Being a teacher at 16 years old
Wesley Harris was only 16 when he began his teaching career in Little Bay West back in 1964. Mr. Harris spent most of his teaching career at John Watkins Academy in Hermitage-Sandyville.
I remember my first day on the job – and the routine of getting to that job – as if it were yesterday, not because it was so traumatic but because I was a 16 year old boy just out of grade eleven walking in the shoes of a sole-charge teacher in an isolated community. The community was Little Bay West, Fortune Bay, and in 1964 there were approximately 80 people there, all of whom were complete strangers to me. And they looked at the teacher as sort of a demi-god who knew everything about everything (after all he was a teacher) and who would be their religious leader for a year (not only was he expected to layread in the Anglican Church but to teach Sunday School as well).
So on a Tuesday morning just after Labour Day in September,1964, a very timid boy stepped into a mailboat and was ferried ashore. In 1964 Little Bay West had no wharf big enough for the coastal boat to dock by, so passengers were taken ashore with the mail. How I wanted to see the community from the coastal boat when we rounded the headland, but dense, pea-soup fog shrouded the community. My first glimpse of life from the mailboat was of a small breakwater jutting out from the shoreline and two men standing on a walkway built across the top. With nervous energy I bounded up the steps from sea level and made my first step in Little Bay West, a town that was to be my home for the next ten months.
One of the two men (the other man with the wheelbarrow was the mail carrier) introduced himself as Sandy Rose, asked if I was the teacher, and proceeded to shake my hand. After brief pleasantries, he took some of my luggage (so lovingly packed by my mother who was so proud one of her children had finished high school and was a teacher) and told me to follow him up a footpath to my boarding house. I didn’t know then that I would walk that path hundreds of time that year to carry wood on my back from the breakwater to Sandy’s house: it was something I was quite used to growing up in Hermitage.
Mrs. Rose (Emily) met me at the door, and I knew that this childless couple would be my parents for the next year: a 16-year old still needs parenting. Sandy and Emily were warm, gentle, welcoming people, and some of my nervousness dissipated like the fog around midday. Emily promptly made tea and opened bottled moosemeat, all the while telling me how she expected me to participate in family prayers and Bible reading each night before bedtime. Again I was seasoned here: I attended Church nearly every Sunday and Sunday School as well from grade one to grade eleven. That was a part of growing up in Hermitage in the 1950s and 60s ( television made its debut around 1965).
After the early lunch, Emily showed me my upstairs bedroom; the bed linen looked about six inches thick, and it had to be: central heating was unheard of, and the woodstove in the kitchen was cold at night. I remembered my bed at home: it too had six inches of bedding ( with a box of comic books nearby). Next she took me to the bathroom which had a window , a washstand and bowl, and an enamel pail which was emptied daily. I may have had to use it right then – my nervous stomach had settled a little – but such conditions I was used to. I had had many experiences like the mainlander in Farley Mowat’s The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float: the come-from-away had to use the hole in the floor of the stage,
When we came downstairs, Emily informed me that the church warden wanted to see me sometime during the day as did the parent representative from the PTA. Where were those 20-year old shoes when you need them? Later I was to learn that I was expected to layread once a Sunday (the minister came once a month from Harbour Breton) and to teach Sunday School every Sunday except holidays. This didn’t intimidate me of course, but I nearly had to run for the pail upstairs when he asked me to pitch the hymns (that I couldn’t or wouldn’t do). The PTA representative expected me to set a rule from day one that the children were not to be on the roads after 7 p.m.on week nights, and, despite my tentative protestations that this was a parental responsibility, my first note in my 3-ring binder was to “Set 7 o’clock rule”. Apparently, a teacher’s word had more authoritative ring than a parents. Did I have to patrol the roads after seven and drive the children home? How would they be punished if they broke curfew? I learned early to believe only half the things I saw.
Just after twelve noon I walked to the school, feeling that all eyes in the community peered from behind lace curtains to see a skinny, 150 pound, boy walk to his command post. I met no one on the road, and I was happy about that. I was about to meet thirteen children who would teach me much in the days ahead. Thirteen children in grades one to ten with a couple of grades missing, and I knew that some days I would leave the world of post Jack and Jill readers to a discussion about Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with Erwin, my only grade ten student who was older than I and weighed fifty pounds more. Thank God he was a gentle giant.
After registration was done and desks and books assigned, I dismissed the students early and began to write a lesson plan (thanks to a six week Probationer’s Summer School in St. John’s I had a crash course in lesson planning and in keeping the daily attendance). Three chalkboards in the little schoolhouse were filled with work for three grades: a teacher had to be a good juggler to keep that many grades busy. In between I began pulling out drawers in the teacher’s desk: I was looking for carbon paper to make copies of work for the grades which had two students. There was no carbon paper, but I found a piece of leather three inches wide and about 16 inches long. The strap stayed in the drawer all year.
Despite the onerous task in front of me I was confident ( I would be terrified of it now after 30 years of teaching and a master’s degree) and eager to begin the next day when my charges came through the door. My thoughts that first day were interrupted by two knocks on the door. The first was from Gertie, a grade three student, who opened the door a couple of inches, and pushed a bag towards me while saying, “Your mail, sir”. In the mail was the register; I was so relieved. At summer school they taught us – or so it seemed to me- that keeping the daily register in perfect order was more important than the instruction. The second knock on my door was from Ralph, a grade nine student, who was one year younger than I and who would become my friend and teenage buddy. Ralph wanted to tell me that the boys were having a game of ground hockey down on the sandbar, and he had been sent to invite me. So the boy went to play with the boys until Sandy came to call me for supper.
My first day in Little Bay West, my first day as a boy teacher, remains with me as a most cherished memory, and I have told it often as an example of a boy who grew up in an isolated community and who had been taught good values by simple folk and how that boy at so young an age could assume the responsibilities of an adult.