When I taught, I viewed the approach of a new year of classes with a mixture of concern and anticipation. Concern, in that I would be leaving the soft, unscheduled days of summer to enter fully engaged days of teaching. Anticipation, because my classroom would be filled anew with students, some of whom I knew from previous years and others who would be new to the school and to me. This annual renewal that takes place in teachers’ lives each autumn is a unique characteristic of our profession.
A few weeks ago, I stood on the broad front steps of a school that turns 100 in 2009, and I wondered about the many children who spent time learning within its red brick walls. Edmonton Public’s Norwood School, built in what was then the bush along Rat Creek, is a place that has seen many beginnings and renewals. The school is located on the corner of what is now 111 Avenue and 95 Street in northeast Edmonton. Traces of Rat Creek are nowhere to be found. Located in a pivotal location, the school has maintained its pride-of-place as an anchor of the Norwood community. To the east, clearly visible through the staircase windows, is Commonwealth Stadium. To the west can be seen the ever-expanding complex of the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Spending time in schools of this vintage, wherever they still serve in Alberta communities, is to experience living history and an almost palpable sense of eternal youth. Norwood school today serves children from prekindergarten to Grade 6 and keeps approximately 150 of them safe, warm and loved within its high-ceilinged, sunlit classrooms. Staffed by 17 teachers, aides and support staff, the place seems not so much an educational institution as a very large house containing a wonderfully diverse family.
Inside its classrooms, Norwood provides the most modern techniques to enhance and support the creative work of teachers and aides. I looked on in wonder as the Grade 5 teacher led her young charges through a classifying exercise with words projected onto a Smart Board. Students came forward and, touching the surface of the board, sorted words into columns just by moving their fingers across the board’s surface. I marvelled at the sophistication of today’s technology. One-hundred years ago, children of a similar age were reportedly awed by Norwood’s water fountains. Standard drinking apparatus in the two small wooden school buildings previously on the site consisted of water pails and dippers.
In my travels through Western Canada, I have often been delighted to encounter other schools like Edmonton’s Norwood School. Such buildings were sources of tremendous civic pride at the time, and their architecture and accoutrements reflected the importance attached to providing the best education possible for the community’s children. The first school I attended was similar to Norwood School. Fleetwood Elementary School in Lethbridge had the same general layout, with tall windows allowing in the outside world. The school auditorium was located on the top floor, complete with dormer windows, and I well remember winter physical education classes there with George McKillop, music classes with Miss Larson and art lessons with Effie Reid. Norwood’s top-floor auditorium is now a library and learning centre, but the original auditorium stage of tiny proportions and the opening glass skylight on the very peak of the roof are still integral parts of the space.
Official openings of buildings such as Norwood School provided high-profile public relations opportunities for community leaders. In the case of Norwood School, members of the Masonic Lodge paraded from downtown Edmonton, led by the Strathcona Fire Brigade Band. On arrival at the school, the most worshipful grand master of the Masons of Alberta, the Reverend Mr. Hogbin, led the ceremony to place the cornerstone. According to the account in the May 29, 1908, Edmonton Bulletin, the grand Masonic chaplain invoked the blessing on the undertaking. The grand registrar read an inscribed scroll that was placed in a receptacle beneath the stone. Vials of coins and stamps from the Dominion were placed by the grand treasurer, after which the stone itself, “of Kootenay marble,” was set in place. “Then it was tested and found to be laid in accordance with the rules of Masonry, after which the emblematic corn was scattered and the wine and oil spilled upon its top.”
Reverend Hogbin spoke to the assembly, noting his pleasure at taking part because of his career as a teacher and because the Masonic fraternity aimed at bettering the human condition. “There is no way that a country can be made better than by the careful education of its children,” Hogbin intoned, “and the Masonic fraternity could not find a better object [than education] on which to exercise its functions.”
An event as auspicious as this commanded the involvement of other luminaries. Premier Rutherford was present and congratulated the school trustees “upon their undertaking to erect such a handsome school.” He spoke of further schools, similar to Norwood, which would be provided within the city as “an annual event for years to come,” all of which, according to the premier, gave splendid evidence of the growth of the city.
The excitement of the stone laying ceremony at Norwood School 100 years ago has long faded away, and the last notes of the Fire Brigade Band are faint echoes in the mists of time. Accounts of the day exist now only in the yellowed pages of long-dormant newspapers. But what endures is this magnificent building, a lasting testament to the importance a community attaches to the education of its children. For a century now, this school has been a place of renewal and anticipation for Edmonton’s Norwood community.