Lisa LaFlamme is a critical thinker with a ravenous curiosity about the world. Those characteristics have served her well in her career as a broadcast journalist. In fact, LaFlamme officially hit the top of her profession when it was announced that she would be taking over from the legendary Lloyd Robertson as lead anchor on CTV National News.
LaFlamme traces the development of those characteristics – critical thinking and global curiosity – back to her days at St. Mary's High School in Kitchener and a teacher named Sister Vivian Zoller.
"In high school I needed Sister Vivian's help," LaFlamme admits openly.
LaFlamme – who was a strong student in the languages and arts – recalls the extra tutoring that Sister Vivian gave her as she struggled to get through Grade 11 math. But Sister Vivian's influence on LaFlamme was more profound than mere equations.
"I don't remember specifics about our conversations, but I remember the essence, which was obviously more than math," LaFlamme says. "And I look to what Sister Vivian is doing now – teaching in Kenya – and realize there must have been things in those conversations that gave me a view of the world beyond Kitchener and St. Mary's High School.
"She was a pivotal person for me."
LaFlamme was born in Kitchener and attended St. Daniel's ES prior to St. Mary's HS, which at the time was an all-girls uniform school.
"I liked school but I loved the extracurricular activities," LaFlamme recalls. "I was on the student council in high school. I was even part of our folk group – I play guitar and sing. In grade school I was big on athletics. In high school I was more into the arts. But I was always involved in a lot of activities.
Sister Vivian now teaches at St. Francis Girls HS in Kenya.
"As far as class work went, I was a fairly solid student. I was into writing – even in grade school I was writing all the time. And that carried right into high school."
Sister Vivian taught LaFlamme multiple subjects in multiple grades throughout her high school years – as was the nature of St. Mary's at the time. But when Grade 11 math threatened to bury LaFlamme's confidence, Sister Vivian was there.
"I was 100 per cent vulnerable," LaFlamme says, "but I remember going in there after classes, and she would say, 'Yes, any time, come on in.' It was never a problem.
"She was tough but fabulous. I just loved her. She had a wry sense of humour. She appreciated humour, but she also ruled with a strong hand. She didn't suffer fools, but she was a softie. It was a very interesting combination.
"She made me better. She made me work harder. She made me work for her approval. There was something about her and the way she helped me achieve things. I can't explain it."
Getting in touch from St. Francis Girls High School in Kenya, Sister Vivian says she was definitely aware of LaFlamme's promotion at CTV. It was announced at a time when Sister Vivian was back in Canada on home leave.
"I remember Lisa from St. Mary's partly because I was teaching with her Aunt Jeanette – a very vivacious personality – so I was making comparisons," Sister Vivian says. "There were many similarities between the two.
"I remember Lisa as a very attractive teenager who loved to talk. It is quite well known that in my exasperation I told her that the only way she was going to earn her living was by talking!"
She was tough but fabulous ... She appreciated humour, but she also ruled with a strong hand.
Sister Vivian, who has taught across Canada and around the world, says it makes sense that her own interest in global adventure might have rubbed off on LaFlamme, even if only by osmosis.
"When I was posted to St. Mary's I had just returned from eight years of teaching in England," says Sister Vivian, who was born and raised in Wilkie, Saskatchewan. "That experience broadened my vision, as almost every year there I accompanied students on trips to continental Europe. I was very influenced by those experiences, and it is no surprise that they also influenced my teaching.
"As a School Sister of Notre Dame, I caught and taught the School Sisters of Notre Dame philosophy of education: to enable students to reach the fullness of their potential as individuals created in God's image and to assist them to direct their gifts toward building the earth.
"The last half of this philosophy is of supreme importance. I believe Lisa caught this philosophy from both her family and her formal education."
LaFlamme and Sister Vivian have not seen each other or spoken in decades, although through her friendships with other nuns, LaFlamme has stayed somewhat up-to-date on Sister Vivian's travels.
"She probably has no idea that she had a great influence on me," LaFlamme says. "But I've often thought that when I'm in Africa I'm going to find out where exactly she is and go there. I haven't done it yet, but it would be kind of cool."
Asked if there's anything she'd like to tell LaFlamme, Sister Vivian responded: "You are a true educator. We are very proud of you, your dedication and the use you've made of your potential. May you continue using your gifts for the betterment of our global world. We pray for all of our present and past students and will remember you by name."
LaFlamme says that teachers getting into the profession can learn something from Sister Vivian. "This is a topic I could go on about forever because teachers who are passionate about teaching and their subjects inspire students.
"I would say to teachers, 'If you're bored then the kids are going to be bored, and you need to move on to another subject or another school or another profession.' I really believe in bringing passion into the classroom."
So Sister Vivian was passionate about math?
"Well, she must have been," LaFlamme says with a laugh. "Or at least passionate about conquering a mountain, which was a kid who couldn't seem to break through."
By the way, Lisa, how did you do in Grade 11 math, anyway?
"I remember to this day, I got an 82," LaFlamme says with pride. "I credit Sister Vivian with that. She's a great lady."