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Bert and Basic English

A memorable event of any early Frontier College instructor’s field posting was the briefing by Principal Edmund W. Bradwin. These were based entirely on his decades of work in mining, construction, logging camps and on rail gangs. He coined code-like directives, for example, "avoid scissorbills, those who talk without experience." No time was wasted on recommending textbooks.

I graduated from McGill University in 1950. When Dr. Bradwin asked me to become the first Frontier College Labourer-Teacher in Newfoundland following Confederation, I accepted immediately, as this was no small honour. I was to work in Tickle Harbour, Newfoundland on a railway extra-gang.

The labour conditions hearkened back to the 1930s, as rough and rudimentary as any gang across Canada. Ten men to an even narrower bunk car than would be found on the mainland. The first signal that I was correctly sent where education would assuredly be useful came not from the railway gang navvies, nor the foreman or the roadmaster. An office administrator while checking out my boxed supplies consisting of a cloth blackboard, chalk, pencils and paper, looked up sharply and grumbled “you have one of those maps which stick Newfoundland way out there and too small."

My fellow workers, all Newfoundlanders, were to the core intelligent, intuitively thoughtful and kind to newcomers, even those from the mainland. To illustrate my then ignorance of these traits I cite two events, each of which got me off to a shaky start. The Frontier College office would send the usual parcel of books, addressed to me as "Eric Robinson, B.A." This raised anxiety among some gang members that henceforth workers may be required to have university degrees. They understood such implications!

The second occasion arose when I discovered a violinist who owned his own rough violin. He was a natural, and played entirely by ear and his whole repertoire of Newfoundland ditties were learned by hearing each one but once. Now, as it happened I had taken lots of violin lessons and had brought with me a booklet of songs they all knew well, "Kelligrew Soiree", "Squid Jiggin", "Ode to Newfoundland", and so on. It was an eye opener to them when I played "their" songs by reading the musical notation. Unfortunately I had carelessly misread their reaction to such a showy activity. I represented privilege in the extreme. Our gang’s violinist might have been playing Carnegie Hall with my training.

Then there was Bert, one of my students. Mine was an upper bunk at one end of the sleeping car. Bert’s was somewhere down the middle. I was not aware of Bert – one of about sixty workers - until the word was out that his wife was very ill. One day we saw Bert flag down the way freight for Whitbourne. A few days later Bert was back on the gang, the unstated knowledge that his wife had died and was buried. Bert was not able to take any more time off for need of the income.

Sensitive in so many ways, there was a slight tension among the workers as they sought to recognize Bert's predicament, grieving under such conditions. Less chatter than usual as we got ready for bed, one called out from the other end to mine, "Never mind Bert, there are lots more women out there for you." Shocked as we waited for Bert’s reaction, the words tumbled out heavy with emotion, "No way. Only one girl for me, ever."

Bert seemed galvanized to learn to read and write after that night. He attended my sparsely attended classes faithfully. Our text was English Through Pictures. Ivor Wynne Richards and Christine Gibson, the authors, could not have felt more satisfied with their text. In this way some of my students picked up some rudiments of reading and writing from their teacher from the mainland.

- Eric Robinson (Principal – Frontier College 1955-1970, Labourer-Teacher – Tickle Harbour, Newfoundland 1950)

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