Identifying the teacher and students of the single inaugural class of the 1973 Niagara Nursery School became a pleasurable crusade, a quest that took The Lake Report virtually around the world from St. Catharines to Italy.
Today’s instalment tells more stories of the teachers and students
from that classic class photo from the early 1970s, now posted online
In the end, we couldn’t find everyone. So, we need your help. If you recognize any of the students in the picture, please call 905-468-2536 or email email@example.com.
The Lake Report found Anna Marie Gill (nee Porco), the school’s lone teacher for the 1973 year, living in a small village in Piemonte, Italy, two hours southwest of Milan.
Originally from Thorold, she taught at the school from 1973 to 1977. She remembers starting her stint at Harmony Hall, but teaching at the Legion and St. Mark’s Addison Hall, in later years.
She went on to have a full career in early childhood education, wherever she lived.
“I loved this age group because they are eager to learn – and they listen. They were just little sponges.”
Gill returns to Niagara as often as she and her husband Justin can. “Until recently, I had my daughter and grandchildren there. We still have friends we visit.”
Jennifer Mactaggart remembers Gill fondly: “I loved Anna Marie. She was awesome.”
Mactaggart is a teacher-librarian in Toronto. “I use my Niagara Nursery School experience to inform my thinking about programming for my students. It wasn’t called play-based learning then. It is encouraged now.”
“My favourite place had all these shelves with stuff of all sizes that the parents had contributed. Now we call them loose parts,” she says.
“Leftover boxes and items from the household that are used to awaken the children’s imagination. Cereal boxes, salt boxes with those little pourers, egg cartons — we would pretend we were playing house or running a store.”
Before landing back in Toronto, Mactaggart lived around the globe in Montreal, San Francisco, Edinburgh and Beirut. Although she and her husband have considered returning to Niagara-on-the-Lake, she doesn’t think they will.
“It was very different than it is now. Completely different beings. It was very much a family town. A working-class town. We all walked and rode our bikes to school.
“There are parts of the small-town community that I miss. But Niagara isn’t that small town any more.”
Mactaggart’s mother, Terry Mactaggart, was an early consultant to the school, helping source teaching aids and materials. All three of her kids attended. With a degree in early childhood education, she even worked as a substitute teacher from time to time.
“We arrived in town in 1971,” she pulls the thought from her memory. “In those days, that’s how we met — at the nursery school.
“Some of my longest-held friendships were started as parents at the school. And the kids are still friends now. It was more the parents who stayed in touch than the kids, because the kids went all over the place.”
Her daughter Jennifer and Kevin Bridgman are two perfect examples of lifelong friendships nurtured at the nursery school.
Bridgman is now a nationally acclaimed architect living in Toronto, with a portfolio that includes Governor General award-winning designs.
He remembers his mother telling him: “Part of the reason I signed you up for nursery school was so that I could meet other parents and you could meet other kids.”
And it worked.
Of his friendship with Jennifer Mactaggart: “We’re kind of connected forever. The friendship that Jen and I have, I can’t even put it to words, how important it’s been. She’s lived in different parts of the world. And now our children have become great friends.”
“I remember feeling that our families were somehow connected. It created stronger relationships than at later schools, largely because the parents were tight, too.”
The Blamires sisters are another case in point. Jane and Ruth (now Rawsthorne), her elder sister by 18 months, attended the nursery school. Both now live in St. Catharines.
An insurance adjuster by trade, Ruth also points to her friendship with Bridgman as starting when they were both 2-1/2 years old.
“I went to school with Kevin Bridgman right up to high school. And we always sat together because our names were so close alphabetically. A lot of my best friends are still from NOTL.”
Both women loved their childhood lives in Old Town.
Take Jane’s memory of growing up: “It was a really great place to be a kid, riding your bike around, swimming lessons, brownies. I loved being a child. Tons of kids on our street. We had the whole road and the creek. Catching crayfish and frogs and tadpoles.”
Of the nursery school, her mind carries fewer memories. “I have a sense of the paste. I can smell the minty taste of the paste that we used to use for crafts.”
Fifty years of little kids taking their first social and educational steps. Hard to remember. But somehow hard to forget.
NEXT: 50 years later, looking forward and back.