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March 1999

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Roberta Bondar's

Remarkable Teachers

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The eagle is the mascot at Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational School in Sault Ste. Marie – a fitting symbol for Roberta Bondar, who’s known as the school’s highest-flying eagle.

The school renamed the gym for her. After all, it was where Bondar spent a good deal of time during the ’60s.

Bondar, who entered high school intending to study phys ed and science, credits four teachers with remarkable influence on her.

Bondar’s home room and English teacher in Grade 9 was Donald Walimaki. "We used to do these exercises every Monday called Words are Important," she remembers, "where we went through these small books and looked words up in the dictionary and wrote the definition, and then we would have this little quiz. It was a marvelous way of expanding your English vocabulary."

Walimaki taught Bondar for several years. She says, "I developed respect for the English language and an appreciation for English literature and got to know what a source is and how to use it. Those things stood me in good stead as a scientist.

"We had to do an assignment and a lot of it dealt with digging into history around Hadrian’s Wall. I was a very active soul and my determination was not to be doing a lot of research in the library. But one of the things I could do was construct a Roman fort, and so I did. That was fun for me and it led me into books looking at furniture, and I carved little things out of balsa wood and made little leather seats for them. It took me into the way people lived in those days, and it was a way of bringing English into a much more applied field."

Bondar talks of Walimaki as professional, strict, concerned about students and having a genuine caring. Bondar uses these words as she describes her other remarkable teachers.

John Fleming taught Bondar her first courses in geometry and trigonometry. "I was one of these people who started out not liking math," says Bondar. "He was really, really cool, by today’s standards even. He was very good at his subject and he was a young teacher. He used to be a cheerleader for Western and he had a dry sense of humour. There were a couple of students who were very, very good in math but he didn’t put anybody down for not understanding the basics. Even though he had these super geniuses in the class, he treated everyone in a similar manner. For the average student like me, it was just great to be in a non-intimidating environment."

Helen Harshaw taught physics in a day when a female teacher in science was extremely unusual, especially in physics. Bondar says she was friendly, but strict: "There was a combination of discipline and a sense of humour and this real professionalism – she knew her subject."

Bondar still keeps in touch with her French teacher, May Fournier, who helped Bondar to develop a love for the French culture. In fact, Fournier attended Bondar’s shuttle launch.

"I remember her most for my Rs in French," Bondar says. "When I speak in French I carry the elocution that she provided me, because she had spent hours at it. She would take the students individually and go through things until your pronunciation was not just adequate, but really super."

Bondar returns to her theme: "Again, she was very professional, she had a very good sense of humour and a very keen interest in the students’ well-being. She would spend hours talking to any student who was interested in French, either at noon or after school."

The appreciation for professionalism, as well as the skills and knowledge taught by these teachers, are propelling this highest-flying eagle through several careers as astronaut, doctor, scientist, communicator and photographer.