"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, April 2, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Great Village School

“The school was high, bare and white-clapboarded, dark-red-roofed, and the four-sided cupola had white louvers. Two white outhouses were set farther back, but visible, on either side.” Elizabeth Bishop, “Primer Class,” The Collected Prose, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984).

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Great Village School circa 1910

The Great Village School was built in 1904, a shining example of the push for consolidation taking place in Nova Scotia at the turn of the twentieth century, as many of the one-room school houses vanished. The Ulster Scots and Yorkshire immigrants who settled in Colchester County in the late eighteenth century, brought with them a high regard for education, and once established as a community, Great Village continuously had a school. It moved around throughout the nineteenth century, but in 1904 found its permanent home. The impressive building served the grades from Primary to Eleven, after which ambitious students headed to Truro, Halifax and abroad to acquire post-secondary education.

The only Bulmer child to be educated in this particular building was Mary, the youngest daughter. She was in senior high by the time her niece Elizabeth arrived in Great Village and attended Grade Primary in 1916–1917, an experience which imprinted deeply on her imagination. One of her most charming published reminiscences is “Primer Class,” written late in life but with a vividness which belies the passage of time.

Many things about this memoir are memorable. One of my favourite parts is Bishop’s portrait of her teacher, Georgie Morash. What is not clear from the memoir is that Georgie had been a schoolmate and friend of Bishop’s Aunt Grace. I read the description of the Amazon-like Georgie in her straight up and down shirtwaist and startling white Oxford shoes, with her projecting voice, long before I saw a picture of her with her classmates, including Grace, taken during her graduating year in 1906.

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Photograph of the Great Village School graduation class, 1906. Georgie Morash is the young woman in the middle of the seated row. Aunt Grace is standing, third from the right. Next to her is her dear friend Una Layton. There seems to have been a disproportionate number of young women to young men in Great Village! (Acadia University Archives, Wolfville, N.S.)

Georgie’s face was open and intelligent. Her close connection with the Bulmer family would have made her privy to the sorrow that surrounded the tiny Elizabeth Bishop. One of the interesting things is that while Georgie’s sympathy was clearly engaged with this child, she still aimed to keep the precocious student focused on her work, with a rap on the head with her pointer, when the student started to day-dream. Bishop also remembered how understanding Georgie was when she was late one day because Aunt Mary had been teasing her: “She [Georgie] said in a very kindly way, not at all in her usual penetrating voice, that being only a few minutes late wasn’t really worth tears, that everything was quite all right....”

The level of education this and similar schools in Nova Scotia offered was advanced. Throughout its history, Great Village itself offered to the world dozens of teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers — even parliamentarians. And, of course, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. For all her subsequent education in the United States, especially at Walnut Hill and Vassar College, this early brief experience was the one Elizabeth Bishop chose to immortalize in print.

While some modernization has taken place: the ubiquitous outhouses of pre-World War II rural Nova Scotia — indeed, my grandmother still had an outhouse in the 1960s as supplement to her indoor plumbing — are gone and computers and plastic chairs inhabit the rooms; but the school has changed very little since Bishop’s time there. The school has been designated a Provincial Heritage Property.

The school now serves only Grades Primary to Three, but the fact that it still survives in tact, being used for its original purpose, is a testament to the commitment and dedication of the community. The children learn about Elizabeth Bishop and have participated in Bishop events in Great Village. In October 2009, as part of the “Brazil in Great Village” day, the teachers read them “Armadillo” and had the children draw their response to it. Below is part of the lively art exhibit which was the result.

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Is an artist born or made — or some combination in between? What role does pedagogy play in artistic development? These are big questions. Answers are complex, but some of the understanding comes by knowing the details of an artists’ life. These “Nova Scotia Connections” are meant, in part, to point to answers for some of these questions related to Elizabeth Bishop.

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