Drawing connections

There once was a young teacher from Ontario who, shortly after graduating from teachers’ college, took a job in a small school house in a Northern Ontario community with a large Ojibway population.
The young teacher was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to teach six grades at once, with about 20 children in the class.
This is the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a character from Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse” comic strip, but it could just as easily be the story of local teacher Kate Woods.
Woods began her teaching assignment at Nestor Falls Public School in September, just as Elizabeth began her first teaching job at the fictional Mtigwaki First Nation. Woods teaches 16 students in Grades 4-8 in a two-room schoolhouse, while Elizabeth teachers 20 students in Grades 1-6 in a one-room schoolhouse.
A lifelong fan of the strip, Woods was inspired to write to Johnston when she saw the similarities between her own life and Elizabeth’s storyline.
“I was telling my friends in Toronto about teaching five grades in a two-room school,” Woods said. “They were amazed that such a school could exist anymore.”
One friend e-mailed her a copy of the strip from September, showing Elizabeth getting ready in the morning and thinking about her strategy for teaching several grades at once.
“She sent it to me because it reminded her of me and my situation,” Woods noted. “I laughed at it and stayed with the story for a little while.”
Within a month, she had decided to write to Johnston and tell her about her own situation in Nestor Falls. She also noted an interesting coincidence in her e-mail.
In 1972, while Johnston was pregnant with her first child, her obstetrician asked her to do some drawings on the ceiling above his examining tables. As it turned out, Woods’ mother had the same obstetrician when she was pregnant with her.
To her great surprise, Johnston got back to her.
“She gave me a call. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “She offered to pay me to keep a journal.”
Woods said she was so pleased to be asked, she refused payment.
“I felt honoured,” she said.
Since then, Woods has been keeping a journal of things that go on in the school that might be of interest to the cartoonist and e-mails them to her.
When Johnston started the storyline for Elizabeth, she drew largely from her and her husband’s experiences in First Nations communities in Northern Manitoba.
“My husband did dental work up there,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for me to take advantage of some of the wonderful times we’ve had.”
Part of the goal was to educate people about northern Native communities.
“You imagine people are living in snow-packed houses,” she said of people’s misconceptions. “But a Native community is just one more community. Families are very close. There’s lots of humour.”
Johnston said she was pleased to get the e-mail from Kate.
“I’ve really, really enjoyed the connection,” she said. “Although I don’t use a lot of her material in the strip, it appears in Elizabeth’s monthly newsletter. She talks about what she’s doing in the classroom and it contains quite a bit of information from Kate.”
Each of the main characters in the strip has a monthly newsletter to update avid readers about what they are doing.
“Because I only have about 15 seconds a day to tell a story, I can only feature a certain character for a certain length of time,” she explained. “The newsletters help to fill people in.”
Woods’ input also serves as important background material for the artist.
“A comic strip is character-driven. It’s all about relationships,” Johnston explained. “People are a lot more interested in interpersonal relationships than they are in the job.
“So some of the wonderful, innovative ideas that [Woods] has, I can’t show in the strip,” she continued. “But just being connected to her gives me lots of confidence I’m doing the right thing.”
Johnston cited a lesson with pumpkins as one of her favourite anecdotes.
Woods had each of her students bring in a pumpkin to class. First they weighed and measured each pumpkin and talked about average weights and sizes. Then they cut open the pumpkins and talked about the germination of seeds and how they grow into a pumpkin plant. Then the students cooked and ate the seeds.
“She got a math class, a home ec class, and a biology class out of a set of pumpkins,” Johnston noted. “You have to be extremely creative to do this.”
Woods said the connection to Johnston has been a beneficial one for her students as well. The cartoonist sent an autographed set of her books to the school as gifts for the students.
“We were very happy about that,” she said. The kids now read the books during quiet reading time in class, and look forward to keeping up with the strip in the newspaper.
Overall, Woods said the experience has been an exciting one for her, both the opportunity to teach at a small school, and the chance to work with one of Canada’s best-known cartoonists.
“I’ve had a really great year. I feel lucky to have had this chance to work with her,” she said, noting Johnston will likely be retiring in 2007. “She just feels like an old friend now.”
Johnston has been producing “For Better or For Worse” since 1979, and can be seen in more than 2,000 newspapers in 20 different countries worldwide, translated into eight languages.