real influx of younger teachers.
Things changed when the younger teachers came on. I’m not saying it was bad, because it wasn’t. The old core was never quite the same.
Bert Bartley was a wonderful man, but my recollection of him is not as strong because I wasn’t a student of his. He had a tremendous memory. He remembered all the kids who were graduating. As they went across the stage, without a note or anything, Bert would say their names. This was a remarkable feat of memory.
For a while, I taught in Harvey Stewart’s classroom. The only problem I had with Harv was that he used to fill the blackboards with Geography notes. He’d put “PLO” (Please Leave On), leaving me no room at all for my stuff. He was awfully nice, but a lot of kids were afraid of him. He was very stern and strict taskmaster.
For the most part, the older Beck teachers were straight-laced. They were very devoted to their profession and belonged to the mores of their time. I felt straddled. It was the sixties and all that that implied. I felt very comfortable with these older teachers, and I didn’t feel quite as comfortable with the younger ones. I doubt there was more than a year of two of age difference between them and me. I started teaching at twenty-one. I got my English Masters and my M.L.S. and my M.Ed. all at Western. It was convenient, and I didn’t want to leave my husband.
My husband taught Latin and French. He retired ten years ago, at the same time I did.
I was at the Last Hurrah, but I didn’t last very long. One of my former students said: “Oh, Mrs. Graham, you look so well preserved!” I didn’t want to look ‘well preserved’ and said to my husband: “I’m leaving!” Charlie said: “Why? You just got here!” I said: “Because I’m well preserved!” and I left! Now wasn’t that the stupidest thing?
Charlie talked to Ottes at the Last Hurrah. She looked great, but she was very intense and really wanted to talk to him. My husband said: “It’s funny. She isn’t usually like that.” That’s all he said. I didn’t even see her. Charlie said she looked lovely, and they’d had a nice chat. I left shortly after that because I didn’t want to be well preserved. Now I don’t care. I’d be glad to be preserved!
Not long after that, Ottes died. It was quite a shock to Charlie. Fred and she were living in the lower level of a townhouse near their old house. Dorothy Bere, Bonnie, Wilda and Ottes were quite close. Dorothy, too, had lovely parties. She rented a cottage at Fanshawe Park. I remember going out there, and we had some nice times.
Mr. Langford went to Metropolitan United Church, which I go to too, and he used to sit in the balcony. Then he got older and didn’t. We always exchanged cards at Christmas. He stayed on far beyond his retirement date. He became a sort of consultant for the Board of Education. He had a special position and was called a Master Teacher. I think the Board gave him the title. They’d never used it before. Mr. Langford went around and saw new English teachers in all the high schools, talked to them, listened to them and helped them.
When I was teaching at Laurier well after the fact, he’d come in and talk to teachers. He always came in to see me in the library. He loved what he was doing. He absolutely loved it! He loved going in and talking to the young teachers and giving them advice.
The last two years that I was at Beck, I had a special group, a discussion group. It was outside of the English class and included many students who were really quite bright. We met in the library and looked at books. We discussed everything. That discussion group was one of the really wonderful experiences of my life. I have continued it in various other ways with other groups.
We met in the library. Anne Milton was one of the group, and Ross Snyder was another. Those seemed to be the two leading lights, but there were several others. I will never forget the last two years at Beck and this discussion group. It was really very special, and I have just never forgotten that particular experience. It was satisfying for them, and it was VERY satisfying for me.
Why I left Beck: When you’re growing up, the family is very important, but as you mature, you want to leave the family and go on. That was what happened to me. I wanted to try a new career, and I wanted to try librarianship. It turned out very well for me.
A fascinating account by a woman who put a lot in to her career and definitely got a lot out of it!
Copyright Carol Lowe August 22, 2004
Back to Teacher Interviews