COVER

100 Canadians to Watch

Shooting for the stars—and becoming one

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON July 1 1997
COVER

100 Canadians to Watch

Shooting for the stars—and becoming one

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON July 1 1997

100 Canadians to Watch

COVER

Shooting for the stars—and becoming one

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

She is, even by her own admission, an overachiever, a focused force of nature in a compact frame of five-foot-three. Her foster mother calls her a fighter, a survivor. But for Judith Anderson, the summer of ’92 was a season to test her limits. As the eldest of three children born to a deaf couple in Winnipeg’s North End, the 13-year-old had been given special dispensation to leave her Grade 8 class one month early so that she could earn grocery money for her family. That was the same summer that her mother moved out, taking the family car, and that her father declared bankruptcy Judith, who first learned to , f communicate by sign language and who had taught herself to speak by watching TV, spent her spare time fending off creditors and cooking for her siblings. “We were living below the poverty line,” she remembers. “My mother refused to give us support, so we were fending for ourselves. Mostly, we ate cereal and toast.” Arriving at Sisler High School that fall, Judith tackled her three loves—books, theatre and

sports—with passion. Enrolled in an accelerated international baccalaureate program, she maintained straight A’s. She played the lead in Love’s Labour’s Lost. She competed in basketball, volleyball and district ringette. And she played on a boy’s community hockey team—the only girl, and one of two goaltenders.

But she was also enrolled in the school’s free lunch program. Often it was her only meal. When Judith collapsed in tears one morning, saying she was hungry, her English teacher, Lesley Peterson, invited her for dinner. Having fed her, she sent Judith back home with some oranges and a frozen chicken for her family. But life at the Anderson household had unravelled to intolerable chaos. Within days, Judith dialled Winnipeg Child and Family Services from school. “Put me somewhere,” she told them. “I’m not going back.” Peterson and her sister Kristy, also a teacher at Sisler, had previously applied to be foster parents, and offered Judith a temporary home. On March 9, 1993, the same day that Judith moved in with the Petersons, both her sib-

lings were taken into the care of Winnipeg Child and Family Services. “A counsellor took a look around,” recounts Judith, “and said, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that children have been living here.’ ”

Arriving in the Peterson household—a generational crazy quilt of the two sisters, a 90-year-old grandmother, Kristy’s 10-year-old son, Devon, and two cats—Judith was overwhelmed by her liberty. “The hardest thing to get used to? Not being allowed to do chores,” she says. “I was told to do homework and to relax. Gradually, I began to grapple with my passion for ideas.” Peterson remembers staying up until 2:00 in the morning, “brainstorming

with Judith on all the reasons why Hamlet’s Gertrude would have married Claudius.” That summer, Judith began a series of creative writing courses, first with novelist Margaret Sweatman and later with poet Dennis Cooley. “She was remarkably poised,” remembers Cooley. “Her writing was sophisticated, and she had almost a professional attitude, which is rare in a young woman.”

During the following two years, Judith sped through three years of high-school courses, graduating at 16 with an average of 91 per cent. Even before completing Grade 12, she had already earned an A in a third-year creative writing course at the University of Manitoba. “At 16, she was in with 30and 40-year-olds,” recalls Peterson,

“too young to join them in the bar after class. She was looking for a place to challenge her, to call her own.”

In fact, Judith had set her sights on Oxford. Having won an interview, she paid her way to England with earnings as a gas station cashier. Her letter of acceptance, inviting her to read English at St. John’s College in the fall of 1996, launched a citywide scramble to raise the necessary $33,000 for tuition, living expenses and airfare. Winnipeg Child and Family Services established a charitable fund and canvassed the community for support. A professional auctioneer, reading Judith’s story in a Winnipeg paper, hosted a fundraiser, selling off goods provided at cost by local businesses. As well, she won a Ken Dryden Scholarship—established to help students who have been in foster care—awarding her $4,000 for each year of her studies. By October, she was off to Oxford.

This week, Judith Anderson—the newly named captain of Oxford’s women’s ice hockey team—will fly home to Winnipeg. Packed in her bags will be her summer reading: Spenser’s Faerie Queen plus the entire works of Chaucer—a daunting task that her tutor has estimated will take her nine weeks to complete. Add to this her teaching job at the Manitoba Institute for Gifted Students, where she will lead a course of her own design, Theatre in the Fringe Environment. And as in previous summers, she has agreed to direct a play at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Last, but not least, there will be the job of raising yet another $33,000 for her second year at Oxford—plus the $5,000 shortfall from the year just completed. Peterson is prepared to help. “Being broke is relative,” she says. “If I have to re-mortgage my house, I will.”

But for the short term, the rambling house on leafy Harvard Avenue will be a scene of celebration as 18year-old Judith returns. “It’s been hard,” she admits, “to be away from a home that took me so long to find.” English professor, writer, theatre director, hockey coach: all these futures entice her, none is certain. “I’ve learned not to be too specific in my hopes,” she says confidently. “I honestly believe that everything is falling into place.” Falling into place, perhaps—but not without her own fierce determination to conquer any obstacles in her path. As Peterson says: “Don’t forget, she’s a goalie. She likes to stand up to life and say, Throw hard things at me.’ ” Rebel and artist, thinker and competitor, activist and innovator, and certainly a risk-taker: Judith Anderson is all these things and more—a Canadian to be watched.