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First Person The elephants in the classroom – and the teacher who conquered them

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It was the seventies in rural Ontario and there were elephants in my Grade Five classroom. Some were literal. Massive, grey, wrinkly things were projected on the blackboard as my teacher clicked through her safari slides. Their size would have been intimidating if it were not for the tenderness they showed their tiny offspring. Other elephants in our classroom were figurative, silent but unmistakable. Like that I was too thin, and came to school without a bath, scarf or mittens. Teachers today who long to make a difference can take heart. It’s been more than 30 years since I was that girl but I still remember the elephants and the unforgettable impact of a dedicated teacher.

Mrs. W used her summer vacation to travel the world. With her slides, she taught us about geography and people who were different from us. We saw elephants. Riding them were brown-skinned smiling men in white turbans. She showed us monkeys in crowded marketplaces along with people wearing the brightest colours I’d ever seen. We saw giraffes and rhinos and strange new birds, plus trees and flowers not found in Canadian farming country.

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Not everyone was as excited as me when the slide projector came out. Maybe her stories were long. Perhaps the photos weren’t well done. With bony shoulders and a sun-wrinkled face, she was older than other teachers. Down the corridor was the beautiful Grade 7 teacher, with the small waist and large bosom. One room further down was a witty teacher whose class always sounded like they were having the most fun. It’s even possible, though unlikely, that I was the sole student who felt impacted by Mrs. W, the only one in a long teaching career to be changed, nurtured, forever altered by her commitment to her profession. If so, all the more important to let her – and teachers like her – know the difference they can make.

One day Mrs. W came to class wearing a colourful, draped silk dress, a sari she said, with a brooch on one shoulder, bangles on her wrists and sandals on her feet. She looked like the people on her slides. She laid a long tablecloth on the carpet of an empty meeting room and instructed us to sit cross-legged on each side. Exotic food was laid out. Beyond the fact that I enjoyed a nutritious lunch, I was utterly enthralled with the adventure of it all! She taught us the etiquette of people who ate rice with their fingers yet considered it impolite to get food above the knuckles. Later, she taught us how people in some lands they visited used chopsticks instead of forks. At home, I made my own with twigs, and as I tried to eat, bark chipped off my improvised dining utensils.

There were other things in the slides that I noticed. Fruit hung off trees, like the bananas my classmates unpacked from their lunches. I saw the Taj Mahal and learned about the man who built it for love of his wife. Like a game of Where’s Waldo, I looked for Mrs. W’s husband in the slides, finding him beside the pyramids, on the camel or feeding large birds. He was always there, always smiling at the lady with the camera.

My dad had left that spring and although the broken arm he left mum with had healed, her heart had not. My six siblings and I looked out for ourselves and each other, scrounging and wandering. The evidence of our poverty and neglect was the unacknowledged elephant in the classroom. My hair was not cut or brushed or washed. Kids would touch me or my sisters and then run off to play a game of tag with our “cooties,” not as a deliberate unkindness, but a childish act of thoughtless youth. Mrs. W, however, approached my obstacles with the heart of a dedicated educator.

She told me I had potential. I was funny and smart and talented, she said. I could do things I’d never done before if I applied myself. I’m not sure if I believed her or wanted to show my gratitude for the attention, but I put forth extra effort and she noticed.

We had no rules at home, nobody saying when to go to bed or even whether to do our homework, but I heard Mrs. W’s encouraging voice in my head as I studied under piles of coats for warmth, since we had no heat. When academic success followed, other students complimented me and my confidence soared.

At first, I gravitated to the library every recess. I stopped when the librarian brought up the elephant.

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“I wish I had a sink in here,” she exclaimed. “I’d wash your hair and, well, the rest of you, too.” Into my hands she pressed a King James Bible for me to keep, in which she’d written a kind inscription.

I was deeply ashamed. After that, I studied in the corridors. In her own way, the librarian was being generous. However, with Mrs. W it felt different. On picture day, she offered to comb hair for a few regular girls who, she said, had become messy during recess. When she then held the comb up for me, too, I felt cherished and not judged.

My teacher didn’t get to see the full extent of her nurturing. While my siblings dropped out of school, a common outcome for children from difficult homes, I kept going. But, by Grade 10, I was faltering. Dad had come home for a while and left again, leaving us worse off than before. That’s when other teachers took up the baton, a math teacher who would write, “don’t change for others, you’re perfect the way you are,” on my assignments, and a typing teacher who paid me to take minutes of her teacher meetings. As teachers like these propelled me forward, I applied for university. My mother exclaimed, “Where did you get so much confidence?,” as though I’d come home with something that didn’t belong to me.

With a mixture of scholarships, grants and loans, I made it to university a full year younger than my peers. It was 1982 and it would be the first time in my life that I had heat in my bedroom and running water for showers.

These days, I am an accountant. My fridge is full and my husband smiles at me throughout our many travel photos. He is from one of the far-off lands my teacher visited. When we sit in our enclosed front porch and watch school kids traipse by with backpacks, I remember the elephants and smile.

Regan Nuqui lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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