Skip to main content
first person
Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by Rachel Wada

While the pandemic has upended my life, it has also created an unexpected pleasure: tutoring my six-year-old grandson.

Since he lives in Ottawa and I live near Toronto, our visits previously were limited to a few times a year, and perhaps a week at a shared cottage in summer. Now, four times a week, promptly at 3 p.m., I am greeted on Facetime with a threatening ninja pose or a nose pressed to the screen, with a grin on his face.

Our first few minutes are taken up with chat, as he shows me his latest Star Wars gadget or the construction of a fort in his basement. Sometimes he introduces me to his stuffed animal pals Tom and Penguin, while I gently try to steer him toward the business of the day: the homework that has been assigned in his French-immersion course.

My teaching methods are not new – they are the same as how I was taught some 70 years ago, which have stuck with me – learning multiplication tables by rote, reciting French verbs in present and past tenses, memorizing the names of the five continents and the important dates of British history. For the first few days my efforts seem to go well, but then his attention span starts to drop off – I find it hard to get him to continue naming the 10 provinces or multiplying two numbers, for the umpteenth time. Introducing my colleague Prof. Kno-Itall with the flaming red Halloween wig that I had unearthed from the basement did not fool him for long.

We both keep a close eye on the clock – he to try to spin out the time before the dreaded French verbs have to be tackled again – me to ensure that we have enough time left to do so, and to assure him that he will thank me one day when he discovers that his hard-fought knowledge of French verbs will remain with him for the rest of his life, just as it has done in mine. He remains unconvinced but co-operates when I remind him that the points I award will help him expand his already impressive collection of Pokémon cards.

I am anxious to keep his interest alive, and so I add history and geography to our sessions, with tales of ancient conquests and exploration of distant lands. I print out a world map to teach him the names of far-flung countries. After a while, however, I find that my efforts are again beginning to fade – until I realize that the problem lies with me and not him. After all, how can you expect a young kid to grasp that the North Pole is not nearly as big as it seems on a flat map?

So with the aid of a colourful globe from Amazon, we establish that the shortest way to China from Canada lies West, and that the North Pole is really just a point on the top of the world. We also begin to trace the courses that the various civilizations had taken across Europe and the world – the Romans across Gaul to Britain, Columbus to the New World, the Vikings across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. I show him pictures of the first Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, and of longboats filled with gold from burial sites in Europe. But even as I give him a glowing account of the famous march of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants, I am forced to re-examine my own uncritical and admiring view when his only comment is, “Poor elephants.”

I begin to realize that what I had thought would be a voyage of discovery for him is becoming just that for me. I am learning that I cannot expect him to understand my world if I do not understand his. And I try to remember that sometimes the best lessons are the shortest ones.

I realize that while a six-year-old might easily get bored, his mind is every bit as active and imaginative as that of an older child, and it is up to me to retain the keys to his attention. So whenever I feel I am losing his interest, I ask him to spin the globe and take me on a trip to somewhere I have not visited, perhaps to the land of Batman and Robin.

As we squeeze in his math and French homework between tales of colourful exploits of the past, I too am improving my own education, by learning the names and activities of his superhero friends, and by having to rethink some of my own long-held views of history.

Of course, I want the pandemic to be over as soon as possible so that he can return to his elementary school and regain the life of a normal kid. But in the back of my mind, I am hoping that he will recall our online lessons and that he will remember some of the things that he learned from me, such as the Latin words that Julius Caesar made famous after his conquest of Britain – veni, vidi, vici. I hope he remembers them, because “I came, I saw, I conquered” will be the shortest history lesson that he will ever learn, and one that will perhaps remind him of our time together in later years.

Ian Savidge lives in Brampton.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe