The young man was showing off in front of some of his buddies. The conversation shifted from small talk to basketball – one of his favourites – and then to some of the women in his college class. At the time, I was one of his instructors, and he didn’t know I could hear pretty much everything he was saying.
“Oh, you know what they say about women,” he joked. “They’re like city buses. If you miss one, there’ll be another along in a minute.”
As I recall, it was an afternoon in February a few years ago. One of my journalism students came to me with a cell phone in his hands – you know the pose, with head bowed, eyes mesmerized, phone illuminating his face – and a look of incredulity. He looked up at me and announced the news.
“It says here Gordon Lightfoot is dead,” he said.
“What?” I said, then added with a tone of say it ain’t so in my voice “No.” Then, I asked him where he was reading such news.
At about 3 or 3:30 in the morning, one hardly expects anything very important to happen. After all, most civilized people are asleep in their beds at that hour. But last Tuesday night, I didn’t have any choice. I had to drive a long distance – between Winnipeg and Saskatoon – to arrive in time for a media appointment the next morning.
As I drove my car rental late that night, I suddenly became aware that the sky was growing brighter in the wrong place. Not behind me to the East where the sun would be rising in a couple of hours, but to the North. I dimmed the lights on the console of the car and peered off to my right.
“The Northern Lights,” I said to myself in a hushed tone, as if speaking the words aloud would scare them off. “Aurora borealis,” I added.
Under different circumstances, classical piano fans in the Greater Toronto Area by now might be raving about a unique performance they’d seen and heard of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2. They might have joined the thousands of concert-goers who’ve witnessed her brilliance on the piano keys at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. They might have been able to say they saw the once child prodigy now internationally celebrated concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Instead, she took advantage of her celebrity to offer her pro-Russian view of Ukrainian politics.
“The new school year begins in Odessa with teachers forced to wear tribal dress, a truly European custom,” she tweeted (in 2014) in an apparent slam at the cultural dress of her native Ukraine.
Maybe it’s the distance they have to travel from the centre of the country to where they live. It might be that they joined Canada (in 1905) later than did the original constituencies of Upper and Lower Canada. Or, quite possibly, it’s something in the air they breathe or the water they drink out there. But last week, when I asked a young Calgary woman how she felt about Canada, here’s what she said:
“My sense of Canada,” she said, “is that a lot more needs to be taught for the country to be understood by its people.”
On Friday morning, I delivered a kind of keynote address to the Calgary Catholic school board on the subject of experiential learning. I offered about 100 high-school teachers some insights about how to help history come alive. And indeed, the teacher I mentioned was absolutely right. Canadians aren’t taught enough about Canada these days. Ironically, the conditions under which I delivered my talk were not the most conducive to learning either; the teachers in my audience sat in bleachers in a basketball gymnasium at St. Mary’s High School in southwest Calgary.
“My job,” I told them last Friday morning, “is to help you forget that you’re sitting on hard, wooden bleachers in a high school gym.”
But I went on to suggest that my challenge was not unlike the job they faced every day – getting students figuratively out of their classroom chairs and literally excited about history, in particular, Canadian history. As many of you know, I can get pretty animated when I talk about people who’ve witnessed historical events – these days the Canadian participants in the Hollywood myth known as “The Great Escape.” And when I offered the story of one of their own, a Calgarian named Barry Davidson, that seemed to seal the deal.
“He learned to fly with a one-hangar flying club at the Calgary airport in 1937,” I explained. “And when he got his private pilot’s licence, he immediately offered his services to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who was looking for pilots to defend Nationalist China. But the general turned him down. So instead, Davidson joined the RAF and was shot down over occupied Europe in 1940, instantly becoming a prisoner of war for the rest of the war.”
I’m a firm believer in putting a face on history. If teachers can make a historical figure come alive in the classroom – with an artifact, a letter, photograph or a well-researched yarn, they give students a way to connect. I also believe such work should be mandatory; in other words, I would make Canadian history as much a core subject as math, science and English literature. In Canada, we may be separated inextricably by geography, but we can help our history shrink the distances and bind young minds and hearts to the stories of their towns, their forefathers and their heroes, if curriculum and school managers give teachers ample opportunity to deliver Canadian history right between the eyes of every kid in the country.
Ironically, I think Alberta is one of only three education jurisdictions where history curriculum is mandatory. In other words, I was preaching to the converted last Friday in Calgary. Part of the additional problem is the means of delivering the history too. Today, most young people have too much information at their disposal – thanks to social media and the internet. They’re also quite frankly too wrapped up in the world of “me,” whether it’s YouTube, their following on Twitter and Facebook or shooting “selfies” at every opportunity. On one hand I think most teachers would encourage such self-expression. On the other, always pointing the world’s cameras and attention inward might make even the most altruistic Canadians far too preoccupied with themselves to realize there’s more to the country than what’s happened in the lifetime of a 16-year-old.
When he was still a teenager in 1940, Calgarian Barry Davidson had joined the Royal Air Force, become a pilot officer and first combat operations over occupied France. On July 6, on just his second flight with an RAF bomber squadron, Davidson’s Blenheim aircraft was shot down. From his POW prison cell in Germany he sent a first letter home to his parents.
“Looks like I am in cold storage for the duration,” he wrote.
Only for Davidson, the adventure of his wartime experience – as the famous “scrounger” at the famous Stalag Luft III “Great Escape” camp – was just beginning. And as I offered Davidson’s story to the history faculty in Calgary last week, I asked the women teachers in the audience who Pilot Officer Davidson reminded them of.
“Why Brad Pitt, of course!” one blurted out.
Then, it hit me. Maybe that’s what we’ve been missing in the presentation of Canadian history to young people – selling the sizzle of our heroes as much as the substance. Maybe Hollywood has it right after all.
About a year ago, I was invited to speak to the Writers’ Community of York Region. As the date of the talk approached – last Sunday, Dec. 9 – I began to prepare my presentation. Normally, for these kinds of talks, I rely on my collection of personal anecdotes, remembrances and war stories – literally and figuratively – to get me through the event. Then, I remembered why I had been invited.
“This is a group of writers,” the speaking convenor had said. “So they’ll be interested in your research and writing… You might want to address the challenges of being a journalist and non-fiction writer.”
The Olympics have dominated much of our attention the past week. And as I suggested in my column last week, nobody deserves the attention or the applause more than these dedicated young athletes. However, there is one side effect to watching, listening to and reading about the Games I find bothersome. And it came up the other night just before the women’s soccer semi-final match between Team Canada and Team U.S.A. Somebody asked an analyst how important the game was for the Canadian women.
“Hugely,” she said. “It’s the most important game ever.”
Earlier this week, in a news-reporting course I teach at Centennial College, something suddenly interrupted the classroom discussion. It was just after 8:30 on Tuesday morning and a number of my students had their heads down. I recognized the posture. They were texting on their smartphones beneath their desks. I was about to call them on it, when I realized the source of the distraction.
“Oscar nominations just out,” one of them admitted to me.
This was perhaps his only opportunity to address the electorate in a debate for the 2010 municipal election. His competitors for councillor in the ward were in the public hall in person. But municipal candidate Joe Amarelo could not be present. A family emergency had forced him to miss the event. He did, nevertheless, have an impact on the meeting. A statement he’d written was read.
“I see unresolved issues in our town, including vandalism,” Amarelo’s statement read. “It’s important to … create a dialogue. Why not have a Youth Day?”
I walked into my History of Broadcasting class last Friday morning. I told those present – about 50 Broadcasting and Film students at Centennial College in Toronto – that I was tossing out the lesson plan that day. I suggested I had a more contemporary issue on my mind. But I didn’t want to colour their responses. I simply asked for their take on the alleged gang rape of that student near Vancouver earlier in the week.