TV cook and MasterChef Canada champion Mary Berg credits her high school history teacher, Nancy Malcolmson, with encouraging her to ask questions, think critically and go the extra mile.
By Bill Harris
Photos: CTV; Eric Malcolmson
Mary Berg, star of the cooking series Mary's Kitchen Crush and former champion on MasterChef Canada, admits she has always been "a bit of a gold-star kid. Give me a sticker? Yes! I really like a gold star."
With all of her recent success, Berg feels it's time to give someone else a gold star. She's enthusiastically awarding it to Nancy (Turner) Malcolmson, OCT, her history teacher in Grades 10, 11 and 12 at Pine Ridge Secondary School in Pickering, Ont.
"She's one of those teachers who could do anything, but I couldn't imagine her doing anything else, because of how much impact she's had on so many people," Berg says. "She was just so pumped about history! Canadian history in particular! She was so engaging and had such a presence that I think every single person in her class listened and took something home."
Berg says that anything and everything she has done since high school has been greatly aided by the enduring lessons Malcolmson taught, which went well beyond the history curriculum. Malcolmson was a strong female role model whose influence on Berg extended into the concepts of having an analytical approach, looking at things with a critical eye, and understanding that it's fine to have opinions as long as you can back them up.
"When everyone's going through adolescence and teendom, high school teachers have so much more influence than just the subject they're teaching," says Berg. She adds that she reached out to Malcolmson after high school as well, when she needed a confidence boost in her early days at Wilfrid Laurier University while studying for an undergrad degree (which she followed with a master's degree at the University of Toronto).
"I think she knew at the time how much she meant to me, but it would be lovely for her to know that her influence has continued," Berg says. "Because honestly, with everything that's happening in the world right now, being able to look back critically on history and not just take it as written, but take it in the context in which it was written, is more valuable than ever, and that's something she taught."
Malcolmson, who still is teaching at Pine Ridge, is gratified to hear such complimentary words coming from a former student. "Obviously, this is a real honour," Malcolmson says. "If I gave her some encouragement, I'm just so happy, because that's what I try to do. To know that you're still in there somewhere, being that voice, that's pretty amazing."
Malcolmson wants everyone to know that the Mary Berg the public sees on TV is the real Mary Berg. "That is who she is!" she says. "I cheered for her on MasterChef Canada, and then on her own show (Mary's Kitchen Crush).
Certainly, Berg's bubbly, energetic and warm personality comes across on television as she displays her substantial cooking skills. But looking back on what she was like when she first entered Nancy Malcolmson's history class in Grade 10, Berg doesn't think her subsequent "left turn," as she puts it, into becoming a public person is something anyone could have predicted.
Berg recalls. "My high school years were spent in genuine pursuit of academia. I've always loved reading and researching, distilling facts, drawing connections, and then taking all those things and dialing them into a piece of work to convey how you feel."
So Berg was inclined to like history anyway, but it turns out Malcolmson was absolutely the right teacher at the right time. "She really sparked something in me," Berg recalls. "She was always so encouraging of our opinions and feelings, but you had to back them up. It was a ‘find what you're interested in, but you need to give me the potatoes with the meat' kind of thing."
Malcolmson says one of the pillars of her teaching philosophy dates back to a specific incident when she was facing her own career choices.
While studying at the University of Toronto, Malcolmson recalls a formative moment, when she considered a career in law. To help her decide, her mother arranged a meet-up and conversation with a lawyer. "He told me very nicely, but very bluntly, that I'd be limited in my career because I was a woman. When I decided I wanted to become a teacher, I never forgot that incident. I told myself, ‘I don't ever want to be that person who limits someone, rather than giving them encouragement.'"
Malcolmson's brand of smart encouragement opened up a whole new world of possibilities for Berg. For example, they both fondly remember a video project Berg did on the War of 1812. And true to form, both credit the other for its success.
"I still have the DVD she made when she had to do a Grade 12 presentation on the War of 1812. Other students make videos, but that wasn't enough for Mary, no, no, no," Malcolmson says with a chuckle. "If you're Mary, you can't understand the War of 1812 unless you grab your mom, load her in a car, drive her down (to Queenston, Ont.) to Brock's Monument and every other spot of historical significance, and record the whole thing, and then bring it back and create this piece of amazing teaching."
The presentation even included a blooper reel. "I think I cried, I was laughing so hard," says Malcolmson. "And everybody learned something."
But Berg insists the reason she was so enthused, and willing to even try something like that, was Malcolmson.
"Again, I wasn't the most outgoing person, I wasn't in drama — I painted sets for plays, but I wasn't in them," Berg says. "But that project on the Battle of Queenston Heights was one of my favourite projects in high school."
While Berg remembers herself as being quiet and timid in her high school days, Malcolmson put an interesting twist on that theory. "If you had asked me then, I don't know if I would have expected it," Malcolmson says, referring to Berg's TV career. "I could have seen her being a teacher. I know she says she was shy, but she could turn it on."
Mary wouldn't be the first to speak up, Malcolmson recalls, "but once you got her going, she had convictions, and they'd come out in the best possible way. So looking back now, I can see all the elements there. She just needed the time and the opportunity to put them together." She adds, "She had more risk-taking in her than she realizes. She would have been good at whatever she tried."
When it comes to things Berg does well, her talent for cooking — a skill that has opened doors for her in the TV world — was obvious back then, too. "I was that kid who would bake and bring things into class," Berg admits.
Malcolmson confirms, "The baked stuff came to school a lot. She was amazing at it and she'd work it into presentations. That was just Mary."
Between memories of high school and its projects (baked goods included) and support of current successes, there's clearly mutual admiration between the two. Malcolmson is proud of Berg's accomplishments. And the former student is grateful for her teacher's influence and guidance. Gold stars, all around.
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College's Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.