Governor general attends play about her life by education alumnus

What began as a simple idea in the mind of Terrance Saunders (right) (BA ‘84, MEd ‘03) turned out to be a moving tribute to Governor General Michaëlle Jean. When Jean became governor general, Saunders, a drama teacher at Lawrence Heights Middle School, thought about creating a play about her life. On June 14, that thought became a reality as An Ode to Madame G.G. played to a full house at Lawrence Heights Middle School (LHMS) in North Toronto. Attended by parents, students, school board personnel, the media and the governor general herself, the complex production did not disappoint. At times it brought the governor general and members of the audience to tears.

Performed by Grade 7 and 8 students from LHMS, the play followed Jean’s career from her arrival in Canada in 1968 at the age of 11 to her nomination and appointment as the 27th governor general of Canada. First, though, it chronicled the history of Haiti, from the early Taino peoples who inhabited the land they called Xaragua to the subsequent Spanish and French colonization and the Haitian revolutionary struggles (1791-1804), in order to provide the audience with a context that highlighted how Jean’s career was influenced by the strength of her ancestors.

Above: Lawrence Heights Middle School students perform An Ode to
Madame G.G.

Saunders, a drama teacher at the school for the past seven years, cites LHMS and its role in the community as one of his reasons for creating the project. “The Honourable Michaëlle Jean’s nomination to the vice-regal post last summer was the perfect catalyst for me to create a new theatrical production at LHMS – a school always attempting to redefine its role vis à vis the negative stereotypes that abound about the school and the community,” said Saunders. “This play is one example of some of the great things that come out of Lawrence Heights Middle School and the community.”

Although the play was a difficult piece to perform, the students pulled it off without a hitch, said Saunders. He credited some of his courses and professors in York’s graduate program in education for providing him with the theoretical background necessary to create the complex production. He also acknowledged both his early schooling in the Bahamas and his mother, who was a teacher, as his inspiration for the project. “My mother took me, along with my siblings, to the library in Nassau, Bahamas, and introduced us to the power of books and the joy of reading, in a society that harshly taught its non-white citizens that education was the only key to social advancement,” he said. “I wanted the students involved in the production to understand this and to expose them to the breadth of knowledge and excellence in literature that is available to them.”

Left: Governor General Michaëlle Jean (left) applauds the student actors

The final cast of 36 was selected after auditions in March and a month spent reading the script. “I wanted to put students on stage who probably wouldn’t have otherwise been there,” said Saunders. “They didn’t necessarily have to have the talent, but needed to be committed and have the drive to learn and succeed.”

The students were also exposed to excellence outside of their regular environment through their participation in the project. As a part of their learning process, they went to the South African show UMOJA at the Elgin theatre last Septembe and to the dress rehearsals of the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Romeo and Juliet in April. Both field trips gave the students an opportunity to view live stage productions, which in turn provided a solid understanding of the behind-the-scenes work that was necessary to bring each production to life.

Engaging students in discussions and conversations and helping them to strive for academic excellence was one of the main goals of the project, and the bond between Saunders and his students is evident. Many of the students in the play stated that they wouldn’t have traded this particular experience for anything. Devesh, a student in Grade 8, said, “Mr. Saunders influences students through his confidence and belief in them.” Another student, Frederica, mentioned that “Mr. Saunders helped me to succeed in my role by bringing out the best in me.”

“We want people to know that Lawrence Heights Middle School is an exciting place to be,” said LHMS Principal Janice Searles. “Unfortunately the school is often misrepresented as a result of historical challenges and the perception is that the school represents the community that it is in. This play is just one example of the many ways that students and staff at Lawrence Heights have come together to create something positive and to show that many good things come out of Lawrence Heights.”