Lessons on a Green Chalkboard

The sound of a hammer driving in two nails into the side of the house rang out one summer afternoon as I was riding my tricycle. I saw my dad walk back in the house as I made another circle down the driveway. The sound of my plastic wheels made a memorable crinkly noise as they went over pebbles and twigs. The back screen door opened again, and in my father’s hands was a small green chalkboard.

He hung the chalkboard on the side of the house and smiled over at me. “Let’s have school!” he chimed, bringing me over to the board. “First, we’ll start with the alphabet. Are you ready?”

I happily wrote my first dusty letters. A, B, C… naturally my favourite letter, D… and then numbers. As the weeks passed, I started writing sentences that he’d correct under the warm summer sun. We’d practice simple math problems and I’d guess new vocabulary words playing hangman in several languages. I learned about law and history. It was an exceptional experience, and it’s all thanks to a man who sacrificed everything – my grandfather.

The chalkboard had originally hung in a school where my grandfather Ernest Brisson worked – not as a teacher – but as a carpenter and janitor.

Despite his wealth of knowledge in forestry, agriculture, medicine, carpentry, business, physical education, politics, and history, his skills were limited by his life experience. He was first and foremost a soldier – a decorated French Canadian war veteran who would eventually be transferred in the Allied war effort to the Americans who needed his assistance. His dutiful nature, noteworthy physical endurance, and cultural knowledge set him apart from the rest. He trudged through battlefields in Europe and witnessed atrocities that words cannot describe. He subsisted on coffee grounds for two weeks at the Battle of Chosin. After the war, he lived in Japan and began healing through the practice of Shintō. He never would attend university but would take classes through his military service from time to time.

He traveled – and often – to rediscover the world once again, not as a soldier, but in search of positivity. He learned about the world through its diverse geography and mosaic of languages. By the end of his life, the native French speaker also knew how to speak English, German, Japanese, and some Italian. He loved broadening his horizons and bettering himself. He was spiritually optimistic in defiance of the inhumanity he had faced.

Chalkboards became an important part of his later life. He would use his knowledge as a carpenter to build sturdy furniture for schoolchildren and teachers, and often had to clean or hang new chalkboards in his line of work. He would learn new things from what had been left on the boards, and sometimes – and often – found mistakes.

My grandfather was a person people wanted to get to know because of his simplicity. Students would approach him and ask him for advice or for help. He had a deep appreciation for educating others from the things he had learned outside of the classroom. Everyone in the school began to discover that the man who cleaned rubbish bins and swept the floor had an immense sense of empathy and worldliness. He was proud of what he did and remembered who he met.

Students eventually transformed my grandfather’s role into something unexpected. His talent in expressing himself verbally made them ask for help from him with their French grammar and sentences. He’d set aside his carpentry kit or waste bin, and pick up the chalk himself. He was the uncelebrated tutor and friend of many.

One day, another janitor set aside a small green chalkboard that had been used in a classroom. Its size made it unuseful in a classroom setting, and it was to be discarded. My grandfather couldn’t let it go to waste. He brought it home so my father could start using it for his own learning. It would pass through a wide usage cycle from schoolwork to oil change schedules.

By the time I was a child, I had no idea of the little green chalkboard’s mileage. I loved teaching my stuffed animals just as much as I enjoyed drawing on it – mostly birds and portraits. I was a very active child, much like my grandfather said he had been. I’d jump from sofa to coffee table to chair and back again all while watching a science documentary. I’d race myself to the chalkboard to complete my addition problems. I didn’t like being still. (Even now, I find myself doing several things at once.)

My father received a better education from his own father than anywhere else. Louis Brisson would eventually go to law school, start his own business, and dream of making the world a better place in his own little way. But it was Ernest that brought the richest life lessons despite my father’s education. Through him, he learned to love, to live, to seek positivity, and to seek to make a difference.

Today, I thought back to that small, green chalkboard as I passed by a Montessori playground with chalk strewn all over the ground. The simplest objects can carry so much meaning. I don’t know if my grandfather knew that saving that chalkboard would have had such a lasting impact.

Ernest’s quest for understanding the world was and still is infectious, and my father’s desire to instill that in me has brought me to a classroom of my own. And though I’m not writing this post on a chalkboard, I hope that this memory serves you well as you go about your day.

Thanks for stopping by.

Claire-Marie Brisson