Friday, November 14, 2014

The Lansdowne Letters: The Ups and Downs of Teaching

In his Lansdowne Letters,
my father, Donald MacBeath,
often wrote of the challenges
he faced teaching Indian children.

No matter where he taught,
Dad always said that the greatest rewards of teaching
were bestowed by the children themselves.

One challenge Dad faced teaching Indian children 
was overcoming their shyness. 
This he attributed to 
native reticence and fear of the white man.

Another was providing
a safe and suitable learning environment.

Like all teachers,
Dad had up days and down.

My Father Outside His Cottage
and Ready for School
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Fall of 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Teaching is a tough job.
I know.
I taught for twenty-five years.

Now, when I read my father’s words,
I understand what he dealt with
so much more than I did when I was a girl.

On September 26, 1960,
my father wrote:

The time sure didn’t fly
during the last twenty-four hours
like it does sometimes. 
I had a rough day today at school. 

I just couldn’t seem to make any headway
with those cotton-picking Indians. 

Right now, I am fed up to the gills with Indians,
but I suppose that by tomorrow
I will be over my temporary discouragement. 

It frequently happened
while I was teaching white children,
that there would be days when I thought
that I just couldn’t take another day of it.

I think the main trouble today was
that seven new pupils arrived in school
and completely upset the relationship
that I was so slowly establishing
between the Indians and myself. 

The Indians are so shy. 
They are shy about talking to strangers
or in front of new pupils. 
I just could not get a word out of them today. 
They wouldn’t even sing. 

I really should not say wouldn’t
Couldn’t actually comes closer
to describing their quietness.
It’s really amazing how shy they are.

There was one little girl that I tried to talk to today
who just couldn’t get a word out to save her soul.
Oh how hard she tried! 

She’d open her mouth time and time again,
but not one squeak would come out. 
It was really painful to watch her efforts.

Another reason that today was so poor
was that I had to leave them alone
for about an hour this morning
while I tried to hunt up
some seats and tables for the new pupils. 

As you know,
my new seats and desks haven’t arrived,
and I have been using
some old homemade ones that the Father had;
but I have used all those that are available,
and today I had to go scrounging somewhere.

 My Indians in School
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Don MacBeath,  Fall of 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Back of the Photo Notes:
Notice the girls all on one side, and the boys all on the other.  This was the first day.
Since then I have them shifted about and have stopped the girls wearing kerchiefs.
See the Father's homemade desks.

I finally succeeded in borrowing
a card table and four folding chairs
from the nursing station
and a card table from the MacRaes.
That solved my seating problem temporarily. 
But what do I do if more turn up tomorrow?

On the following day,
My father wrote
(with additional details from an unpublished paper):

Well, today I love my Indians again. 
Today we got along just peachy.

There is this little one in,
I guess you could actually call it kindergarten,
and she is so shy.
Her name is Daisy,
and she is barely six years old.
She is as cute as a button.

Ever since school started,
I have been trying to get her to talk to me,
but with no success. 
She won’t even say, “Here, Teacher”
when the roll is being called.

I always have the children answer
the roll call mornings and afternoons
just to give them practice in speaking English
as an aid to overcoming their shyness.

Daisy is a beautiful child,
in spite of her poor, hand-me-down clothes,
her shoes which are so much too large
that they are tied on with rabbit wire,
and the strong Indian odour
which seems to permeate the atmosphere
when she is near at hand.

But her shyness is so severe
that it actually renders her speechless.

That's possibly Daisy
on the left.
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Don MacBeath,  Fall of 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Whenever it is Daisy’s turn
to answer roll call,
she stands up, smiles,
and makes all sorts of friendly overtures,
just like a young puppy
(In fact, if she had a tail,
I am sure she would wag it.),
and she opens her mouth and goes through
all the motions of saying, “Here, Teacher,”
but not a sound emerges from her mouth.

However, today she screwed up her courage
and came out with a tremulous, “Here, Teacher.” 

I’m telling you
it was quite an accomplishment for both of us. 
I almost felt like cheering.

Bye for now,


  1. What challenges your dad had to afce not only with the children but the physical environment. At least when I taught we had desks for all. Again thank you for sharing these letters. What a movie this would make.

    1. Thank you, Peggy! I could see a movie! I've got to get the manuscript finished first! LOL Have a happy weekend!

  2. What an incredible insight. I bet he was thrilled when Daisy finally spoke.

    1. Those are the moments teachers live for, Alex! Have a great weekend!

  3. That's such an interesting tale. The children do look shy.. they look well mannered too. I cant imagine anyone being so shy as not to be able to speak at all!. What an amazing time your dad must have had.. but a challenge indeed. It must have been so wonderful to hear Daisy speak! 'breakthrough!'

  4. As a teacher, I have known those breakthrough moments ~ There's nothing better, Dawna. Later on when we five kids and our mother went North, four of us went to Dad's school. He enrolled my four year old sister Barb in kindergarten, so she could interact and speak English with the youngest children and show by example what to do. Barb was a scamp though and showed them what not to do ~ like the morning she jammed an eraser up her nose and had to be rushed over to the nursing station next door. Oh, those were fun times! Have a great weekend!

  5. Those breakthrough moments are what keep us teachers coming back for more. Glad you are sharing your blog about your dad's experiences at Lansdowne House on facebook---I'm enjoying reading it! Thanks!

    1. Susan! How wonderful to have a comment from you!!!! Buddy in the trenches for 20 years! Have a happy weekend!

  6. Thank you for these glimpses into a different time, a different world.

    1. Thank you, Terry! Have a heat weekend, my friend! Say hi to all the four-footed for me. I hope Paj has come through the cold A-OK!

  7. That had to be some shyness to keep one from speaking. Such breakthrough moments are all the more satisfying when they come due though I bet.

    1. Hey Pat, where you're at! There is no better feeling as a teacher than when you have those breakthrough moments! Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. I love this post. Just looking at your photo of the children in the classroom brought me right back to my own childhood. The floor tiles were like that (at least many were) in the 60's. Wonderful post, thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I went back and looked at the tiles. You're right! A flood of school tiles memories came back! So funny! When I work with my Dad's letters, I feel so close to him. It makes me happy to know that people are enjoying his letters. Take care, Linda!

  9. What a fun letter! "In fact, if she had a tail, I am sure she would wag it" I love that line. How wonderful that Daisy finally spoke. I bet your dad never forget that special moment.

    1. I know he didn't, Martha! Teachers live for moments like that. Have a great weekend, my friend!

  10. Hey Fundy, Another great post - brought tears to my eyes - I miss Dad so much when I read these posts. He would love the fact that his letters are being read and enjoyed by so many folks from so many different places and walks of life! Thumbs up to all the great teachers out there. Hugs Barb

    1. Hey Barb! I know what you mean. I struggled a lot with his material when I finally had time to seriously work on it. That's why it took me so long to get going with regular Northern posts. I just missed Dad and Mom so much that it hurt really badly. But now I feel like Dad is right here with me, and I know he always hoped that I would do something. When he became so sick so young, he gave the letters to me for safekeeping and with the understanding that someday I would do something with them. Mom always believed that I would do this. Are you sure no one has any more letters or photos hidden in a box somewhere? With blogging I need visuals. Perhaps someone could snap some photos of any paintings of Dad's we have and email them to me. All this feels like such a huge undertaking, but I also think I was meant to do this and can! Thanks for saying "Barb," so I know for sure that it's not Donnie or Bertie. Love you! Hugs right back to you!

  11. I'm starting at the end and will work my way backwards to catch up with your missed posts because every single one of them is a gift. This just hit me like a ton of bricks, right in the gut where we feel the honesty and heart of a person's character. Almost too beautiful for words, these emotions of your father's as he struggled to give his students the courage to begin to express themselves. (more later)

    1. Oh thank you, Carol! You made my day, and comments like your give me the courage to keep plugging away, even though what I'm trying to do feels overwhelming at times. How to eat an elephant, one bite at a time. Have a happy evening!

  12. Hi Fundy!
    Incredible how Daisy's story rings a bell!
    My youngest son's teacher in South Africa told us he had this same shyness problem so bad he never uttered a word for a whole year. Whenever he badly needed attention he would whistle trough his teeth! I guess it was related to language since we spoke french at home?...
    Lovely story from your dad, thanks for sharing all this with us :)
    Keep well and warm!

  13. Thank you, Noushka! Shyness can be difficult to overcome, but I trust that your son no longer needs to whistle! Kids are very creative at finding ways to compensate. I've got my space heater blasting ~ It's just below zero, FÂș here Hopefully we'll be out of the deep freeze soon! Have a happy week, Noushka!


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