Monday, 14 July 2014

Miss A. E. Pittman from New Perlican, N.L. - My Favourite Teacher Ever

Miss Pittman was my favourite teacher. Betty she was to the adults around her that I knew. Bet to others in later years, and p'raps to family in early years. Miss A. E. Pittman. I always thought her name was Anne Elizabeth, but found out 40+ years later, the A. stood for Annie. I love the name Annie, but I don't think she did. 

Miss Pittman was from Newfoundland, and proud of it! In fact, if she'd had her way, Newfoundland would not have become a Canadian province in 1949 or ever.  She was 5'2", petite in size, had what we used to call fair hair - somewhere between brown and blonde. Blue eyes. Her clothes were stylish for the day, and she travelled all the way from Montreal West to us - no small journey in the 50's. I was going to be just like her when I grew up, and was very disappointed when I grew past 5'2" to 5'4". Sigh ...   I loved her. 

Bet came to William White School in our little Montreal South neighbourhood (where I live again now) in 1955, and taught my big brother Jim in Grade 6. He says he's special, because he had her first. Well, he's special for other reasons as well, but I'll give him that one, too. I was in Grade 4 in 1955, and while my teachers (I only had 2 - one for Grades 1 and 2, the other for Grades 3 and 4) had been efficient, competent, I was such an overly-anxious child, I was afraid of both. One threatened to send me to the principal's office in Grade 1 because I turned in my seat watching HER daughter tell someone whose name she'd picked for a Christmas gift. The teacher thought I was telling mine. As if I'd have dared. Needless to say, my anxiety did not decrease.

Until Grade 5. -It remained, but Bet (as I called her as an adult), helped me to contain it. I don't know if she knew she was doing that, but she did. 

I put these photos on facebook (and when I find the others, I'll add them). Her daughter, Anne, is my godchild (now 54!), and one of Bet's granddaughters asked if I'd tell more about her - what kind of teacher she was. I had her for THREE years - no I didn't repeat Grade 5 - she had our group for Grades 5, 6, and 7. Then she had cousin Mike in Grade 4 when she was demoted again ;-).

By Grade 5, we were on the top floor of William White, entering by the back doors from the senior girls playground up the wide cement stairwell. We were Grade 5-2. Mrs Owens taught Grade 5-1. Up we trudged, anxious about our new teacher - what would she be like? We knew she was beautiful, but not much more. Years later, she told me when I walked in that day that I looked like Alice in Wonderland, hair long and down my back, dressed in blue and white. We wore our navy blue pleated gym tunics and white blouses starting in October. Also years later, my Mum who had begun teaching at William White, asked Bet if she would tell me she loved my hair in braids, too - as flowing hair was apt to pick up wildlife. Braids it was. 

Bet loved us. She was firm and put up with no nonsense (right Tom Lidstone?). She read to us and read wonderfully, catching us right in to the story. Sitting on the edge of her desk (see photo of said desk below). I can still hear her reading Tom Sawyer to us in Grade 6. You know the passage - I think it's where he's painting the fence - correct me, please, anyone) - and she did the "Can!" "Can't!" "Can" "Can't!" Can too!" (or some facsimile of this). Such fun!

Mrs. Jordan's French exercises can be seen on the blackboard behind Bet

In the playground with (l-r), Ann Sheppard, Russell Crosby, Tom Lidstone, Norma Gill
We loved to walk the schoolyard with her at recess when she was on duty.

(photos from Google images)
 Bet grew up, the oldest of 6 children, in New Perlican, a fishing village on Trinity Bay.

In the 50's we always began our school day with a Bible reading, God Save the Queen, "This is our flag. It is the Union Jack. It's colours are red, white, and blue. Red is for courage, white is for purity, blue is for truth..." (hand over heart, of course - or did we salute?)... the Our Father, and at least one hymn - not necessarily in that order. Bet loved to sing and taught us many hymns and in music class, songs. The ones I remember best: The Lord's My Shepherd to Crimond, and "The Squid-jiggin' Ground." I always feel her near when singing either of those. 

Bet loved teaching, and she loved her students. She taught with passion and integrity. She was wise. (There are stories about that that I won't put in a blog, but am happy to share with her family). She could be cranky - and p'raps had a temper.  

Some of what we had to learn was boring and teaching methods weren't the most creative then. We had readers and such - spelling was important, handwriting... all the old stuff. I don't remember what we did in science. We had arithmetic books. And in Grade 5 we did Canadian history (part one up to 1759 - by far the most interesting part) and Canadian geography. Grade 6 Canadian history part 2 - boring - not even she could make the history interesting - and world geography, I think. Grade 7 - surprise - British history (definitely) and geography (I think). Wouldn't be doing that these days :-) We were still in colony mode, if not literally, certainly in our way of thinking.

In Grades 6 and 7, we went to LeMoyne d'Iberville School in Longueuil for gym class once a week - a two mile walk. Bet was not amused - in fact was quite angry - when one wintry morning Norma and I walked back across the mounds of deposited ice and snow on the south side of what's now Desaulniers. It took us ages, making us late - but I think Bet's real concern was that it was dangerous. She was similarly not amused when a few of us were very late coming back from the Ash Wednesday Service at St. Mark's, Longueuil. Canon B had run out of the papers he signed indicating that we had, in fact, been present at the service. So, we waited until he had written up something else! Bet said she would have believed us, and don't ever pull a stunt like that again (or words to that effect). I wonder what class we'd conveniently missed?

We took flowers for her desk. She smoked something wicked, as did almost all of the staff at William White. If one had to go to the staff room (it was tiny) in the basement for anything, a gas mask would not have been amiss once the door was opened. Cough! Hack! The smoke was so thick, it could have been cut with the proverbial knife - and - the teachers were hidden in the gloom breathing poison. 

In December 1957, Bet married Alec Anderson at St. Philip's Anglican Church in Montreal West. Dad drove us to the church to see her wedding. Bet told me later that mine was the first face she saw when she entered the church. How beautiful she looked in her wedding dress, so petite and glowing.

Sometime in the new year, Bet asked me, "Don't you like my new name? You never use it." I'd been used to Miss Pittman. It was hard to change. I did once she called me on it. Mrs. Anderson. Looking back, I believe it was also because my gut told me that Alec was not the nicest of persons, though of course I couldn't have defined my discomfort then as distrust. 

When Bet married, she knew that Alec wanted to emigrate to New Zealand, though I want to make it clear that is NOT the reason I didn't 'like' Alec. He's dead now, so he won't be reading this.  Our Anne was born July 3, 1960, and Bet asked me to be one of Anne's godmothers. (I was no longer her student and my faith was very important to me then. It still is - but thank God it has grown into something more mature, free, fun, and with quite a lot less anxiety attached to it). Bet had attended my confirmation at St. Mark's on February 28th, 1960. 

We visited her and baby Anne a few times at their apartment on Troy in Verdun, and Anne was baptized at what was St. Clement's Church and is now Church of the Epiphany. In December all three left for new Zealand.  We kept in touch through the years - she wasn't the best at writing - and I came to understand the reasons when she visited Montreal in the late 80's or so. 

Bet developed cancer in the 90's, and was dying. My cousin helped me get to NZ to see her, and his daughter happened to be on a 'stage' in medicine at the little hospital in Thames where Bet lived. Terri told her parents that she didn't know if Bet would live until I arrived - and should I be told? In their wisdom, they chose not to. Bet was frail, but still there when I flew to the moon (or so it felt) to see her. I stayed with her priest and his wife - Graham and Jenny - and visited every day. Anne, Rachael, Tim, Hannah, and Alex (her son) came on the week-end and to church. Graham let me pray the laying on of hands with Bet. She credits living another ten years with my visit - I'm not ready (nor will I be) to take on that kind of power, but God works in mysterious ways. Bet died a few years ago, and still I miss her. She lives on in me and in those she taught. And hopefully we've passed her on to new generations through our own behaviour. 

I encourage any of you out there who remember her to share memories of her life here for her children and grandchildren - for them to know more of her story. More to follow as I remember.

And Bet loved cats. So how could I not love her? 


  1. I did not mean that I was special - It was she that was special!!! And, I was very fortunate to have had Miss Pittman as my Grade 6 Teacher

  2. Memories are funny. I remember Mrs. Anderson being tall! Course, I was only ten.
    She was an awesome teacher. Our year with her was 1960 and we knew her as Mrs. Anderson. We were an eclectic bunch, a mix of kids from Montreal South and VJC. She loved us all and I don't remember her ever having to raise her voice or carrying out any serious reprimands.
    My memory has faded but I do believe she loved her calling.
    It was sad when we heard she had gone to NZ. She was such a part of William White.