COLUMN: Tales from the Gravel Ridge – The benefits of having wings


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Living on the eastern prairies as we do in southern Manitoba, the honking of the Canada goose is familiar to all of us. In spring we are delighted to hear the sound of geese flying low over our heads on their return to northern regions. In fall however the farewell honking of geese flying overhead reminds us that winter will surely come before long.

How could we possibly be anything less than wonder-struck by the myriad of birds that make their way across our skies twice each year, as their sense of direction and acute awareness of the change of seasons prods them to be on the move.

Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French writers of all time, had a literary career that spanned more than six decades. One of his most famous works, published in 1862, was Les Misérables which focused on injustice and social misery.

In time, those of us who were students at the Rosengard School many decades ago were introduced to the book “Jean Val Jean” by Solomon Cleaver, an abridged and renamed version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We were far removed from the dreadful social conditions described by Hugo, but nevertheless, who could not be touched by the plight of those living in poverty and destitution in 17th century France, as well as the compassion shown to Jean Val Jean by the priest.

Victor Hugo is also renowned for the poetry he wrote. The words “Thou art like the bird, That alights and sings, Though the frail spray bends — For he knows he has wings” are from the last stanza of a much longer poem he wrote in 1835.

Students at the Rosengard School, in the context of our community, were given wings that enabled us to thrive in so many more ways than I can possibly imagine. One of the many benefits of attending school was that of learning to read and write in English. Learning additional languages has tremendous advantages which did not by definition deprive us of opportunities to build on the foundation that we had from the very beginning.

At the Rosengard School we were introduced to other cultures both from history and social studies, as well as from literature. These broadened our awareness of a world far beyond our personal geographical setting. Such exposure helped us to begin to see the world from the perspective of those beyond our borders.

To my mind living in a community that had a strong sense of identity and language gave us wings by means of which we too could navigate, giving us a sense of direction when in due time we left the place that was home to us. When we started mingling with those whose life experiences were vastly different from our own, we could find our place in that wider world. My two eldest sisters began working as domestic servants in the homes of those who were English-speaking and whose lifestyle was that of comfortably middle-class urbanites. Many years later, when they were well established in their own family circumstances, my sisters Katie and Margaret still had positive memories of some of those experiences working for a family that appreciated the strong sense of values that my sisters demonstrated in how they learned to function in the larger world.

After completing Grade XI, I began working at Great West Life Assurance in Winnipeg. Flora McEachern was the supervisor of our small department which was made up of mainly young people of diverse backgrounds. Flora was a wonderfully kind and engaging Scottish woman in her mid forties from whom I cannot remember ever hearing an unkind word. To my mind she was one of many people who have given me an opportunity to thrive in an entirely new environment. I consider Flora a gift given to me during my teenage years.

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