George Connell


(posted on 3 Jan 2019)

My first teaching assignment, many years ago, was at Woodlands School. The population was an agglomeration of some of the most varied 'disabilities' ever to confront caregivers and teachers; and while the now-closed institution still harbours unsavoury aftertastes of abuse and mismanagement, many good things came of the programs and caregivers that served residents. Woodlands was my first teaching experience and I have fond memories of the residents I worked with and the experiences we shared. This is one of them, titled:


Up the Downhill

          I didn’t begin my career at Woodlands as a teacher, but as a teacher’s aide. I’ve never liked the expression ‘teacher’s aide’. It has always sounded so prophylactic and taboo, but nonetheless that was the capacity in which I found myself one spring morning when I reported for work at the administration office. At the time I finished Professional Development training, the market for teachers had hit rock bottom. The ‘echo boom’ was still in its infancy and the progeny of the postwar generation, while swelling personally, had yet to begin to swell the ranks of kindergarten. So it was to swallow my pride and defray my student loans that I began to aim a little lower. My brother in law, who taught at Woodlands, suggested I apply for a recently vacated position. I really had no idea what I would be letting myself in for. I was introduced to the office staff and quickly discovered there would be virtually no orientation before beginning my workday. For the rest of the morning I wandered the program areas, observing home living training, American Sign Language instruction, and woodworking.

          Lunch found me in the subterranean restaurant staffed by some of the more cognitive and trained residents. I sat in the corner alone with a sandwich until I was joined by one of the teachers to whom I had been introduced that morning. Gerald was a bit of a character, the depths of whom I had only the faintest inklings at this point. He dropped his backpack and wandered over to the salad bar, which offered three sizes, all dictated by the size of the Styrofoam container and not by weight or contents.  Gerald picked up the smallest of plates and began a building process which would have done Albert Speer or the pharaohs proud. He began by pasting a thin layer of smooched down potato salad over the surface of the plate and then laying down a foundation of radially arranged bread sticks. On top of this came a layer of coleslaw interspersed with beets and sliced tomatoes. Next came a few layers of lettuce before the depositing of more smooched over potato salad. Now that a sufficient base had been established, he constructed a skeleton of bread stick uprights within which was placed the less adherent ingredients of the salad bar. This continued until the salad was a foot high, firmly compacted and capable of withstanding a major earthquake or a gale force wind. In the time it took Gerald to undermine the restaurant’s daily profits, I had finished my sandwich and was headed back upstairs for my briefing. Pretty good for eighty cents he called out as I made my way up the stairs. Needless to say this fairly well prefaced my opinion of him for the rest of my five year stay.

          I was told to report to the cafeteria and escort Daniel, an eighteen year-old first nations resident, to his ward. Don’t forget that this is an instructive opportunity, I was told. You can’t use your hands or push or pull him onto the ward. It’s a chance for him to learn.

          Why would I want to do either, I asked?  Because he has a hollow leg. Because he has three hobbies; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because he will pirouette around and scarf up a crushed cashew off the sidewalk faster than you can even think. Because he will do anything to try and get back to the cafeteria. Right. Off I went.

          I found Daniel contentedly finishing off a bowl of Jell-O and adjusting himself, a grin so big he might have had ear wax in the corners of his mouth. I chatted with one of the supervisors. How are you going to get him up to the ward, he asked. I explained what had been explained to me, that I was not to use hands, push, pull, or otherwise overtly coerce him up the 200 yards of steep hill to the ward. He grinned knowingly. Ever play football, he asked. Uh huh. Offense? Yup. Same thing, he concluded, leaving to break up a Jell-O theft.

          We left the cafeteria uneventfully. Daniel was still basking in the afterglow of lunch, his hands clenched together under his chin, flashing a million dollar smile at outer space. We had gone about twenty feet. I was walking behind him, as instructed, when he spun around and slammed his head into my chest, moaning and whimpering as the fact that lunch was over suddenly dawned on him. I stood my ground – barely. My hands were at my side and his face was in mine, flecks of spaghetti sauce between his teeth and spraying over my cheek. First day on the job. I wanted to do well, so I held my ground. No more and no less. He spun again, trying to get past me. I parried his spin with a cheeky side step and just barely blocked him. By now my hands were grasping my sweatshirt at the chest, elbows out and feet lightened, waiting for the next move. He dropped to the ground. I relaxed my grip on my shirt and instinctively bent over to help him up. He had done this before, and he rolled past me, regained his feet and was trotting back down the hill. I sprinted past him and reclaimed my position in front of him, face to face. He’s not going to do that again, I thought. But he did, over and over, and after an hour we were about ten feet from the cafeteria entrance.

          Now Daniel was young and extremely strong and I was beginning to question whether I had the stamina to keep up with him. Was failure an option? What would happen if he made it back to the cafeteria? Would he be rewarded with another meal? I doubled down. This was a challenge. I must admit I cheated. I gave him the slightest bit of pressure from my chest and we began to make headway up the hill. Halfway up and I was gaining ground and confidence. Too much apparently, for he slipped me and I fell forward onto my face, propelled by my own impulse. But fueled by pride, I raced around in front of him and redoubled my efforts. This was personal, like a rookie offensive guard who has been taken to school in his first game by the wily middle linebacker. Ever so slowly we made it to the door of the ward where a crowd of care-givers had gathered, cheering encouragement. The last ten feet might as well been ten miles, but eventually Daniel found himself behind the bottom of the Dutch doors, one of the matronly workers pinching his cheek playfully and telling him how naughty he’d been.

          I was flushed and bushed and desperately in need of a shower and a beer. For the first time that afternoon I looked at my watch. It was five to three! What appeared to take twenty minutes had dragged into almost two hours! Several of the care-givers leaned against the door smiling at me and shaking their heads. I straightened up and tried to look as professional as one can after going up against a middle linebacker and sweating a six-pack. So how’d I do? I asked, wondering how my time stacked up against my predecessor. We’re impressed, one of them said. What do you mean? I asked. We were about to send a couple of the boys down to bring him up in a vehicle like we usually do. No-one’s ever made it all the way up before. You’re the first. And Daniel smiled at me from behind the Dutch doors as if to say, OK you won this one, but tomorrow’s another day. I’ve got your moves down and you’re not that  good.

          That night I demolished the six-pack and slept very, very well.