Stephen Sidney Gilchrist

My Life in a Nutshell:
Updated August 2018
       I was born in Saskatchewan in 1952, and grew up in Ontario and in Zambia (southern Africa), which was still Northern Rhodesia.  I first arrived there at the age of nine.
        I traveled extensively from childhood to my mid-thirties and visited about 35 countries, including one complete round-the-world trip which lasted for two years.  I had lived and worked on four continents before marrying Deborah and settling down in Ontario thirty-two years ago.  Deborah and I continued to travel together on our summer vacations from teaching, and in our years of retirement.   My tally is now 52 countries
      In my late teens, I trained as a radio operator in the Canadian army.  I was a favourite of the training sergeant and corporals, who called me in to explain that I'd been a close second choice for the Commandant's Shield, but I had one black mark for missing the bus back to base while playing sheepdog to a drunken buddy.  Admittedly, I'd had enough rum myself that I couldn't stand the taste for several years afterward, but at least I was conscious and ambulatory. The guy who won the shield was a solid soldier and a great guy - I'd have voted for him myself.
      I aced my radio training too, but the army lost me when they fenced in my future.  "Seeing the world" was one of recruitment lures, and the main reason I'd quit high school to sign up in the first place, but they seemed to have a lingering cold war paranoia, even in the early '70's.
I requested and received a voluntary honourable discharge when I learned that because of my childhood presence in foreign countries (Africa, Israel, Europe), they would not grant me the security clearance to be posted overseas!  What an example of "military intelligence".  I had imagined that with my experience with travel, with the customs of other cultures and lower potential for culture shock, I'd have been at the top of their list for foreign assignment.  Instead, they sent the kinds of fellows who eventually brought down the Canadian Airborne Regiment, a Canadian military institution that imploded in disgrace as a result of the Somalia Affair in 1993.
     Instead of an army career, I worked at a variety of jobs through my twenties and early thirties.  I sold pianos and organs, and vacuum cleaners, and worked in retail department stores, sporting goods and book stores.  I worked in factories building mattresses and travel trailers, installed kitchen cabinets, framed new buildings and spent one hot summer in the "cool room" of a meat packing plant - not on the "kill floor" upstairs, thankfully, although I had to make frequent trips up there.  I learned insurance underwriting as an "executive trainee" - what a great component of training for a future investor!  I co-ran a summer youth hostel.  I worked the front desk, switchboard, and did the nightly audit in five different hotels.  I worked in restaurants, repair garages and car dealerships. I was a dance hall "bouncer" and a music teacher and performer:  I spent three years in travelling country rock bar bands and jazz lounge combos, and several years as a music teacher, including two years self-employed in my own private music studio.  I was a roughneck on an oil rig, crewed for a water driller, laid pipeline and repaired railroad track across the prairies.  I drove oil and gas well logging trucks, and delivered dynamite to seismic crews.  I taught ESL in Vienna, Austria one winter, and in Japan the following summer.  I taught a business management skills curriculum at an adult night school in Toronto.  This tapestry of experience formed a rich "street" level curriculum that you wouldn't get from an armload of textbooks.
    Between jobs, I finished high school with marks in the high nineties - in considerable contrast to the earlier marks I was pulling down when I hated high school and dropped out to join the army.  In fits and starts, I enrolled in various college and university programs, hunting for what I'd most like to do for a career: pre-med, commerce, fine arts and literature, and a year at a jazz college.  I finally graduated Cum Distinction from the University of Alberta with a B.A. in English and Drama (Playwriting), and was invited into the two-year Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting.  I was flattered by the invitation, since they took in only two graduates per year, so that there were never more than four of us in the program being coached by two professional playwright professors; but I gave up on the program at the conclusion of my first year, once I became aware of the bleak economic realities of playwrights in Canada.  According to Statscan they lived on $12,500, on average, that year. Financial well-being depended too heavily on a small and fickle market, and my vision of the future featured me as sole male breadwinner of a household with children and a mortgage.  In the early 80's, a time of spiking interest rates, a mortgage was a really big deal. It didn't occur to me at that age that a future wife might be a partner income-earner.  If it had, I might have continued in that path. I enjoyed writing, and still do.
    It was also a turbulent decade of (some) regrettable choices and "anti-social" personality traits described by Malcolm Gladwell in his profile of heavy smokers, in The Tipping Point (chapter 7 - 3).  Misconduct, rebellion, defiance, risk-taking and snap judgements were never far below the surface, and sometimes porpoised between intermittent efforts at stable relationships and developing a career and a grown-up persona.  It included substance abuse of the sorts common for a certain kind of late-blooming adult of the day - later, we often excused our excesses with a knowing phrase: "it was the sixties!" (wink and nudge) - although in my case it was mostly the seventies.  It took a prolonged effort to
finally overcome nicotine addiction (nicotine gum was an essential aid), but alcohol never owned me, and eventually I had no trouble giving it up completely.  Adventurous drug experimentation with a variety of substances never resulted in a compulsion to go back for more, which makes me a very lucky person, in retrospect.  I capped that decade with a full year of backpacking around the globe - literally, out one side of Edmonton, and back in the other side.  Maturity settled in.  Now I've amassed four decades of generous, empathetic, sober, productive and level-headed living.  The contrast astounds me, and sends me searching for childhood clues to what can now be seen as a bas relief aberration in my life.  There were some possibilities: being constantly uprooted, depression, and weak self-esteem (cf. Gladwell p. 245-246).  I wondered for a time whether this was a decade that defined me as a person; it hasn't, and it doesn't.  So, can people change?  Yes they can, and always will, if they live long enough, and often for the better.  There might be those who knew me then who formed their definition of me based on that time, and not on what came later, but since I lived and worked in new communities and formed new relationships, I didn't remain trapped by early reputation. I suspect that sometimes happens to people who never leave the geographies of their regretably foolish youth. 

    My career, in summation:  Slowly I began to notice that apart from writing and playing in bands, the jobs I'd enjoyed the most were teaching ESL to adults and music to kids.  I was accepted into the University of Toronto Faculty of Ed in 1987.  Michael Fullan was the new dean.  I made his Dean's Honour List that year on top of my earlier B.A. Cum Distinction, and earned my B. Ed, specializing in Junior/Intermediate English, plus Instrumental Music plus Senior Basic Industrial Arts; with those diverse qualifications in addition to my international travel and work experience, and the fact that I was a male teacher willing to teach in an elementary classroom, I got hired in a heartbeat by the former Scarborough Board of Education. I continued learning new curriculum, became a Design and Technology Specialist, became Board qualified to teach ESL, and also became a Computers in the Classroom Specialist.
    Since then I've been a music specialist for a whole school, a grade 5 teacher, a grade 3 teacher for four years in two schools, a grade 7/8 math/science teacher and computer lab specialist in two schools, and operated two grade 7/8 Design and Technology centres for a total of nine years. This was  "the best job in the system".  One of those assignments was a seven year stint in Samuel Hearne Sr. P. S. where a kind friend, Greg Martin, was newly assigned as principal.  He called me away from a prior D&T position at John McCrae to clean up and re-open the shop at Hearne.  He had a larger vision of the educational needs of his clientele than most principals of senior schools, and worked hard to keep his technology centre open even as they were being shut down in similar schools.  I was his teachers' union steward as well as his D&T teacher, and we had a good partnership. 
    However in 2002, panicked by an end-of-June announcement of the closing of my D&T centre due to neo-conservative funding cut-backs (a decision which was subsequently reversed by the school board), I signed up for my Principal's Qualification courses, with Greg's encouragement.  Two years later I found myself serving as vice-principal at a school where I had been a rookie teacher at the beginning of my public school teaching career, and teaching ESL at all grade levels and "music appreciation" to the grade 7's and 8's - that was a music alternative for kids who didn't have the capacity to learn musical skills, or who couldn't focus and behave well enough to be included in a school band. It was a challenge, but I designed a program that they enjoyed, with an immersion in modern musicals, historical and classical music.  We used the best stereo in the school, and projected videos and whole musicals like Phantom of the Opera on the screen at the front of the classroom.  Being a rookie VP there was a weird and difficult situation, caught in a state of constant conflict between a Thatcherite principal and a strong union-oriented staff, most of whom I'd worked with as a rookie teacher twenty years earlier, and a few of whom were distinctly ornery.  Coming into administration straight out of a decade of service as a union steward made it even more uncomfortable: I related to the teachers and wanted to support them as much as possible so that they in turn would deliver the best possible programming for the kids; I was trusted and became friendly with most of them as well as with the union steward on staff, but I was castigated by my principal for sympathizing and connecting with them on that level, and my effort was pinched off and limited in terms of time, resources and moral support. 
    Richard Branson, the visionary and outstandingly successful founder of the Virgin complex of companies, would say, "Take care of your employees first, and they will take care of the customers."  Too many principals I worked with were more small-minded: they believed that the union would take care of the teachers, and that their role as principal was to scrabble and fight with their teachers on behalf of the students and their parents.  They seemed unable to acknowledge that most teachers became teachers because they already liked children and wanted to do what was best for them. Admittedly, there were also a minority of teachers I worked with who displayed
more than modest self-serving traits, some more consistently than others.  A capable school leader was challenged to be strong and balanced in dealing with his staff.
    I spent the next two years as vice-principal at a senior school where I was also the computer lab and AV guy, and taught English, math, art, music, dance and drama to a split grade 7/8 class of 28 students that included fifteen ESL students with a wide assortment of mother tongues, at varying stages of fluency in English - several with no English at all.  I had a different principal again in each of the two years I was there, the second one particularly weak and ineffectual, while there were strong teachers on staff looking out for their own interests in terms of time-tabling and student assignment into their classes.  I really loved my ESL class, but that was too heavy a workload for one person, and an injustice to some of the most needy children in a school, the newest arrivals in Canada.  It was hard on my health -
I had to begin taking blood pressure medication in those years.  If you want to know what I really think about my years in teaching versus school administration, click here.
September of 2008 I began my final administrative role as vice-principal at one of the largest public schools in the city, Cedar Drive P. S., working for someone I really liked, Principal Karen Robertson.  That was a terrific school with a wonderful staff, and that's where I closed out my public school teaching career and retired, 18 months later - a few years early for me, admittedly, but it was Deborah's official retirement date and we could well afford it, so we decided to retire together, escape the Toronto winter and go traveling again.  Friends and staff from Cedar Drive and several of my earlier schools, who have huge hearts, threw us a memorable send-off and made generous donations to two of our favourite charities.  I left on a high note, and I didn't look back.

    Travel: "To travel is to breathe".  Deb and I do like to travel. We've been back to my childhood stomping grounds in southern Africa for a six week visit to Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Pretoria and Durban in South Africa.  We've also travelled together to Maui, several times to Mexico, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and PEI, Alberta and B.C., Florida, Grand Cayman, the Dominican Republic and many places along the way.  We went to Singapore, Indonesia (Bali/Java), northern Thailand (touring out of Chiang Mai), and Malaysia (mostly scuba diving from Malaysian islands), and even Laos, sort of...; since retirement we've gone south in winter months: we've been to Cuba twice, spent three months on our trailerable 22' sailboat Tiger Moth in the Florida Everglades and the Keys (which also included two weeks on a 36' Taiwanese sailboat called Cypraea), spent two months in Australia and the next winter in California, New Zealand and Fiji, and we drove home through the southwestern states of the U.S. In the winter of 2012/2013 we tried a less frenetic pace of travel and did "voluntourism" in Ecuador for two months and Peru for two more months, staying in a few different places but each for weeks at a time, with side trips to visit Machu Picchu and other amazing sights. We spent a winter in Vietnam, took a break from winter travel for one year (I had a small stroke), and then resumed the practice by visiting Czechia, Poland and East Gerrmany, then South and Central America over two more winters - Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica.  There are blogs and photos of these trips on my Archives page.

    "The detour is the destination".  We've driven across Canada to visit our God-daughter's family on Salt Spring Island via Edmonton at least five times, and detoured through numerous communities and beautiful lake and mountain scenery on adventurous secondary highways in southern B.C.  Visiting family and friends in Western Canada was an annual tradition for us for two decades while my Dad alive; a little less frequently in the past decade.  It usually culminated in a group camp site where the whole family gathered for a weekend, somewhere in rural Alberta, often in the remote foothills of the Rockies.  In 2010 it was close by the Ya-Ha-Tinda federal horse ranch, in the foothills near Sundre, an area filled with elk (we stumbled into one herd while out walking two kilometres from our campsite), deer, grizzlies and wild horses.

    Before I met Deborah, I had already travelled in Morroco, Egypt, Israel, Zambia, Zaire,
Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, England, Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan and the U.S. - some countries more than once. My international travels, beginning in childhood, were a strong foundation for my skills and insight into the needs of my ESL students (as they would have been for my army service, if that had been an option). My North American travels have included most of the west and south of the U.S.A., much of the east coast, numerous trips to Florida; back and forth across Canada east to west a couple of dozen times, and into some northern communities - including a ten day canoe trip down the Nahanni river in the Northwest Territories with my brother Peter and nephew Dylan in 2007, to mark Peter's fiftieth birthday and his son Dylan's eighteenth birthday.  On this map you can see the places I've visited (black dots) and lived (tiny houses: six cities across Canada, plus Zambia, Austria and Japan):


       Music:  I play keyboard, trumpet, guitar, banjo, melodica and harmonicas, and clarinet.  During the pandemic lockdown of 2020 I developed chops on fiddle, alto sax and accordion.  I played and sang in an ever-changing collection of groups: big band, two jazz combos, dance trios, ukulele choir, guitar circles, classic rock jams and for a while, a Caribbean dance band.  I twice resurrected a guitar circle at Highland Yacht Club which met weekly for four years.  Deb and I sang in a couple of different jazz choirs.  Music fills my week with medicine for the psyche: songs that become ear-worms through the week are an antidote to anything that might dampen your spirits. 

        Gardening:  We plant and maintain a huge kitchen garden every spring and summer, with the help of frequent young Helpx and Workaway guests.  I call it "my own private Jumanji", especially when the winter squash vines cover the archways, ropes and step ladders that I set up for them.  We eat well, share the fruit of our labours with our young helpers, and donate excess produce to a local food bank.  Deborah also volunteers at that food bank one day of each week.

     Sailing: Deb and I sail out of Highland Yacht Club.  Some of the boats we've owned in the past can be seen here.
    Now we
sail a Mirage 27 which Deborah has renamed No Egrets - perfect size weekender for an older couple to handle together.  We cruised the North Channel in 2004 on our CS22, and plan to return there some day.  We took the Cruising Trophy two years in a row at the annual C&C Regatta at the National Yacht Club in our 25' C&C Redline, which now sails out of North Rustico in P.E.I., and I've crewed on larger racing sailboats for three seasons in previous years. 
    In the winter of 2010 we towed Tiger Moth, our
trailerable Hullmaster 22, to the 10,000 Islands just north of the Everglades in Florida, to Cayo Costa near Fort Myers, and to the Atlantic side of the Florida Keys: Marathon, Big Pine Key, Bahia Honda, etc - the "Middle Keys", as they're called.  I described the three months in a travel blog, with photos that you can click on to enlarge. We stayed for two months at a marina in Marathon, which has a wonderful small town atmosphere, and we also "boat-sat" a Union 36 in Boot Key Harbour, commuting to shore by dinghy each day. 

    Tennis and Fitness: I play tennis all summer at the Scarborough Bluffs Tennis Club, and use a barbell and bench in our basement.  I used to try to keep in shape through the winter by occasionally jogging, weight-training and swimming at Variety Village, and by curling in a mixed league at East York Curling Club every Friday; but now that I'm retired and able to winter in places without snow, my fitness regime is more commonly limited to hiking with my backpack to the next destination, walking about in the towns we visit, or playing Badminton or tennis with young Vietnamese English students, for example.  There's a weight room in a nearby community centre that I can join for one month intervals whenever it is convenient to my schedule of travel and other activities.

    Scuba: I enjoyed scuba, and I trained to PADI Rescue Diver level.
I have about 100 recorded dives in my log book.  I have explored many wrecks in Parry Sound, Tobermory and Brockville, as well as many tropical dive sites - Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Bali, Malaysia, and others. I've enjoyed some wonderful diving off the coast of Victoria, and near Nanaimo, in British Columbia. Deborah became certified in Singapore, and she dives with me occasionally when we're in warm southern waters, but she prefers to snorkel.  I took a hiatus from diving during my years in school administration, and haven't returned to it, but I hope to some day. 

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