Silken Laumann's Remarkable Teachers:

Jessie Finlayson & Michael Bevan


By Brian Jamieson

"Some things are hard but, if you keep working at them, eventually they come more easily."
It's not difficult to imagine Canadian Olympic rowing-medalist Silken Laumann making that statement. But you might not expect that the one-time world champion attributes this life lesson to repeating Grade 3.

Jessie Finlayson

A bronze medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, gold medalist at the 1987 Pan Am Games and a 1991 world champion, Laumann was also named the Lou Marsh Award winner, as Canada's outstanding athlete, in 1991.

But Laumann is fixed in Canada's memory as the rower who overcame devastating odds to compete and capture a bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Only 10 weeks earlier, another racing scull had cut across hers, shredding leg muscles and breaking bones. Laumann endured five operations in 10 days and had then worked her way back into competitive shape for the 1992 games.

She went on to win a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and today lives in British Columbia where she divides her time between her family, public speaking, charity work and coaching young rowers.

Born and raised in Mississauga, Laumann credits a few teachers with providing the care and support she needed to succeed both at school and at life.

"I wasn't a particularly good student," she says. "I was good at working hard.

"I received a lot of extra help after school from teachers who were fabulous and who encouraged and supported me through the difficulties I was having learning."

An early challenge

Lauman with classmates and Finlayson

For Laumann reading was hard. She couldn't get the concept of combining the different letters of the alphabet to make sounds and words. Were she in school today, she's certain she would be assessed as having a learning disability. Grade 3 at Lorne Park Public School was a difficult year and her teacher, Mrs. Finlayson, had her repeat it and Laumann heaps praise on Finlayson for having an enormous effect on her later success as a student.

"She came over to my house that summer," Laumann recalls. "I remember it because she was a teacher and it was unusual to have a home visit. She brought me a box of chocolates and told me what a great person I was and that I would do fine, that having an extra year would give me a better start. She really did care."
Finlayson encouraged Laumann, gave her extra time and help with her reading. "She supported me so I didn't lose that confidence," Laumann says.

Many years later, Laumann attended a party for her old teacher. "It's funny, but she only vaguely remembered me," Laumann says. "I didn't totally stand out. What I liked about that was, it meant that she had given so much to so many people and that it wasn't like I was the one kid that she had been exceptionally nice to. Through the years, she had probably done similar things for hundreds of kids. It's like when somebody comes up to me today and says 'Thanks so much for writing that note' and I may hardly remember it. But to them it was such a significant event. That was how it was with me and Mrs. Finlayson."

Off and running

Slow to start, perhaps, but when Silken finally caught on, she never looked back. In Grades 6, 7 and 8, she was reading beyond grade level. In high school, she was reading a book a week. Today, reading remains her favourite hobby.

Where Finlayson provided support and encouragement, another teacher, Michael Bevan, a science teacher at Lorne Park Secondary School, modelled sheer enthusiasm for learning. Laumann says she and others caught the bug.

"He really turned me on to science," she said. "Science and math have always been my favourite subjects, but he just made it come alive. I've never heard anyone talk about amoebae quite the way he did."

She says Bevan made science sound like the most exciting thing in the world.

"He was so enthusiastic and he would delight in the way organisms are created," Laumann says. "And I excelled. I got 90 per cent in biology. I'd never seen marks like that before. Somebody having that much enthusiasm really motivated me to work hard.

"In fact, I wanted to become a scientist - until I realized how much time you have to spend indoors. Once I got to university and realized I had to do labs I said 'Okay, this is not for me.'"
One of the things Laumann says she didn't like about school was the "agony of having to sit still. I feel pretty strongly it's not the best way to learn," she says. "Physical activity, movement is so important, especially if you're a kid who can't sit still like I was."

She recalls physical education as being much more integral back then. In Grade 5, she flew past the boys in foot races. Most people couldn't run a half-mile. "I could run forever," she says.

"There was a sense even then of, 'Wow, I'm good at this!' And it's nice to be good at something, particularly when you struggle academically. It gave me a real boost that I could do something well."

By Grade 8, she was part of a competitive track team. In Grade 10, she began rowing. In the following years, it consumed her. In 1984 - the year she graduated from InDEC, an alternative high school in Mississauga - Laumann went to the Olympics and was accepted into the second year English program at the University of Victoria. She still sees the irony in that.

Positive impact

In high school, many of Laumann's teachers doubled as coaches. Attending events away from the school on weekends, she got to know her teachers. "You get to see them more as human beings because you go away on track meets. It bridges that gap, which is really nice.

"Throughout my schooling, I got the sense that teachers cared about me as a human being. I try to remember that today - how much impact I, as an adult, can have on the young people that I come into contact with. We all have the ability to have a positive impact on kids.

"Teachers do really important work and they do make a difference," Laumann says. "I'm sure that with cutbacks, it must get overwhelming. It's easy to lose sight that what you're doing is really honourable and that the way that you treat your students does make a difference. It's obviously a huge responsibility but it's also a huge gift to be able to have that kind of impact on a daily basis."

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