Kingston, Helene

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                                 HELENE KINGSTON
                                  By Gail Savoy

Teacher Staff appreciation Week was celebrated across Canada recently. Students and parents showed their thanks for the hard work and dedication to teachers, aides, custodians, bus drivers, and secretaries who give their jobs every day. As part of the celebration, the Leader shares the story of 93 year old Helen Kingston and her 33 years as a teacher.


MIRAMICHI – In her senior’s apartment overlooking the frozen, snow-covered Bay du Vin River, Helena Kingston reminisces about her years in the teaching profession.

The 93-year-old began her teaching career in 1928 in a one room school house right here in Bay du Vin. “I had 49 students in nine grades. Several were studying their high school entrance exam as well,” she recalls.

Kingston, daughter of the late Francis and Steven Smith, was only 18 when she began teaching.

“I learned so much from that first year,” says the tall, thin woman, adding that she probably shouldn’t have gone into a school so close to home for her first classroom experience.

“I remember a teacher Miss Bertha Hierlihy, telling me, ‘You walk in there like you are the cock of the walk’,” Kingston says with a laugh. And while an authoritative image may have been what she was trying to establish in those early days, she admits her disciplinary skills were lacking. Kingston says part of the problem was that she knew, personally, some of the students.

“I felt when I walked in the school on the first day, all the kids would like me, and it would be easy.” Looking back she says its must have been hard for the students, too. “The students had to work on their own so much. I mean how much time would you have with that many students in nine grades,” said Kingston.

Talk about dedication! The young school teacher did not even receive a regular pay cheque in those days.

                               Once paid just $2

“In most places you were paid when enough taxes were collected,” Kingston laughs. “I can remember going to the school board secretary and getting two dollars for my pay.” Kingston said teachers didn’t complain because there was no point in complaining. That’s just the way it was – everywhere and for everybody. “Some were worse than others but you always made out,” she chuckles. “There are some places I taught where I didn’t even get my full pay.”

Kingston said one-room schools had no frills. Teachers just learned to work with what they had. “If you needed a box of chalk, you ordered it, and it was paid for by the board.”

Kingston remembers winters in the one-room school houses being pretty uncomfortable. “Somebody made the fires every day. But until the building warmed, up, the students and teachers stood around the stove with their slates to work,” she says.

Kingston says she began each school day with the singing of the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. “I got that in until the end of my reign,” she chuckles.

                                Started in a one-room school

Kingston’s own schooling was in a one-room school in Miramichi Bay, formerly Bayside. She attended one year of high school in Newcastle at Harkins Academy. “I boarded at Mrs. Maltby’s with three of my cousins, so I wasn’t lonely.”

Kingston then went on to Normal School in Fredericton to study teaching. After graduation, she got hired in Bay du Vin.

Over the next 20 years Kingston taught at school in Point aux Carr, Coat mills, New Scotland, Dundas, Bryenton, Escuminac and at the Miramichi Rural High School. “I was so happy when I got a job there,” she says of the high school. Kingston taught a new course there – junior business – as well as English grammar. It was so different to teach just one class and not nine,” she says.

                                    Math a speciality

Over her 33-year career Kingston taught everything, but she says math was her favourite. “That was my speciality. But I didn’t like history,” she adds.

When did she get her jobs? Kingston says a teacher would watch for school ads in the newspapers from the first of July. “I was fortunate. I was always able to get a position,” says Kingston. “Not everyone was that lucky.”

Kingston, one of nine children, was raised by Annie and Harrison Smith, an aunt and uncle. “My mother was ill after I was born so my aunt and uncle cared for me,” says Kingston. But while she was brought up in another household, Kingston says she remained close to her family. “We were a very close family. They are all gone now except my sister Marion and I.”

Kingston married her husband Albert, now deceased, in 1950. By 1959 the couple were looking for a change. A devout Anglican, the teacher read in a missionary paper about a job opening for an assistant administrator in an aboriginal residential school in Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario. Her husband applied and got the job. “I didn’t have a job when we went there but I began teaching soon after,” says Kingston.

                                 Residential schools

She taught grades one, two and three during her 13 years teaching the Cree and Ojibwa students who came in from more than 30 reserves in the former Treaty 9 area (now known as the Nishnabi Aski). “It was hard. The little ones couldn’t speak English when they came,” says Kingston, who adds that with kindness and patience they quickly learned. But she does admit it was sad for the children to be separated from their parents and their communities. “They appeared to be happy, but they must have been quite lonely.”

Kingston says each class usually had one student who was the leader. “In one class I taught a girl named Grace Baxter. She was the leader and they followed her to the letter. If she stopped raising her hand and answering questions, the rest would follow right along.”

The couple remained there for 13 years, living the first year at the school then moving into a house on the school grounds. But Kingston said things became very different after the federal government took over operation of the schools in 1966.

When asked about the documented abuse many aboriginal students suffered in residential schools, Kingston says it gravely concerns her. “I never saw or heard anything in the 13 years, I was there,” she says. But Kingston says there must be trust in some of the claims about abuse in residential schools across the country. She just wonders if all the claims are valid. “I have no proof of this but I think money must be at the bottom of some of the claims,” she speculates.

                             Some positive things happened

Kingston has joined a group of former residential-school teachers who are trying to make the public point that some positive things did happened in those schools. “I don’t know how successful it will be but it is worth a try,” she says.

Kingston and her husband retired to their hometown with plans to build a home. But when Albert passed away in 1976, Kingston purchased a home and remained there until 1995 when ill health forced her to relocate to a senior’s apartment.

Sitting erect and looking quite prim and proper in her tidy apartment, Kingston responds to questions about the current state of education. She smiles a bit sadly and says it seems as if nobody in education is satisfied with anything these days. She recommends an optimistic and positive approach. “I feel good solid heads should be able to put things together to come up with something that works for everyone.”


Source: Miramichi Leader – February 25, 2003

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