Power of a small school


To the Editor:
My name is Sarah MacCallum and I am many things. I am a Health Promotions Master’s candidate researching the up-and-coming field of recovery paradigm alterations. I am a Mount Allison alumnus with an honours in psychology and the CPA thesis of the year award to my name. I am an alumnus of one of the most prestigious scholarship programs in Canada, the Bell Scholarship program. I am a mental health advocate who speaks in multiple provinces, at professional conferences, with professors, to students and community groups, including sharing the stage with Clara Hughes during Clara’s Big Ride. I am also a Pictou Academy Pitbull – a gold medalist Pitbull, to boot.
People have asked me how I have been able to excel academically. The answer is simple. Pictou Academy.
I have not had an easy youth. I developed serious obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of 16 along with having lifelong anxiety that worsened at the same time. There were many days I expected not to live to see another sunrise, and I’ve even had a mental health professional ask me how I was still alive after years of suicidal ideation and a level of illness that should have debilitated me. I should not have been able to graduate high school with a 97.7 per cent average. I should not have been able to be in all the advanced courses. I should not have been able to be captain of the varsity basketball team. Or be the editor of Up on the Hill. Or two-time medalist in the senior division at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, including being able to work with a university professor at Dal AC in Grade 12.
And yet I did that, and more. Because of the quality of school Pictou Academy is. Because I had teachers who expected me to excel and did not let me give up on myself. How many schools would you have a teacher (Margo Hilchey) give up her time, and biology lab, to allow me to have the space to grow larval lobsters, and a janitor to stay and chat with me while I worked in the lab well after school ended so I wasn’t lonely? Where would a student who was clearly bored in class and finishing her work obscenely quickly have a teacher (Jeremy MacInnis) offer to teach her at her own individual pace at the same time as teaching other material to the rest of the class, allowing me to finish the course nearly two months early and then start teaching university material so I was better prepared? Or what about the teacher (Sherril Lindsay) who noticed me burning out and took me aside to give up an hour and a half after school despite having a 45-minute commute to make sure I was alright, then continue to push me beyond my personal demons to a 100 per cent in the provincial English exam. This year, with my thesis, I was told that what I wrote was not an undergraduate thesis, but instead one that was a master’s level and 60 pages longer than the traditional length. This skill in writing was because of Sherril Lindsay. I never would have reached the level of academic writing that I have without her special form of guidance at the foundational level. These are just three examples of the superior education I received at Pictou Academy.
Outside of the classroom, there was also the basketball coach (Shane Hampton) who allowed me to stay on the team even when I was so anxious that I cried during halftime, somehow trusting my ability to the point where a year and a half later I was captain of the varsity team. All the teachers who gave up their time to run extra curricular activities so students, including myself, were able to do everything we wanted to, or the financial help that allowed me to graduate with over $17,000 in scholarships from Pictou Academy to go with my Bell Scholarship and allow me to have a free ride to university. I didn’t have to worry about my future because I was financially stable and academically prepared. All because of Pictou Academy.
If I haven’t shown to you now the power of a small school through personal experience, allow me to take a macro view on the situation. Education is too often commodified, a number put on each student’s head due to the neoliberal paradigm infiltrating the system that says we are not successful unless we have a large bank account. With neoliberalism, only the strong survive. I should never have been one of the strong. In too many other schools, students like myself are left to squeak by because teachers and staff can’t be bothered to go the extra mile and they are not required to. But success can’t be commodified in such a way because if it is, it is not success. It is Darwinism. Success in education must be for all or as a society we will fail. Do we really want to risk our youth to schools which are ruled by the all mighty dollar and the 9-5? Or do we want to shuffle the budget and allow a school that saves those kids from the cracks to remain open? Aren’t we supposed to want to invest in the future rather than ourselves? Because that is not what we are doing now. In closing Pictou Academy, we are trading student success for a lower cost per square footage for the school board.
Forgive me for my lack of faith in the local school system. But as a socially aware feminist and academic, I understand the system. I am not complacent to trust that those who have always been in the system will make the best decisions, because the very definition of neoliberal success is an accumulation of power at the expense of others and a disregard for the little man who threatens the bottom line. If I trust the system nothing will ever change. Pictou may seem small but it is no different than any other community or city. Power structures are widespread and diffuse through our neoliberal and neoconservative society. We have seen it in the local healthcare system in which the short stay (mental health) unit was closed and then the money supposedly saved in the temporary closure was given away instead of used to reopen the unit and now there is nearly no hope for reopening. Within the educational system we have seen it with other local schools in which the decision was made to spend more money to retrofit another school rather than maintain the building because it served the school board best in the long run.
So I am calling on you reading this letter, the person who is not in power, the person who recognizes that the old ways will cause us to fail, the person who is frustrated that Pictou is once again losing something that actually works. Stand up. Get loud. Get angry. Only we can ensure that Pictou Academy remains open. No one will do it for us. We have to scream. Yell. Kick over the proverbial table. Because no matter how long ago you graduated, you are still a Pitbull.
We must bleed the red and white and keep our school open.
There is no other option if we wish the youth of Pictou to succeed.
Sarah MacCallum
Pictou Academy 2012

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