By Julie Gagnon Prior
Even now, 50 years old, I still have nightmares about school. The dreams involve forgetting my locker combo, my schedule, or being unprepared. Honestly, these themes were my reality. I learned to carry books around in a backpack so I wouldn’t need a locker. I had a schedule in every notebook. And, I was most always unprepared for class.
I began school at 5 years old, 1st grade at Jericho Elementary. With no preschool or kindergarten under my belt, that introduction involved a significant learning curve for this young, active child. My teacher was extremely strict. Unfortunately, she didn’t appreciate my personality, and I endured consequences. My days often involved time sitting on a stool facing the corner as well as physical discipline. I spent most recesses alone in the classroom, instructed to keep my head down on the desk. Needless to say, in 1st grade I learned the survival skills of being very quiet and still.
Teachers after 1st grade were mostly decent. Because I was quiet and still, I didn’t draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, I had other traits that slipped by teachers until high school.
Concentration and the ability to focus on a task, much less complete one, were significant challenges. My classroom time was spent daydreaming. Looking back, I wish there was a way to capture all the stories that I created in my head. The adventures in my imagination, while the teacher talked in the background, would be the makings for some fantastic stories!
Socially, school was no problem and sports were my saving grace. Unfortunately, I learned a tough lesson in 8th grade about “balance”. That year Essex Middle School had their first involvement in interscholastic soccer. Not only did I make the team as starting striker, I was voted captain. Despite being our inaugural year, we made it to the finals.
Before the championship game, I earned a detention in Science class. I was then informed that my incomplete assignments resulted in a failing grade. As a consequence, I was removed from the soccer team.
This hurt deeply. Not only personally because I wasn’t allowed to play, but I felt extreme guilt as I let the team down. At game time, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the team. I watched from a distance as we lost the most significant game at that point in our young lives.
In high school, I vowed never to be kicked off a team again. I was able to “get by” with my grades despite the issues with my fantastic imagination and lack of interest in anything else when confined to a classroom.
My mother, of course, knew of my challenges. It was the spring of sophomore year when she sat down and read through the course options for the next year. She suggested that I read about “Farming and Forestry”. The class was part of the Essex Vocational Program, involving half of the school day for juniors and seniors. Mostly based on “hands on” and “field work”, the curriculum included areas of study that were right up my alley.
With an unfamiliar enthusiasm, I made the trek up to the Agriculture Building on the first day of my junior year. Little did I know, I was beginning a life-changing educational journey.
Mr. Canedy was an absolutely outstanding teacher and also became one of my best friends in life.
He recognized my learning quirks. While practicing extreme patience, he taught so much more then farming and forestry skills. He taught me how to learn. I still smile when I think about when he was teaching me to back up a hay wagon with the tractor. I turned the wheel too sharply and ended up cutting part of a tread off the tractor tire as it cranked against the wagon. I went into a panic, thinking he would be furious. He was only feet away watching me. When I finally gathered enough courage to look him in the face, I was very confused. I could tell he was bummed about the tire, but he hid it well. He softly explained to me what I had done wrong and asked me to try again. I had great difficulty understanding why he didn’t get pissed off and take me off the tractor. Instead, he taught me the most valuable lesson of making a mistake: take accountability, buck up, and try again.
He realized that the classroom was rough for me. Acknowledging that, he altered my personal curriculum to provide me with more “hands-on” learning.
One example was having me go (as a junior) with the senior class for the winter. The task was woodland maintenance on a lot in Jericho. Instead of being stuck inside, I was outside in the elements. My time was spent with the big boys cutting down trees, skidding them out, chainsaw maintenance, etc. Needless to say, at that point, I loved school!
Senior year, Mr. Canedy provided me with another priceless opportunity. He had me work at Chapin’s Orchards in Essex Center. Perfect! I was already helping milk at the dairy farm that was on the property. And, Chapin’s was only a hop, skip, and a jump from where I lived. The year was 1985.
Now I’d like to fast forward to last week, almost 35 years later.
My son asked me to go apple picking. It would be our first trip to an orchard with his newborn son. I asked where he’d like to go. Expecting South Hero because that’s where I always brought him and his sister, I was pleasantly surprised when he answered Chapin’s.”
Driving to the orchard, I became overwhelmed with heartfelt emotion. Once there, I was like a little kid, showing them all around and sharing my stories from my time there (stories my kids already heard half a million times). The most impressive accomplishment I showed them was the large number of apple trees that I planted in the field to the left of the barn. That section of the orchard wasn’t open to the public that day. But, with permission, we walked over to those magical, fruit-bearing trees that were nothing more than a twig when I placed them in the ground so very long ago.
Having been years since being there, I went into a giddy shock when I saw an old tractor. It’s on display and is the very one that I used when working there. I was ecstatic to have my butt back in that familiar seat that I warmed for so many hours years ago, while holding my first grandchild in my arms.
We then walked into the barn and saw a sign on the wall. Again, a pride (that I never experienced in a classroom) came over me as I read the first line to my son and his family. “The original orchard at Chapin Farm was planted in 1929, with the newer orchard of 1500 semi-dwarf trees planted in 1985.”
So overwhelmingly proud by the end of that experience, I’m surprised my head fit inside my car for the drive home. It did fit, and driving home, I warmly reflected on the day’s events. I realized, I didn’t just share these stories with my family, as they sat listening to me talk.
I shared these stories with a “hands-on” experience in which they were able to use all of their senses…sight, sound, smell, taste and touch…
How cool is that?
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she