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Principal keeps old-school tie

Pupils again signing bricks in bell tower

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It had been a long time since the principal called me to his office.

The difference being this time the fearsome strap is history, this time I had a choice, and this time I wanted to go. I wanted to go because Principal Sparling School turns 100 this year and the principal offered a guided tour of a building that's on the Canadian Registry of Historic Places.

But what hooked me was principal Lionel Pang's promise to show me something special at the end of the tour.

"I'll take you up to the bell tower," Pang said over the phone.

He promised to show me something on the wall there that more pigeons have probably seen than people.

It's a brick signed by former student and future mayor Bill Norrie as a departing Grade 6 student in 1944.

It was a tradition at the school that was abandoned years ago.

And so it was that this being Education Week in Manitoba, I finally arrived at the West End school, which, like Wolseley's 100-year-old Laura Secord School, represents a style of muscular and majestic architecture. It symbolizes Winnipeg in 1912, when the pride of place and vision of Canada's third-largest city was as unlimited as a clear Prairie sky.

Even a century later, from the outside, I could still feel a lingering sense of pride of place, a kind of aura given off by the dimensions of the football-field-plus size of the playground, the school's imposing three-metre-high Tyndall stone base.

Inside, I was greeted by the gallery of framed photographs of previous principals. There was something else, beyond seeing Bill Norrie's brick, that beckoned me to the school.

It was the principal himself and his own story. When Lionel was little, back in the late 1960s and early '70s, the son of Chinese immigrant restaurant owners attended Principal Sparling. Back then, he was the only Asian student in his Grade 6 class and one of only two in the school.

Today, in what is a window on the new Winnipeg, Asian students represent 70 per cent of the elementary school's enrolment.

Most are Filipino.

Principal Pang started the tour by wanting me to meet two of the students.

"This is the old staff room," Pang said, pointing to a door framed by original dark oak. Then he gave a little laugh.

"We'd open the door and all the smoke would pour out."

The room is the student council's meeting place, which Pang set up after he took over three years ago. On this day, two 11-year-old members of the student council, Nicole Valencia and Allayssa Palomeno, wanted to teach me about the school's history.

They taught me it was named in honour of Joseph Walter Sparling, the founder and first principal of Wesley College and hence the father of the University of Winnipeg.

It was designed with fire safety in mind at a cost of $138,000, the current equivalent of almost $3 million.

So many non-British immigrants were settling in Winnipeg, the public school system was seen as a tool of assimilation where manners and citizenship would be stressed.

Whereupon I interrupted with my own history lesson.

"Have you ever heard of the strap?" I asked.

They hadn't, of course.

Principal Pang knew all about it, though.

"I'll show you a history of the strap," he said when I rejoined him.

Then, beaming broadly, he turned over one hand and then another.

He said he'd been strapped once, but only once, for some recess "roughhousing." When he was in Grade 1.

Eventually, we made it to the bell tower and I saw the brick that Bill Norrie signed, the promise that lured me to the school. That, of course, and the principal himself.

His welcoming, engaging personality, his enthusiasm, and yes, his 1912, but updated, 2012 pride of place and vision for the school. He has taken the aura I saw outside the school and brought it inside, too.

It's what he told me he wants the school to be -- a welcoming place for students and parents, where they feel proud and happy to be.

Pang and his staff have done that in ways that blend the past with the present and future. It is symbolized by Pang's decision to bring back the lost tradition of Grade 6 students signing the bell-tower bricks as they leave the school.

A lot has changed in education in the last 100 years. Generally for the better, I'd say. And the way I've seen it, there's nothing better than an old school building with a new school attitude.

Congratulations, principal Pang. Happy anniversary, Principal Sparling.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 B1

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