Thursday, December 1, 2016

Where we hope the students are, like, 'Welcome back Carter'

Next Friday, December 9th, I’ve been invited to join a Canadian Citizenship Ceremony in Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport.


It’s an event run by the Greater Toronto Area Airport (GTAA) Community Engagement department; and the idea is, you meet a bunch of newly arrived soon-to-be-Canadians and, in the words of the GTAA, “your responsibilities include facilitating conversations with New Canadians, asking people at your table questions, and sharing your own Canadian stories to help make lasting memories for all those involved on this special day.”


I would sincerely love to attend but can’t. Meeting new Canadians is always a bit of an adventure.


Because next Friday, December 9th,  I will be--for what might be the eighth or seventh year in a row—talking to the grade-seven and eight students at Mary Shadd Public School in Scarborough, where my nephew Paul Fairman teaches.

I tell them about how much fun it is to read and write for a living. Paul thinks it helps them enjoy learning a bit more.


Every year I look forward to my Mary Shadd day with such enthusiasm that it surprises even me. I think it's because I learn so much from them. (We'll get to that.. hang on.)

Interesting coincidence that this year, my Mary Shadd day is the same as the Pearson Airport “New Canadian” thingie, because almost all of Paul’s students are from “New Canadian” households.


Many are Tamil, so their names are longer than the kids are tall and some surnames miraculously contain more vowels than there actually are in the alphabet.


I’m very impressed by Paul’s ability to remember all the euphonious handles but he does with ease. When he’s calling out the students’ names, I am reminded of when I was the Editor of Harrowsmith Country Life and I would listen quizzically to the gardening editors discuss their favorite flowers, and I would ask myself, “How did I ever get to be editor of Harrowsmith Country Life?”


BIGGEST MAN ON CAMPUS: My six-six nephew
 Paul towers over his students, who are head-n-shoulders above me.  

Intriguing surnames is far from the only thing talking to Mary Shadd students has in common with the Pearson meet&greet. I’m sure at Pearson, as I do at Mary Shadd, I would wind up talking about what a great country I believe Canada to be.  


On the other hand, I know with certainty that the airport folks won’t ask questions the way Paul’s students do.


My favorite part of the Mary Shadd process is the Q&A session at the end.

Every visit, I tell the grade-eight students that really, what I do for work, is talk to strangers and write little stories about the conversations. I then challenge the students to do the same for me.


“Ask me questions,” I say. “The weirder the better. Then compose a one-page account of our meeting.”


Paul gives them a two-week deadline, he sends me the stories, and I mark them over Christmas. (The record will show that to this point, no student has received anything less than an A-plus but who knows what this crop will yield?)


I never know where these question-and-answer sessions will take us.


One of my favorite questions, and I told him so afterwards, came from a serious-looking young man who was actually sitting on his desk so we could see eye-to-eye. I could tell he wanted the straight goods.


“Sir,” he asked. “What do you think of drugs?”


I looked at him. I said, “every morning, I wake up and give thanks for all the drugs in our life.”


He looked surprised. I went on.


“My mother wouldn’t have lived anywhere near as long as she did without drugs; and when I go to the dentist, I’m very glad he has drugs so it doesn’t hurt to get a tooth filled..”


I was about to keep going and the teacher—not Paul—said, “boys and girls, I think Mr. Carter’s not talking about the same kind of drugs.”


Another memorable query came from a tiny young woman sitting in her chair, directly in front of where I was standing. “Sir,” she asked, looking up, “do those nose hairs bother you?”


Me: “Sometimes, yes. And that’s a terrific question. You'll make a great reporter.”


One man once asked me to name “the two most interesting places" I’d ever visited.

Right away, I said, “Manhattan and…” I thought for a second, then added, “and Manitoulin Island.”

A voice from the back: “Hey, that’s where I’m from!”


Me: “Manitoulin?”

Him: “Wikwemikong, actually.”


Me: “What part?”

Him: “South Bay.”


Turns out he was one of the best hockey players in his hometown and his family moved to Toronto so he’d have more opportunity to play. His surname—probably the shortest in Paul’s class—was “Simon,” which to people who know and care about such things, is shared by some of the best hockey players from Northern Ontario. I felt like I was in the presence of hockey royalty.


Perhaps the most memorable of all the questions came from a slender girl sitting near the window that looked out over the parking lot.


It came right near the end of the class. She said “Sir, I have a question.”


Me: “Go on.”


She: “Are you afraid of your wife?”


Me, after a brief pause: “Yup.”


She: “My grandpa says ‘it’s a wise man who’s afraid of his wife.’”


What, I asked myself, was this girl doing wasting her time in school? Clearly she already knows way more than I ever will.






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