THE teacher’s special was descending the Pacific Slope with a kind of joyous abandon. I was bound for British Columbia, for those returning from the West had fired my imagination with their tales of that province of the setting sun.
But the unexpected happened. Somewhere west of Winnipeg we ran for hours through a country-side strangely different from that which we expected to see—a country-side containing sod-shacks, thatched and mud-plastered cabins, semioriental looking edifices, Byzantine 'churches. Among them were men, women and children clad in the strange peasant costumes of eastern Europe. I did not know then that this foreign-speaking settlement, in the very centre of Canada, was 5,000 square miles.
An enthusiastic school inspector on the train with a gift for idealizing things offered me a school in his district at a salary of $140 a month with house and fuel free. Why, the whole proposition struck me as being as easy, as safe and as edifying as invoking spirits in the family circle.
I’ve never volunteered for the firingline hut I know precisely the mixed feelings hoys experience when making their tryst with fate.
I jumped off the train in great spirits and was directed to a big barn in a small elevator town. It was below zero and I hurried.
The barn was evidently an hostel for
man and beast—all of whom were steaming profusely in the stalls and in the loft above. Ferocious looking peasants from Bukowina in sheep-skin coats and headgear, with their spouses of enormous girth, warmly clad in national costume, together with some anaemic children filled the loft promiscuously. Strange words, bizarre smells, and uncouth shapes, all contributed to the impression that I was in a setting of one of Maxim Gorky’s realistic novels.
There was broad-faced amusement among the women, scowling cynical humor among the men, and . a stolid crafty stare from the children when it was announced that I was the new teacher.
Then followed a ride of forty miles in a box-sleigh. A continuous stream of such vehicles was coming and going, moving grain from the farms to the
The shaggy horses were like frosted skeletons, sleepily bobbing along in a cloud of their own. A slim, red-faced girl in a handkerchief and chamois tunic, ridiculed them unceasingly. A very raucous voice she had for one so young. She understood not a word of English nor did I understand her Russian, but her horses knew every inflection of her whip-like voice and responded wearily, as they could.
The last hours of that trip were ghostlike. Imagine a disembodied soul, sensitive to cold, being whisked along through an ether that was frozen and clammy to the touch; add semi-darkness, hunger, incipient home-sickness, and a grim determination never to engage in any heroic dash for the pole, and you will understand how I felt at about ten that night, when we drew up before a shadowy cabin and saw many people inside. There was a smell of cooking in the air, but a conspicuous absence of anything like “homeyness” in the scene.
I stepped into the one-roomed shack through a lean-to kitchen. It was more like a night-mare than anything else. A candle was burning in each room and in that flickering light I seemed to be in an inferno. In a moment or two, however,
I observed that there was a threshinggang of six men in the room—I heard those explanatory words in broken English—while the kitchen was all cluttered up with half a dozen women with their children standing about in odd corners while the cooking and eating was going on. A lot was said to me, and about me, in Russian and barbarous English, but I felt privileged to ignore it.
Those men were generous and did what they could for me, giving me half the floor, while they slept on the other half, the women for some reason or other preferring to sleep together on the kitchen floor.
I didn’t ask questions. I merely stared fate in the face, and assured myself that the unconquerable human spirit could be relied upon to survive worse things.
This was my teacherage—rent free!
The next day it was vacated by the natives, and I began my solitary housewarming.
To laugh or cry under the circumstances was impossible, for the silence gripped and subdued me, and I compromised by a kind of mental selfdeception, a “Hush, hush, don’t let her know the worst sort of game.”
These people seemed curiously lacking in sympathy. They went about their business in a fumbling, callous way, enduring, yet seemingly unmoved by the events of life. But few of them could read and write. They were indifferent to outside happenings. Canadian life and influences were as a sealed book. They had been settled here thirty years and were still in the dark ages.
They tolerated the new teacher or suffered her in their midst as one would a pestilence beyond the control of science. They threw their children under the wheels of this new Juggernaut and I was expected to grind them exceeding fine. The parents seemed fatalistic, except when they, as members of a democracy, had to come through with the taxes to pay for the teacher and accessories. Then there were all-day and all-night sessions of the rate-payers in the schoolhouse where they indulged in much fiery oratory. That they should pay taxes to keep a teacher in an easy job, and that their children’s labor should be lost to them by compulsory attendance at school where they forgot their native tongue while being forced to acquire an alien one, was a treble infliction, which roused them to something like open revolution once a year. Meanwhile they tried to evade the school law on the principle that a closed school meant less taxes and more child labor.
When I think of that school building I shudder. It was a mouldering log-cabin, with an undulating floor, scanty light, and a roof that let in much fine snow.
Eighty children from six to eighteen filled that black-hole during those winter months. They were all droll-looking scare-crows as if from a ghetto. Some of them in the severest weather came three and four miles, their meager bodies clad in diaphonous print things; yet they were, after their fashion, a cheerful bunch, prevaricating with the frankest pleasure. Truth, honor, shame, sympathy, justice, seemed to be unknown to them. The whole school would go into ecstasies of glee in torturing animals; a trapped rabbit, for instance, or gophers, cats and dogs. They were a curious mixture of the normal and the abnormal. The contrast was startling. I’ve heard ethnologists say that it is due to their Turanian origin.
I can only barelytouch upon an aspect here and there. As regards the school, I had to begin from the grass-roots, as none of my pupils could read or speak English. There were one hundred and fifty such schools in the community, and many of them had actually made commendable progress.
I soon found that this work requires special training or remarkable adaptability on the part of the teacher. But it is a serious mistake to suppose that young boys and girls of eighteen fresh from the Normals can successfully undertake this man’s job of Canadianizing these New Canadians. If there is one problem that must be thoroughly thought out it is this, and it really requires the best thought of the best minds. The policy of laissez-faire, seems to be characteristically Canadian, and our children, who should be more »intelligent than ourselves, will have a great deal to rectify.
I went slowly and tried my best to, inculcate a few fundamental principles of decency, but it was difficult, for the parental attitude invariably counteracted my efforts. Lying was a fine art, and was practised quite as a matter of course.
Women are regarded as drudges. A wife’s value is measured by her strength as an animal. I remember one of my pupils, a very strong and energetic girl of fifteen, who was the proud boast of the district and was greatly sought after by all the young men in the community, who thought that such a wife would be an invaluable asset on the farm, since she had the reputation of being able to work down any man in haying or threshing, etc. I’ve seen her father, three grown brothers and quite a group of neighboring young men standing by for an hour at a time, to watch and admire her feats of physical endurance.
She belonged to one of the most prosperous families and was one day married to a young dandy from the city. At seven o’clock the morning after, I saw her on her knees scrubbing the banqueting hall where all the dancing had taken place, while her husband and the best man in their city best were lounging about smoking, drinking moonshine, and bantering the bride. Evidently she was an ideal wife.
Two of my trustees had no knowledge of English. The third had a little English and a great ambition. Forty or fifty years of age himself, he had married a girl of thirteen, and aspired to be a legislator. A comical, bow-legged little man he was, who endeavored to bribe me into teaching him, by holding out the promise of a perpetual pass to the visitor’s gallery, and a standing invitation to Government House when he should be duly elected.
From his angle Canadian policies and parties had become a neighborhood fight between himself, a puny ignoramus,
and his hated competitor, once a villagi rival in far-off Bukowina, and now a ful fledged representative in Canada, dulj dispensing favors to those beyond th* pale. His stumbling eloquence on th subject was touching. His mentalit; was rather remarkable. From time t time he offered me moonshine of his owi brewing at five dollars a bottle, and per fumes in little phials at one dollar, am scented pastilles at fifty cents an ounce insisting that all young women wh danced should have these things. H could not understand my refusal an, more than I could understand hi picayunish huckstering.
I was never molested in any way, bu nevertheless had some unique experiences One rather speculative intellectual trie me out on the question of woman’ position in society. I didn’t want t listen to him and told him to go. He ha come uninvited into my shack. H persisted rather offensively in telling m how a recalcitrant like myself would b dealt with by the males of hiso whereupon my U.E.L. temperamer flared up and I seized a red-hot iron-bs I had in the fire at the time and ran hii out. Thereafter he always glanced t me in passing with a lively kindo interest.
One day I discovered that a woman an English-speaking woman, a Canadia like myself—was located about eigl miles away, where she had been teachin for the past twelve years. When I heai that I wept, it seemed so tragic. The! people had kept this information froi me as long as possible. I met the lad afterwards, and we exchanged confidence Her features had assumed such a sa> lonely, forlorn cast that the sight aí thought of her always used to affect m though she was cheerful enough, with sense of humor and plenty of ment energy. Living alone in a prairieo among foreigners for twelve years doii all her own chores, and seeing people her own nationality but seldom—can 01 wonder at that mask of forlornness th had settled on her countenance?
She had witnessed the marriage many of her girls at thirteen, fourtee and fifteen, and had watched the sinking back into mindless drudges the farm.
If you ask me what I consider the me important phenomenon in CanadL history, I would unhesitatingly say th middle-aged lady’s twelve years’ servi as a teacher among these barbarians.
Her story is an epic and should down in the annals of our land. She aí many teachers like her deserve a Victoi Cross for valor in the face of the enera
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