Who needs civics? You do!

The business report on the radio began with the latest dooming and glooming. The commentator used all the appropriate clichés about this poor outlook, that unexpected downturn, and, of course, the uncertainty prevailing. Then, he surprised me with his ignorance by describing this week’s outcome in the French election.

“European markets are surging,” he said, “because of leftist Marine Le Pen’s showing in the first round of the French elections.”

Leftist?” I repeated out loud. “Does he have any idea what he’s talking about?”

The price of renaming

Just over a year ago, some of our Centennial College student reporters were assembling the latest edition of the East York Observer newspaper. One reporter had been assigned to cover a media conference at the regional hospital in the area. She returned to explain that the hospital, which for probably half a century was known as the Toronto East General Hospital, was now going to be called the Michael Garron Hospital, in honour of the son of long-time hospital donors, Myron and Berna Garron. Michael Burns, the chair of the old TEGH, explained it to our reporter this way.

“If you’re lucky, once in a lifetime a truly extraordinary philanthropic gesture transforms an institution and care for thousands of people,” he said. “We are humbled and beyond grateful that our hospital is in receipt of such a remarkable and historic gesture.”

Who’s teaching whom?

In full flight, getting a point across while hiding the nerves.
In full flight, getting a point across while hiding the nerves.

I remember the fear most of all. I was supposed to be the picture of calm. I was supposed to deliver Plato-like wisdom in bite-sized pieces. It was my first actual moment in front of a classroom. Then, I remember the faces. In fact, the make-believe students were professors, the dean of the college and, as I recall, a few graduate students. I stepped from behind the lectern and all my notes, looked up and addressed the class.

“Good morning,” I said, keeping the fear as deep down inside as I possibly could. “And here’s what I’ll be teaching you this semester…”

That was the fall of 1999, when I led my very first class, teaching the art and craft of news reporting.

Breaking barriers and ceilings

Lovinya Reid, left, and her mother Kervinya, enjoying Centennial College student awards night.
Lovinya Reid, left, and her mother Kervinya Driscoll, enjoying Centennial College student awards night.

Her mother told me that she was shy. Kervinya Driscoll said that when her daughter Lovinya was young, she didn’t like speaking in front of other people. She was quite content to stay at home because it was out of the limelight and safe from the rest of the world.

“As a child my daughter was painfully shy,” Kervinya Driscoll told me the other night. “But then suddenly she came out of herself … and her world got very busy.”

On Tuesday night this week, I presented an annual scholarship to Lovinya Reid for both her academic excellence as a student at Centennial College and her activity as a volunteer making a difference. The June Callwood Scholarship is the college’s way of recognizing a student’s initiative both in the classroom and in the community. (As full disclosure here, I’d point out that I am on the faculty of Centennial and while I sponsor the June Callwood Scholarship, I have no hand in choosing the student who wins it.)

An emblem of grace and service

Chief Petty Officer Rodine Egan in Halifax during Second World War.
Chief Petty Officer Rodine Egan in Halifax during Second World War.

We met over the Red Maple Leaf. Or, I guess it was actually under it. We had only been her neighbours for a while, when she looked up at the Canadian flag hanging at my front door and took exception to it.

“You’d better take that down,” she said sternly. “It’s against the law for the national emblem to be that tattered.”

Originally resentful that my neighbour should call me out on the physical condition of my flag, I soon learned that my neighbour – Rodine Doris Mary Buckley-Beevers Egan – had every right to demand that I replace the flag. Not just to ensure that I wasn’t charged by the Government of Canada or the Queen herself for disgracing a national symbol, Ronnie felt personally obliged to fix such things. Indeed, I sensed it wasn’t only her nature, but her occupation.

Going deeper

Birchcliff Theatre in Toronto c.1949.
Birchcliff Theatre in Toronto c.1949.

I think it was my first time at the movies. It was the Birchcliff Theatre on Kingston Road in Toronto. My mom took me. We got popcorn and a soft drink. And the excitement mounted as the movie house lights dimmed, the curtains parted (that’s right, they actually had curtains drawn in front of the screen then) and up came the opening titles as the announcer boomed:

“Walt Disney presents…” and he paused before finishing the sentence, “Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

The art of listening

OTTAWA_PARLHILL2_MAR2015Last week, I received an email from one of the young reporters in our journalism program at Centennial College. The message proved a bit alarming. We had sent this young man, in his 20s, and one of his female classmates – both senior students in our program – to a national forum in Ottawa. The message said that the conference organizers were preventing our two reporters from gaining access to many of the forum proceedings.

“Apparently media people are not allowed into the meetings,” our reporter told me in his message. “We hope to get into workshops. Wish us luck.”

The plastic brain

Dr. Norman Doidge
Dr. Norman Doidge

At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.

“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”

I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”

“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.”

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.
Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.”

My “famous” friend

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.
Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students. (Photo courtesy Matthew Wocks.)

With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.

“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.

To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?”