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The Teaching Life of Margaret Waterman Kelly

Hard Work and Uncommon Dignity: The Teaching Life of Margaret (Peggy) Waterman Kelly

(Published as A Life Full of Lessons, The Telegram, February 3, 1999)

Margaret Waterman, Circa 1945Many images and stories of our past are, and will continue to be, conjured as Newfoundland prepares to celebrate, in 1999, its golden anniversary of Confederation with Canada. Such conjuring is a form of remembrance and, as such, is a way not only of reflecting but, also, of bearing witness and of giving thanks. Developments in any society - its accomplishments, both great and small - bear the mark of many whose labours go unpraised or whose work is often taken-for-granted or forgotten. Anniversaries can remind us that it is important to refuse to forget these extraordinary efforts of ordinary people as a way to exercise our collective responsibility to remember 'where once they stood, we stand'.

The education of a people, and those who toil to effect it, are crucial to development. Improved education has been an important accomplishment of Confederation. Yet, progress should never erase from memory that on which advances are built. The efforts of young women and men who, with huge commitment and, often, while facing great obstacles, taught in pre-Confederation Newfoundland, are an important part of the legacy of advancement. Told here, in their honour, is the story of one such teacher.

Margaret Waterman was born in Torbay, Newfoundland, on September 17, 1915, the fourth of six children and the first of two daughters born into the fishing family of John and Margaret (Hickey) Waterman. She attended the Presentation Convent School at Torbay where she was taught by members of the Presentation Order of Sisters and from which she graduated with her Grade Eleven finishing certificate.

Like many young women from devout Roman Catholic families, Margaret Waterman considered entering the convent but, despite the urging of some of the Presentation Sisters who taught her, she decided against it. Convent life was not her primary interest nor was it an affordable option for her parents. In the mid-1930's, after having spent the years following high school working at home with her mother, she applied both to the Grace Hospital for nursing and to teaching. Both applications were accepted but, having received her acceptance to teaching first, Margaret Waterman chose that career path.

During a time when well-educated teachers were at a premium, many young women and men with as little education as Grade Eight were assigned to teach. Although further training beyond high school was not required, Margaret Waterman furthered her teaching qualifications by attending Summer Schools for teacher education at the Parade Street Campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Motivated by her strong desire to learn, she completed four summers of such study.

Margaret Waterman taught for a ten year period, a period which encompassed the Great Depression, a World War, and rule by Commission of Government. At that time, teachers' salaries were approximately $60 per month, regardless of qualifications, and were paid by the Parish in which a teacher was employed. Room and board for teachers was in the range of $10 per month.

Margaret Waterman's first teaching assignment was in the small Placentia Bay community of Bruley. She was assigned to this position by Fr. Cassiola, the Parish Priest who was stationed at Bar Haven but who was responsible for a number of small communities, including Bruley. As in subsequent assignments in Port Royal and Bar Haven, communities within the same Parish, she stayed in Bruley for one year. Longer assignments followed. She taught in Fortune Harbour for three years with Fr. Hinchey as Parish Priest, in Kelligrews for two years with Fr. St. John as Parish Priest and for two years in Gambo, Bonavista Bay, with Fr. Cullen as Parish Priest.

Many of the communities in which Margaret Waterman taught were at far coastal reaches. To reach Bruley, Port Royal, Bar Haven or Fortune Harbour, Margaret Waterman would travel the train from St. John's to Argentia and, from there, she would board a coastal boat to her designated community. No established roads existed. Travel to assignments in the larger and less isolated communities of Kelligrews and Gambo could be completed by train alone.

The school year in very small and isolated fishing outports such as Bruley, Port Royal and Bar Haven, was often only six months in length, significantly shorter than the usual ten months. But regardless of place, the school day ran regularly from 9 o'clock to 4 o'clock. A teacher was expected to teach all grades and to plan and to conduct lessons with little or no resource materials - such as workbooks - and with complete reliance on and adherence to the approved textbooks. A School Supervisor visited the schools annually to observe teachers at their work and to ensure compliance with and appropriate coverage of approved materials.

The characteristic small one-room school house was wood-heated and each student was expected to contribute a piece of firewood each day to maintain the fire. Students took turns lighting the fire each morning and the student responsible on a given day was expected to arrive early at the schoolhouse with kindling and wood. Classes were small and, in those communities, devoted to instruction in the lower grades. As was the norm of that time, discipline was maintained with the threat of corporeal punishment, usually by hand strapping. This threat, however, did not prevent such antics by students as, on an especially fine day, blocking the chimney flue to ensure time off from the labours of learning and time on the frozen pond, skating or playing hockey.

In small communities, the teacher was a community leader who also worked in close conjunction with the Parish Priest. Expectations for a teacher were especially heighthened in parishes where no Parish Priest was stationed or where only random visits by him were possible. In her capacity as teacher, then, Margaret Waterman performed many duties beyond teaching the classroom lessons. With a death in the community, and with no Priest available or able to make the trip to preside over the burial, the teacher would substitute. For example, in Bruley, then a young woman barely in her twenties, Margaret Waterman conducted funeral services in the Church and presided over Interments at the Parish graveyard, where she would recite prayers, such as the Rosary of the Holy Souls, for the deceased. Summoning her own words, eyes lit with quiet strength and courage, she would say of that work and those times, "I didn't mind it a bit. I'd do anything, then."

Among her favourite teaching assignments was her time in the logging town of Gambo, Bonavista Bay. It was in Gambo that Margaret Watermen met Andrew J. Kelly. They married on September 11, 1946 in her home community of Torbay. Upon marriage, Margaret Waterman ended her formal teaching career to become a housewife and, on July 28, 1947, a new mother. Together, "Peggy and A.J." raised six children. Gambo, the place of her last teaching assignment, would become Margaret Waterman's lifelong permanent residence.

But, 'once a teacher, always a teacher'. Despite her absence from a formal classroom, Margaret Waterman Kelly continued to advance her belief in the power and worth of education. She tutored her own children and grand-children and instilled in them a love of and a respect for education. She also took great pleasure in preserving the uniqueness of Newfoundland, its language and traditions. With the advent of Newfoundland publishing, she lined her bookshelves with Newfoundland books. She would comment often about the delight these books brought her and the opportunity they provided "to learn about your own province, its different places and people" and "to feel proud to be a Newfoundlander".

An avid community volunteer, she participated with vigour and intensity in many community and parish organizations. At the age of 80, she was awarded, by the Gambo Lions Club, the Judge Brian Stevenson Gold Medal in recognition of her outstanding and long-standing community service. The walls of her home are lined with certificates of accomplishment and recognition. Of one certificate, in particular, she was especially proud, that which acknowledged her training as a tutor of adult literacy.

On January 19th, 1998, at the age of 82, Margaret Waterman Kelly died in Gambo. The summer before her death she attended, with her family, the first Reunion of the last school at which she had taught, the now non-existent Sacred Heart School in Gambo. The oldest former teacher of the school in attendance that day, she participated proudly and joyously in the day's events. Former students, now senior men and women of the community, reminisced with her that day about a school time very different than now. These same former students were among those who attended her funeral to participate in the celebration of a life consistently marked by religious devotion, hard work and uncommon dignity, a life which, until the very end, was unfailingly devoted to education, to community development and to the well-being of others.

© 1999 Ursula A. Kelly

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