Lives worth living

All kids deserve respect and encouragement

Susan Flanagan
Published on April 16, 2013
— Thinkstock/Telegram photo illustration by Robert Simon

I have to say up front here that I have bawled at children — some my own, others not — for spending too long playing video games. Last summer, on more than one occasion, I opened the rec room door and roared at teenagers to get the heck above ground and outside into the sun.

Part of me thinks I should feel lucky to know these teenagers are here under my own roof, safe, having fun with friends. Then the other part of me wants to wallop them. I wonder if this summer will be any different.

I think it may be. For one thing No. 3, the lover of video games, will be hopefully spending a month immersed in Quebec culture in Ste-Foy where I hope access to Minecraft is limited. And No. 4 hopes to get a job and hang out at her favourite Burry Heights United Church Camp on Salmonier Line for two weeks.

This year, No. 4 is finishing up Grade 9 at Macdonald Drive Junior High (MDJH). On May 31, No. 4 will dress up for her leaving ceremony like No. 3 did this time last year. Nothing over the top. The principal at MDJH, Darryl Feener, and assistant principal, Leo Etchegary, do things right. They don’t go overboard; just a relaxed semi-formal ceremony in the gym where students are recognized in front of their peers, teachers and parents for having got this far in life.

That’s followed by a social in the cafeteria to which parents donate time and food. Then, after the parents go home, a dance for those students who wish to stay.

Last year I was, of course, immensely proud of No. 4, but I was equally proud of the staff who had nurtured him for three years. Staff who chaperoned a trip to Quebec City; staff who coached hockey; staff who emailed me if anything was not as it should have been. These people have heads on their shoulders and the wheels inside those heads are turning.

Just read the parting words Darryl Feener, principal of MDJH, left with the Grade 9’s last year at the leaving ceremony:

“Try to be the person your dog thinks you are,” he said.

Isn’t that a lovely thought to leave with a graduating class of 14 and 15-year-olds? It made perfect sense even to someone like me who has never owned a dog.

I did however take care of a great dane named Buddy for a few weeks so I know what a dog thinks of its owner. Buddy looked at me like the sun shone out of my elbow. He followed me around and gently touched his leathery nose to mine to show his gratitude for small kindnesses (like picking up his poop). Buddy thought I was the best thing since organic dog food. He thought I could do anything — like open the garage door with the click of a button. He thought I was willing to go to the ends of the Earth to make life better. In short, he thought I was perfect.

And the staff at MDJH seem to think the same of their students. Maybe not perfect, but they encourage our children to be the best they can be. They treat them like the young adults they are and provide them with tools to go forth and conquer the world.

Over at Gonzaga, where No 4 will join her brother next year, it’s the same story. Here are a few examples of quotes you’ll hear at any parent-teacher gathering from school principal Edward van Nostrand and assistant principal Doug LeDrew:

‰    “It’s a privilege to teach your children. You should be proud of every one of them.”

‰“There’s no place we’d rather work.”

‰“We have the best staff.”

‰“Our students regularly perform well above average on national, provincial and regional exams.”

Then they go into how many Grade 12 Gonzaga students have already completed MUN courses and done better than many MUN students. And how many graduating students have been offered cream-of-the-crop scholarships.

And how student activists fight social injustice both abroad and within the corridors of their own school. Then they stress how it’s OK not to be bookishly brilliant. You can shine in your own way.

To show the students they really mean this, a couple of weeks ago the staff at Gonzaga invited in a crew called Live Different to inspire students with a motivational production which highlights true stories of the people on stage. These stories are presented in a way that students can relate to — with music and laughter.

These are “sad life stories that turned around,” says LeDrew. They’re about young people “giving back and getting involved in more positive things, no matter the background they came from. (It is) very much a there-is-always-hope message.”

The assembly was a surprise to students.

Staff chose not to announce it would happen so that those students who believe an assembly means an afternoon off would be there and the members of Live Different wouldn’t be preaching to the converted. Sneaky, aren’t they?” By doing this, staff ensured the students who might gain the most from the experience actually got to hear the message.

No. 4 raved about testimonials of students (from all over Canada) who were less than stellar academically, but made something of themselves. I wasn’t there so here’s a second-hand version of one presenter’s story (I’m estimating the quotes):

The guy stood on stage and faced the students in the gym looking up at him.

“Every day I’d be outside the school doing drugs and every day the music teacher would walk by, smile and say something like, ‘I’ve been noticing a pattern in your behaviour. Every day when you should be in class, I see you out here. Why don’t you come to my music class? It’ll be fun.’

“I ignored the teacher’s offer and kept skipping class and staying outside doing drugs. But the teacher kept on inviting me — not for a couple of days, not for a couple of weeks, but for about a year.

“That’s how I learned about music,” the guy told the students sitting in the gym in front of him.

Then the gym resounds with hip techno music he plays as a DJ.

No. 4 was blown away by his performance and he totally understood the message. Someone cared enough to believe in this guy, who many would pass off as a loser.

“The teacher never gave up on me,” the youth said.

That’s the message the staff at Gonzaga are trying to share with their students by inviting the members of Live Different to talk to them.

“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start. Anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending,” reads the anonymous inspirational message left on LeDrew’s email.

Something to think about this summer.


Susan Flanagan is a writer who wonders if Darryl Feener can top last year’s address to the Grade 9 students. She can be reached at