Things are about to get interesting at Queen’s Park

Queen's Park

Queen’s Park, where tomorrow a motion to stop the destructive rural school-closure process will be debated.

How often do you tune in the proceedings of the Ontario legislature? Not very, I’m willing to bet. Can’t say as I ever have. But tomorrow (Tuesday, March 7, 2017) would be a very good time to do so. Why? Because starting sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., and running to 6 p.m., there will be debate and a vote on a motion to place a moratorium on the provincial government’s school-closing process – you know, the one that threatens the excellent rural school that serves Queensborough, Madoc Township Public School.

The motion, addressed to Premier Kathleen Wynne by Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, reads as follows:

  • Whereas, school closures have a devastating impact on local communities; and
  • Whereas, children deserve to be educated in their communities and offered the best opportunity to succeed; and
  • Whereas, rural schools often represent the heart of small towns across Ontario;
  • Therefore, the Legislative Assembly calls for an immediate moratorium on rural school closures and an immediate review of the Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline.

Now, having never in my life, to my recollection, watched the live proceedings at the Ontario legislature, I found myself wondering how I could watch this debate on a topic of such vital importance to our own community and to our rural counterparts across the province. Clicking here on the Queen’s Park website, I learned that “Sessions of the Legislature are broadcast via cable tv across Ontario.” Right. Well, here in deepest rural Ontario, we don’t have cable TV (though our friends in the village of Madoc do – the ever-excellent CHTV). So our only option is to watch a live stream online, and the place to do that is here. All I can say is: thank God we finally got decent internet service in Queensborough!

In advance of the debate, some local people have been writing letters to Premier Wynne, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, and of course their own MPPs. I urge you to check out some of the brilliant letters that the writers have shared on the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page, and if you feel inclined to do so, follow suit. Every letter and every phone call makes a difference. An avalanche of letters and, especially, phone calls can make a huge difference.

Jeff Leal

Jeff Leal, MPP for neighbouring Peterborough and Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. If you ask me, it’s his duty to stand up in tomorrow’s debate and defend – well, rural affairs, in the form of rural schools.

To that end, the group called Rural Schools Matter, which is fighting school closures in rural Stone Mills Township a little to the east of us, is posting contact information for MPPs, notably the Liberal MPPs from rural areas, on its Facebook page. Because they’re in the party in power, those elected representatives will have more sway with the government than do MPPs from Mr. Brown’s opposition and from the New Democratic Party. Urging them to stand up to their own party’s misguided process is a very constructive thing to do. One notable name on that list is the MPP for neighbouring Peterborough (including rural Peterborough County), Jeff Leal – who also happens to be the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. Mr. Leal’s contact info is here. And here is a list of all the Liberal MPPs, including the premier and the education minister. Contact info for each one can be obtained by clicking on his/her name.

It will be interesting and instructive to see how the government responds to the questions that Mr. Brown and his team will pose. I will be horrified if the premier and the education minister fail to show up; that would be sheer cowardice, in my view. It will also be very interesting to see if Liberal MPPs from rural areas take a stand against their government and for their constituents.

What will be most interesting to see is whether it will make a difference.

Note: Very late last Wednesday night (actually early Thursday morning), following the final meeting of the “accommodation review committee” that was looking into our local public school board’s plan to close Madoc Township Public School, send its students to Madoc Public School and send Grades 7 and 8 students from both school areas to the local high school, I posted a report about the magnificent stand the committee had taken against the board’s plan. I promised you a fuller report later on the group’s well-reasoned rationale on why both of its alternative proposals would make more sense and be better for local children than would the board’s plan. As it turns out, I can’t give you that report yet; the committee members have passed their recommendations on to the school board, which is supposed to post it on its website. As of this writing, it hasn’t yet. Which kind of makes you wonder what the holdup is. (But that’s just me being  a bit cynical, I suppose.) Click here to get to the section of the board’s site where this information will, presumably, show up eventually.

If it doesn’t, yet another fuss needs to be kicked up.

“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”

robin-hutcheon-protests-school-closure

Robin Hutcheon and fellow activists demonstrate against the closure of rural schools outside a meeting of the Limestone District School Board in Kingston. (Photo from the Frontenac News, which has an article about the protest here.)

Robin Hutcheon is a mother of four school-age kids, a lifelong resident of the pretty village of Tamworth, Ont. – and, now, an activist in the fight to preserve Ontario’s rural schools, like Madoc Township Public School. Yesterday I called her up with a view to learning how that fight is going in her neck of the woods (not very many miles east of us here in Queensborough and Madoc Township), and perhaps sharing experiences and ideas.

My call came three days after the most recent gathering of our own public school board‘s “accommodation review committee” – the group of local residents tasked with considering the board’s plan to close Madoc Township Public School, send its kindergarten-to-Grade 6 students to Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and moving students in Grades 7 and 8 from both elementary schools’ catchment areas to the local high school, Centre Hastings Secondary in Madoc. For onlookers like me, whom the school board allows to attend and watch the committee meetings but not to comment or otherwise participate, that meeting was an exercise in frustration. I suspect the members of the committee felt the same way.

Robin doesn’t mince words when she talks about the so-called “accommodation-review process,” which is a fancy bureaucratic way of saying “school-closing process.”

“You can’t rely on the process” if you hope to save a rural school, she told me:

“The process is set up for you to fail. It’s set up to close schools quickly and efficiently.”

And with that, she pretty much put a finger on how I was feeling as I drove home late last Thursday night after the meeting at CHSS.

That meeting was a bit of an exercise in good intentions gone bad. At the previous accommodation-committee meeting – which was planned by board administration as the first of only two sessions, later extended to three at the committee members’ request – the team of parents, community members and school representatives from Madoc Township Public School had asked that at future meetings the reps from all three schools be allowed to sit and work together, rather than being separated into three tables for the three schools. This seemed like a great, collaborative idea at the time, and I celebrated it when I wrote about that meeting here.

Accommodation committee at one table

Members representing all three of our local schools who sit on the school board’s “accommodation review committee” carry on discussions at last week’s meeting in the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School. The rest of us sat in the bleachers and watched.

But it was better in theory than practice, as it turned out. Last Thursday night, after an hour-long session at which two principals, representing schools in Belleville where Grades 7 and 8 students are now (as of this past year) housed in the nearby high school, sang the unbounded praises of how utterly perfectly that setup has worked (oh dear – I’m afraid I sound cynical…), the members of the committee, now all sitting around one very big table, were asked to divide into groups and talk some more about the plan that’s on the table for our local schools. The problem with this was that you had people from three different schools with three not-quite-the-same sets of concerns, and the upshot was questions and comments for the school-board representatives that were a little (not to put too fine a point on it, and I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings here, because I don’t mean or want to) – lame. The balls that were lobbed were absolute softballs, easy for the board representatives – whose job is to get this plan through, boom, period – to hit out of the park.

Basically it turned into a session about how best to make the board’s plan work, as opposed to what us defenders of Madoc Township Public School were hoping for – that is, a serious challenge to the logic (if you can call it that) behind closing our top-rated local school and, in doing so, cutting out a big chunk of the heart and soul of the Madoc Township and area community.

And that’s the problem Robin Hutcheon so succinctly identified. The process the accommodation committee is following is the school board’s process. The odds are completely stacked against the defenders of MTPS, of which I proudly count myself one. The board’s administrators do not want us to win, because that would make their lives more difficult; they would have to come up with another way to meet the requirements of the provincial government school-funding formula, which is widely seen as unfair to rural Ontario and is the reason there are school-closing fights going on all over the province.

So what can we do – those of us who want to see our school and our community preserved?

Well, my own view is that we should start by talking to Robin Hutcheon and other people like her who are fighting the same battle in different parts of rural Ontario. Which is why I called her up last night.

Our half-hour-long conversation left me with a number of questions that I realized I’d like to see answered by our own school board:

  1. Why is there a rush for the board to decide this coming June on the plan to close MTPS and make the other school changes? I learned that in Robin’s area – Stone Mills Township, in Lennox and Addington County – the Kingston-based Limestone District School Board is proposing to close all five schools, which is dreadful – but not until 2018 or later. So, bad as it is that Stone Mills might lose all its schools – if that board can hold off until 2018 or later, why is our board racing to get it done by mid-2017?
  2. Shouldn’t we have up-to-date information about the renovation needs of the local schools before the board makes its decision? In Stone Mills, the group Robin chairs called Rural Schools Matter (check out its Facebook page here) is fighting to find out how much the Limestone board has spent in recent renovations at Yarker Public School, the first on the list for closure. The board has refused to provide that information. A freedom-of-information request by the closure opponents resulted in the board saying it would only provide the statistics if the group coughed up well over $100,000 in costs. That is nuts! (Rural Schools Matter is fighting this, as you can imagine.) But meanwhile, officials from our own board at last week’s meeting told us that information on our local schools’ renovation needs is five years old and is due to be updated in the 2017-18 school year. But wait – isn’t that the year the board proposes to close Madoc Township Public School? Does that picture make sense? Could the closure not at least be put on hold until we have current information?
  3. Can this deadline be met? What are the chances that, if our board decides on June 19 – as it is scheduled to do – to go ahead with its plan, it will be able to get all the renovations needed at Madoc Public School and CHSS done in time for the start of the school year in September? Given the need for architectural plans, building permits, inspections, etc. – my guess would be: slim. I sure would like to hear the board administration’s plan for how it will accomplish this feat.

I have lots of other questions – as, I know, do other defenders of our school – but for now I’ll leave it at that. Really the overarching question is why this decision is being made in such great haste.

But meantime: strength in numbers, people; strength in numbers. That’s what Robin Hutcheon is talking about. Her group has taken the battle well outside the school-board-controlled process, holding public-information and rallying sessions in the various Stone Mills communities affected (Enterprise, Centreville, Yarker, Tamworth and Newburgh), demonstrating outside school-board meetings (the next demonstration is Wednesday, March 8, between 5 and 6 p.m., at the board’s headquarters at 220 Portsmouth Ave. in Kingston), holding fundraisers for the cause (a dance and silent auction this past weekend), and just generally getting the wider community to sit up and take notice of this issue that affects all of us in rural communities, whether we have kids at school or not.

We need to get the attention of the people who can make a difference:

  • The elected trustees on the school board, who are supposed to answer to us, the voters and taxpayers – not to school board administration.
  • The movers and shakers in our local communities: councillors, businesspeople, people with influence.
  • Ordinary people. Our neighbours. The voters and taxpayers and sustainers of our communities.
  • The provincial government. (Yes, the current Liberal government. A theoretical future government formed by another party can’t help us right now.) As a letter that Robin’s group is urging Stone Mills people to send to Premier Kathleen Wynne says, in part:
    “The very real enemy of rural Ontario, which according to Statistics Canada occupies 99 per cent of Ontario, lies in the implementation of flawed funding models by the Ministry of Education. These strategies, in their most simplistic interpretation, essentially provide funding to boards for new schools but not equal funding for improving existing schools. This is resulting in what can only be described as a direct affront on rural life in the province of Ontario as community after community faces the closing of their local schools by district school boards struggling with the constraints imposed by these funding formulae.
    “You must impose a moratorium on rural school closures in the Province of Ontario and address the problems inherent in the funding models in order to undo what amounts to a declaration of war on the Ontarian rural way of life.”

We need to mobilize, work together, and make noise.

“You have to be forceful,” says Robin Hutcheon. “You have to question everything.”

And the difference between a hope of victory and certain defeat, in her view?

“It really comes down to how much noise you make.”

The third and final meeting of the accommodation review committee for Madoc Township Public, Madoc Public, and Centre Hastings Secondary schools takes place this Wednesday, March 1, in the gym at CHSS, at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public are welcome to attend but may not speak. I have found that watching the proceedings is quite instructive.

But making noise? Not there. Our noise, if we are to make it, will have to come in other ways, in other places, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Just think: What would Robin do?

How our rural school changed one kid’s life

Isaac and Samuel

Isaac Deary (right) clowns around with his little brother, Samuel, on the recent evening when he and his family kindly sat down with me to talk about what a difference Madoc Township Public School had made in his life and learning.

Today I want to tell you Isaac’s story.

Isaac, who is 11 years old (“12 in June,” he proudly announces), and his family moved to our area – Madoc Township, to be precise – just over a year ago. They moved for one reason: because Isaac was having some difficulties at the large public school he attended in the city of Belleville.

‘He was falling through the cracks,” says his mum, Eliza.

When you meet Isaac – as I did one evening this past week – you can tell right away that he is a smart boy. He’s personable, well-spoken, polite and funny. He and his little brother, Samuel, make a very handsome pair, and I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Eliza’s very proud to be their mum. I know I would be if I were her.

Isaac was matter-of-fact when explaining to me why he was having some learning difficulties. “I have trouble,” he said, “getting stuff from here” (pointing at his head) “to here” (pointing to the ends of his fingers, where the finished work comes out). So math, reading and writing are hard for him. I guess you’d call it a mild learning disability – and in his big public school in the city, that was the problem: he needed extra help, but his difficulties were not severe enough for the resources and help that he needed to be directed his way. Hence, “falling through the cracks.” He was “not being challenged to get ahead,” Eliza added. In his large urban school, Isaac was three grade levels behind where he should have been in math and reading.

But then things turned around, thanks to a perceptive teacher, a family willing to make a change, and the wonderful staff and environment at Madoc Township Public School.

A teacher at Isaac’s Belleville school had once taught at Madoc Township PS. She also knew that Eliza owned a property in this area. And she suggested that our school – with its small classes and rural setting – might be a better fit for him. The family took her advice and, last January, moved to north of 7.

The effect of that move on Isaac is amazing. He’s now working at his own grade level in all subjects.

“Wow,” I said when he and his mum told me this. “And this happened in just one year?”

“It happened,” Eliza replied, “in a matter of months.”

Isaac was three grade levels down in reading and math when he joined the Grade 5 class at Madoc Township Public School in January 2016. By the time the school year ended this past June, he was working at a Grade 5 level in everything.

“Wow,” I said again.

What did it?

Well, one, a great teacher: Anna Henderson. She worked hard with Isaac, and pushed him to do his best. “She was very strict,” said Isaac, not looking remotely bothered by that fact. “And she got results,” added his mum.

“Those months felt like years!” Isaac tried again. But the grin on his face belied the hardship he was supposedly complaining about. (You’ll recall that he is 11, going on 12.) Yes, he’d had to work hard, and do extra work at home. But you can tell from the way he talks about it that he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish, and that he knows the extra work was worth it.

I was delighted when they told me that the teacher who’d done so much for him was Anna Henderson. Delighted for two reasons: one, because I’ve known Anna – formerly Anna McKinnon – since she was about the age of Isaac’s younger brother, Samuel, who’s in senior kindergarten at Madoc Township Public School. I remember playing Mother, May I? in the yard of the McKinnon home with Anna and her brother and sister many years ago when I was a kid growing up here in Queensborough.

The other reason I was delighted is that it was proof that the tradition of teaching excellence at Madoc Township Public School, about which I’ve written before, carries on to this day. Anna, like me, had classes at MTPS with amazing teachers like Monica Tobin and Gayle Ketcheson and Anna Carman and Sadie Miller and Vera Burnside and Irene Reid and Evelyn Boyle and the late and truly great principal Florence McCoy. Why, here they are!

MTPS teachers

The best teachers ever. Back row, from left: Anna Carman, Sadie Miller, Vera Burnside, Monica Tobin, Evelyn Boyle; front row, from left, Irene Reid, principal Florence McCoy and Gayle Ketcheson.

These teachers were often strict. They demanded that we try to do our best. They challenged us. They helped us. They created a tradition and standard of learning excellence that is doubtless the reason that Madoc Township Public School placed first among all elementary schools in Hastings and Prince Edward counties in a recent survey of students’ reading, writing and math skills.

save-madoc-township-public-school-facebook-page

If you haven’t yet joined this Facebook group, you should. Click here for the link.

Now, this is the point at which I should probably tell you, if you don’t already know, that the local public school board is proposing to close Madoc Township Public School this coming June. If this sounds like a bad idea to you, let me assure you that you’re not alone. (Click on the “Madoc Township Public School” category on the lower right side of Meanwhile, at the Manse’s home page to read all my previous posts about what’s going on. And please also join the Save Madoc Township Public School Facebook page to stay abreast of developments and support the fight the keep the school open.)

This proposal by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board was what prompted me to ask Eliza if I could sit down with her and Isaac and talk to them about their experience with Madoc Township Public School. Eliza had told me a little of Isaac’s story at a recent meeting of the committee charged with studying the closure proposal. “Gracious!” I said in response. “You’re the poster family for why this school needs to stay open!”

So there we were at the Madoc Tim Horton’s last Thursday evening, Isaac and Eliza patiently answering my questions while little Samuel squirmed a bit, being understandably rather more interested in moving on to supper.

The boys and I were sitting chatting as Eliza ordered them a drink and a cookie to tide them over till that delayed (because of me) supper. “They’re saying they’re going to close our school,” Isaac told me. He went on to explain the board’s plan as succinctly as I could: move the MTPS students into Madoc Public School in the village of Madoc, and move all Grades 7 and 8 students from both elementary-school areas into the high school in Madoc.

“Are the kids at school talking about this?” I asked him.

“A lot,” he replied forcefully. “I don’t want them to take away that school.”

Since Isaac is now in the final months of Grade 6, he’ll be in the high school come September if the board’s proposal goes through. I asked him how he feels about that. He didn’t hesitate a second:

“Scared.”

He went on: “I don’t want to go to the high school. This school’s too good. I wish it went all the way up to Grade 8.”

Aha! Like I said: smart boy. A lot of people around here are wishing exactly the same thing, and feel it is the best course for the school board to take. Returning Madoc Township Public School to its roots as a kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school would mean full use of its space (a concern for the board because of enrolment issues), not to mention two more years of education for local children in a healthy rural setting with unmatched outdoor and playground facilities.

Part of Madoc Township Public School playground

Now that, people, is what I call a playground – and that’s only a small part of it. The MTPS playground has soccer pitches, a ball diamond, playground equipment, and acres in which to run, play and explore the outdoor world.

Section of MTPS playground

Here’s another view and another section of the MTPS playground – again, just a part of the full space available to the students.

Those playground facilities also came up when I was talking to Isaac and Eliza. Having lots of space to run around in is good, Isaac said, because “I’m a non-stop runner.” He also likes the fact that, unlike at his old school, the kids are not separated by grade level at recess; kids in all the grades can hang out and play together. He has lots of friends, he happily reported.

His mother singled out another important factor in Isaac’s success at Madoc Township Public School: Kim Foley, the school’s resource person to help kids with special learning needs. Here’s something interesting: like Anna Henderson, Kim’s from a family with deep roots in Madoc Township and at Madoc Township Public School. Her husband, like his father before him, owns the bus line that gets so many of its kids to school every day, and the Foley homestead is just down the road from MTPS. Similarly, Anna’s family, the McKinnons, were among the first farmers in Madoc Township back in the 19th century, and their handsome farm is just a couple of miles from the school.

Those long and strong connections with the surrounding community are yet another thing that show the importance of Madoc Township Public School to our area.

You might also be interested to know that Isaac’s mum – who is, of all the cool things, a professional stonemason by trade – is planning to start a large-scale maple-syrup business on the 200-acre property she owns here. That business will mean local jobs, and will bring in tourists. It’ll be an economic boost in a rural township that could use one. So here too is a way in which Madoc Township Public School’s presence is helping the wider community.

Let’s review the other reasons: Community roots. Good facilities. An outstanding outdoor play and exploration area. Teachers and other staff who help students attain their full potential, and who are able, thanks to the school’s modest scale, to ensure that no one “falls through the cracks.” Kids who all (thanks again to the school’s modest size) know each other and play together. A #1 ranking in student results. Those are the things that make a great rural school – and attract people to come to the area and increase its potential.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Just ask Isaac.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Queensborough!

Valentines in Queensborough, 2017Thought I’d share with you nice people the delightful Valentine’s Day-themed touch that the volunteers with the Queensborough Beautification Committee have added to our made-in-Queensborough street signs.

Really, Queensborough is just the best. Isn’t it?

Bosley Road valentine

New neighbours: the ruffed-grouse family next door

Grouses in the trees

“Look! The trees are full of big birds!” That was the excitement here at the Manse this past late Saturday afternoon. We think they are ruffed grouses. Wow!

The world is full of scary things these days. Innocent people killed at a worship service, right here in our own country. Chaos and ominous, discriminatory edicts from the centre of power in the nation immediately to the south of us, the most powerful in the world. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we’ve entered a dark time. Which means it’s up to all of us to light up our own little corner of the world in any way we can, but especially with kindness and support for others – both the neighbours and family members we know, and the strangers from afar who are trying to make a go of it for themselves and their families in a new place. Enough light shone in enough corners can change the world, you know.

Here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, I try to shed a little light by telling you stories of life in Queensborough and environs that I hope you’ll find interesting, entertaining, maybe sometimes even touching. In tiny out-of-the-way Queensborough, neighbours always help neighbours. Also: it’s the place where it feels like, as a neighbour and friend of ours once said, “The world could end and you wouldn’t know it.” That, I think, makes it a good setting for stories that might brighten things up for us all once in a while.

Today I want to tell you about a simple yet rather astonishing thing that has twice brightened up the day for Raymond and me here at the Manse recently.

The first occurrence was a sunny morning a few days ago. Raymond was upstairs; I was down. I heard him calling me to come up, with some urgency. Up I zipped, and joined him at the north-facing window of our bedroom, which looks out on the adjacent property where the historic Kincaid house sits. “Look! Look!” he urged me. And there, to my astonishment, I saw a whole whack of big birds collecting beside the Kincaid house porch. They weren’t wild turkeys, a large bird that one sees fairly often, generally in groups, around here. They weren’t turkey vultures, another large and striking (in a rather ominous way) bird. They had ruffy things on the top of their heads. “I think they’re ruffed grouses!” I exclaimed. Like I knew what I was talking about, which I didn’t. But we are pretty sure they were ruffed grouses – and people, how often have you had a big collection of ruffed grouses show up outside your bedroom window? I was only sorry I didn’t have my phone to hand to get a photo.

They didn’t stay long; they flew up and over the top of the old barn/shed attached to the Kincaid house, and were gone. But we were delighted once again, as we have been so many times since we bought the Manse, at a wildlife sighting. It’s so different from living in the big city.

This past Saturday, some out-of-town friends arrived for a weekend visit. As we were catching up on what’s going on in their lives and ours, we mentioned with delight the recent visit of our ruffed-grouse clan. A couple of hours later, as afternoon turned to evening and the four of us were sitting at the dining-room table enjoying some delightful before-dinner snacks that Raymond had whipped up, I happened to glance out a north-facing window to the trees that hang over the Kincaid house.

“Look! The trees are full of big birds!” I shouted. Everyone turned to look, and I dashed outside with my phone to try to get some pictures before darkness had fully set in. And there they were again: six or seven very large birds, ruffed crests atop their heads, bobbing about in the trees. They seemed as happy as all get out, carrying on a conversation in what I thought were oddly tiny voices for such large birds. If you watch this little video and turn up the volume, you can listen in:

So it seems a grouse clan may have taken up residence in our neighbourhood. And I think that is a happy and interesting thing. Just the bright spot that a person needs in their corner for some cheer in these trying times.

Good neighbours

Ruth and Chuck on moving day

Ruth and Chuck on their final morning this past weekend at their lovely, historic home on King Street in Queensborough, across the way from the Manse.

This past weekend, Raymond and I said goodbye (for now) to Chuck and Ruth Steele, who have been our neighbours and friends since we bought the Manse five years ago. Chuck and Ruth have sold their home around the corner from us – it’s one of the prettiest and most historic houses in Queensborough – and are moving to not-too-far-away Belleville.

We’ll miss them. A lot.

In January 2012, when we were new to the Manse and I was back in Queensborough for the first time since my childhood here, I only knew a few people in the village and environs – people who’d been here when I was a kid and my dad was the minister back in the 1960s and ’70s. Among the very first of the “new” people Raymond and I met (though in reality we were the new people) were Chuck and Ruth, who introduced themselves, warmly welcomed us, and quickly became the best across-the-way neighbours anyone could hope for.

I have so many good memories of them over the past five years!

Jen and Dustin loading the truck

In typical Queensborough fashion, several neighbours showed up this past Saturday morning to help Chuck and Ruth with their move. Here, Dustin Whalen loads boxes into the truck while Jen Couperus stacks them at the rear.

We treasure all of our good neighbours in Queensborough, and I could tell you stories about the kind, funny and interesting things that pretty much every one of them has done since we’ve been at the Manse. But since Ruth and Chuck are the ones who have recently moved, today’s post is going to be about the kind, funny and interesting ways in which they have been our wonderful neighbours. But just before I get to that list, I want to emphasize that even though Chuck and Ruth have moved, they are not going to be strangers to Raymond and me. They’re now our friends, and a bit more distance between us doesn’t change that.

Okay, some stories to show you what good neighbours they have been. Let’s start with one that is highly embarrassing to me.

When the Hastings County Plowing Match was held at the Queensborough farm of Angus and Don McKinnon this past summer, and St. Andrew’s United Church of Queensborough (along with its two partner churches) had a food booth there, church members and friends were asked to make pies to sell. (Pie is a big deal in Queensborough, and people are good at making it, as you can see in this post.)

People, I do not make pie. It’s not because I don’t want to; it’s because I can’t. Every time in my life that I’ve tried to make pie crust – admittedly, you could count those tries on the finger of one hand and have several fingers left over – it’s been a disaster. But I tried. I tried a lemon meringue pie. I didn’t get fancy; I used the lemon-meringue-pie mix that comes in a box. There are instructions on that box. What could go wrong?

It was a disaster.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I sure as heck knew I wasn’t going to take that pie to the booth at the plowing match.

“Ask Ruth if she’ll make a pie!” cheerfully suggested Ed, another of our wonderful neighbours. Brilliant!

I was shy about doing it, but I was desperate. I went over to Ruth and humbly explained my predicament.

And she made two gorgeous lemon meringue pies. Look! Here’s the evidence – my sorry-looking excuse for a pie on the left, and Ruth’s miraculous creation on the right.

Ruth's pie vs. my pie

And speaking of lemon meringue pie – I have another little Chuck and Ruth story in which it plays a role.

“Queensborough: the place where you go out for a community meeting, come home and open the barbecue to make supper, and find two pieces of homemade lemon meringue pie there. To whomever we owe thanks for this wonderful surprise dessert: thank you!”

That was my post on Facebook one day last August. I was dead beat from a long day followed by that evening meeting. But to open the barbecue on the front porch and find two pieces of homemade lemon-meringue pie there – wow!

lemon-pie-in-the-barbecue

The surprise lemon-meringue pie in the barbecue.

Of course the pie had suffered a tiny bit from being there under the barbecue lid for perhaps a couple of hours. But man, was it delicious! Raymond and I gobbled it up after whatever it was that we barbecued that night. (I can’t remember the main course, but I sure remember that pie.) And of course you can guess to whom we owed the kind gesture of the surprise pie. Chuck had brought over two pieces of Ruth’s latest fabulous baking project, discovered we weren’t at home, and left it for us in a place he was pretty sure we’d find it.

There were so many other kind gestures over these past five years: Chuck bringing over his snowblower to clear out our socked-in driveway after a snowstorm; invitations for get-togethers at which there was so much of Ruth’s amazing cooking that we left barely able to move; Chuck bringing over his pickup one spring morning to boost the killed-by-winter battery of Raymond’s truck:

Chuck helping Raymond boost the truck

Chuck setting up the booster cables between his truck and Raymond’s to get the latter going again after a long, cold winter being parked in the Manse garage.

And:

  • The helpful advice from Chuck on things like weed-whackers and truck trailers and such.
  • The kind gestures to others in the community, like the homemade cookies Ruth always had on hand for neighbourhood kids.
  • Their contributions to the community, through their volunteer work with the Queensborough Beautification Committee and just making their own home and grounds look so nice that they were a model to others in the village:
Ruth's beautiful garden

Ruth’s beautiful garden, a pleasure for us to look at all summer long from the front of the Manse.

Avocado-green phone

I adore my avocado-green phone, which I have Chuck to thank for.

Also: Chuck spotting something for sale online that he knew I needed, and letting me know about it right away. It was, of course – of course! – an avocado-green dial phone; I mean, who doesn’t need an avocado-green dial phone to remind them of their midcentury youth? Thanks to Chuck, we are now the proud owners of that phone, which isn’t hooked up yet but I am thinking might make a fine addition to a retro-style avocado-green bathroom here at the Manse…

(Which reminds me of another way, this one kind of inadvertent, in which Chuck and Ruth were an inspiration: their Queensborough home still has its c.-1970 avocado-green bathroom! Sadly, I don’t have a photo of it.)

Then there was the time Raymond’s two-year-old grandson, Henry, and his parents visited us here in Queensborough and, just as they were leaving for the long drive back to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Ruth appeared with a new toy truck to keep Henry occupied and amused on his ride home. He was delighted!

Henry, Justine and Pepere on the swings

Henry, his Pépère (grandfather) Raymond and mum Justine on the swings at the Queensborough Community Centre. Henry’s visit was capped by a gift from Ruth.

Maybe the best thing of all, though, was just knowing that Ruth and Chuck were there. They kept an eye on our place when we weren’t around, which was always a comfort. More importantly, their presence in their lovely home, the lights shining in their kitchen and in their spacious enclosed front porch in the evenings, gave us a feeling of – well, neighbourliness. Queensborough is a small place amid a lot of wide open lonely space where you can sometimes hear the wolves and coyotes howling on a cold and dark winter night. When you look out the window on one of those nights, you like to see the lights of your neighbours from within their snug homes. It makes you feel snug and safe too.

When we popped over to Ruth and Chuck’s for a quick night-before-the-move visit last Friday, Raymond and I were fortunate enough to meet the new owners of their home, Steve and Dana and their two little girls. We really look forward to having them as our new neighbours when they arrive in a very few days.

But since Saturday, Ruth and Chuck’s home (as I continue to think of it) has been dark at night, for the first time in our five years at the Manse. It is dark tonight. No Ruth puttering in the kitchen; no Chuck tinkering in the garage or sharing funny things on Facebook at his computer. It makes me sad and a little lonely when I look out the window of the Manse.

I have one last Ruth and Chuck story to tell you. A few months ago, Raymond and I left for a brief trip somewhere or other and, a couple of hours into it, realized that we weren’t sure if either of us had turned off the coffee pot before we left. What a couple of dopes! I called Ruth and, with more than a little embarrassment, asked if they would mind walking over and checking it for us. (We had given them a key to the Manse long before, just in case.) Of course they didn’t mind a bit, checked things out, and called to assure us that the coffee maker had been turned off and all was well.

Burned coffee pot

What happens when you lose your neighbours.

Okay, that’s Part 1 of the story.

Here’s Part 2: This past weekend, after saying goodbye to Ruth and Chuck, we had to be in Toronto overnight. They were finishing the loading of the moving truck when we left. When we came home the next day, they were gone. Our neighbours’ house was dark and silent.

And at the Manse? We’d left the coffee pot on.

I think it was a sign that we need our neighbours.

Chuck and Ruth, thank you for everything. I’ll leave you and the readers with one last photo of your Queensborough home while you were here, a summer day when a splendid rainbow shone over it and our village. May the rainbow always shine over you!

rainbow-over-chuck-and-ruths-house

“It’s not just a school – it’s the heart of the community”

The flag at Madoc Township Public School

As I took this photo of Madoc Township Public School this past Sunday morning, I found myself thinking about the long-ago centennial-year ceremonies that had taken place where the flag is flying. A few hours later, a Facebook post by another former student brought many of those happy memories back. There are so many good memories associated with Madoc Township Public School!

Update, noon on Tuesday, Jan. 17: The public meeting to discuss possible closure of Madoc Township Public School has been rescheduled from this evening to tomorrow (Wednesday, Jan. 18) because of today’s freezing rain. The meeting will be atthe same time (6:30 p.m.) and in the same place (the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary School) as originally scheduled.

People from throughout our community are preparing for this evening’s tomorrow’s (Tuesday, Jan. 17, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017) public meeting about proposed major changes to our local schools. (A nasty forecast of freezing rain may affect that meeting, but as of this writing no cancellation or postponement has been issued by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board.) The change that would most directly affect Queensborough and area is the board’s proposal to close our kindergarten-to-Grade 6 elementary school, Madoc Township Public School, and bus the students into “town” (the village of Madoc) to Madoc Public School. The proposal would also see all Grades 7 and 8 students moved from Madoc Public to space at the high school in Madoc, Centre Hastings Secondary.

I’ve already (like here and here and here) written quite a bit about this proposal, not holding back on my concern about the loss of what is by all accounts an excellent school (it recently placed first in the school board for student results in reading, writing and math) with a huge playground area that encourages fitness, fresh air and time away from phones and screens. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how, in addition to all those attributes, Madoc Township Public School is an important part of our community as a whole. If we lose it, we lose a key component of that community. I believe this is the single most important issue here: that closing the school deals a blow to prospects for attracting young families to live, work, open businesses, hire people, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to community life and well-being.

But I’ve made that argument already, and probably will again. Today, as we prepare for the public meeting, I wanted to share with you the personal story of someone who attended Madoc Township Public School starting the very year it opened, 1961. These words come from a post this past Sunday on the page of the Facebook group I Went to Madoc Township Public School, and they struck a chord with me and brought back many memories – because I too went to Madoc Township Public School, back in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough. I asked the writer, Barb (Foley) Rivers, if I could share them here, and she has kindly given me permission:

“When MTPS opened I was in Grade 3. It was so exciting to go to a new school, with flush toilets and water fountains and everyone riding on a bus to get there!” [Note from Katherine: Barb explained when we were exchanging messages the other night that she, like almost all of the first students at Madoc Township Public School, had started her education in one of the many one-room schools (complete with outhouses) that dotted our area (including Queensborough) back then: “I went to Burris one-room school in Grade 1, then in Grade 2 we had to go to Rimington school as they were building MTPS on the site of Burris school … In Grade 3 the new school was opened so we went there.”]

Barb continues: “Many new friends were made!

Madoc Township Public School 2

The “new” section of the school, added when I was a student, featured a library and gym. The front entrance and offices have since been moved there.

“There was no gym or library when I was there, which was for six years.” [Katherine again: an excellent library and gym were added to the school during the time I attended it, a bit after Barb. Very exciting!] “(But it) was a community building – 4-H meetings were held there as well as other gatherings. We planted trees there and celebrated Canada’s 100th in 1967, and the whole community came together there to celebrate and put on a parade.

“Every Valentine’s (Day) we were bused to Cooper arena from the school, where we had a skating party and were treated by the teachers with honey-dipped doughnuts and hot chocolate.

“The big school grounds allowed for baseball, swings, tag or whatever else you wanted to play and get lots of exercise.

The teachers were all local, as well as the principal and janitor. They knew the students and their families. If someone was in need, everyone helped out.

“It’s not just a school – it’s the heart of the community and has been for 50-plus years!

“I have fond memories of every teacher I had there.”

I think the part I liked best about Barb’s reminiscence (aside from her remembered excitement about flush toilets and water fountains, which is so sweet) was her recollection of activities held at the school to mark Canada’s centennial. As I was taking pictures of the building just this past Sunday, before I’d read her post, I found myself thinking back to the same tree-planting ceremony she mentions, and to the teachers and our wonderful principal, Florence McCoy, all dressed in 19th-century costumes, and to how thrilling it all was to six-year-old me. Our country was a century old! Imagine that!

In our private exchange Barb pulled out one more happy centennial reminiscence:

“I was fortunate to be in Grade 8 in 1967 at MTPS as the Madoc Township councillors paid for our whole class to go to Expo 67! I have a twin sister so two of our family went.” (Ah, a trip to Expo – what could be better than that? I wrote about my own once-in-a-lifetime Expo visit here.)

The family Barb is referring to, by the way, is a very important one in the history of Madoc Township Public School. The Foleys lived just down the road from the new school, and Barb’s father, Joe Foley, went into the school-bus business because of it: “My dad got his first bus when the school opened. That was the beginning of Foley Bus Lines. My brother runs it now and has added coaches also.” Foley is a big going concern still, but I remember when the company consisted of just a few school buses – and Joe Foley himself, a really nice man, drove our Queensborough run.

Like I said earlier, the danger in our school being closed is the damage it will do to our rural community and way of life. Our own personal memories and our attachments to Madoc Township Public School must be secondary to that concern, and to finding ways to continue the school’s tradition of giving local kids a great education and start in life.

But my goodness it’s fun to be reminded of those happy long-ago days at Madoc Township Public School, when Florence McCoy and other community dignitaries led us through centennial celebrations. Thank you, Barb!

Meanwhile, folks, weather permitting, I hope to see and chat with lots and lots of you at tonight’s tomorrow night’s meeting. It’s in the gym at Centre Hastings Secondary, and it starts at 6:30 p.m. Please bring your ideas, your energy, your creativity – and yes, your memories – as we work together to try to save our school.