My First Day


This is Catholic Education Week in Ontario. Last night (May 4) Fr. Tom Rosica (President of Salt and Light Television) spoke at our local Catholic high school about the value of Catholic education to our Church. As he was talking I was thinking about my first day at school.

I only have one memory of that day. After my mother brought me to school I told her she could leave because I was fine and knew how to get home (a two-mile trip by city bus down Simcoe Street in Oshawa). My mother would often tell another story about that day which never varied (so I assume it is true).

Throughout the summer before I started school, my parents kept telling me about all the things I was going to learn there: reading, writing, arithmetic and other subjects. As someone who desperately wanted to learn how to read I couldn’t wait for the start of the school year.

According to my mother, I arrived home after my first day at school in a foul mood. So she asked me what was wrong. “You said I was going to learn how to read but all we did was play with beads” was my response. “If I had wanted to play with beads I could have stayed home”. What the teacher was doing was teaching us how to count but I was not yet familiar with educational methods.

This was the first of many collisions between myself and the teachers during my years at school. In Grade Two Sister Hillary tried to teach me how to print neatly. I figured if I could read my own printing that was all that was necessary. In Grade Four, Sister Elisha was so disgusted with my messy writing she threatened to teach me how to type. In high school, my essays were filled with spelling and grammar mistakes which my teachers patiently corrected. Today, they likely have some technical term to describe my behaviour in school. Back then, they just called me headstrong and resisted the temptation to use the strap.

It was their willingness to overlook this stubborn streak and work with me, instead of forcing me to change, which enabled me to grow up. In time I realized if you want people to understand your ideas, they must be able to read what you write (thank God for word processors with spellchecker).

Although I was blessed with great parents, I owe much of my success in life to my teachers. My mother and father both had a Grade Seven education. After I started high school there was little they could do to help me in this part of my life. My teachers believed in me and showed me how to get an education. Some of my high school math and science teachers stayed until 5:00 PM (when school ended at 3:20 PM) trying to pound how to solve quadratic equations or endothermic chemical reactions into my head.

These days education often seems about getting results. EQAO scores and graduation rates seem to the measure the value of a particular school or board. Everyone wants students to get high marks so they can get into competitive programs at elite universities and then secure a high paying job. This drives teachers to change their priorities.

Another factor affecting education is the social pressures on students. Many children grow up in single parent families, live in poverty or face bullying at home or school. Teachers spend a lot of time dealing with troublesome students, uncooperative parents and increased paperwork. I wonder how much teaching they actually accomplish. This also drives teachers to change their priorities.

Those in ordained ministry or undergoing formation for it know the problems associated with Catholic education. It is tempting for Priests to avoid schools because of the challenges they present. I consider myself blessed to have encountered teachers who recognized their profession was not about conveying information so their students could pass an exam but the formation of people. I wonder if changed expectations about education might lead some teachers to give up on students who don’t want to play with beads or can’t solve quadratic equations. Priests need to prevent this from happening.