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Valley Lives - Margaret Clark

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the April 20, 2016 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Saying goodbye to a Chelsea school monarch

by Tess Allen

A trend starts to emerge when you ask around about former Chelsea Elementary teacher Margaret Clark.

"She didn't suffer fools lightly," said Kate McLaughlin, who graduated from Clark's Grade 6 class in 1985, with a knowing chuckle.

"She was pretty traditional," were the first words uttered by Hume Douglas, who was taught by Clark in 1984.

Margaret Clark
Margaret, pictured here in an undated photo, had the teaching gene in her veins, even if she didn't always realize it, according to her son Brian. She pursued her education studies at the University of Toronto before moving to Chelsea to teach. Photo courtesy of Brian Clark.

"The kids knew exactly where they stood," added David Bates, former principal of Philemon Wright High School in Hull.

Other words used to describe Clark throughout her life - and in the weeks following her death from congestive heart failure on April 3 - were "independent," "strong-willed," and "tough." If you ask Brian Clark, who doubled as both her son and student, these qualities made perfect sense in his mother.

Born in London, Ontario on Sept. 10, 1930, she developed an early interest in teaching and would go on to attain her education degree at the University of Toronto, where she studied under the renowned Canadian literary critic and theorist, Northrop Frye. She started teaching Grade 6 at Chelsea Elementary in 1966 "and never left."

"She went through a lot in her life, especially after my parents separated," said Brian. "My mom raised my brother and [me]. Mind you, we were in our teens then and probably more trouble than we were worth. But very little slowed her down. She was used to dealing with kids."

Clark's old-school teaching style, which she used on every student who passed through Chelsea Elementary from 1966 through 1994, is far from the only trend that becomes apparent in conversations about her

Despite "cutting an imposing figure," according to McLaughlin, Clark was an incredibly dedicated, passionate, and nurturing woman both in her personal life and in her 28 years at Chelsea Elementary, according to her many students and loved ones.

"Once you got to know her, you realized her bark was a lot worse than her bite," said McLaughlin.

Margaret Clark
Margaret had a no-nonsense style of teaching, but "her bark was worse than her bite", says former student Kate McLaughlin. Photo courtesy of Brian Clark.

"She didn't want her students to be intimidated by things. There would be kids who would say, 'I can't do math', who would throw their hands up in exasperation. And she'd say, 'You're going to let a bunch of little numbers defeat you?'" said Brian. "One of her favourite things was the 'Decimal Dance'. If kids couldn't figure out how decimals worked, she would do a little dance to show them how the decimals shifted, to engage them in a different way than just looking at numbers on a page."

If you ask Bates, who welcomed many of Clark's students after they left elementary school, this at times unconventional style worked wonders.

"You could be guaranteed that the kids who came to Philemon Wright who graduated from [Clark's class] were very knowledgeable about math," he said. "She was a teacher who was very adept at accommodating the needs of every kid in the class."

It was an approach that certainly had an impact on students like Douglas.

"She watched everybody's progress. I appreciated that," added Douglas.

A few special memories stand out for him when he thinks of Clark - such as when she overheard him sailing through his reading in the Grade 6 basic reading group and proceeded to march him over to the advanced group with a grand announcement to the class about what a good reader he was.

"I was very happy about that... I hope any teacher would give students chances and would try to get them to do everything they can to be as good as they can be and she did that. She did that well."

Douglas also recalls Clark's fondness for birds and her habit of keeping feeders outside the classroom. She loved the smaller birds, like chickadees, "because they were more polite."

"As much as she had to teach the curriculum, she wanted to teach the kids in her class to care about each other. And that was something that served her classes well long after they left Chelsea Elementary," said Brian. "That was always a primary concern of hers: to give them tools to see them on their way."

Exercising kindness for all living things was commonplace at home, too. Brian said his mother loved the Gatineau Hills, where she filled her time with literature, her number of lifelong friends, and a fervent exploration of the outdoors.

"We used to go bird watching along Meech Lake... It was a way to be more in touch with the natural world," said Brian. "If we had a mouse in the house, you didn't put a trap out; you caught it and released it outside and that mouse would inevitably wind up back in the house at some point, but you'd catch it and release it back out again. She would always rail against the squirrels using the bird feeder, but you couldn't do anything serious against the squirrels, either."

For Brian, this was just the way his mother was. And he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"She made her mind up about stuff," he said. "If she thought that was something she wanted to do, then that's what she did."


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