In search of a retired sheep farmer

Rummaging through an old wooden box (that I incidentally built forty years ago) filled with memorabilia, I stumbled upon a small item which almost ended up in the trash. It was encased in an odd, cheap vinyl packet designed to hold a ring, I think. Just as I was about to toss it into the garbage, something stopped me. I opened it to find a small two-piece pin inside. One of the parts is a turquoise piece of glass set into a clasp with the words Kathyrn School etched around it. The ringless stone is attached to a delicate chain linked to another little pin with the word Honors engraved onto it. I was surprised to see this little item from my past, as I had no recollection of keeping it.

The year 1981 will forever stand out in my academic career as the only time I worked hard enough to achieve the fleeting distinction of honours. in hindsight, and to my own shame, I was definitely capable of achieving that award more than once, but never applied myself to that end. It is indictment on my self-discipline given that I attended primary school for another six years, and then spent eleven years in post secondary. My wife can attest to the fact that when it came to choosing between studying or doing something, almost anything else, the latter almost always won out.

So what was it about 1981? The answer is simple, actually, and I have reflected upon it more than once over my lifetime. The answer to Honors in grade six, was Mr. Norton. Granted, my memory is a bit sketchy given that his influence occurred over thirty-eight years ago. But what I do remember is that he inspired me, and not just me, most of our little ragtag class making the transition from elementary school to junior high in a small rural, oddly named (Kathyrn) school. I can remember him teaching us base five mathematics. He told us that university students were studying this. It made us feel smart. That knowledge made us want to learn more. Honestly, I can’t remember too many specifics about that year. I can remember having a massive tinfoil ball fight (after one of our monthly Peter’s hamburger days) and in the mayhem, our then Principal Mr. Minor got beaned in the forehead after stepping into the classroom. Our class missed out on the next couple of hamburger days.

Looking back, as I approach the fifty mark, I know this about Mr. Norton. More than any teacher in my past, he inspired me to reach beyond what was easy, and in so doing, he brought the best out of me. It has pained me to watch my kid struggle through school, in ways that I never had to. I never found school hard, but I rarely found it engaging either. My kid often finds school hard (unless it has to do with athletics or construction) but also has rarely found it engaging. Why is that? Why do we persist in trying to educate kids with the same dry, disengaging strategies, decades upon decades old. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countries like Finland and Denmark are making bold strides in changing the way they educate with dramatic results.

Mr. Norton found a way to challenge us, inspire us, in ways that drew us up, beyond what was acceptable and into a state of the exceptional. He created an environment that made us want to learn, want to work hard, want to impress him with our efforts. Despite my failing memories, I now have this little pin which serves as a milestone. It is a tangible reminder of what can be, when one is inspired to dream, create, and strive for one’s best. I know, this notion lives in tension, almost opposition to what I was writing about in the last post, in terms of embracing the idea of being ordinary. Perhaps that has something to do with why Mr. Norton quit teaching, not long after I finished grade six. He quit inspiring kids, and chose instead to raise sheep. I have no idea why he did this. Maybe our class was an anomaly? Maybe not everyone embraced the vision that he had for them. I have often wondered why he quit, why he chose sheep over kids? Maybe because on the balance, the sheep followed when called. I would like to ask him. I would like to thank him for that year. For giving me the gift of knowing what is possible in the midst of the ordinary.

ps. if anyone knows where Mr. Norton is today, please let me know. I sincerely would like to chat with him.