October, Northern Ontario, A Reason to Be Thankful

Good Morning!

Normally I would send a message or post the Friday before Thanksgiving, wishing the entire system an enjoyable holiday long weekend, and to make the most of the fall colours and time with family and friends; here in our beloved North-Country, Northwestern Ontario. However, I want to send this out to start the week this year; and while I still want to wish all of you the best for the weekend coming up, full of crisp air and amazing Northern Ontario scenes of gold and red birch, poplar and tamarack, perhaps what is most compelling me to send this out to start the week, is the idea of being “Thankful” itself.

No…not perhaps actually; without question it is why I am choosing to email all of you first thing Monday morning is the idea of being thankful.

I have learned first-hand, that regardless of who you are, what position you hold, or where you come from or even what you earn…you are never immune from triumph, setback, heartache, and learning. We have been back in schools and with our kids for a solid month now, and if I was ever unsure about staff being back into the thick of working on the front-lines with our students, the last few school staff meetings and last week’s Efficacy meeting, solidified it. If you are feeling the exhaustion of working with students and their needs, in turn impacting your own needs…you are not alone. In the past few weeks, it has become clear that the anomaly of wrestling with the growing needs of our students is not restricted to the first few weeks of school alone, and in fact begins in September ending in June (and honestly, throughout July and August too). It is no longer an anomaly in my view, it is what I have been coming to accept as the “new normal” in KPDSB.

We have hired more new staff in the past few weeks and advertised for more, on account of unprecedented increases in enrolment, than we ever have before in the first few weeks of school. Our enrolment picture is incredibly strong. However, with an increase in enrolment also comes an increase in student need, academic, emotional, mental and social; I want to assure the entire system that your Senior Administration Team is aware and recognizes this, and will exhaust every avenue possible and within our means to support you in your schools, in your classrooms, and in your lives. It continues to be an incredibly daunting task to manage the system’s needs and do so within our limitations, but that is exactly what we are committed to doing; relentlessly.

The past few weeks, I have experienced both the highs of life and its lows too; in one case within 24 hours of each other. On a chilly Friday two weeks ago in Ear Falls I attended the funeral of a very good friend, privileged by reading his eulogy at his service…only to be followed by the wedding celebration of our very own princess Sheena Valley in Vermilion Bay the next day (in just above zero temperatures!!!) I say “princess” because Sheena looked as beautiful as any bride could on her day! But I did reflect and consider that weekend that life’s events are indiscriminate of one and other; how can a person attend events in such close proximity to each other?? In fact, in the past month alone it has been two weddings and two funerals for me on weekends; that at the time of me hitting “send” this morning, I have yet to be able to hit a northern bush road for a day of bird hunting with sons, an experience less about hunting and more about being together. We also have experienced a serious medical situation with our own Wayne Mercer in QEDHS; reminding even the most stoic of us, we are not immune. I am pleased to report that while Wayne will not be moose hunting this year, he will hunt again (as in 2018!).

The cycle of life can be blunt and harsh; I also believe in the North it frequently can feel like it is pervasive and part of our DNA. In my own immediate family, the dreaded cancer has entered in recent days and with it conversations that many of us would prefer to be within someone else’s peripheral. I look at my boys Aoedan and Tristan and wonder how is it going to be rationalized when they are told that their Grandfather is terminal, and why it is important we make this Thanksgiving memorable? One that is truly with thanks for memories we have created together; memories in the boat, out in the bush, or sitting by the fire. It may not seem to some necessarily appropriate to be thankful as we approach Thanksgiving, but the alternative of being angry or unaccepting of life’s events, I have found is counter-productive and exhaustive. I recognize that I am in the position of sharing with you some of my own experiences through my posts every few weeks; but I also realize many of you are living your experiences in that cycle of life, making mine even seem trivial. In that vein, one of the most thankful aspects of my job is I get to meet many of you and hear your own stories, your own challenges, your own realities. I cannot tell how much I enjoy and appreciate learning your own stories and why and how you do what you do in your classrooms and schools, and workplaces every single day.

I am not just thankful, I am grateful.

In the past couple of weeks, I have become thankful and aware of a consideration in life that was previously not known to me; not in real “Sean” terms anyways. I met a young student from one of our schools in the past week who up until recently was previously unknown to me, and obscure. However, and without going into too much detail, I met face to face with a young guy, Grade 5, who was my first up-close and personal introduction to the world of Transgenderism. Actually the world of Transgenderism is the real world, our world, and not some figment of imagination on life’s or society’s fringe. I met his mother first who appealed to me that she wanted her son to be safe, to have a chance to succeed, to be treated normal. The next day, I met him……..in my office.

After getting to know each other and admiring his shirt and tie (he said he heard I wore ties and wanted to wear one for our introduction), I asked him: “If there was one thing I could say to your classmates, on your behalf, what would it be?” After pausing for a moment, he looked at me and then said as maturely as any adult I have ever met: “Sean, I would want my classmates to respect me for who I am, just for being me.” I looked at him for what must have seemed minutes and rubbed my eye: I believe I was thinking to myself “I must have something in my eye”. I’m glad I didn’t say that though because if I had, I am quite certain that Candice Kerkermeir (Children’s Mental Health Leader) and who was in the meeting with me would have commented “Are you sure it’s not a tear Sean?”

I am thankful for being privileged of serving in the interests of children, as difficult as some of them can be. I am thankful for serving my staff, as best I can and as difficult as that can be at times. I am thankful for working in the KPDSB, and all that it represents even though there are admittedly days where I feel I can’t catch my own breath and wonder if we will ever catch up? I am thankful for being privileged to work and serve as your Director of Education, and with the understanding that the DOE’s work is never done. I am thankful for good friends both in and out of the profession, and for family that allow for the makings of true Northern Ontario memories; especially those in OctoberJ I am thankful for life’s lessons that may at times harden us, but also remind us the importance of humility and empathy. And I am thankful that this Thanksgiving, we will get one last chance to celebrate my sons’ Grandfather the deep-frying of a chicken or turkey at camp, with the backdrop of orange, yellow and red woods; with a fire burning and with laughter occasionally interrupted by tears and reflection. We have much to all be thankful for and I encourage you to reflect on this, and make the most of your days with kids, and at home with family and friends.

We are fortunate indeed; Happy Thanksgiving!