Labour Day. This has always been a momentous day for me because it marks the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year. It was always the day before something new began, the day before I became something that I hadn’t been before. Let me go back a few years to the first Labour Day ever, to the first ones I remember, and to what it has come to symbolize in my life even now that I’ve retired.
Since I am, in the end, a teacher, I’ll start with a bit of history about Labour Day.
The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to April 14, 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week. The Toronto Trades Assembly (TTA) called its 27 unions to demonstrate in support of the Typographical Union who had been on strike since March 25. George Brown, Canadian politician and editor of the Toronto Globe hit back at his striking employees, pressing police to charge the Typographical Union with “conspiracy.” Although the laws criminalizing union activity were outdated and had already been abolished in Great Britain, they were still on books in Canada and police arrested 24 leaders of the Typographical Union. Labour leaders decided to call another similar demonstration on September 3 to protest the arrests. Seven unions marched in Ottawa, prompting a promise by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to repeal the “barbarous” anti-union laws. Parliament passed the Trade Union Act on June 14 the following year, and soon all unions were demanding a 54-hour work-week.
The Toronto Trades and Labour Council (successor to the TTA) held similar celebrations every spring. American Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labour, was asked to speak at a labour festival in Toronto, Canada on July 22, 1992. Returning to the United States, McGuire and the Knights of Labor organized a similar parade based on the Canadian event on September 5, 1882 in New York City. On July 23, 1894, Canadian Prime Minister John Thompson and his government made Labour Day, to be held in September, an official holiday. In the United States, the New York parade became an annual event that year, and in 1894 was adopted by American president Grover Cleveland.
Okay – now that we all know a little more about Labour Day (this history was pretty much news to me this morning too!) – let me travel back to memories of this auspicious day. The week before school started was always an exciting one as we went shopping with my mother to buy school supplies; coloured pencils, a pencil case, erasers, rulers, paper, and – although I’m guessing nobody much younger than me will have any idea what I’m talking about here – book covers. I don’t mean the design that goes on the outside of a book; I mean those large rectangular sheets of paper that we’d fold in a particular way so that they covered our books and protected them. Remember doing that?
I’d planned to put a photo of my kindergarten class here; it hung in my office for years and years and years and today I just can’t find it anywhere. Oh well. I had the most dour-looking teacher (and I don’t even remember her name) and was utterly unimpressed with school by the end of Day 1. Why? Well, after all, I’d been there for a whole day and I still couldn’t read or write. Seemed to me that all we did was play and it wasn’t much fun playing there either; I could have more fun at home. In fact if truth be told I had this same disappointing experience year after year … right through elementary and secondary school, undergraduate school and even graduate school; I was always looking forward to some real intellectual excitement and the reality never matched my expectations. Never mind … in the end, a part of me always loved school or at least the parts of school that opened new windows.
Of course one of the most exciting things about the start of the new school year was getting to buy new clothes for that all-important first day of school. There was a shoe store on Dundas Street (in London, Ont) that my mother would always take us to in late August so that we could buy two new pairs of shoes; one for school and one for dress-up. I wonder if anyone else remembers this device? I’d try on the shoes and slide my feet into the opening near the bottom. There were three viewing ports on the top of the cabinet – one for my mother to look through, one for the shoe saleswoman, and one for me. Gazing down we’d all see a flourescent image of the bones of my feet and the outline of the shoes. That way we’d know if the shoes fit or not. I wonder how much damage that machine was doing but I guess I’ll never really know. Anyhow, we’d leave the store with our packages – mine usually included a pair of saddle shoes for school and some patent leather shoes for holidays. The next stop would be to buy a new dress – something that would match my new shoes and would likely be plaid with a bow tied in the back and a white collar. With my hair freshly braided (a style I still gravitate to today) I’d be ready to enter my new classroom and begin a new year of learning adventure. Yup … I actually saw it that way … when I was little.
I remember opening the cover of my “reader” in what I’m guessing was about about Grade 4 or 5. There was a poem that I went back to over and over again that year and in the years to come. It inspired me; it made me dream big and what more can you hope for from school than that? I hunted it up again today (so easy on the internet) and it still kind of makes me tingle. Here it is.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
|Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December 1941
This excitement about the day after Labour Day – the start of the school year – has been part of my life now for 55 years (since I started school in 1954). It has changed though over the years. By the time I got to University part of the excitement was often living in a new place; I started university at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem although my dream at the time was to go to the Sorbonne in Paris. Being a Jewish girl from small-town Canada the chances of convincing my parents to let me go to Paris to study were pretty much zero but I knew that they could do nothing but support a desire to study in Israel … so that was my choice. After a couple of years struggling to learn in a language I didn’t know, I returned to Canada and continued studying at the University of Western Ontario (with summer classes at the University of Windsor), back to Western, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, back to Western, and finally the University of Toronto.
September 1973 was my first school year beginning as a teacher. I’d spent a week decorating my classroom, had new clothes to wear (some things don’t change) and – terrified – was ready to go. All of the years that I taught began with a sleepless night: What would my class be like? Would I like my students? Would they like me? Was I well-enough prepared? What new challenges would come my way that year? It’s always been this combination of excitement and terror that accompanied me into the new school year.
As a parent, I’ll admit that the beginning of the school year took on another element. As Bill Dodds said: “Labor Day is a glorious holiday because your child will be going back to school the next day. It would have been called Independence Day, but that name was already taken.” I loved spending summers with my children but by the middle of August I was ready for all of us to go back to school and a more steady routine – indeed, even as a child myself I’d had enough summer vacation by the time mid-August rolled around.
Now I’m paying attention to the first day of school for my grandchildren. I just got this picture of Art (ready for Grade 4) and Noam (ready for Grade 1). Freida’s just ready for anything at all! There’s that look of anticipation on their faces; I sure hope that enthusiasm lasts.
When I left the classroom and went to work for the Ministry of Education (March 1994) the start of the school year didn’t change very much. No, I was no longer facing lesson-plan prep or trying to figure out the needs of the students in my new classroom(s). The summer was always a kind of “other-world” time at the Ministry; there would be lots of curriculum writing going on but I was generally not much involved in the day-to-day writing parts being more interested in the conceptual work that went into the planning for this writing. We’d work over the summer with reduced staff (many of my colleagues were brought in on temporary assignments from their school boards and so weren’t around in July and August very much); I’d have a chance to get my office cleaned up, and to plan for the work that we’d begin again once school was “back”. Truth be told, the last weeks of June were always a bit difficult for me at the Ministry; my teacher-friends were all talking about summer holidays and I was facing going to work through the two most beautiful months to be outside in Canada (at least to me … someone who loves the sun and hates the cold). So … and here I am admitting to a degree of contrariness … I’d often plan a vacation myself for the first week of September so that when they were all anxious about returning to school I could be talking about my impending and always very exciting vacation-to-come. Twisted huh? But whether it started right after Labour Day or a week later the beginning of the school year continued to be something that marked my progress in life.
So here I am today, my first “start of the school year” as a retiree. For the first time in 55 years my life isn’t going to change radically tomorrow. True, this year I’m sitting here a week away from starting to teach a new course at Ryerson. I’ve already checked with the bookstore to make sure my text was in and available, I’ve had all of the required readings electronically posted to my class “bulletin board”, I’ve signed up for a workshop next week to learn how to make better use (and easier use) of the bulletin board, and I’ve scheduled a lot of time in the coming days for working up that first lecture and reading my way through the books and articles that are still piled up on my desk. I haven’t thought about what I’m going to wear yet though … give me another few days for that.
What’s got my heart racing this year – yes, there’s still September school-start excitement – is that I’ve got so much to do that I can’t wait to be doing. I’ve started working on a book proposal (a way of sharing the blog with others who are struggling with – or/and revelling in – these huge changes in life); I’ll have it ready to go by the end of the month when I’m also hoping to “launch” another website … this one focused on women entering retirement (stay tuned for more info as my sister Molly and I get closer to launch-day). I’ve made connections with folks around-the-world who might want to have me come and do workshops for them. I’ve got a closing speech to prepare for the “Our World- Your Move: Youth Taking Action for Humanity” conference that I’m helping organize for the Red Cross in October. I’ve got a workshop to prepare for the “Loving Teachers, Living Schools: Sharing our Paths to Peace” conference at McMaster University in November, one to prepare for Crones Counsel, details to finalize for some teacher p.d. I’ve been asked to do in Toronto. I’ve just signed off on my “chapter” in Living Legacies II: A Collection of Inspirational Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women which is scheduled for release in January 2010.
And yet … tucked away behind all of this excitement there’s a tension, a lack of comfort, a newness that leaves me both breathless and with heart racing (more about that next time).
I really do feel like I’ve “slipped the “surly bonds of earth”. Incredible.