Taking time to teach

Reprinted from Decks Awash, Volume 15, Number 6
November – December 1986
Photographs from MUN Digital Archives

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Silas Avery, 1986

Soft-spoken Silas Avery, 67, has a mass of bushy white hair and pale blue eyes. For almost 38 years he was teacher and principal at Southport then Gooseberry Cove, taking over the United Church one-room school at Southport in 1937. At that time, the teacher and clergyman were the two figures of authority in most outports, policemen rarely being seen. Silas, however, is remembered with affection by many of his pupils and doesn’t seem much like an authoritarian figure.

“When I was a pupil I remember having a terrible feeling of fear of teachers. Some were bullies who used the stick and the strap. Some put the child in a corner, made him stand on one leg, degraded the child, made him a laughing stock. That child wasn’t learning anything. I decided I could never be like that.”

When Silas started teaching at Southport, he assumed responsibility for 42 students, Grades 1 to 11, in a building just 16 by 22 feet.

“There was just room to get in and out, and an old wood stove in the centre aisle. The children brought the wood for the stove and their parents washed the wood floor—no linoleum. Some pupils used a slate from the quarry nearby for their exercises. Others bought a slate with a wooden frame on it. They used exercise books for homework.

“I don’t know how we managed to teach all those grades in one room, but that was the way it was. We thought it was possible to do it, so we did.”

In 1941, not being entirely sure he had chosen the right career, Silas abandoned teaching and went to work for the Newfoundland Railway as a guard then a brake-man. His section ran from St. John’s to Grand Falls where he met Audrey White. The track ran past her house and they were married in 1944. In August 1945, Silas resigned and returned with Audrey to Southport to resume his teaching career.

“In 1946 the school was replaced by a new one, 24 feet by 36 feet—considerably larger. The Anglicans also built their first school that year with a Miss Mitchell as teacher. Then about 10 years after, we added another room and our school became a two-room school. Frances Adey came from Clarenville as the second teacher.”

With twice the space, twice the staff, and half the pupils to teach, Silas probably felt he had gone to heaven. He had time to devote to slower pupils, too.

“You found pupils that worked hard but did not have the ability, and you found others who had ability and didn’t have to work. Some would spend nights and nights working but didn’t have the talent. It was like putting a four-cylinder and an eight-cylinder motor at the bottom of a hill. The four-cylinder would strain itself and still not do near as well as the eight. You’d try ta help the four-cylinder pupils, work with them after hours and at recess. Of course, this was before the bus system started and you had to watch the clock and the buzzer.”

In 1967 it became evident that having duplicate school systems for Anglicans and United Church children in Southport was a waste of resources. The chairmen of the United Church and Anglican school boards and Silas met with the superintendent of schools at St. John’s for discussions. This led to an amalgamation of the two schools in what was called a Joint Service—two years before educational integration became the norm for the rest of Newfoundland.

Two young girls (Chantelle Lambert and Heidi Lambert) pass the building where Silas once taught, 1986

“We got three rooms then, while Grades 9,10, and 11 moved out to Gooseberry Cove. We got a little bus for them—it was the start of the bus system—and the students were given a monthly cash bonus. They had to live a mile from the school and we just squeezed in a mile.”

In 1970, Silas was moved to Gooseberry Cove as principal and finally retired from there in 1980. 

“I motored back and forth for 10 years, slipped and slid in wintertime. They gradually moved the grades from there to the new Integrated High School at Little Hearts Ease, so with fewer pupils my job became a little easier.”  

Silas enjoyed teaching, but he admits he had his moments of worry and frustration. It perhaps didn’t help having his own children as pupils.  

“I had two brilliant students in one class, Fred Dean and our own daughter, Cindy. But marking their exams used to really bother me. You had to be just and fair regardless of who it was, but you couldn’t afford to mark your own child up either, even if she did deserve it. Fred and Cindy were both good, but if there were a mark to split between them, I suppose Fred would have got it. I couldn’t put myself in a position where people thought I had shown favor to Cindy.”  

Silas laughs in retrospect at the dilemma of not just being fair but appearing to be seen as fair. These days he has less demanding things to worry him, like his garden and repairing his home.  

“Yes, Southport has grown the last 20 years. This past summer, up the road, a couple of new houses were built,” he pauses, his love of English still with him. “Let’s call them houses, they made them homes afterwards,” he says, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

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Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, September 2019

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material