With its grand tower soaring high above the tree line, it has always been an iconic landmark on the cityscape that surrounds this village on all sides, having embraced it almost a century ago.
When my Great Aunt Helen stepped through those doors it would have been in the final years of the 1920s, perhaps early 30s, and what she learned within would take her from one room school houses throughout rural Ontario to the shores of England and back again.
I sat down with her years ago and asked her about her experiences, where it started, where she went, as she was a great one for stories about the children she had taught over the 40+ odd years she was a teacher, I wanted to know how it all started.
The Normal School was finished in 1899 and sits at the heart of Wortley and for 60 or so years it was the place to go if you wanted to become a teacher. The ‘normal’ that was referred to was in the ‘norms’, or in French ‘école normale‘, which gave them the set tools and methodologies of teaching that had been set down by one St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle in 1685.
Coming from a wealthy family, St. Jean-Baptiste was born in 1651. In England, King Charles II is on the throne, after over a decade of having no monarch, after the beheading of Charles father, King Charles I for having the audacity to believe himself having divine rights and as such all privileges the Sun King in France enjoyed – a condition for which his subjects evidently didn’t agree, and so his head was separated from his body. Well over a century previous King Henry VIII had opened up the can of worms that led to making himself the head of the English church, and not a party to the whims of the Pope.
But in France, no such reformations had occurred, and the Sun King, Louis The XIV reigned a Catholic land, supreme and thought himself divine.
Great changes were afoot, but the dawning Age of Reason, that time of Enlightenment that would sweep through Europe with new sciences and philosophies was still some years away.
Yet, in Rheims, France, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle had a vision of raising the lower classes out of the medieval mindset that kept them poor, to give them the benefits of higher learning and with that more prospects to thrive where he saw poverty and ignorance. So he set about where he believed it should start, normalize the teaching of the teachers. He created a community of “consecrated laymen” and to some controversy, as given his stature and his aristocratic background, cavorting below his station was discouraged, as was to some degree educating the “heathen masses”.
This new ideology did not take hold right away, but with the spread of the Enlightenment came with it the birth pangs of the Industrial Revolution, and so a new method would be required to prepare the populous at large for their new roles as cogs in the churning of steam engines, of vast assembly lines, all that would remake the face of Europe and take the people from their fields to a factory floor.
London was burgeoning by the finale of the 19th century and caught the industrial bug with a growing population surrounding the city, as were many communities across North America. The first of these Normal Schools had appeared in the United States in 1823, in Concord, Vermont.
That building at the heart of this village is a gathering spot, a common green for everyone to enjoy, for skating rinks in winter and soccer in summer, of music that drifts through the village streets on a sunny summer day.
The architect, Francis Heakes built it in the High Victorian style, with a mix of classical, gothic and Romanesque architecture, the building has always had a cathedral-like aspect, and has been mistaken for such by many.
Today with its various heritage designations it is protected for future generations, with all its long history of the men and women who went out into the world to that higher calling. But also it has become a place to gather, to enjoy the community, where maybe some of those very children of immigrants she taught may now reside, as this is also a community of diversity, of open minds and inclusion.
The school here in the village was once one of many that dotted the landscape, but today only 3 of them are left standing in the Province of Ontario.
After graduation Aunt Helen spent some years in rural Ontario, from one small community to the next, until she was given the opportunity for a teaching exchange for a year that would take her all the way to England.
She said it was that experience that changed her direction, and soon after her return accepted a teaching position with the Toronto Board of Education, where she would spend the final 30 odd years of her career teaching immigrant children recently arrived.
Aunt Helen never married, which was very unusual for the time, instead, she dedicated her life to teaching. In her words, it was fulfilling work, as she saw in their eyes an eagerness for learning in those children of immigrants that Ontario children generally lacked. She spoke of their manners, their energy and drive, their laughter, and their desire to learn and take advantage of all that their new country offered.
Many of her students kept in touch over the years, and her home was filled with treasures she had kept from that time. For instance, an embroidery piece one student had made for her always held a place of prominence.
Over the years The Normal School has always had an educational occupant. In 1958 when the teacher’s college up at the University of Western Ontario was built it continued on as a junior high. Later it was The London Board of Education, then eventually the Catholic board, and so forth, until it had stood empty for some time and finally a new occupant was found, and it became a branch of the YMCA, now with a pre-school daycare housed on the lower floors, whose wee voices can be heard in the warmer months drifting through the village, a very appropriate thing, and I imagine the spirit of those who once graced those halls look down with approval on all the iconic building and its grounds has become.
I touch the future… I teach.
Christa McAuliffe (2 September 1948 – 28 January 1986) was an American teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, and was one of the seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.