I met Margaret Atwood in person in the Arctic. Friend Bernadette Dean made it all possible. We were camping and "teaching" in a land-based literacy program. Mostly, we were learning from Inuit women.
There were tents. And yes, there was a polar bear. It was a surreal moment for me. (Women who run with the Polar Bears?)
Like so many of her readers, however, I'd "met" her, or felt like I already had, in the pages of her books. To me, everything she's ever written is a wake up call to action. Meeting her changed my life the same way her books did. I discovered more about what I thought and believed or rather what I didn't know that I didn't know and knew more about who I was or could be—as a result. I still read—love and/or wrestle with—her work.
I learned more about fearlessness and how I would live my life after meeting her. She's kind of like a very scary wonderful Sheree's fairy godmother. A friend.
When I started down the path as a part of a wonderful team hoping to create a community hub model that would maybe save the local school in the village of River John, I turned to people I respect for advice and wisdom. Peggy was there, always, on the other end of the email.
This article appeared in the Halifax Herald. Below is the letter she wrote, one of many in the business case the River John SOS team submitted to the Chignecto Central Regional School Board on Tuesday.
Let it be said there are many many friends who care about rural communities and small schools—and have helped and who think our proposal is compelling. I think of the work of Paul Bennett and Kate Oland and Leif Helmer, of the women of Pictou 2020—women who inspire me. Every day. And many more.
I think of the elected members of that Board. Every DAY! The Board votes on June 10th. The school's fate and in a real way the community's fate is in their hands.
We've given it our best and we are still working. Updates soon at the RJSOS website.
Mostly I think of our students, our teachers, our families at River John Consolidated School. It has been /is tough. Will they have a school to come back to in the fall? Will Maitland and Wentworth? I think of those communities every day too.
And I think, no—I know—that besides being a writer of global influence, Peggy Atwood is a wise, kind friend and guide who embodies fierce compassion.
The first book Atwood book I ever read was Lady Oracle. I read it in a tent. I dreamt I would meet her one day. Funny, the way things work. Here's the letter:
RIVER JOHN HUB: A LETTER FROM MARGARET ATWOOD
I’m writing in support of the River John Community Hub proposal. This isn’t just because I know Sheree Fitch, with whom I taught in the Arctic. She’s an intrepid soul, and if she asks me to write a letter, I write one.
And it’s not just because Sheree was a good friend of my beloved aunt, Nova Scotia writer Joyce Barkhouse. (For those into the relatives: Joyce Killam that was, daughter of Dr. Harold Killam of Kinsman’s Corners, sister to Kae Cogswell of Berwick, and my mother, Margaret Killam Atwood. My mother and father met at the Truro Normal School, and both then taught in two-room schoolhouses in order to save money and put themselves through college. Both grew up in rural NS communities, my father’s so remote that he did high school by mail. My mother worked at the Pagwiak Tea Room in Pugwash, down the road from River John, which was set up by Cyrus Eaton to bring jobs into the region.
So there’s that: I know the area. And I’ve read at the charming Read by the Sea, where the folks bring their own lawn chairs and sun umbrellasand the volunteers pitch in. The thing about small communities is just that: the volunteers do pitch in. People in small places often have a surplus of initiative, inventiveness, and energy – because they need to have it.
I’ve lived in rural communities. I know the struggles, especially the struggles around schools. When the kids are little you can organize play groups, but once they get older the choices usually are to bus them (and it’s just not good for kids that age to spend hour after boring, depressing hour cooped up and breathing fumes), or for the family to move elsewhere. When a community loses its school it loses its centre of gravity.
Increasingly, scientists are studying the effects of making kids stay indoors, cutting them off from nature. Those who’d like to investigate could check out Forest Bathing and No Child Left Inside, with its accounts of Nature Deficit Disorder and Childhood Obesity.
At this time of new developments in education, a need for focus on the importance of the environment, and the adverse effects on kids of keeping them in virtual cages, it just doesn’t make sense to close a local school that has the passionate support of its community, in order to stick kids on buses for many hours a week. And for what? What will really be gained? Unless the idea is to destroy the community so the province doesn’t have to be bothered with it any more.
I know that if the River John hub plan gets the go-ahead, it will be supported, not only from within Nova Scotia, but from people outside it as well. Me included.
Here’s hoping for a sane, child-centered, family-friendly outcome.