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In Our Words: A story of three (recently retired) teachers

I want to introduce you to three people who had a huge impact on who I am and how I got to where I am in life. I firmly believe that without these three people, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I want to introduce you to three people who had a huge impact on who I am and how I got to where I am in life. I firmly believe that without these three people, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

These three people were all teachers I had growing up, each of them in École McIsaac School. I went to school there for about a decade - this was back in the days where preschool classes were held in the school’s annex, I didn’t get held back or anything. While other teachers were amazing for me and for other students, these three are who I want to talk about today.

They’re all retiring from the Flin Flon School Division – to my knowledge, they’re the only teachers retiring from the division this year. They deserve our attention and our adulation.

I’ll go in reverse order of when I met them – the reason why should be obvious by the time we’re done.

Sandy Kowal was my Grade 6 teacher and presided over a transformative year in my life.

Let’s add in some context before I tell you about Mrs. Kowal. I was a little rotter. I was big for my age and fought a lot when I was young. I was a bully, usually without even knowing it. When I played physical, kids got hurt.

Then, one summer, I went from being a bully to being a target for bullies. Some teachers knew and couldn’t stop it – others didn’t know at all, others did know and either didn’t seem to care or do anything about it.

When I was in Grade 6, that cycle stopped.

Something happened one day during recess. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was a breaking point. I sobbed. I couldn’t handle it anymore.

When Mrs. Kowal heard about what happened, she put her foot down. Instead of us having our normal post-recess class around 11 a.m., Mrs. Kowal called an audible and spoke to the class about bullying. She didn’t do it in a way that felt preachy or angry or anything like that – she did it with class and with dignity, with kindness.

She didn’t want to admonish anybody for doing anything bad outside that classroom. She wanted to mould better people in that room.

I still remember her saying, “if you’re blessed to walk tall, walk tall; if you’re blessed to walk short, walk short.”

Mrs. Kowal taught me what it was like to feel understood.

She showed me what it looked like to fight for what’s right, in the right way. I never forgot that. I learned more in that one morning than I did in some entire grades. I am forever thankful for her.

Monique Rainville was an art teacher and educational assistant. She was in charge of keeping me in check from a young age. She wasn’t my first EA and she wouldn’t be my last, but she was the longest-serving. She put in six years on the Eric beat. They couldn’t have been easy.

Mrs. Rainville inspired me to show courage in self-expression. Sometimes that showed in some ways that were fairly trivial – using the drawing skills and techniques she taught us to draw cars or hockey jerseys, for instance - but I learned how to get things from inside my head onto a page from her.

Mrs. Rainville is the person who gave me a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in Grade 8. I think it was the copy from the McIsaac library too and I still have it (please don’t tell Mrs. Reed at the library, she’d have my hide.) That book broke my brain open and stitched it back together again. Mrs. Rainville was the person who helped me study for math tests that had me overwhelmed, who pushed me into an appreciation of the arts and opened my eyes to seeing the world how others may see it.

She also imbued in me a deep sense of justice. If I had got into an argument or a fight with someone, she would talk with me about what had happened – and if it was my fault, she never hesitated to let me know. She had me write a lot of apology letters when I was little. Tough love was the name of the game, but it was purposeful and never excessive.

Mrs. Rainville taught me how to express myself. That manifests itself in writing, in art, in speech, in everything I do. I am forever thankful for her.

Susanne Westhaver was my Grade 7 and 8 Home Ec teacher and, often, a substitute teacher in every class I can think of.

She’s also, as you could probably guess, my mother.

She taught me how to cook - a skill I still use - and sew - a skill that has lapsed. She also taught me much more than that, mostly outside the classroom.

She has dealt with my bull for 26 years now. While it’s my job to use words to describe what I’ve seen or how I feel, I don’t have words for the impact she has had on my life. “Appreciative” doesn’t cut it. She’s everything.

She was the greatest teacher I’ve ever had. She taught me how to walk, how to talk, how to do all the basic things a person can do. She’s supported me in everything I’ve done and showed me the importance of having a reason for everything you do.

I’ve written a few times about my father’s dementia and that I moved back home to Flin Flon to help take care of him. When I came back, age 21 with a fresh, shaved face and a new bachelor's degree, she got me through so many nights of angst and anger, of confusion. She looked after my ill father for years while I studied out of province and when I came home, she helped keep me going while I tried to keep Pop safe.

Mrs. Westhaver is the most kind, loving, devoted mother I could ever ask for. I’m glad she’s not retiring from being my mom, too – god knows how I’d deal with the world otherwise. I am forever thankful for her.

Congratulations to these three women. Sandy, Monique, Susanne – okay, Mom. I hope you know that you had effects on your students that have outlasted your time in the classroom. I hope you know that you’ve made the world a better place and I hope you know that at least one of your students is a better man for having known you.

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