Photo by the Toronto Star
I was lucky enough, that by the time I reached grade twelve, I had already had two wonderful and inspiring history teachers. I had created my own 1920s flapper doll and had done Mesopotamian carvings, all in the name of interactive learning. Needless to say, by the time I got to grade twelve, my World History teacher had a lot to live up to. He exceeded my expectations.
On the first day of Robin Barker-James’s history class, I knew it was different than any high school course I had taken. Like many who had walked before me, I knew Robin’s class promised to be exciting, educational and unparalleled. The first thing I noticed, was his ability to treat us like adults. This is a big deal for a high school student who needs a hall pass every time they need to go to the washroom . Barker-James allowed us to leave when necessary, understood when we were late and talked to us as peers instead of students. He was willing to learn from us just as much as we were willing to learn from him. As a result, his students rose to the occasion.
In the classroom we were constantly engaged in debate, in discussion and in presentations. While many in upper administration frowned upon Barker-James’s teaching style, this was a failure on their behalf. Not only did he make history real for us, he prepared us for university- one of the main tasks of a grade twelve history teacher. He was the only one to show me how to do Chicago style citations, the proper style for any history paper. He held seminar-type discussions with strong emphasis on participation which I would later find to be the backbone of all of my university courses. In presentations and projects, he gave us the freedom to pick our own topics. You wouldn’t believe what an impact this had. I listened to twenty other students present amazing projects that were all high in quality. This is something you didn’t see in other classes. Throughout the year, I could see my peers growing more respect and gratitude for one another. This was what Barker-James inspired in his students.
The most exciting part of Barker-James’s class however, as everyone knows, was visiting his farm, now known as the Bill Findley Education Site. Our final project was to transform his barn into a WWII Museum. What other teacher would lend out their property like that? With restrictions from upper administration on visiting the site, all students committed to finishing the project outside of school. This meant twenty students staying out until midnight working on their exhibits. What other teacher could inspire this work ethic and passion?
When it was finally time for me to go off to university, Barker-James played a large role and I chose Trent, his alma mater to study history at. Before leaving high school, I asked Mr. Barker-James to prepare my valedictorian introduction for me and he delivered. Mr. Barker-James was quite ill at the time but showed up and said his speech beautifully. I was so proud to be able to have a role model and a friend like him who would come through no matter what.
A few weeks ago, I got the chance to reconnect with Robin and I’m so glad I did. We were working on bringing genocide workshops into high schools and even as a co-worker he continued to impress upon me, the need to make history real for students. I will always remember him for this.
Robin Barker-James was an amazing inspiration and continues to be for many of the decisions I make. I am not alone. Barker-James touched the lives of many (I dare to say all) of his students. In small ways and big ways, he has shaped our paths and decisions. He has set the moral bar high. Talking over the last week with peers of mine about Robin’s passing has made me realize that I was so fortunate to have a teacher and a friend like this. He was described as a torchbearer, and somebody who “was supposed to take over teaching for everyone ever”. He was described as passionate, unique and honest. He will continue to inspire me to bring history to the public in interactive, lasting and memorable ways. Tillsonburg just lost a huge part of its spark but I know the legacy will continue on.