New School Year, New Beginings

As many of you know, I recently began teaching at a new high school, in a small suburban town west of Boston. It is one of the many once sleepy little towns that has undergone a residential transformation and has been growing at a breakneck rate, like so many suburban towns across America. At least for now it remain nameless here, but I have to tell you, if initial impressions are any indicator at all, I think I found a place to stay for a little while.

At the moment, my current job is so outstanding I keep looking over my shoulder, for fear that Instant Karma is lying in wait ready to “hit [me] right in the face.” I really cannot believe how good I feel about the new place.

I mean, I am a teacher, I don’t expect that will ever change. The topic, level, and material may change, but I am pretty confident that I found my calling as a person, finally. I may have been on to it for awhile and waited, but teaching is the best job I have ever had. I love the kids. I love ideas. I love language. When asked by a new student recently, “Why do you teach?” My response was simply, “It is better than working,” and I believe that. Other than acting, which also still holds an enormously powerful draw (yet sooner or later you have to be able to make a real living and acting really challenges that prospect for all but an extraordinarily small few) I have had no other job where I am willing to put in the kind of hours that I do. Just ask Ali sometime and see what her response is! She recently commented, “So now that the school year started, I don’t get to see you until June, right?” And while that might seem a little exaggerated, you certainly get the idea.

So, after toiling away last year in a place where I was not terribly happy at all and finally was able to reconcile that fact, I really quite stunned at how great I feel at the new place. Of course, I absolutely loved nearly all my students last year, and there is a large group of junior students that burrowed there way so deep in my heart that they are unlikely to ever be removed or forgotten. That is what made it so hard to finally conclude how unhappy I was. But in education, the kids are almost never the problem. It is almost always the other stuff, the environment, the availability of tools and opportunity, but a lot of it comes down to the adults.

Yet in the new school, everyday is a beautiful day. No lie. For starters the environment is absolutely second to none. I work in a building that is practically new. It certainly looks and feels that way, despite being only five years old. The tools that are available to me are also completely first class. For starters, I have more shelving and storage space than I have ever had. I have a brand new Dell computer, complete with flat screen monitor, and a pretty solid set of speakers, all on a mobile cart-like desk that also holds a VCR. All of this is tied into the wall for network access, but more than that so I can display it all on monitor suspended from the ceiling, which I believe to be about a 29” or thereabouts. I even have my own printer on that table that rolls! I also have another normal desk that is completely separate, buy the way, so all that tech gear doesn’t crowd up the work space. I mean, seriously, in terms of hardware, the only thing I don’t have is a permanently mounted LCD projector, and I am certainly not about to lament that fact. Oh, did I forget to mention, the large overhead monitor also has cable. I am seriously considering the purchase of a used La-Z-Boy and dropping it off in the room!

Then there are the adults. And I have to say everyone I have met has been warm and welcoming. There is a level of friendly professionalism that confidently demonstrates that this is an elite high school, as it also made the Newsweek list of America’s Best, but there is none of the smugness or elitism that such recognition can result. All indications, at least right now, are that people know what they are doing and are doing it well, but are still continuing to look for ways that they can do things better, make the school better, serve the kids better. Too often a lot of the things I just mentioned quickly become little more than lip service. So, to be in place where there seems to be such a genuine team atmosphere among the staff seems luxurious, to say the least.

We’ll see what I have to say in six months or so, but as for now I am not sure I couldn’t be happier. Plus, after being forced to surrender my head coaching position with my young group of Jewish lads at the private school (due to the commute), I have had quite an exciting time with my first time coaching an all girl’s soccer team. I took over a team of freshmen girls and it has been quite a change, but more on that another time.

Highlands Honeymoon: Part Three

On the way back down from Cape Breton, we stopped at one of the cooler attractions on the trip, Genora Distillery. It is the only single malt whiskey distillery in North America. The whole place was fascinating. The water comes from the local glen and they import all the peeted barley from Scotland to cook it up and age it on the western coast of Cape Breton. Moreover, since the delicate elixir hails from “New Scotland” it cannot be referred to as the real MacCoy, as it were, which was news to me. Still there is no blending with this “Not-Scotch,” as I liked to call it.

Photo: Glenora Distillery Gates

Photo: Glenora Distillery

I have to seriously wonder who dreamed up the process to make whiskey, because it is a little crazy complicated. Moreover, Glenora’s variety was wicked expensive. I guess it has to be considering they were up and running for ten years before they really even had a product. Gallons of moonshine, year after year, distilled and loaded into oak barrels bought from Jack Daniels in Tennessee. It ran the first owners of the joint into bankruptcy. It was such a problem that the new owners started dripping off a little extra so that they could sell some of the un-aged alcohol, which is really little more than moonshine. Apparently, their “Silver,” as they call it, is quite popular with the locals, not to mention a whole lot more affordable.

Photo: Glenora Distillery Operation

We drove down the western side of the mainland once we left the island. One thing was for sure, for most of the journey, it was the road less traveled, and for good reason. Certainly, driving south along most of the Gloosap Trail was a little depressing. In fact, Ali quickly referred to it as the Gumdrop Trail (gumdrop is our code for bulls***). It seemed like it was one run down farm house after another, albeit with a few miles in between them. It wasn’t really until we got on the southern side of the Minas Basin, part of the Bay of Fundy, that things really turned up and got a whole lot more interesting. Our last couple of nights we stayed in the little town of Wolfville, which was a fantastic way to end our stay up North.

Home to wineries and apple orchards, the sleepy little town is also host to Acadian University and the Atlantic Theatre Festival. It was amazingly quaint and we had plenty of time to explore leisurely. We even took in a little theatre, which is beginning to be a regular occurrence when we are on trips. We saw an admirable production of Noises Off one evening, while there. Produced in the university’s theatre space, the professional production was good, not great. There were definitely moments of great humor and places where the cast was really firing the comic bits with precision, but it was a bit uneven.

Photo: Gaspereau Vineyard

Photo: Gaspereau Barrels

Also, in Wolfville we got to visit a fantastic local winery. Gaspereau Winery hasn’t been operating for very long, but they have quickly assembled an impressive operation. For one, the place is gorgeous, from the vineyards to the main, little plant it may not be terribly big, yet it really is beautiful, as you can see. Plus, the tour they give was great. We got to taste nearly everything they produce, reds, whites, desserts, you name it. It was a good thing we ate before we arrived. The only thing we didn’t get to test for free was the ice wine, which is a rather expensive variety. I probably learned more on that tour about the subtleties of winemaking and the whole process involved with the different varieties, than I have on any other tour. The wine was pretty good, as well. So good, in fact, we bought a whole mixed case of the stuff. After a few purchases at the not-scotch distillery and the winery, Ali began referring to our honeymoon as the booze tour.

Photo: Me and Ali Enjoying Wine

Photo: Grapevine Photo: Ali at the Trellis

Our final stop in the Wolfville area was at Grand Pre, originally an Acadian stronghold, now a memorial to those who suffered during le Grand Dérangement, or Great Upheaval. After the British took control of the Canadian maritime provinces, they decided they weren’t so crazy about the French speaking folk that were inhabiting the area, along with the Natives. Interestingly, Acadians really didn’t consider themselves French, even though they spoke the language. They had been there so long and had good relations with the Natives. They generally considered themselves neutral to the storied conflicts between the two great European powers. Yet, in the mid 1700s, the Brits decided the Acadians looked French, spoke French, and were on land that was now a British colony, so they might as well be French. And that was simply no good. So the Brits seized the Acadian’s land, packed them all up on boats, and deported them to just about any place but France. Why strengthen the enemy, right?

Photo: Evangeline Statue Photo: The Grand Pre Chapel

Now I had recently gained a cursory familiarity with the le Grand Dérangement, at least the ethnic expulsion part, but that was about it. Also, we ventured through some Acadian areas last time we were in Nova Scotia, even getting a little insight from a local Acadian fisherman. What got more interesting to me was that this is where we in the States got all the Cajuns. I had previously wondered about this possibility. Little did I know that I was on to something, since one of the best receiving ports for the deportees would prove to be New Orleans. Some places, like some of the southern coastal colonies simply wouldn’t take them. When you think about it all makes perfect sense. The people from Acadia were often referred to simply as Cadians. So with time and some local Louisiana color and dialect the name and culture of the deportee Cadian morphed into the current Cajun.

Photo: Grand Pre and Grounds

So, Grand Pre is a memorial site, with a museum and memorial church that was constructed to emulate the style of church that would have been seen when the Minas Basin was part of what was Acadia. The exhibits were pretty cool and I thoroughly enjoyed the place, and Ali even let me read just about everything in the place. Plus, get a load of the post card good looks of the grounds.

Before we knew it our trip was over and it was time to head back to the States. All in all it was a pretty fun trip. We certainly drove a lot and the last leg to get back to the ferry in Yarmouth was a little long. We had to get up and get moving a whole lot earlier than either of us would have liked. Still we made it back to Maine and had time to wander around Portland for awhile before heading home. Like I said, one of the great things already proven is that Ali and I can find a way to have a pretty good time almost anywhere.

Highlands Honeymoon: Part Two

Crossing over the Canso Causeway, Ali and I were filled with great expectations. We were now on Cape Breton, the island most like the province’s namesake, Scotland. Visions of rocky highlands, with steep bluffs shearing off into the sea, danced through our heads. In fact, Canada spends a fair amount of their own dollars advertising the views of this small island. Without question there are some stunningly beautiful views, as the pictures will hopefully show. Web views don’t always capture the majesty of landscape.

Photo: A Cabot Trail Bluff

Photo: The Cabot Trail

Truth told, we do think that maybe the area is a bit oversold. Yet even that commentary requires a qualifier. Cape Breton is quite lovely in many places. However, we were under the impression that nearly everywhere you looked we would be arrested with awe. Nor is it quite as remote or isolated as we thought. A bit of the hype, in the well packaged propaganda, fed our preconceptions a bit. In reality, the island supports a pretty healthy trade of inns, lodges, artisans, crafters, and knickknack shops, certainly far more than we anticipated. That being said it is still remarkably rural. Moreover, I was made to understand that the tourism trade was down a bit this year, as the lure of New Foundland and Prince Edward’s Island had for some reason surged. Regardless, I would still recommend that anyone visit. Despite any misconceptions, we were certainly not disappointed. One of the truly great things about our new nuptial bliss is that we pretty much find a way to have fun no matter where we go.

Photo: Shoreside on Cape Breton

We spent the majority of our stay in the center of the island at the Silver Dart Lodge, nestled in Baddeck, on the banks of the giant, saltwater lake basin Bras d’Or, which sits centrally in the island like the filling of a Twinkee. Incidentally, the lake is pronounced bra-door, which I learned from a woman at an information booth who gave me a run for my money with her coy replies to my questions about the area. She was on to me from jump and Ali delighted in it the whole time. Aside from that the lodge was certainly the plum spot in the area, with a grand glass fronted dining room that provided a magnificent view of the lake. Yet, the lodge afforded a host of other amusements, most notably the entertainment.

Photo: Silver Dart Lodge

Photo: Boats on Bras d'Or

If only the guy we asked to take this picture of us below could have gotten a bit more of the scenery in the background!

Photo: The Happy Couple! Photo: Bras d'Or at Night

First, Cape Breton is world famous for its traditional musical culture. In fact, it is not uncommon that musicians from Ireland and Scotland find there way to the shores of this tiny island to relearn the folk music that local residents have preserved with ceilidhs and the like. While we did not stop in stomp with the fiddlers in ceilidh country, we were treated to the endlessly macabre musical mastery of Darryl Keegan at the Silver Dart Lodge. Now, the man was a fine singer and guitar player, to be sure. Nonetheless, it is his shtick that proved imminently more amusing. In the interludes, he would tell short stories about the songwriter or the inspiration for the diddy he was to play next. This is all fine and good until you listen to him over a stretch for a few nights, wherein every “wonderful, wonderful song” he sang was with written or inspired by ye old Grim Reaper. It was as if every songwriter, original singer, or subject matter of each song was “tragically killed.” It became quite comical by the third night we were there.

Photo: Boats on Bras d'Or

Photo: Fisherman's Cove

As in most cases, it is the people that can make the trip and this one was no different. Ali and I have a real knack for finding all kinds. In addition to the tragic songs of Darryl Keegan, there was an extraordinarily odd older couple, the wife of which would not give the poor songsmith a rest. The woman was transfixed by the singer and spent hours sketching the man in between bites of dinner. It was as if he was playing a private concert for her. Meanwhile, the poor husband, whose best days were long gone, struggled to stay conscious at the table during all the drawing and conversation. Despite the help’s delicate inquiries to the octogenarian artist as to whether her husband might be more comfortable in the room, she continued to flirt and capture the minstrel on paper. Meanwhile, the poor old guy was falling asleep in his soup, literally! Beak first, the old guy took a nose dive and could have drown, while his wife was oblivious to both him and the staff’s entreaties. This went on for all the days we were there. We felt a bit bad laughing, but it was so remarkably absurd that it was nearly impossible. We also shared a lunch table with a biker couple from Yarmouth, seeking shelter from the rain, as they prepared to ride the Cabot Trail.

Photo: One of the Greatest Views

Photo: A Shoreline Farm

The Cabot Trail is the draw on the island. In addition to its beauty, the trail is remarkably comical, historically speaking. For those from Massachusetts, they should be able to relate. A lot like Plymouth Rock, nobody can be sure exactly where “John Cabot” landed. A lot of people and even some evidence suggest he may have actually landed on New Foundland. Yet, the trail is on Cape Breton. Either way he is supposed to be the first European to run into North America in 1497. More ridiculous, however, is the name considering that “John Cabot” is actually Giovanni Caboto. Since he was sailing for England he apparently lost his actual name. I guess, Giovanni doesn’t sound appropriate enough for Canada’s Highland National Park, in New Scotland. Still, nearly all the views seen here were taken along the trail of the paisano, whose name seems to have been unnecessarily Anglicized.

Photo: Continuing on the Cabot Trail

While driving through the Highland’s I began to ruminate on an interesting observation. While many inhabitants of the island seemed to live in relatively modest, but nicely kept homes, there was a fair amount of rundown, derelict-looking shacks, tucked in the hills. Add to that the fact that Cape Breton is home to a once considerable and still functioning coal mining industry, and considering that many of the same Irish and Scottish immigrants found there way to places like Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia to tunnel for the same ebony earth. It begged the question, “Is Highlander merely Scottish code for Hillbilly?” I’ll let all of you make the call, but as a descendant of some of those same Stateside mining folk from the hills of West Virginia, I know where my instincts lie.

Along the Westside of the trail, is one of the Acadian strongholds on the island. Interestingly, none of those with French heritage had their name’s butchered into English. Of course the English did try to purge all those French speakers from the province after they got control of the colony. It was in the sleepy Acadian village where we found this French Tim Horton’s sign.

Photo: French Tim Horton's Sign Photo: Sun Descending

In fact, I learned even more about the Acadians then I had previously known on this trip. Next installment, the journey back to the States. But have no fear it is almost ready and will be posted in a day or so. I promise.