Retirement, the Longhouse and Jean de Brébeuf

In one of those odd twists of fate, I have spent the past two years working with Mrs. E, my grade 7 social studies teacher from the 1972-72 school year. I spoke at her retirement party yesterday. (Unlike 1972, I am now taller than her.)

I won’t spill names or anything, but I will relate small anecdote from yesterday. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember very much of the 1972-73 school year; a few little details still rattle around my mind but not too many. But I remember one lesson, and that in itself is significant.

We spent a fair amount of time learning about Iroquoian culture before and shortly after European contact. Our classroom textbook was The Great Tree and the Longhouse by Hazel Hertzberg.

Not surprisingly, every copy in school had had the title altered to The Great Pee in the Outhouse–ah the refinement of 12-year-old humour.

The book, as I recall, was surprisingly interesting. It looked mainly at day-to-day life. We learned about family, about food and clothing, about clan structure, about ritual and ceremony. In short, with only a small amount of imagination, we could imagine ourselves living in this culture. And that is no small accomplishment.

I recently picked up a copy of the book. I haven’t read closely, but it seems to have held up fairly well; a quick glance failed to reveal the cringe-worthy prose one might expect from a book of this era. On the other hand, perhaps we were a bit more sophisticated than modern-day critics want to claim.

But this isn’t about the book. It’s about Mrs. E and the one remembered lesson.

When we were done with our studies (the “unit” in school-language) Mrs. E spoke to the whole class. The book was good, she said, and her lessons were all true, so far as she could tell, but they only tell one story. The story of our studies was of a quiet peaceful people, living a quiet and peaceful existence. But it isn’t the only story that could be told, she said. She told us a bit about Jean de Brébeuf, a 17th century Jesuit. She didn’t tell us much about him–she had no interest in making him the protagonist of our Iroquoian narrative. But she did read to us a translation of a second-hand account of Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois. And then she stopped.

Time hung in the air. We had nowhere to go, nothing to think. The meaning of history, the possibility of conflicting narratives, the lack of simple descriptions of something some complicated of a structure as a society quieted the room. And it still gives me pause today.

Thank you Mrs. E. I remember one lesson from 1972-73. And that’s a lot. Have a long and fulfilling retirement.

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