Remarkable Teachers:
Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie MacDonald's Miracle at Our Lady of Lourdes and the Remarkable Sister Margaret Walsh


You might assume - given the fast-off-the-mark, award-winning literary career - that Ann-Marie MacDonald's beginnings have always been auspicious.

Her first play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), won both the Governor General's and Chalmer's awards. Her first novel, Fall on Your Knees, took the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Fiction (among many other awards and recognitions). And her recently launched second novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was keeping MacDonald running to readings and authors' festivals this fall.

But MacDonald's first grades were far from golden. She passed those early years - from Kindergarten to Grade 2 in Centralia, Ontario and Grade 3 in Hamilton - in a kind of fog.

"There are probably official designations for it now but I never knew what page we were on. My thoughts were always elsewhere," she explains. "My report card was terrible. I was considered to be slow and disruptive. My Grade 2 teacher thought I was trying to be the class clown."

When her family moved next, this time to Kingston, she was eight. Her parents met with Sister Margaret Walsh, the principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School. They knew their daughter was bright, but the report card! Her parents insisted that something be done to help, so Sister Walsh suggested, "Let's put her ahead a year. Maybe she needs a challenge."

When her father explained it at the time, he presented it to her as special - a unique opportunity. And he told her that if it didn't work out she could always go back to Grade 4 - because that's where she'd be anyway. "I remember thinking: That's not relevant. There's no way! I'm not going to Grade 4, I'm going to Grade 5!"

MacDonald laughs, "So the miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes happened. I was put in Grade 5!" Perhaps more the class wit than clown. But MacDonald's hyperbole is also quite serious.

"It galvanized me - like shock therapy or, you know, those machines that restart your heart. I came back from the edge. I've always really seriously believed that I was saved. That was the turning point for me. Suddenly I had a basis for self-esteem.

"I did very well in school after that. I could hear what the teacher was saying. I think I'd been bored before but mostly it was because I was informed that this was a challenge. And I also saw this as a chance to skip a whole year of misery."

"God knows, probably something else would have happened to help me out, in the course of things. But in my mind then, it was all or nothing. For years afterward - well into my 20s - I thought of that year as make or break. So I'll never forget Sister Walsh."

Whatever the contributing factors, things for MacDonald were radically different.

"Either I got really lucky or maybe I was just able to see, to appreciate what was in front of me." Certainly, she has no shortage of fond memories of teachers from then on, though no one had a particular career influence.

"I think I was going to do what I was going to do anyway but there were teachers who were inspiring and who I loved because they supported the things I was interested in."

They gave her opportunities to explore the subjects that would prove central to her creative career: history and literature.

"Mrs. Drum in Grade 7 got us to write autobiographies and stories and poetry." But by then MacDonald's powers of observation were already well-honed, judging from her account of her Grade 6 teacher:

"Mrs. Murphy seemed ancient to me, but she was extremely robust. She had really red cheeks that looked hard. They were veined with purple. She had steel grey hair in a helmet shape and really fiery, pale blue eyes.

"She was that old-fashioned combination - everyone was terrified of her but she would also bring in cookies and we'd have the perfect Hallowe'en party!

"I think she just loved what she was doing and, though she could be very severe, you really sensed that she respected the kids."

The MacDonald family moved again as she entered Grade 9, this time to Ottawa where she attended Colonel By Secondary School. In high school individual subjects provided her with an additional focus for relating to teachers. History and English were her subjects and those are the teachers she recalls most vividly.

There was Mrs. Brice for Grade 9 English. Brice was big on mythology and ran a mythology bee, which MacDonald loved. "I totally devoured it. It was all Ovid, all the time!"

MacDonald also created a town newspaper in Brice's class, which meant creating a whole town - Hicksville - calling upon her powers of invention to complement her skills of observation.

She recalls the impressive Miss Greer from Grades 10 and 11. "She wore short skirts and plum-coloured nail polish.

"She really talked about literature - talked to us as if we were adults. And you could go to her office after school. She would sit there smoking cigarettes and we could chat about the stuff we were reading and she would recommend other books."

Her history teachers included Miss Cowan and Mrs. Crossthwaite. "I got world religions and history from Mrs. Crossthwaite. She would go with her husband on archeological trips and she wore ponchos."

Like most people, MacDonald hasn't kept in touch with her teachers. "I always hope that some of them will crop up at a reading." She says that this article is "my way of saying thank you to them."

For MacDonald, her best teachers had certain things in common. "They were enlivened by their subjects, they respected their students, they were kind." Then she adds, "And they expected excellence."

Happily, MacDonald continues to rise to that challenge.

The Way the Crow Flies, published by Knopf Canada, was short-listed for the 2003 Giller Prize.