Five hundred delegates at the 1987 OSSTF/FEESO annual assembly were getting fidgety as they watched the time creeping closer to the noon-hour break on Monday, March 16, the final day of their three-day marathon at the Skyline Hotel in Toronto. More than a few were heading for the exit to check out of their rooms as President Rod Albert announced that he and Education Minister Sean Conway were about to present awards before lunch to the first winners of a new student essay competition called the Marion Drysdale Awards.
A slide presentation appeared within seconds on giant screens around the room, reminding delegates that the theme of the essay competition was the United Nations International Year of Peace. Many recognized photographs of a Japanese girl, Sadako Sazaki, who died 10 years after the world’s first atomic bomb exploded near her home at Hiroshima. Two-year-old Sadako was blown out a window of her home but miraculously survived. Shortly before her 12th birthday, unexplained swellings appeared on her neck. Doctors diagnosed terminal leukemia and gave the child not long to live. Sadako heard a legend that she would be granted a life-giving wish if she folded 1,000 paper cranes. Sadako died on October 25, 1955, without getting her wish.
Today there is a statue of Sadako Sazaki at Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. Thousands of young Japanese bring folded paper cranes there every year to honour Sadako’s memory. The last slide hushed the audience of 500 OSSTF/FEESO members. It was a close-up of Sadako Sazaki, surrounded in her funeral coffin by 1,000 paper cranes. An unseen narrator boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen. It’s time to meet your Marion Drysdale winners.”
Four nervous students rose at the extreme rear of the ballroom to begin a slow walk to the front, led by David Oleniuk, a member of the OSSTF/FEESO provincial Communications Committee. Meanwhile, the voices of students from Port Dover Composite School filled the ballroom with a pulsating slow rock song called Voice of Peace. Twenty students in the school’s senior music class had recorded the song only weeks earlier, with words and music written by two members of their group.
The sight of students had an electrifying effect upon the delegates who had just endured more than two days of debating mind-numbing resolutions. They jumped to their feet, cheering, whistling and weeping as the students walked through the emotional standing ovation. It was a moment of history. Never before had the Federation honoured the achievements of their own students in a provincial spotlight.
That historic assembly ceremony almost never happened. I was in charge of the first Marion Drysdale Awards ceremony as the Federation’s first provincial communications director and was told that the awards would have to be handed out elsewhere in the hotel. I privately appealed to President Rod Albert who said he would agree to the assembly ceremony if I guaranteed it would last no longer than 10 minutes. I made the promise but silently prayed for future forgiveness, knowing it was impossible. I added to my sins by seating the winners at the very rear of the giant ballroom so they would have to walk through the whole assembly. To my surprise no one complained later. Everyone in the entire ballroom was floating on an emotional high that has continued to this day. The student awards ceremony has been the highlight of every assembly since then.
Next spring is the 30th anniversary of those first presentations, so it is time to share how the Drysdale Awards were born. The original awards were named for a long-time OSSTF/ FEESO provincial office secretary, Marion Drysdale, who died in October 1983, after a lengthy battle with cancer. Marion, who had been secretary to three OSSTF/FEESO general secretaries, loved reading about British history and especially the Royal Family. The 1984 annual assembly approved a student essay competition in Drysdale’s memory but it never really got off the ground. The provincial Communications Committee was asked to plan a new provincial essay competition in her name for the 1986– 1987 school year and Vice-President Jim Head, the Provincial Executive liaison to the committee, suggested the United Nations International Year of Peace as its theme. Thanks to Head, the competition was linked to Sadako Sazaki, which triggered an immediate response in the fall of 1986.
Joy Kinsman was branch president at Port Dover Composite School when the Drysdale information packet arrived. Kinsman was also in charge of the school’s music programs and her senior class music students quickly noticed the Drysdale information.
That inspired a student, Debby Field, to write the words for a song called Voice of Peace in one evening. Another student, Heather Murray, saw the words the next day and composed a melody while other students sang the words over her shoulder. A Japanese student at their school later showed them how to fold paper cranes in memory of Sadako.
In early February, Joy Kinsman broug
ht Heather Murray’s handwritten music to an OSSTF/FEESO provincial communications workshop in Toronto. I loved the song and arranged a day-long recording session for her class at a small recording studio in Scarborough. The 20 students sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after many hours of over-dubbing.
I played that two-minute cassette recording for the first Marion Drysdale Awards ceremony, and I will be forever grateful to a delegate who jerked his right thumb upwards as the winners started to walk. I immediately cranked the sound up to the level of the 1976 Rocky movie theme music. The powerful message of the Port Dover voices brought many to tears in the room, including myself. The Drysdale student competition immediately took on a new life. My five-minute slide presentation was replaced one year later by a professional video that included interviews with all the winners at their home schools. The provincial award categories were also expanded to include poetry, video, artwork and music. The high quality of many of the student submissions over the years has been more than matched by the quality of the annual video documentaries on the winning students and their OSSTF/ FEESO mentors.
Right from the beginning, the Drysdale competition has been unlike any similar student competition in Canada. I believe that the special quality of the competition goes all the way back to our first provincial judging in Toronto on March 2, 1987. A Grade 10 Basic level student from Brantford was singled out by the judges for suggesting a day of concern about world peace at Parliament Hill, attended by students from every high school in Canada. The student’s mangled spelling would have instantly disqualified him from most academic competitions, but the judges granted him a special award for his political insights. The Brantford Expositor ran the boy’s essay (spelling corrected by us) as a guest editorial, making him a minicelebrity. The student’s mother said in a letter: “My son had self-confidence and hope from that day on.” Similar success stories over the years could fill this entire magazine. Ryan Sutherland from Strathroy District Collegiate Institute was not expected to walk again after a 1987 car accident that left him in a coma for eight weeks. He was encouraged by teacher Joyce Sifton to write an essay describing his efforts to regain a normal life and walked unaided through a standing ovation to receive his provincial Drysdale award at the 1990 provincial OSSTF/ FEESO annual assembly. Sifton went on to sponsor other provincial winners from her school.
In the fall of 1988 teacher Kathryn Wilson thought of one of her students at Niagara Falls Collegiate and Vocational Institute when she read that the new Drysdale theme was Growing Up Differently. Shawn Dalgleish, 18, who suffered from cerebral palsy, attended her learning resource centre for 70 minutes each day. Shawn was enthusiastic but needed the help of a peer tutor and his faithful laptop (10 words a minute) to communicate. He started his essay in the first week of October and only finished it the evening before the December 15 deadline in Kathryn Wilson’s kitchen. Shawn received his Basic category award the following spring at the OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Assembly.
The original Marion Drysdale Awards, now known as the Student Achievement Awards, have evolved over three decades. Winners now receive $1,000, up from the original $300. Much has also changed in the world of communications. We live in a world of texting, hashtags, slam poetry, digital communication that did not exist 30 years ago, and 24/7 access to unlimited on-line knowledge through our cell phones.
The OSSTF/FEESO Student Achievement Awards have more than kept pace, thanks to a sub-committee of the Federation’s Communications/Political Committee (CPAC), known as the Recognition and Promotion Committee (RECPRO). Chaired by Francinna Collard, who teaches English and Visual Arts at Russell High School, east of Ottawa, the CPAC Recognition and Promotion subcommittee has continued to encourage students to find innovative ways of expressing themselves, including slam poetry. The theme of the most recent stude
nt achievement awards is a perfect illustration of how the subcommittee has stayed in touch with this computer/savvy generation. Students were asked to base their entries upon a much-used acronym, LOL (Laugh Out Loud). One provincial award winner turned laughter into a character in her slam poem. Another award winner not only produced a social campaign video examining laughter but composed and performed a song to accompany the provincial video about the winners. The excellence of the submissions was perhaps the highest in a decade.
Randy Banderob, a former English department head in Peterborough, now an Executive Assistant in the provincial Educational Services Department, has co-ordinated OSSTF/FEESO’s Student Achievement Awards for the past seven years. He believes there is a reason why the competition is so successful. “Every year the awards select eight very compelling and remarkable students,” he says. “I suspect it is because, given the chance, every student can demonstrate that they are compelling and remarkable. The Student Achievement Awards provide that opportunity.”
Francinna Collard is blown away by many of the submissions that come to her subcommittee for regional judging. “One of the most striking things to me, as a judge, is to see how much life experience the students actually have, and how that experience is so deeply embedded in their written and visual work. So much maturity is reflected in how they take the theme and interpret it in their own way. The beauty and depth of some of the visual art and media products is astounding to me. So much talent!”
Bill Freeman, an award-winning Toronto author and a long-time provincial judge of the competition, gives caring teachers and other OSSTF/FEESO mentors major credit for the success of the provincial competition. “Good teachers are ones who know how to draw the best out of their students. Judging from the quality of the submissions, there is no doubt in my mind that we are blessed with very good teachers in the province of Ontario.”
OSSTF/FEESO President Paul Elliott, a highly regarded teacher at Rainy River High School and Fort Frances High School before being elected to the OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Executive in 2005, says: “I have no doubt that our Student Achievement Awards program is recognized by many as probably the most impressive in Ontario and possibly Canada. I know of no other set of awards that considers students’ work so carefully and at the same time celebrates the work of teachers and educational support workers.” So what comes next? The theme of the next Student Achievement Awards is Mirror Mirror, a provocative title suggested by a gifted 15-year-old special education student at Thomas A Stewart Secondary School in Peterborough. Her teacher Vanessa Woodacre, is a member of Francinna Collard’s sub-committee and successfully proposed her student’s idea for the 2016–2017 competition. Did that student know that the mirror analogy has fascinated writers and poets like Robert Louis Stevenson, Pauline Johnson and Walt Whitman for more than a century? I don’t know the answer but I am confident that at least one or two students across Ontario are about to top them all.
Marion Drysdale must be smiling somewhere. Her passionate love affair with language and storytelling is alive and well, thanks to the OSSTF/FEESO student awards named in her honour.