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‘I like the quiet’: Inside an isolated Newfoundland community's single-student classes


The silence in the hallway of St. Peter’s All-Grade School in McCallum hits you first.

There is nothing to break the stillness of the air. No school bell to echo from its walls. No crowds of students to fill it with the sound of footsteps and sneaker squeaks.

The hallway sits like this for much of the school day. The silence is broken only in intermittent periods by sounds made by one of the two students who occupy one of the school’s four classrooms.

Inside this classroom, Grade 7 student Noah Durnford and Simone McDonald, Grade 10, get their cues from their do-everything teacher Brady Turner.

It is a regular day inside one of the smallest schools in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I like the quiet,” said Noah. “A bigger school is nowhere near as quiet as this one.”

There is no school bus because McCallum has no roads. Students walk the concrete and wooden pathways up the hill to school each day, leaving only for lunch and when classes end for the day.

“Teaching here ... it is incredible in that I get to take risks, teach a lot of areas that are out of my comfort area,” said Turner. “Being able to stay on top of the curriculum like I am with only two students, I am able to take chances.”

The dichotomy of St. Peter’s is perhaps best viewed through the workspaces of the students.

Noah’s is well-kept and organized. His camo bookbag hangs from back of his chair and there is more of that sense of structure that comes with being in Grade 7.

On the contrary, Simone’s desk looks like that of a high school student. There are papers scattered across its surface and she finds order in its jumbled layout.

In a way, it is a physical manifestation of where they are in their academic lives. Noah’s is a symbol of the more rigid learning space of junior high, while Simone’s represents the freedom that comes with being a high school student.

What makes it more interesting is that just five feet separate the two.

The school in McCallum is a modest, one-level structure. Besides the four classrooms, there’s a staff room and a decent-sized multipurpose room that doubles as an activity room.

The school held a small Remembrance Day ceremony there earlier this year.

One of the classrooms is where Noah records his weekly podcast. It used to be the high school classroom when St. Peter’s had enough students to crown a ball hockey league champion.

Noah wants to be a meteorologist one day and will often take videos of the weather.

“We get to do some more hands-on things that you might not get to do if you have a bigger class,” said Turner.

Teacher Brady Turner has learned teaching everything to a few kids is vastly different from teaching something to a bunch of kids. - Nicholas Mercer
Teacher Brady Turner has learned teaching everything to a few kids is vastly different from teaching something to a bunch of kids. - Nicholas Mercer

Getting used to the quiet

Turner first stepped on McCallum’s shore after accepting the position at St. Peter’s All-Grade two years ago.

He’s originally from Witless Bay on the province’s southern shore, so he didn’t know quite what to expect when he settled into his two-bedroom apartment midway between the wharf and the school.

He quickly found McCallum represent solitude and quiet. That quiet is only pierced by the occasional hum of the single all-terrain vehicle in town and the gentle lapping — sometimes violent crashing — of the ocean against the shoreline.

The isolation can be challenging for Turner, but rarely does he think about starting a countdown to the day he can leave the community.

“I’ve been fortunate to have incredible mentors who have ingrained in me to never countdown or wish away time,” he said. “I live in in the present and am grateful for every day that I get to work in the profession I love.”

During his time in McCallum, he’s come to appreciate the innate qualities of the place he’s called home for most of the last two years.

“The heart of this community is tradition, and I am constantly learning about knits and gnats of McCallum,” said Turner. “No need to lock a door, if you’re not home place a broom in front of your door so that people know, and of course, don’t go anywhere without your playing darts.”

Artsy walls

The influences of the students and the community are literally painted on the school’s walls.

One student’s version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” adorns the door of a storage cabinet in the hallway, while another door features a McCallum sunset.

In the foyer, there is a painted map of the town and a mural of a dove made completely out of plastic bottle caps. It took them a couple of years to complete.

“It was hard to find the blue ones,” said Simone, who has a number of paintings on the ceilings and doorways in the school.

For Noah and Simone, years apart in age, the other is the only classmates they've ever known. - Nicholas Mercer
For Noah and Simone, years apart in age, the other is the only classmates they've ever known. - Nicholas Mercer

Small class sizes

To call the class sizes at St. Peter’s small would be a massive understatement.

When you consider each class only has one student, the word miniscule becomes a more appropriate adjective.

Noah and Simone are used to it. It’s only ever been them.

“I’ve never had anyone in my grade,” said Simone. “I’ve been in a classroom with other people but no one else in my grade.”

That might lead to some trepidation in anticipation of moving to post-secondary studies — she is looking at doing nursing — where classroom sizes are considerably larger, but she doesn’t feel that way at all.

Simone does the majority of her classes by distance learning. She gets a taste of being in class with others that way and believes she’d be comfortable in a larger setting.

Noah doesn’t have the luxury of distance education. He is the only one in all of his classes and likely will be until he graduates high school.

In a way, Turner is his personal tutor as they move through the curriculum of junior high.

Sometimes, Turner will shift the schedule ahead of tests if Noah needs a bit of extra time to prepare.

“When I came here, I really had to make that investment in getting to know both of my students,” said Turner. “That is learning their work habits, how they learn and being able to incorporate their interests into the curriculum.”

Like Simone, Noah has never had anyone in his grade and has no desire to be in a larger classroom.

“I’d be happy with a couple more (students), but nothing like 20 or 30 more,” he said.

Grade 10 student Simone McDonald does the majority of her courses via distance. - Nicholas Mercer
Grade 10 student Simone McDonald does the majority of her courses via distance. - Nicholas Mercer


Sick days and principal’s meetings are challenges that Turner has to meet often.

He has a list of substitute teachers who can fill in if he catches a cold or has to be away for a couple of days for meetings. Some of those substitutes live in Hermitage-Sandyville, while others are in Corner Brook, Stephenville and St. John’s.

When they do come over, they’ll stay at Turner’s apartment.

“It is certainly a challenge,” he said. “We do have a number of subs on our list however there are often complications due to travel restrictions. Such as if the ferry doesn’t run, etc. When a sub comes to McCallum they also have to spend the night at the teacher’s residence.

“For the most part, subs really enjoy this experience.”

The school isn't just important to the students, it's the main hub of activity for the entire community. - Nicholas Mercer
The school isn't just important to the students, it's the main hub of activity for the entire community. - Nicholas Mercer

School pride

St. Peter’s is a mainstay in the community. It is the home of McCallum’s community fitness night and its bingo.

For the last 15 years, it has hosted the Terry Fox run and it’s regularly the centre of fundraisers for the Cancer Society.

It is a lifeline.

“The school is the focal point of the community,” said Turner. “The best thing about this community is that when we ask, they give whatever we need, above and beyond.”

Right now, Noah represents what will be the final sentence in the story of St. Peter’s. There are no students coming behind him and when he graduates from Grade 12, that will be the end.

It is a sobering fact not lost on either the young man or Simone. Nor is it a fact that they worry about as they strum on ukuleles in music class — Noah plays a mean blues riff — or work on a town website as Simone is doing.

For the youngest student, it means he must adjust to being the only kid in school for all of his high school career.

“I feel like it will seem different to move to a new place and it would seem sad to leave the place that I grew up in,” said Noah.

Simone feels much the same when she thinks about having to leave the place she’s called home for the entirety of her life.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here but I know I have to leave, even though it’s not going to be easy,” she said.

For now, they’re enjoying their time at St. Peter’s and the comradery that comes with being the only two students in class.

They help each other and share a bond that you might not see between junior high and senior high students, even if they are cousins.

With its small population and strong sense of spirit, St. Peter’s is a reflection of their hometown.

And, they wouldn’t change that.

“I wouldn’t rather be going to school anywhere else just because there are more people,” said Simone. “This is my school and my home.

“In the past some have said that the youth of McCallum didn’t have social skills, but that’s not true at all. We’re ready to experience everything the world has to offer.”


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