Dear Archie my grandson,
I was once a delinquent; someone who commits minor crimes. That might shock you since your parents are police officers. Here is my confession. However, first may I say this; I was saved from a life of crime by the kindness and thoughtfulness of a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Margaret Wardle. I honour Mrs. Wardle as my greatest benefactor because she taught me how to overcome a handicap. She taught me how to read when dyslexia had muddled my abilities. She taught me to breath and relax and stop acting out. She helped me to become confident in the world of reading and studying. The first book that I read from cover to cover was Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I still have that book. It is a real treasure. I am keeping it for you Archie. I hope we can read it together like I did with Mrs. Wardle.
When I was a small child in McTavish Road Elementary School, now called ‘The McTavish Academy of the Arts’ no one had ever thought about a disease called dyslexia. But I had it, bad. No one knew that it was a disorder that involved difficulty in learning to read or interpret’ sight words’, letters, and other symbols so the victim afflicted looked like an imbecile. Authorities determined that I must be dumb or disadvantaged, or even ‘special’ since I always wanted to spell things the way they sounded. I was a clod on the consonants that were silent. I was an idiot at spelling plurals. I fell into a veritable spell when spelling. I was a child with a phobia for sight words. “Spell the plural of house”, teacher would say. I would think of one mouse and then of two mice and spell ‘hice’ for the plural of house to laughter erupting around me. Therefore, I hated the spelling competitions in the classroom. Forced to the peril of performance, my continual failure was ridiculed. I felt personal shame. The teacher would force me to stand and attempt to spell words that could not be sounded out. My past failures could have predicted my new stumbles. Miss Stevens demanded that I sound out the words, phonetically. How could I when English has so many sight words. They aggravated my dyslexia, a linguistic constipation of sorts brought on by sounding out words with phony phonetics like, say; “Beware of heard, a dreadful word, that looks like beard and sounds like bird.” Forced to read aloud I felt real pain, and became the bane of the teacher’s existence. I got no extra help, and was labelled ‘a problem child’.
The teacher had a compulsion to throw chalk brushes at my head when I stuttered, and then blurted something out. The reason became evident later when she was diagnosed with MS. Multiple sclerosis was consuming whatever patience she had. The sarcasms that dropped from the teacher’s mouth were like cluster bombs. I felt the impulse to start crying, but refused with a grimace and clenched my fists. I lost whatever self-esteem I might previously have had from a one parent home. My dad had been at war in the RCAF. During those years I competed with my two older brothers for attention. One was twelve years older, the other three years older. They were my jail keepers. It was then I yearned to rebel and I decided to fight.
Anyway, the other kids in grade three could already read when I arrived and because I couldn’t they bullied and mocked me. That made me angry and depressed. I was too young to be disparaged on social media. That hadn’t been invented. One day when I got ambushed at recess and called a retard, I took action with my own fists. The brats didn’t know that this city kid had gone to the Lord Athlone School for Boys in Vancouver. This boarding school emphasized calisthenics, and manly stuff like boxing. I had not learned how to read, because of my undiagnosed ‘disease’ for sight words, and dyslexia, but I had been boxing since grade one. The boxing mitts had been like giant watermelons on my tiny arms. Now, my bare fists, freed from padding, paid pugilist dividends in the faces of my tormentors. I would back away, and wasp sting their noses to blood with quick left jabs. Next I would rush the opponents to the inside, pummel their guts. I paid no more attention to the ‘Marquess of Queensberry’ rules. I became an angry kid that soon caused havoc in the school yard. Often I was punished by the ‘District Physical Education Instructor’ and got detentions. The District Superintendent summoned my parents to a meeting. I was strapped repeatedly at school and was thrashed at home.
Nevertheless, I became even more precocious. I figured out how to seek revenge for injustice. Having conquered the head bully, at ten years of age I became the leader of the big boys I had bruised. What could we sabotage? Who would help? There was one classroom, a cloakroom, and an entrance hall with ‘tongue and groove’ wood floors. Should I spill something hard to clean up?
McTavish was a one room school with grades one to five. There was a basement with a wood and coal furnace. Should I lock the teacher in the basement? I did that once by jamming the door with a wooden wedge when she went to check the furnace. There were two outhouses for boys and girls. Should I lock her in an outhouse? I tried to do that but failed. When I found several boxes of powdered chalk – pink, yellow and brown, I became a suicide kid with a mission. I waited for recess when the teacher was supervising the baseball diamond. While another kid kept watch, I snuck into the school where I scattered powdered chalk, coal dust and teak oil on the wooden plank floors. Next I hurled a bucket of cold water to smear it all for good measure. And fled.
My parents were summoned for an interview. Miss Stevens, the teacher, had convinced the school board to hold an emergency meeting. No begging for leniency by my parents could save me from immediate expulsion. Miss Stevens insisted that I be expelled for a year. That would give my parents time to remediate my many problems. She had made a damning list; I had bloodied several noses; I had put a cod’s head in her coat pocket, one I got from my brother Ron after his fishing trip out of Gilbert’s boathouse in Brentwood Bay; and I had tried to lock the teacher in the outhouse. The worst of all my crimes was the last, the blast from my miracle bomb- the mixture of water, oil, coal dust and chalk powder that shut the school down for half a day. I had ended my grade three career with expulsion in December just in time to suffer the consequences from Santa Claus. I was young, upset and knew who Santa was. Christmas looked like peril itself. But I had no thoughts of remediation, whatever that was.
My father was the disciplinarian in my family. From the look on his face, and the stern tone of his voice, I knew that even milk and cookies left in the kitchen for Santa Claus would not help me. I would get more than the leather slipper over my nude bum. After I had dropped my trousers, put my belly on a chair, my Dad would beat my bare buttocks hard for misbehavior but this time he used his belt instead of the hated slippers. The belt was worse. Then my dad announced that the punishment was for my own good. This ‘goodness’ had all started when he returned from the war. Strangely, I never hated my Dad for this, maybe because I had missed him as a ‘hero image’, the missing dad at war.
I was told that since no school board wanted to trust me inside a school, I would have to fail grade three. All my bully buddies would graduate to grade four. I would never see them again. For the whole summer, the next fall, the next winter, the next spring and next summer I would be sentenced to hard labour at the house of a retired British school teacher-jailer by the name of Mrs. Margaret Wardle who lived on Lochside Drive. I had better accept my fate whether it was in a pokey, pen, clink, jug, brig, cooler, cage, or slammer. My father would deliver me like an inmate on her doorstep on his drive to work in Victoria, and unlock me for an evening reprieve on his homeward return. Although no monitor-cuff was attached to my ankle I had better obey Mrs. Wardle’s every order. He threatened me with “hell to pay” if I were to do any vicious deeds. That sounded really bad. Since I was forced to attend Sunday School classes at Holy Trinity Church I had heard about the fire, and the roasting in Hell for bad people.
From my first look at the place I thought that I had been sent up the river to “The Big House”. Mrs. Wardle lived in the biggest house I had ever seen. However, it looked over the sea not a river. It was bright not dark or forbidding. From the living room I could see Mt. Baker. What I got was the unexpected. The home was not at all like a prison. It had a smile toward the ocean where sea otters played. Mrs. Elizabeth Wardle was a warm, welcoming and kind person. Mrs. Wardle never made mention of the fact that I was a criminal. It was like no one had told her of my atrocities, or that I was to be pelted, and punished for purloining chalk powder and pushing cod heads into the pockets of a teacher. Instead, she gave me chocolate chip cookies, muffins, jam and milk. It was as good as it gets for criminals ‘sent up the river’ who then suddenly get day parole to play golf or ski.
It was Christmas, and she spoke to me with encouragement. Her home glowed and sparkled with a real fir Christmas tree, and decorations. She was Mrs. Christmas Claus for sure, and never made me feel embarrassed. She thought that my phobia for sight words could be thought of as a wonderful predilection, preference, fancy, or penchant, even a soft spot for vowels. She taught be some Esperanto phrases, a language she considered to have the best phonetic alphabet for use as an international auxiliary language. Each letter always had the same sound. Wow! Suddenly I was the ‘best vowel kid on the block’. Mrs. Wardle had me humming, singing and playing with vowels. She for some time banished sight words from my sight. Heaven had descended. My disease of dyslexia had gone into remission, perhaps never to return.
Mrs. Wardle said that when I was ready she would read to me a very wonderful story. We could read it together. It was about a Mole, rats, mice and other creatures, and about messing about in boats. And so it began one night just after Christmas when Mrs. Wardle asked my parents to let me overnight with her great grandchildren. She read to me this introduction to ‘Wind in The Willows’ by author Kenneth Grahame.
“Never in his life had he seen a river before – sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught again and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea… Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
I would visit Mrs. Wardle for the next ten years. She became my friend and mentor. She became my adopted grandmother after that horrendous Christmas of my expulsion. My parents had found Mrs. Wardle for me and had paid for her services as my tutor, but she was much more than a coach. I owe much gratitude to my parents. I forgive Miss Stevens for her impatience and psychological abuse and torments against me. I did not know that she was soon to be paralyzed and unable to walk because of MS.
Thus I embarked on a new career path. I learned to love words, and ‘familiar and friendly things’ and I left my failures and criminality in the past. I would seek out water everywhere on rivers, lakes, and oceans. I would mess about on rafts and boats, build a riverboat with the help of my brothers, paddle canoes, stage outward-bound sagas, and sail a catboat to ‘moonlight moorings on the Salish Sea’ and get married to a girl who spoke Esperanto and Czech but not English. Before becoming a politician, I became a school teacher. How childhood events can set future sailing instructions!
When I drop hook in the Salish Sea by bay, cove, sand spit, gorge, inlet, bight, estuary, fjord, sound, channel or passage I wait for a sunrise or a sunset and begin to write about my life after Mrs. Wardle.
Some of my stories are based on real experiences that arise from the babbling rivers that flow from my heart down to the Salish Sea. Some are based on sad events that I experienced one way or another. My experiences with First Nations taught me about injustice and suffering. My experience as a boater, and as an environmentalist led me to the Green Party. This book called ‘Dream Catcher and Reconciliation’ was shaped by those experiences.
My childhood battle with dyslexia, my rebellion, my punishment and my redemption by Mrs. Wardle left me a rebel looking for a cause but now armed with words instead of fists. I adopted causes, took positions and ignored those who would call me eccentric. I became an environmentalist and a green politician.
And now I am writing books. However, I could very likely make some dyslexic mistakes in the text. It is a linguistic malady, ‘maladie’ from which, ‘witch’ I have been trying to ‘heel’, heal, ‘hilh’. Send me a message if you find any to firstname.lastname@example.org. But please be kind. Other errors I might make are: I can confuse words like cold/could, stair/star or words with identical letters but in a different sequence like how/who, lost/lots, was/saw, and blow/bowl. Make it a game. Now, when I make mistakes I have decided not to feel ‘ashaimed’.