of dragon floats, harry belafonte songs and square dancing

12 May 2009

One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog).  We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon.  Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in.  The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few.  But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.

Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline.  She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class.  But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it.  To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh. 

Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through strict daily attention to current events and history.  Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died.  I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “float” we made to parade around the school on Chinese New Year.

Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning.  Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face.  Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper.  Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals. 

Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was fast turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses.  She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day.  With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her African American skin.  My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other.  My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher.  Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that.  She died only a few years after that.  My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on. 

Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively.  30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy.  She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events.  She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us. 

And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Jeremiah was a Bullfrog with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

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