A 1939 Canada Grade One/Two Lesson in Gas Chambers Being Bilingual

First Day at School in Toronto, Canada 1939

On Sunday, September 3, 1939 Germany defied a British ultimatum to withdraw its troops from Poland and World War II broke out

Next morning Father sat glued to the radio at our breakfast table in Toronto and solemnly told us, “This is the darkest day in the history of the British Empire.” Outside the window the sun shone brightly, daring to differ.

I danced, not walked, with my sisters up the quarter-mile cinder path along Dufferin Street to Briar Hill Public School for my first day of school on Tuesday, September 5.

Grade One teacher Jeannie McDowell had shoulder-length, loose,  wavy black hair and was a little preoccupied, plump and lopsided. She wore a black sweater coat and brightly flowered dress with a white background. She was colorful and dramatic compared to the housewife mothers I knew.

At first I was seated near the front which was particularly good on the day we had a substitute teacher. She was wearing an egg in her bosom to see if it would hatch and that kept our attention.

We did our sums with a choice of two colors from the crayon box. My favorite combination was purple and green, although some days I was in the mood for yellow and orange, or red and blue.

Miss McDowell loved to have us do art but always insisted we draw a black frame around our creations, as if they were important and permanent.

She didn’t read stories to us; we stood in a line at the front and took turns reading out loud ourselves.

One day she turned solemn, like Father, and told us Jews were being gassed to death in Nazi concentration camps, their bodies burned and turned into soap. I knew from her eyes she was telling the truth and trusting us the way she would adults.  In my heart I decided not to ever join with people who made comments about Jews. This was a decision about who I was, made without my parents’ input. I was sure they would agree but they were too passive.  I felt very grown up, thanks to Miss McDowell.  I thought the Campbell side of our family should stop having its reunions at a camp site on Lake Simcoe with a ‘Gentiles Only’ sign.

Another day, after I had been moved back to the grade two corner of the class, Miss McDowell picked up the chalk to begin writing on the blackboard beside me. We sang O Canada in English every morning but now she taught it to us in French. This was a giant step outside of the curriculum box. For good measure, she taught us La Marseillaise as well.

The Five Teaching Keys

Jeannie McDowell was a very smart teacher.

  1. Her classroom was colorful and fun.
  2. She shared adult facts with us but made us feel secure.
  3. She visualized the future and helped broaden us to be good citizens.
  4. Thanks to her, I started to become my own person.
  5. From art to antisemitism and bird-birth to bilingualism, I learned a lot and felt very stimulated in her class.

Margaret Kell Virany   lover of language and literature, note-taker of Northrop Frye, journalist, editor, author

For More Details of Fascinating Lives, Read Margaret’s Books: Kathleen’s Cariole Ride, a war bride’s answer to a call of love in the wilderness; A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void, a 20th century Canadian confession.