Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the halls of Selkirk, the memory of a young boy burns brightly

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 30, 2008


The school year is winding down, those chirpy September beginnings a dim memory as notebooks fill up and crayons get worked to nubs.

At Selkirk Montessori, the combined Grade 1 and 2 class has been enjoying field trips. This week, they are going swimming.

In the classroom, the pupils have been working on arithmetic and handwriting.

They do so with a missing member.

Christian Lee won lots of friends in his kindergarten year. He liked to play with balls in the gym. He liked to perform for his classmates.

He sang My Roots Go Down with gusto.

Before dawn on the first day of school, he was knifed to death by his father inside his family's million-dollar home. His mother and maternal grandparents were also murdered before his father killed himself.

A coroner's inquest is listening to testimony about the murders this week. The details are grisly and disturbing.

At what was his home, at 310 King George Terrace in Victoria, the picture windows overlooking Juan de Fuca Strait are no longer covered by the blue and orange tarps that hid the aftermath of the mayhem inside from prying eyes.

There seem to be no curtains, although it is reported the home has sold, prime real estate being immune to even the ghastliest horrors.

The tidy lawn on which the boy once frolicked still holds a sign for a burglar alarm, a useless defence on a morning when so many warnings would prove inadequate.

Once again, a little boy's smiling face is on the front page of the newspaper, but he is nowhere to be found.

His absence is felt most keenly at school.

“There's an emptiness. There's a spot missing,” said Penny Barner, the administrator at Selkirk.

“There are so many reminders in the Grade 1 class that Christian was meant to be in. His name on a list. His name on a locker. His desk. He won't be there with us. We'll remember him. But he won't be there.”

The first day of class is a giddy time. Children are eager to see their friends. Teachers are invigorated after a summer break. Parents rejoice in the return of a daily routine.

On Sept. 4, the day after Labour Day, a buzz of excitement filled the hallways and classrooms at the modern, three-story school. Many of the grownups had dedicated their lives to teaching the Montessori method, in which calm prevails and the joy of discovery is not discouraged.

The principal was entering her 22nd year, a kindergarten teacher her 28th.

It was noted that Christian had not come to school that morning. But many families take extended holidays, so no alarm was raised.

After lunch, Ms. Barner got a phone call from a business acquaintance who had been contacted by police. Christian was dead, but the details were sketchy. She could not, did not, want to believe it to be true.

She told the principal, called in Christian's two kindergarten teachers, informed the after-school caregivers, before sharing the terrible news at an emergency staff meeting.

The next morning was a fog of tears and hugs and counsellors and numbing disbelief.

The children sat in circles. One talked about his grandfather dying.

Another said he had lost a dog.

Outside what was to have been his classroom, Christian's locker on the bottom row remained empty. The older kids get to use the lockers on the top, as not all the Grade 1s can reach that high.

The staff mourned a boy they loved, known for his smile and irrepressible joy, who was often seen with his arm wrapped around a friend's neck in that loosey-goosey boy way. They also grieved for a mother and father who had been active at the school.

“Teachers are trained observers,” Ms. Barner said. “They never had a concern about Christian's parents. It was just not something that came to the school. That made it all the more shocking and sad. We lost Sunny [Christian's mother] and we lost [pause] Peter [Christian's father], as well. It was a tragic event.”

Amabel de Lara, one of the boy's kindergarten teachers, channelled her grief by planning a memorial ceremony in the school gymnasium.

Christian's classmates constructed a wreath of white flowers to surround a picture of the smiling boy. Other images of him flashed overhead. In one, he lights one of the candles in a kinara, a kente cloth draped over his right shoulder as part of class Kwanzaa observations.

The memorial raised more than $600, which was donated to the Cridge Centre for the Family. A fuzzy menagerie of cuddlies was also sent to the not-for-profit organization.

Because Christian so much enjoyed singing My Roots Go Down, it was decided to plant a tree in his memory. They selected a Korean dogwood, which blooms at this time of year.

At Selkirk, they want to remember not how his life ended, but how he lived it. Christian is remembered not as a victim, but as a playful, smiling, caring friend whom they miss.

“In his short life, he loved and was loved,” Ms. Barner said. “He spread a lot of joy in that time.”

He liked to give hugs. He liked to celebrate Chinese New Year. He liked to play a game in which he scooted beneath a large nylon parachute held aloft by classmates.

He will be forever aged 6.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One benefit of the Nobel: students cheer his lecture

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 25, 2008


The students greeted the professor like a rock star, their whoops and cheers an uncustomary reception for a lecture on climate change.

The professor was returning to the high school from which he graduated in 1979. Back then, he butted heads with opponents over the chessboard and on the rugby pitch.

“This hasn't changed one bit,” Andrew Weaver announced as he looked around the auditorium at Oak Bay High School. He thought the walls had been repainted. Maybe.

The school remains the same, but much else is different. He has earned a doctorate, got a professorship at the University of Victoria, won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize. And the world has got a bit warmer.

And the polar ice cap has melted a bit more. And action today is needed for tomorrow.

Prof. Weaver was the closing speaker in a day-long conference organized by students to mark Earth Day.

The students heard plenty of doom, but not so much gloom. They were encouraged to do a better job than their parents in seeking solutions to a warming world.

“This is pretty impressive. To see a younger generation take ownership of this issue is encouraging,” Prof. Weaver said before yesterday's lecture. “It gives you a sense of optimism and hope that there will be a better future.”

The professor earned his laurels as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore for work on man-made climate change.

Wearing blue jeans and an untucked beach shirt, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pointer, Prof. Weaver took the students through a lesson in the history of the science of studying gasses in the atmosphere.

He warned them to be wary of media coverage, showing two headlines from the local daily newspaper. One read: “Study deflates global warming.” The other stated: “Global warming severity grows.” The headlines were published nine days apart. Lesson: Sensationalism encourages confusion.

He displayed the front page of a supermarket tabloid. “Oceans rising 150 ft.,” it reported. The image showed the Statue of Liberty drowning.

The professor asked: What is wrong with this? A student gave the correct answer right away: the statue's pedestal alone stands 154 feet (47 metres). Liberty's toes wouldn't even get wet. Lesson: Don't believe everything you read. Or see.

While he did describe John Tyndall, an experimental physicist who studied Earth's atmosphere in the Victorian era, as “the guy with the bad sideburns,” Prof. Weaver's talk had enough charts and figures and many-compounded descriptives to send some in the audience to more typically teenaged pursuits, such as whispering, munching Doritos and flicking paper at their neighbours.

Some girls were engrossed in a vegan pamphlet with gory colour photographs of slaughterhouses, a sort of carnivore porn.

During the day, workshops were conducted by MLAs, scientists and professors on such topics as “the hydrogen economy,” “the 100-mile diet,” and “treating waste as a resource.”

This is the school where a Grade 9 science class has been assigned to take their classroom off the electrical grid. Students have also been involved in reviving Bowker Creek, which runs behind the school grounds.

Between sessions, some members of the Environment Club – identifiable during the event in their matching lime-green T-shirts – were asked the purpose of the day-long conference.

“To raise awareness,” said Grade 11 student Taylor Daniel, 17. “Get the kids thinking more about it.”

“So they know about their options,” added Jenica Moore, 16.

What do their folks think about their eco-curricular activities?

“It's kind of us educating them for once,” Ms. Daniel said. “Us telling them what we need to do.”

“They're pretty positive,” Ms. Moore said.

“They seem to like that we're passionate about something instead of wasting our time,” Ms. Daniel said.

The students attracted a top-notch panel of politicians, including local MLA Ida Chong, the province's Community Services Minister; NDP MLA Rob Fleming; and Jane Sterk, leader of the provincial Green Party.

The politicians were kept to tight time limits by the crisp ringing of a triangle, a piece of equipment the Speaker of the legislature might wish to adopt.

They were asked about the worthiness of a public-private partnership to give Victoria sewage treatment; about free bus passes for all students; about the sale of publicly owned forests; about a change in the building code demanding solar panels and low-flush toilets in all new constructions; about getting a model green school to replace the high school's outdated structures.

“I'm amazed by these young people,” Ms. Chong said. She remembers being unable to speak publicly in Grade 12, never mind rustling politicians and asking such tough questions.

“Our generation is a lot more educated about our global footprint,” said conference organizer Ellen Hunter-Perkins, 17.

Her other projects include raising money to buy bicycles for health workers in Africa, for whom transportation problems interfered with treating HIV/AIDS patients.

After five minutes of conversation with her, you get the feeling you'll be voting for these kids some day.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There goes Steve Nash's hero

Diana Nethercott photo

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 23, 2008


Steve Nash, the basketball great, listed the five athletes who most inspired him as a boy growing up in Victoria.

He named Michael Jordan.

Greatest basketball player of his generation. Check.

He named Diego Maradona.

Brilliant Argentine soccer player. Check.

He named Glenn Hoddle.

The midfield maestro of English soccer. Check.

He named Wayne Gretzky.

Hockey's Great One. Of course. Check.

He named Kevin Alexander.

Kevin Alexander?! Who's he?

The television announcers were stumped by the name.

The vast majority of the audience watching the half-time programming of a Phoenix Suns basketball broadcast this month were undoubtedly as puzzled.

Kevin Alexander did not play hockey, or soccer, or basketball. He did not play Canadian football, or American football, or Australian Rules football. He was not a golfer, or a surfer, or a lawn bowler. He did not serve tennis balls, or roll bowling balls. He was not an Olympian.

He was a lacrosse player. A good one. A hall of famer.

These days, you can find him on weekday mornings at the Interurban campus of Camosun College. His desk is in a shared office in room 101A of the Jack White Building. His workplace is a cavernous and cacophonous space filled with anvils and welding booths and cutting tables.

It is here that he once studied – and now teaches – welding.

“I started here in '74,” he said. “Not much has changed.”

Once, he patrolled the lacrosse floor dressed in warrior's armour, fending off defenders in the vicious sport even as he scored goals by the bushel. Now, he wears a flip-down mask instead of a helmet and steel-toed boots instead of sneakers. His uniform is blue jeans and a blue cotton work jacket. A tag with his first name is above the breast pocket, an “instructor” tag on the left shoulder where he once wore the green shamrock of his hometown team.

The sleeves of his jacket are pocked by the telltale burns that are an occupational hazard. “You get the odd spark,” he shrugs. He showed a similar indifference when on the receiving end of the stick slashes that are legal in the game he loves.

A steady troop of students parade before him to show off their handiwork. Elsewhere in the shop, poor welds are on display with such captions as “cutting speed too fast” and “preheat flames too close to work.”

Asked what made for a good welder, he said, “Good eye-hand co-ordination. Lots of patience.”

Just like lacrosse. In the world of butt welds and stringer beads, the 52-year-old welder is also something of a hall of famer. The youngest son of a chimney sweep first entered this shop as a bushy-haired teenager in search of a trade to support himself.

He has worked as a welder at the pulp mill at Crofton on Vancouver Island, at a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, at the Yarrow Shipyards in nearby Esquimalt, where he worked on icebreakers and several of the vessels in the B.C. Ferries fleet.

Welding is an itinerant trade, as was his chosen sport.

The suburbs of Victoria remain a pocket of support for Canada's national summer game, which thrives in such places as Brampton and Peterborough, Ont., as well as on such reserves as Kahnewake in Quebec and Six Nations in Ontario.

Mr. Alexander first wore a lacrosse uniform at age 5. At 13, he was working behind the bench as a water boy for the Victoria Shamrocks. They even let him play a single game the following year, a boy among men. At age 15, he scored 15 goals in five games.

A fill-in with the senior team, he was a star scorer for the junior squad, averaging almost eight points a game, helping the Victoria McDonalds win the storied Minto Cup as national champions in 1976. Mr. Alexander was named the most valuable player of the finals.

He grew to fill a solid, chimney-like physique and just kept on scoring with the senior Shamrocks. Sportswriter Cleve Dheensaw described Mr. Alexander being to lacrosse what “Nureyev was to ballet, Gretzky is to hockey and Fellini is to film.” He retired after 10 seasons as the fourth-highest scorer in history, guaranteeing a spot in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Along the way, he helped Victoria claim Mann Cup titles as national champions in 1979 and 1983.

It was during those years that a young Steve Nash would have seen Mr. Alexander in action on the concrete floor of old Memorial Arena on Blanshard Street, a raucous home permeated with the smell of frying onions. Not for nothing was it known as the Barn on Blanshard.

For much of his career, he was a semiprofessional. “That means you better not quit your day job.” (For a time, the Victoria team was sponsored by a locally owned chain of discount gas stations, so Mr. Alexander's sweater read Payless, a mocking nickname.) He played outdoor lacrosse for Canada's national team and indoors professionally as a moonlighter from his realtor's job, flying across the continent to play for Buffalo on weekends, making about $4,000 in his best season, chump change to a hockey star.

Had he been as good at hockey, Canada's other national sport, he would have been a millionaire and a household name. The lack of a big pay day, or recognition, does not bother him in the least.

“When I started playing the game, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he said.

So, he passes on what he knows about welding, amused to have stumped sports broadcasters. He looks forward to ribbing Mr. Nash the next time the two get together for a beer.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How a committed hospital worker's dreams unravelled

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 16, 2008


Amy Hughes has endured her share of tribulation in her 58 years.

An immigrant from a warm country to a cold one, she learned a new language, got married, gave birth to two daughters, got divorced. She found a job and came to love her work.

She worried about her elder daughter, who was mentally handicapped. Like so many in her position, she wondered, why me? Why this added burden? Her faith was challenged. In time, she learned to cope and to accept and to rejoice.

“I say thank God for the gift you give me,” she said, her native Malta still heavy on the tongue. “I've learned a lot from her. How to love unconditionally. How to be patient.”

The family lived in a New Westminster apartment across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital, where Ms. Hughes worked for “27 blessed years.”


“Because I really enjoyed working there. I put a roof over my children. I put food on their plates. And clothed them. Everybody was happy.”

Six years ago, the dream began to unravel.

Premier Gordon Campbell introduced legislation voiding union contracts. In doing so, he acknowledged breaking an election promise.

The new Liberal government considered the contracts to be sweetheart deals between unions and their buddies in the old NDP government. “I'm not in the laundry business, I'm not in the food services business,” the health services minister said.

Amy Hughes was in the laundry business. And the food services business. And the housekeeping business. And the making chit-chat with elderly patients business.

The politicians said Bill 29 would turn the jobs of 50,000 public sector workers over to the private sector, or they would be eliminated.

Ms. Hughes's family had come to Canada in 1963, a year before the island nation of Malta became independent. Amelia, her birth name, was the third of seven children of a baker and a housekeeper. She was born in Marsa, a shipping centre from the time of the Phoenicians and whose name is Arabic for port. They abandoned her ancient birthplace for a new beginning in Winnipeg. In January. “My mother sent us to church in spring clothes and sandals. I froze.”

Marriage brought her to the West Coast, where she got a job paying $1.49 an hour at St. Paul's Hospital.

She stayed home when she had her daughters, but eventually re-entered the work force. At Royal Columbian, she worked in the cafeteria and as a housekeeper.

“You go into the patients' rooms, you clean, you dust, you wash the floor. You communicate with them, especially the elderly. Oh, and you clean the bathroom. It's hard work.”

Once, she caught scabies from a patient. The threat of transmission was an occupational hazard.

“I loved the patients, the nurses, the staff. It was my second home. The money I was making made me comfortable.”

Her salary was “$18-something” an hour. Then, it dropped to “$16-something.”

Morale at the hospital plummeted. The workers, many of them single mothers, wondered about paying bills. “I'd never seen my co-workers so devastated, so depressed.” She remembers crying with nurses on the psych ward, thinking, “How appropriate.”

Government politicians spoke about priorities and saving money.

Pundits dismissed the workers as overpaid broom pushers and toilet cleaners. A newspaper columnist harrumphed about the high salary being paid cleaners who were members of the Hospital Employees' Union, to which Ms. Hughes belonged. There were protests and walkouts and an unfavourable court decision.

Then, one day, “they gave us the pink slip.”

She had thrown herself into the union-led protest and had not allowed herself to think about losing her job. She faced a harsh reality. She would not be retiring at age 65 with a full pension. At age 54, she decided to find temporary work before settling on early retirement.

“In those nine months, I broke – emotionally, financially, psychologically,” she said. She was prescribed antidepressants. Others fared worse. She knows of two suicides. A counsellor had her express her rage in a letter to the Premier.

“I called him every name in the book,” she said. When she was done, she folded it up and put it away. “I wouldn't show that letter to anybody. It was awful.”

She moved in with her married daughter in Langley.

Her pension is $1,058 a month. She soon will move to a low-income apartment for seniors in Port Moody.

On weekends, she goes shopping with her elder daughter, who will turn 40 this year. Sometimes, they go to Science World.

Otherwise, she reads novels, does needlepoint, babysits her grandchildren.

Last summer, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down key portions of Bill 29 as unconstitutional.

Ms. Hughes cried when she heard. “All the fighting we did, it was worth it.”

After negotiations with the unions, the provincial government promised earlier this year to provide $85-million in compensation and retraining.

On Monday, the government introduced the Health Statutes Amendment Act to alter the sections the Supreme Court had found in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Yesterday, Ms. Hughes, who lost her job and her apartment and the co-workers she regarded as a second family, filled out forms to begin the process of seeking compensation.

And she wonders how the Premier sleeps at night.

“He came in and pulled the rug right from under my feet,” she said.

The politicians likely have never heard of Amy Hughes. She knows them only too well.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

When Olympic dreams die

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 9, 2008


The news about Olympic torch protests knocks decades from Bill Sawchuk’s life. In an instant, the middle-aged father of two reverts to being a 21-year-old swimmer trapped in a fog of political maneuvering over which he has no control.

Mr. Sawchuk quit school to focus on training. He posted world-class times at swim meets. He allowed himself to dream about winning Olympic gold.

Then, the world intervened.

The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. In reaction, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Olympics at Moscow. Canada agreed to join the protest, pulling the plug on the aspirations of a generation of athletes.

In an instant, years of sacrifice — chilly dawns spent in the pool, late-night revelries skipped, jobs and studies and marriages delayed — went down the drain.

It took years for Mr. Sawchuk to recover from the heartbreak.

“I thought I was a medal contender,” he said.

“I was bitter for a very long time. Longer than I realized.”

Now, he worries about today’s athletes, should the protests against the host country’s human-rights records lead to a boycott of the Beijing Games this summer.

Mr. Sawchuk has in his thoughts these days the well-being of one hopeful athlete to whom his family has grown close.

He does not want her to go through what he did.

Born in 1959 in the Manitoba village of Roblin, Mr. Sawchuk’s father managed the local lumber store. Transfers to Thompson and Dauphin followed, before the family settled in the twin cities now known as Thunder Bay, Ont.

A doctor treating knees injured while skiing suggested the boy take up swimming. He joined the Thunderbolts club under the tutelage of Don Talbot, a no-nonsense Australian who had coached the national team of his homeland. The tough Aussie, who wore close-cropped hair, was old school, not above cuffing his teenage charges to end their hijinx. His harsh methods paid off. The club sent eight swimmers to the 1976 Olympics at Montreal, including a 17-year-old youth who had been competing for just two years.

He remembers striding into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the rest of the parade lost in a reverie of disbelief.

“Montreal was a blur. There were these people I’d seen on television — Nadia Comaneci and (Vasily) Alexeyev, the weightlifter — and here I am in the same food lineup in the Olympic Village.”

(For his sake, you hope he queued in the cafeteria behind the gymnastic sprite and ahead of the gargantuan Soviet strongman, a smorgasbord’s worst enemy.)

The pressure was overwhelming. He did not swim well until finding his stroke in a relay, only to be disqualified when a teammate was ruled to have splashed into the pool too soon.

The experience left him hungering for another Olympics.

He stayed in the pool. He ended the 1978 Commonwealth Games at Edmonton with seven medals —three gold, two silver, two bronze. Training was rigourous under Mr. Talbot, who had his swimmers join him at the Nashville Aquatic Club in training for the Moscow Olympics.

Mr. Sawchuk boarded with a wealthy family. He lived amid Picassos on the walls, gold faucets in the bathrooms, and a maid whose duties included providing after-session snacks in the television room.

“The pool house was bigger than my house in Thunder Bay,” he said.

On one of their endless days of training, Mr. Sawchuk visited the home where his friend Graham Smith boarded. The two swimmers relaxed before the day’s workout by tossing a baseball in the backyard.

Mr. Smith went inside to take a telephone call. Mr. Sawchuk remembers his friend returning to the backyard with news.

“We’re not going,” he said.

“We’re not going to the workout?”

“We’re not going to Moscow. We’re not going.”

A reporter in Ottawa had called seeking reaction to the announcement of a Canadian boycott of the upcoming Olympics. The swimmers had been confident the Canadian government would not kowtow to the American campaign. The decision left them dumfounded.

Mr. Sawchuk drove to the aquatic club in a daze. “I was so fuzzed out I nearly crashed twice on the way. Missing stop signs, stuff like that.”

The coach insisted they complete the day’s training session. Pumped with adrenaline, Mr. Sawchuk swam as fast as he ever had. “I absolutely crushed the set,” he said.

That night, he loaded his truck and drove north for Canada. Without the Olympics, there was no point in training, no point in sacrificing, no point in staying in Tennessee. He left in such a hurry he did not have enough cash to cover the fine for a speeding ticket picked up at 3 a.m. in the Indiana countryside. The police officer threatened him with a stay in the hoosegow until Mr. Sawchuk convinced him to accept a payment by credit card.

The disappointed Olympians were later presented with commemorative T-shirts, leather passport holders and “other gifties” at a ceremony in Ottawa, none of which did much to ease Mr. Sawchuk’s bitter disappointment. When a swim meet in Hawaii was announced as a consolation for missing the Olympic competition, Mr. Sawchuk skipped the event to instead go on a pack trip. He rode for days in the hills surrounding Thunder Bay, his only companion in the backcountry solitude a magnificent Arab gelding called Shar.

Officials punished his insubordination by removing his name from the list of Olympic squad. He was kicked off an Olympic team not going to the Olympics. Some punishment. He was later reinstated after teammates protested.

The athletes were in a tough situation. Diane Jones-Konihowski’s first reaction to the Liberal government’s boycott was to insist she would compete as an individual. She was denounced in some quarters as a “Red” for her defiance.

Athletes from other Canadian allies such as Britain, Australia and Denmark competed at Moscow. Four years later, Communist countries boycotted the Olympics at Los Angeles, opening the door for some Western athletes to win medals they might not have otherwise.

The 1980 Canadian team members are Canada’s forgotten Olympians. Some, such as Charmaine Crooks, now a member of the VANOC board of directors, got to compete at four other Olympic Games. Others lost their one chance at the podium.

Mr. Sawchuk had a reputation as a quiet student at the University of Florida until the day he lost it when the professor spoke favourably about the Moscow boycott.

“It did nothing,” Mr. Sawchuk insisted. “You guys were going to have a grain embargo, a technology embargo. But you kept selling grain and you kept selling technology. The athletes got ripped off.”

These days, the 49-year-old Mr. Sawchuk sells aquatic supplies. He is happily settled on a hobby farm in Whonnock, part of Maple Ridge, with his wife, Elly, a member of the Abbotsford police department, and their two teenagers.

He called his children at school the other day to share the exciting news that their friend, the swimmer Stephanie McDougall, had qualified for the Paralympics.

Now, he worries what happened to him might happen to her.

He’s not unsympathetic to the protests. “We know China is not perfect and I don’t think China is doing well by Tibet,” he said. He does not think athletes should bear the burden of protest.

His advice to today’s Olympians: “Train your ass off. What’s going to happen is going to happen. It’s out of your control. Just get ready to go. And pray it never happens.”

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Engaging these students is down to a science

Photograph by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 2, 2008


Garrett Brisdon teaches Grade 9 science the way he wishes his own class had been taught.

Instead of tedious lectures and notes chalked onto a blackboard, his students learn chemistry by being crime-scene analysts and astronomy by building miniature robotic Mars rovers from plastic bricks.

Once teenagers are engaged in thinking, it's hard to get them to stop.

Now, the class is discovering how to take their classroom off the school's electricity grid.

The school was built in 1929. It has old toilets, old windows, old overhead lights.

A replacement building has been in the works for years. Little has been spent on upgrades.

A recent assignment tackled the issue.

Problem: “A lot of valuable energy is ‘going out the window' at Oak Bay High School.”

Hypothesis: “An integrated solar panel system … would save electrical energy.”

Assignment: “(I)nvestigate the situation, gather and analyze the data, and make a proposal for a new, green Oak Bay High!”

The class of 30 ecoarchitects met with the assistant supervisor of maintenance for the district. They analyzed energy-efficient buildings as far afield as New York, North Carolina and Beijing. They quizzed a representative from a local technology firm specializing in solar power. They studied the school's power bill.

They started drawing.

At lunchtime yesterday, six teenagers gathered in Mr. Brisdon's office (he's also one of Oak Bay High's vice-principals) to talk about kilowatts and solar modules and photovoltaic solar-panel systems.

They showed drawings of a model school with solar panels on the roof and water filters in the basement.

Adam Beaudoin and James Mazza, both 14, designed a school with a greenhouse (“to study vegetable cultivation”), composting toilets and a cafĂ© in which students would be employed.

A team of girls envisioned a school with geothermal heating and daylight sensors in each classroom.

They think about sustainability all the time. They know it's a concern not everyone shares.

“Power is cheap in B.C.,” said Courtney Rosskelley, 14, “so it's not on people's minds as much.”

“Our generation will be the ones to start the change,” insisted Samantha Rush, 15.

“It's good to take the first step to make our school ecofriendly,” said Alex Gurney, 14.

The energy assignment is only part of the science curriculum. The students were lost in space yesterday, unveiling their miniature Mars landers.

Their introduction to space exploration included audio clips of Orson Welles's infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Then, they watched a YouTube clip of Mr. Welles apologizing to the world for the real-life panic the radio play caused. And they built gadgets from Lego Mindstorms that had to move by remote control and use a robotic arm to pick up a piece of plastic representing a Mars rock.

Some students gaped when their device worked. Some went back to the drawing board.

The unit for chemistry began with the Big Bang, moving on to subatomic particles and atoms and the periodic table. The students were then presented with a mock crime scene. They were confronted by an unknown fluid and unidentified powders on the floor. Using simple litmus tests and spectrograph analysis, they were to determine the scenario.

The teenaged Sherlock Holmeses did well, with two of every three students determining the culprit to have been a cat and the victim a goldfish in a bowl knocked over.

“I try to make it the kind of course I wanted to take as a kid,” Mr. Brisdon said. He designed the lessons with science teacher Eric Simonson, a physics specialist now on leave, and teaches with Chris Granger.

The school's colour, appropriately enough, is green.

On April 24, during Earth Week, the school is holding a student-organized conference on sustainable living. Some 20 local environmentalists will make presentations. One of the keynote speakers will be University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver. Ellen Hunter-Perkins, a Grade 12 student, said the conference will tackle such issues as transportation and the 100-mile diet.

“Our generation is a lot more educated about our global footprint,” she said.

That's one reason they want the overhead lights in next fall's Science 9 classroom to be off the school's electric grid.

When Michael Marek spoke to the class about the solar products available from Carmanah Technologies of Victoria, he expected to make a brief presentation. Instead, the session lasted 55 minutes. He was surprised by the students' enthusiasm and inquisitiveness.

“I was impressed with how forward-thinking they are,” he said.

Instead of waiting for government money, the students are going to launch a fundraising drive to get the $10,000 necessary to buy solar panels.

If they succeed, their project will be a showpiece, a model that can be incorporated into the new school to be built at the site in the coming years.

This batch of Grade 9s will have been promoted before their class provides its own power. In the vice-principal's office, they agreed they'd come back to help the next class complete the project, flipping the switch on a new day at the school.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.