Because of the current restrictions on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Henry's memorial has been postponed until these restrictions are lifted. Consequently, the "normal" pattern of grieving to which I have been accustomed in my life, has suddenly become non-applicable. Because of this--and because tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us--I am posting a piece I wrote about Henry shortly after WE earned OUR Ph,D. in 2003.
My “Powered by Henry” Education
I have known Henry for over twenty-five years–90 percent of my life, and about 40 percent of his life... Man, are we getting OLD!! He served as Assistant Principal and then Principal of Glenrose School Hospital from its inception in 1966 until 1986. Because I was born with a severe form of Cerebral Palsy (I am a quadriplegic who has significant speech and vision impairments, and requires the use of a motorized wheelchair for mobility), I attended Glenrose from Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. At the time of its inception, Glenrose was the first school of its kind in North America in that it brought together a wide variety of disciplines for the education and rehabilitation of students with disabilities. Like many of my fellow Glenrose students, I benefited greatly from Henry’s tireless efforts to ensure that Glenrose was a school where the focus was on ability rather than disability, and where we were treated, not as “patients,” but as “students.”
During my junior and senior high school years, Henry became my mentor. While never minimizing the reality or magnitude of the obstacles facing me, he constantly supported me in my efforts to go out into the so-called “real world” and strive to become a contributing member of society. During my years at Glenrose, it was Henry, more than anyone else, who helped me learn how to deal with both success and failure. My very first success as a beginning writer came when I was in Grade Eight. A local radio station selected a short story I had written for broadcast on a program featuring the work of student writers. From this point on, Henry was absolutely convinced that l had a brilliant writing career ahead of me, and took it upon himself to make sure l had plenty of opportunities to develop my new-found talent. He constantly encouraged me to pursue my aspirations of becoming a writer despite the rather formidable obstacles imposed on me by both the severity of my physical disability and the general lack of public understanding regarding issues of access and accommodation. Lest I got a swelled head from such constant encouragement, Henry also took great delight in pointing out the OCCASIONAL spelling mistakes that cropped up in the articles that he had me write for the Education Department’s monthly newsletter.
It was my keen interest in writing that originally prompted me to consider the possibility of attending a regular school. Because there were so few students remaining at Glenrose for high school by the early 1980s, traditional classroom instruction at the high school level was no longer feasible. Hence, students remaining at Glenrose for high school had to rely on correspondence courses. Since the idea of taking English by correspondence didn't particularly thrill me, I agreed that it would be a good idea for me to take English at a regular school. ‘How hard could it be to find a school?’ we all thought, ‘after all, it was only ONE course.’ As the work of finding a school began, however, we encountered many more obstacles than had ever been anticipated. The two main obstacles we encountered were inaccessibility and attitude; either it was physically impossible for me to get into the school, or they simply didn't want to take on a severely disabled student. Finally, we found a school that was physically accessible and an English teacher who was willing to take me on. Unfortunately by the time I went to register for my class in September, the teacher who had agreed to take me had left the school so I was assigned to another class. When I met the teacher, I could sense that she was very uncomfortable with me. The next day, we got a phone call from the principal of the school telling us that the English teacher had come to him in tears, saying that she just could not handle having "someone like me" in her class. I was devastated. It was the first time in my life that I felt truly dehumanized because of my disability. I really dreaded going back to Glenrose on the first day of school that year. I couldn’t help feeling that I had let everyone down, especially since I knew how hard people had worked to get me into that school in the first place. As I had feared would happen, the first person I ran into that day was Henry. Well here it comes, I thought, the big ‘DON'T LET THOSE TURKEYS GET YOU DOWN’ speech. But he didn't say a word about what had happened with the English class. Instead, he asked me how soon I could have my first article for the newsletter ready. Not quite able to decide whether to be relieved or offended by his apparent lack of concern about the traumatic disappointment that I had just experienced, I made some remark about him being the only teacher I knew who would start giving assignments BEFORE CLASS ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL! With a big grin, Henry replied, "With a writer as good as you around, I'd be slacking off if I didn't put you to work!" The message came through loud and clearI was the exact same person that I was before the school rejected me; and if I thought that he or anyone else at Glenrose thought any less of me because of what had happened, I had another thing coming.
After I completed high school, many people were rather skeptical about my decision to enroll in an undergraduate program at the University of Alberta, given the extent of my physical limitations. Henry, however, expressed faith in me and confidence that I would be successful in attaining my goal of getting a university education. Not only was Henry instrumental in helping me get to university, his ongoing and very practical support has been a crucial factor in helping me get through university. When, in the last year of my undergraduate Honours English program, I needed someone to take over the reading of course material onto tape for me, he volunteered to take on the job. In the ensuing nine years, he has single-handedly taped virtually all the required reading for both a Masters and a PhD in English. My estimate is that this equals a total of approximately 2,000 hours of reading.
Probably the thing I’ve come to appreciate most about Henry’s reading is the little (or sometimes not-so-little) editorial comments that he would insert into the reading just to make sure that I was still awake. One of the most memorable instances of Henry’s editorializing occurred just over a year ago. At that time, I was barely halfway through my dissertation, and I had just had a medical problem discovered that could have potentially prevented me from completing my PhD altogether. To make matters worse, I found myself having to slog through this horrifically long, postmodernist, jargon-laden article on George Eliot’s use of body parts. But then, suddenly, in the midst of my existential crisis, I noticed a change in Henry’s tone of voice on the tape–a change which usually signalled a forthcoming editorial comment. But instead of launching into the usual lengthy, but always entertaining, diatribe on the incomprehensibility of academic criticism, Henry simply observed, “You know, Heidi, I think Louis Armstrong said it much better.” And then he promptly burst into an Armstrong-like rendition of “The Dummy Song!” I couldn’t believe my ears! Henry–the guy who, whenever we had our school-wide Christmas-carol-sing at Glenrose, always used to hide out in his office–was SINGING ... ON TAPE, YET!!! I immediately burst into laughter, laughing harder than I had in months. I thought to myself, “Henry’s singing! Now, I really have witnessed the IMPOSSIBLE! ... If he can SING, I just might be able to get through the PhD!”
And, just a few months ago, in April of 2003, I did successfully complete my PhD. A few weeks before my graduation ceremony, I threw a surprise party for Henry and invited many of his former colleagues from Glenrose. The theme for this party was“This is YOUR PhD TOO, Henry.” At this gathering, I officially proclaimed my PhD to be my “Powered by Henry Degree.”
I know that, for the rest of my life, every time I find myself writing “PhD” after my name, I will be reminded of how blessed I am to have had a “Powered by Henry” education.