Actor Megan Follows honours the three elementary teachers whose roles behind the scenes inspired her in front of the camera.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/The CW©
While most of us spent our youth learning life’s most basic lessons, Megan Follows spent hers mastering so much more. As a child actor, the iconic Canadian (with that trademark red hair) stepped into show business 35 years ago and recently reclaimed her mark in the spotlight, where she rightfully belongs. Beating the odds in an unforgiving industry, many would chalk her success up to chance. But if you ask Follows, the secret to her longevity stems from her school days at the Institute of Child Study (ICS) — now the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study — the first of the University of Toronto’s multi-disciplinary research centres.
"There have been so many people, in so many places, who have helped shape my life — and I’m grateful to them all," says the 46-year-old star of stage, screen and television. "But the time I spent at ICS, from pre-kindergarten to Grade 6, was probably the most important."
Follows may be known for her role as Anne Shirley — the feisty orphan in the 1985 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables — but three decades later she’s winning over a new generation of fans as she takes on Catherine de’ Medici, the tempestuous Queen of France, in the acclaimed historical fiction series Reign.
Looking back at her formative years, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize the award-winning actor. "I tended to fade into the woodwork, partially out of a well-honed survival instinct. I was the youngest of four children — my brother and sisters were all going concerns," she says of her show business siblings. "Then there was my mother and father [actors Dawn Greenhalgh and Ted Follows], neither of whom were shrinking violets."
At nine years of age, Follows made her official debut in the family business, landing in Diane Wicks’s classroom just a year later. "I can still see her in my mind’s eye as a tiny girl," says Wicks, the then-budding star’s Grade 5 teacher. "Megan was both bright and brave to be carrying a load not asked of many children. She was filming a TV series at the time, and we tried to mesh those two aspects of her life — school and work. ICS was used to accommodating students with unusual schedules."
"They taught me many things, but what I cherish most is the way they gave me the courage to use my imagination."
Follows thinks back on her memories of Wicks and can still see her wandering around the yard during recess, with a steaming mug of tea. "She was always so calm, so reassuring. No matter what drama was occurring in my life at home, at school or on set, she would make me feel like everything was going to be all right."
Wicks believed that an effective way to help channel her students’ energy was to tap into their wild imaginations with a long-form prose assignment. "I actually had some of them writing novels at 10 years of age," confirms Wicks. Follows excelled at conjuring up fantastic plots and glamorous heroines but admits that grammar was never a strength. Nevertheless, she remembers the sensitivity her teacher showed in her approach: "Mrs. Wicks would praise me for my energy and imagination and then gently found a way to get me to express it with the correct words."
Ted Hunter seamlessly picked up in Grade 6 where Wicks left off, by tapping into Follows’s dramatic side. His trick was to strengthen his students’ love of literature through vivid theatrics.
"Mr. Hunter had the most amazing way of setting a scene — he would’ve made a superb art director in film or television," says Follows. "We went through a period where we were reading a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle (his Sherlock Holmes stories) and when we got to The Hound of the Baskervilles, he really went all out."
"I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day he drew the curtains to darken the room and read that story to us in a wonderfully rich and ominous voice. The story instantly came alive for me and, to be honest, he actually scared me half to death! But it made me realize the power that words on a page could have if somebody brought them to life, and I’ve never forgotten it, especially as an actor."
After 35 years, Hunter remembers Follows as one of those special students a teacher comes across during one’s career. Although her acting schedule meant that she was away a lot of the time — when she was in class, she didn’t go unnoticed. And her former teacher has followed the performer’s career with great interest ever since.
Hunter tirelessly explored new ways to inject colour and life into both his practice and the arts at ICS. So when former principal John McInnes asked him, "What did you do that was exciting today?" Hunter took that as his cue to think outside of the box whenever possible. In fact, he frequently teamed up with the late Dorothy Medhurst, an art teacher who also had a strong influence on Follows.
"Ms. Medhurst taught us that art could come from anything," says Follows. "There was one project where she had us collect dryer lint, spin it into wool and then do macramé with it!"
Medhurst’s strong sense of the visual was something that her colleague Hunter enthusiastically leaned on when he expanded his classroom activities to include student-produced films, transforming their regular academic environment into imaginative movie sets.
Although Hunter and Medhurst ensured that their practices had fundamentally serious curricular roots, that didn’t mean their students couldn’t have fun learning. "They encouraged me to explore my bent for comedy," laughs Follows. "I remember doing a whole series of sketches with my best friend. We recreated the great comedy teams — Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy. But it wasn’t just silly fun. We learned about teamwork, about timing and about ourselves."
Wicks sums up the aesthetic of that special time. "We had wonderful teachers who were always ready to integrate the arts into their classroom. It all developed rather organically — one thing flowing into the next — but we always made sure to work with the children at their own paces."
The lessons Follows learned during those early years have stuck with her to this day, and she often catches her mind meandering back to Wicks, Hunter and Medhurst. "They taught me many things, but what I cherish most is the way they gave me the courage to use my imagination. At a certain point in life, that’s the greatest gift a child can receive from her teachers."
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.