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Saturday, June 22, 2024
Op-ed: Insightful teacher inspired me to set and achieve goals
Wallace Wiens braves the cold as she runs through the Niagara-on-the-Lake Commons. Though she didn’t like phys-ed in high school, she runs today thanks to her teacher all those years ago. Somer Slobodian

Wallace Wiens
Special to The Lake Report

It’s a few weeks into the new year and I’m still on track to fulfilling my resolutions.

I can’t promise that will be the case a ways down the road especially the part about not eating carbs, never having more than one glass of red wine and drinking at least six glasses of water every day.

Sigh.

But there’s one thing I can be proud of: I ran five kilometres this morning. And yesterday. And two days before that. Through the streets of the village of Niagara-on-the Lake.

It was so mild, I just had to be outside. The cold, fresh air in my lungs, the smooth rhythm of my arms and legs. Kilometre after kilometre as I steadily gain ground toward my goal.

The exhilaration – I can do this!

I’ve been pretty consistent about running for almost 50 years. Half a century.

And so, I’m thinking about Mrs. Dove.

I attended Col. John Butler School in the late 1960s, then Laura Secord school and finally St. Davids.

In those ancient days, kids were required to participate in physical education classes, exercise and team games.

There were mandatory track and field Days devoted to competitive sports among the students: the 100-yard dash, the 500-yard dash, high jump, long jump, hop, skip and jump.

Gruelling, highly competitive activities for students in Grades 1 through 8. I hated them all.

There were mandatory year-round field games as well, like baseball, volleyball and more.

The phys-ed teacher would pick two captains and they’d choose their team. The best players were always selected first.

I was consistently the last person chosen. By default, one team got stuck with me. I can still hear the dismayed groans of my teammates.

I was a lousy player, always striking out, couldn’t catch a ball as an outfielder, couldn’t serve the ball over the net …

I remember the humiliation well. And my parents had no sympathy.

I couldn’t feign high fever, broken ankles, delirium. (The stomach-churning nausea was real.) But no luck and no mercy. They’d still make me go to school on Field Days.

The whole elementary school experience would have ended very badly but for the hours that I spent in the library, and especially that dusty little room on the second floor at Laura Secord Memorial School.

There was a big old armchair and a thousand books. Every recess and all my lunch hours were spent up there reading every book in that room. (I stole my favourite, a copy of “Harriet the Spy” – I admit it.  I still have it, but the statute of limitations on theft has run out and I’m safe.)

The teachers all knew where I was, but mostly pretended not to. Dilemma: do you punish a student because she loves to read? Even so, every now and again, when they thought I really should get some fresh air, they’d come upstairs and send me outside.

In September 1974, I started Grade 9 at Niagara District Secondary School and to my disgust, physical education class was still mandatory. Three classes a week.  Track and field.

Mrs. Dove was my phys-ed teacher. I must have made my utter dismay obvious to her because she took me aside and asked me what the problem was?

I said I needed to get good marks, but I was a sports disaster and her class was really going to drag my average down.  Besides, I flat-out detested phys-ed. And it’s all so humiliating.

Mrs. Dove understood. Together, we developed an individualized plan, just for me.

She took me out to the track behind the school. She said that she would mark me on my ability to run around the track once. That’s all.

I could run as slow as I wanted, did not have to compete with the other students, but I had to make it around the track one time without stopping. And she’d give me an average mark, maybe not a high mark, but she would not fail me.

Unathletic as I was, I knew that was an achievable goal. And without the competition of running against stars like Lori Plut and Patty Hummel, there would be no personal humiliation. All I had to do was to commit to practise consistently three times a week.

I don’t remember how long, but it wasn’t long thereafter, and I was running around that track without stopping. Without even gasping for breath.

Mrs. Dove noticed. She wondered aloud whether I could do two laps, non-stop. Not that I needed to. But since I had months to go before the end of the semester, might as well give it a shot.

Soon I was running two, three – a lot of laps. Consistently. Not fast, but I had endurance. Would never win a race. But I was achieving my own goal. And surpassing it. And setting a new goal. And surpassing that one, too.

I was doing the best I was capable of, at a task that I was not suited to, but that was required of me.

The semester ended. Mrs. Dove gave me an “A” in the class.

And then I did not have to run any more. In Grade 10 and beyond, physical education class was not mandatory.

I turned my educational endeavours to more academically oriented classes. Set my goals. Competed against myself. Tried my best and did not give myself undeserved breaks. Always tried to get it over the finish line.

On my own time, I wondered if I could run without the school track, without Mrs. Dove’s oversight. I started running at home, after school. A mile. Then two …

It’s January 2023 and I’m still running.

Running around that track toward that finish line really mattered to me. If I hadn’t known humiliation, if I had not experienced the high bar set by the truly gifted, I wouldn’t have been so proud of my personal achievement.

But I had seen the wondrous prowess of the truly athletic students. I was forced to face my own inadequacy. And then a thoughtful teacher taught a young student how to produce an appropriate plan that would lead to a “best possible” outcome.

That teacher encouraged the student to work diligently to meet a goal she never imagined she could meet. I’ll never be an athlete. But I’m healthy and active, and half a century later, still hitting the pavement, heading down that road, running toward yet another goal.

After Grade 9, I never saw Mrs. Dove again. I don’t even know her first name. But I remember her. She is as unforgettable as fresh air and sunshine.

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