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She's Old School
Last summer, when workers began demolishing the old 1950 Chilliwack secondary school (CSS), Muriel Morris happened to be on her way to the new school next door to set up a few things in her new classroom.
She stopped by the construction fence a while to watch as an excavator clawed down the old walls and tore through familiar classrooms.
When it got to room 205, she had to walk away.
A few doors down would be 210—her room for the last 40 years.
Morris will retire this year after spending all but one of her 42 years of teaching in that old CSS building.
Her new home, for her final year, has been the school’s new, bright and breezy $56-million campus, which officially opened amidst much hoopla last Friday.
The merits of the new state-of-the-art building—with its teaching kitchens and robotics labs, with its wide-open spaces and expanses of glass—were the subject of much speechifying by politicians and school officials last week.
But the place will never quite sit right with Morris.
“It is going to make it easier to retire,” she told the Times. “This is like living in a lovely luxury hotel, but the old building was home.”
Before walking out of room 210 for the last time last June, Morris waited until everyone else had gone home for the summer.
She then took one final, solitary tour of the school.
“I was taking a last mental snapshot of the building, the dimensions, the comfy darkness, if you will, just to say goodbye to it.”
She had first walked into that old building in 1971, when cigarette smoke still billowed from the staffroom door at lunchtime and almost all the teachers there were men.
Fresh out of UBC’s teaching program at age 23, she had secured an interview with then-principal J.Y. Halcrow, who had dressed up that day for a visit from the Governor General.
She remembers he wore red patent-leather shoes.
“He had on a blue blazer, white slacks and red patent shoes,” Morris said. “I was fascinated; I had never seen a man in red patent shoes.”
She was eventually offered the job and replaced Mike Harms, who left teaching to pursue a professional wrestling career as The Magnificent Mennonite.
As one of only three female teachers teaching an academic subject when she was hired, Morris has seen her share of changes over the last four decades.
In 1971, for example, women were expected to wear dresses, but she remembers the day of civil disobedience that changed all that.
“One day, pant suits had come in,” Morris said, “and all the ladies on staff got together and we all wore pant suits. The principal took one look at us, went back into his office and spent the day reading the newspaper.”
More importantly, she said, the increase in women on staff over the years has given girls more role models—and made the staffroom a better place.
“We have more fun,” Morris said. “The guys were always collegial and respectful, but it’s sort of an easier relationship now, in that gender doesn’t factor in. You’re a teacher rather than a female teacher.”
Another big change Morris has seen over the last 40 years has been the explosion in technology in the classroom.
From the chalk, film projectors and card-catalogue research of the 1970s to the smart boards, document cameras and infinite online resources of today, the veteran teacher has seen it all.
When it comes to English, though, she said the essentials haven’t really changed.
“It’s still the kids discovering the world in the book,” she said.
When it comes to her legacy, Morris will likely be most remembered for a quirky skill she honed during staff meetings in the mid-’80s.
A dachshund owner since she was 12-years-old, Morris began doodling her favourite canines to pass the time at meetings (she declined to name who her principal was at the time).
Having mastered the art, she began applying it in the classroom to illustrate Shakespeare’s plays.
“By that time I had gotten to the point where I could draw wiener dogs with a whole lot of expressions,” she said.
Starting with Macdachs—a tale of wiener-dog ambition run amok—Morris built up a bank of 12 dachshund Shakespeares eventually published in 1990 as Shakespeare Made Easy: An Illustrated Approach.
She published more wiener-dog plays on her website, Shakespeare Goes to the Dogs, which was featured in the National (UK) Shakespeare Institute’s exhibition, “Shakespeare, Man of the Millenium” in 2000.
At the old CSS, one of her iconic cartoon dachshunds, holding a copy of Hamlet, had been painted on the door to room 210.
That door is now in Morris’s basement.
“I said, ‘I’m taking my door,’ and, bless their hearts, in early July my door was delivered to my house,” she said.
She’s happy her door was spared, but when asked how she felt about the new school ditching the old CSS place names, like the J.Y. Halcrow Gymnasium (named after her first boss), Morris said it might be time to just let it go.
“I think they don’t have relevance to the students any more,” she said “and this building needs to make its own history.”