Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Potency of Prayer

"The potency of prayer hath subdued the strength of fire; it hath bridled the rage of lions, hushed anarchy to rest, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine which is never exhausted, a sky unobscured by clouds, a heaven unruffled by the storm. It is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings."

- John Chrysostom

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Mouldy Book

I return once again to my early days at Brock University and to my quest at becoming a cultured intellectual.

The greatest extortion in this land happens every September across university campuses when students are forced to buy textbooks at exorbitant prices. A book that should cost no more than ten bucks can easily go for a couple hundred dollars at the bookstore. When my cousin Jen told me that she had some university textbooks that I could borrow I jumped at the idea. Perfect! I can save big bucks!

She dropped off a box of books the week before school started. “A couple of them might have a little water damage. Okay, bye!” she said. Her car screeched out of the driveway.

Most of the books were in pretty good shape and were the right editions. The book at the very bottom however was a different story.

After I scratched some of the mould off the cover, I discovered that the book was a History of the 20th Century. It smelled bad – real bad. I’m not sure what the book was supposed to look like, but it was now green and furry. I didn’t know they had chia pet textbooks. The pages were sticky and had to be peeled and pried apart.

I tried flipping it open. It didn’t flip open. After working at it a little, I did manage to crack it open. This sent a new wave of rank odour into my face. Everything went black...

When I came to, I was laying on the living room floor. Mom’s flowers had mysteriously wilted and died. The fish in the aquarium were floating.

Later that afternoon, I went online and checked the price of the book and saw that it was around two hundred dollars, and that it was three editions newer. I looked at the book on the screen and then back to the borrowed textbook. Two hundred dollars is a lot, I thought to myself. Maybe I’ll just use this text for a while and see how it goes.

It was my first seminar. I was very nervous too – for one hour, me, ten other students and the professor would sit around a table and discuss what we had read in our textbooks. The professor would mark us based on how intelligent and insightful our comments were.

The professor had given us the reading ahead of time. We were to read the first chapter. As I was to realize much too late, my chapter one was different than the new book’s chapter one.

When we got to the seminar room, everybody pulled out their nice glossy textbooks. My mouth watered at the ‘new book’ smell of their books (you have to be cultured to understand this). Rich snobs, I thought.

I reached into my book bag and pulled out my ‘book’. The students and professor began sniffing and looking around for the source of the smell. “It smells like there is a dead rat in the wall or something!” one girl said. At least my book was a good ice-breaker.

I coughed to cover the sound of me cracking my book open (and due to the fact that I was choking because of the horrid smell).

The student sitting beside me on my right looked at my book and me distastefully. She pulled on her hood and pulled the drawstrings until only her eyes were visible.

The student on my left side was an interesting character. He obviously wasn’t trying to go for the cultured intellectual look judging by all of the metal embedded in his face. He had python tattoos running down his arms to his fingers. He caught a whiff of the book and looked my way. He was a tough looking kind of guy and I didn’t want to get on his bad side. He probably had a python in his backpack. “Cool book dude” he said with an approving nod.

It turned out that the chapter 1 I read was quite different than the chapter 1 the rest of the class read. They all read about the death of Queen Victoria and the dawning of a new age (I was starting to suspect that Queen Victoria was still alive at the time my book had been printed). I had read about the Boer War. It was then that I started to panic – I had nothing to contribute! I had no gem or nugget of knowledge to share with the group! How was I supposed to become a cultural intellectual if I couldn’t even comment on Queen Victoria! I started breathing rapidly, but quickly stopped due to the noxious fumes coming from you know what.

The seminar was nearing an end and I was racking my brain for something to say. My thoughts were broken by the professor. “Greg, you’ve been quiet all seminar. What do you think about the Belle Epoque?”

I froze for a moment like a deer caught in the high beams of a semi. I had two options: I could run out of the room and never come back, or say something about what I had read in my mould encrusted textbook.

“Well,” I said (a very intellectual way to start any profound comment) “I think the real story here is the Boer War.”


The girl to my right peeked through her hoodie and gave me a confused look.

“Very interesting” the professor said after a long pause. “I’ve never thought about how the Boer War nullified the optimism and naivety of the Belle Epoque. Very insightful.”

“I concur” I said, even though I had no idea what he just said or what concur meant.

After class, the Goth to my left looked over with admiration. “Cool comment dude – was that in your retro book? Where can I get a copy?” Well, I thought, put that shiny book of yours in a box and store it in a very damp basement for a couple of years. “It’s one of those rare books” I replied. “One of a kind in fact.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As Easy as Pie

Fundraisers are part of every school community. We’ve all pulled an Oliver Twist as we peddled our overpriced chocolate bars around the neighbourhood. Last year at ORCS, we tackled a completely different fundraiser. Pie making! I had no idea that pie making would be such an adventure...

Let’s go over the ingredients:

A pile of apples
A pile of sugar
A pile of flour
20 grade 7/8 students

Mix all of these together and voila! Chaos!

The room was set up with all different stations. Students were divided into groups and sent to the stations. As time progressed the groups rotated so that everybody had a chance to experience every part of the pie-making process.

Station 1: Peel and Core

The apple peelers were clamped down to the tables. The student would take a luscious apple, and jam it on the sharp spokes of the peeler. A blade would be resting against the peel. When the arm was turned by the student, the peel would come off in a long strip. Once the peel was off, the apple could be slid off this contraption. The sharp spokes cored the apple as well. If done properly with a watchful eye, an apple could be cored and peeled in no time flat. If however, the peeler arm was spun too fast (i.e. warp speed), or the student was not paying attention (i.e. often) the peel and the apple would disappear under the arm of the peeler.

Station 2: Mix the apples into a large bowl of sugary, syrupy gloop

I suppose one of the fatal flaws of this fundraiser was that we made the pies right before lunch. Stomachs cried out as the delicious apple slices were dropped into a large bowl of some kind of cinnamon sugar potion. This station can also be called ‘the temptation station’. Many of the students began deftly munching on a few of the sugary apple slices. By the time it was time to rotate, these students were having a full out feast. Because it is not cool to wear aprons at this age (who can blame them?) many students got this syrupy slop all over their nice white uniform shirts. After a while, the fronts of their shirts dried as hard as a rock. While the futures of their uniform tops were in doubt, it did keep the students from devouring their sugary shirts.

Station 3: Make the pie dough

From the temptation station, where large amounts of sugar were consumed, students moved onto the pie dough stage. While the student’s eyes were already wide-eyed and wild after station 2, they only grew larger with wonderment and excitement when they saw the large pile of flour. They quickly turned into Robin Hood’s Merry Men. For every handful of flour that went into the pie dough, another handful went onto someone’s face/hair/clothes. Picture one of the students if you will. Hands and shirt were completely sticky – now add a shower of flour. Some of the students were beginning to look like mimes.

Station 4: Put the apples into the pie shell

This station was a déjà vu to the ‘temptation station’. The mode of operation was as follows: put an apple slice in the pie shell, and then put a slice in your mouth. Repeat.

Station 5: Crumble top

Never will I forget this station. My nice quiet, retrospective, civilized students were transformed at this station into rabid animals. I’m not sure what crumble top is all made of, but I do know that it is full of sugar, and that it is delicious. It certainly did not help that it was nearing lunchtime. At first students were sneakily eating little clumps while they worked, but that quickly ended. Finally we finished all of the pies, but there was still a large pile of crumble top left. The students descended upon this station like moths to a light. Snarling and growling could be heard as students jostled for position around the table of crumble top.

We finally finished, and the clean-up was minimal (I think the crumble top table was licked clean). As a thank-you for helping, the PTA (who were bravely helping us) baked two of the pies for us to enjoy at lunch.


Lunch is normally a lively affair in the classroom, but they all seem terribly dull compared to this lunch. The leftover boerenkoel and stamppott their mothers had so lovingly packed in the student’s lunches were quickly cast aside for the pies. By this point, the students were beyond hyper. They were at the climax of their sugar rushes and the pie served as fuel for the fire. Some of the students were so filled with energy that they were unable to sit down while they ate. I think one student was even levitating. After they inhaled the pies, they went outside and ripped around for half an hour.

As a wise man once said, ‘what goes up must come down.’ When the bell rang for the students to come back inside, I noticed that the sugar rush had worn off. Big time. They were all experiencing a severe sugar crash. I had an exciting History lesson planned for the afternoon. We would be learning about Etienne Brule, the first coureurs de bois, who met his unsavoury demise by being eaten by Natives. As I launched into this exciting story I noticed that some of the student’s eyelids were getting heavy. Other students were losing a battle with gravity and were sliding lower and lower down into their desks. Needless to say, it was a quiet afternoon.

The final bell went and the students silently shuffled out of the room. Instead of saying ‘goodbye’ a couple of them unconsciously said ‘goodnight’.

It was a roller coaster kind of day, but one of those days you are thankful for having the privilege of teaching.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Father Kolbe

He was prisoner #16670. That was all that was important to the guards at Auschwitz. Back at his home church in Poland, he was known as Father Maximilian Kolbe, a simple monk, who loved to serve the church. A year earlier to Father Kolbe’s arrest, Hitler sent out a secret memorandum to Hans Frank, the new Governor General of occupied Poland. “As for Poland’s hundreds of thousands of priests – they will preach what we want them to preach. If any priest acts differently, we shall make short work of him. The task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid and dull-witted.” Father Kolbe quickly became one of those priests who did not fit the Nazi mould and was arrested and convicted for publishing illegal material. Father Kolbe arrived at the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz in May of 1941, where he was promptly told that the life expectancy of a priest was one month. After being overworked in the timber detail, Kolbe collapsed. Guards gathered around Kolbe. He was mercilessly kicked, given fifty lashes, then shoved in a ditch, and left to die. The guards snickered as they walked away, not bothered that they had just left a man to die. A couple of brave prisoners found Kolbe and brought him to the camp hospital, where miraculously Kolbe revived.

In July of 1941, a man from Kolbe’s barracks escaped. The next morning, the men from barracks 14 were brought out to stand before the camp commandant on the parade ground. Because the man had made a clean get away, the incensed camp commandant decreed that ten men would be put to death in the starvation chambers. The men from barracks 14 shuddered at hearing the punishment. The hunger chamber was the worst way to die at Auschwitz. Ten men were quickly pulled out of the block of men, and their numbers were recorded. One of the chosen men fell to his knees and cried out in anguish about the family he was leaving behind – ‘My wife! My poor children! – what will they do?’ It was then that prisoner #16670 stepped out of the ranks and approached a guard. The parade ground erupted in cries of astonishment as Father Kolbe asked to take the place of the distraught man in the line of ten condemned men. Instant execution was the usual norm for those who approached a guard without permission, but the guard was curious to hear what Kolbe would say. “May I take his place?” Father Kolbe asked. “Why would you want to take his place?” yelled the guard. Kolbe replied that “I am just an old man with no family, and good for nothing.” The guard looked at him with disgust but allowed the substitution. Father Kolbe followed the other nine men into the terrible starvation cells.

The cries of the men in the starvation cells could usually be heard in the rest of the camp, but when Father Kolbe was sent there, faint singing could be heard. For the prisoners with Kolbe, they had in Kolbe a shepherd to lead them through the shadow of the valley of death. For this reason perhaps, Father Kolbe was the last to die.

Franciszek Gajowniczek was the man who Father Kolbe replaced. He survived Auschwitz and returned to his family and died at the age of 95. Gajowniczek never wasted any opportunities in telling of the powerful act of witness and love shown by Father Kolbe.

Still today, Kolbe’s testimony shines. Kolbe did not witness, he was a witness. Francis of Assisi’s said “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Father Kolbe exhibited this in Auschwitz. He lived the tenants of Christ’s teachings and exemplified Christian living through his witness.

“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
(Psalms 46:9-11)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Goodnight boys...

I love a good practical joke – just ask my students. After playing a little joke on my students a couple of weeks ago, one of the students protested that “No fair – it’s not even April Fool’s Day yet!”

We were brought up with practical jokes at home, which is probably why I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to pull a fast one in the classroom. It was my Dad that introduced us kids to practical jokes many years ago.

23 years ago (pretend you hear the strumming of a harp)

“Goodnight boys!” he called, “and no talking!” Dad shut off the light and closed the door to our bedroom. I was about five years old (and very adorable) and I shared a bedroom with my two older brothers, Derek and Scott. I snuggled into my pillow as I heard Derek and Scott start to fight from across the room. Suddenly their quarrel ended.

“Hey – something wet just touched my foot!” Derek hissed.

“Yeah right Derek, you probably just – hey! Something just touched my foot too!” Scott stammered.

“I told you Scott! It’s probably a flippin’ raccoon licking our feet.” said Derek.

“What? You think so?” said Scott nervously. I could hear him gulp.

This was why I tucked my blankets in very tightly. I started drifting off again – secure in the knowledge that a raccoon couldn’t get past my tucked in blankets. Just as my adorable eyelids began to droop, I suddenly felt my bed move! Now I was wide awake.

“Hey guys!” I urgently called, “Something just moved my bed!”

“Yeah right Greg!” called Derek. “Like something would move your bed – raccoon’s can’t move a bed!”

He was probably right. I snuggled into my pillow again. The silence was broken by giggling that sounded suspiciously human. I was pretty sure raccoons did not giggle.

Dad crawled out from under the bed and turned on the light. He was laughing hysterically by this point. Even though we did not like being the butt end of a joke, we were relieved that there were no raccoons in the room. Rabies is no laughing matter. After he had stopped laughing he told us what he had done. As he was walking out of the room, he had turned off the light then shut the door. However, he had never left the room. The “licking raccoon” was the water from the humidifier.

As Dad left the room, I heard Mom say “Real smart Ralph, those kids will never get to sleep now.”

Being too hyper to sleep, Derek and Scott engaged in hitting each other with their stuffed Curious George monkeys, while I fell into a fitful sleep with my teddy and glow-worm dreaming that someday, I too, would be able to pull off a good practical joke.