Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – August 17, 2013

When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I teach high school, their heads often jerk back as though I have slapped them. Their invariable next comment is, “I’d never be able to do that. Teenagers are awful and only think of themselves.” Obviously I don’t agree with this assessment – I’d be pretty miserable in my profession if I did – but then again, I have the opportunity to see these “awful” teenagers in ways many people never will, and I am so happy I have that opportunity.

Take today for example. After two weeks of being up early and going to bed late, this morning the group was out of the hostel by 8:40, walking the length of Juno Beach from Berniere-sur-Mer, where our hostel is, to Courseulles-sur-Mer, where the Juno Beach Centre is. There were a few comments about the length of the walk when we started out – it takes about an hour to do the walk- but as soon as I reminded them that they were free to walk the beach on a beautiful morning because 14,000 Canadians stormed that beach under a hail of bullets and artillery fire to give them that right, they forgot how tired they were, remembered where they were and why, and, judging by the comments I heard about not knowing how big the Canadian sector is, gained a new appreciation for what happened there on June 06, 1944.

Throughout the tour of the Centre the kids were engaged and interested in what was being explained to them, and after they saw the levels of fortification on the beaches I overheard one participant comment, “My respect for the soldiers went up as we walked here, but now that I see this … I don’t know if I could do the same if I had to.” The last thing we did at the Centre was watch their new film, They Walk With You, which outlined what happened in the area in June and July 1944. The last scene of the film was a couple walking the beach with their children, asking them if they knew about what happened on the beach and why they were walking it. As they walked, the ghostly images of fallen Canadian soldiers walked behind them, and I know I was not the only one with tears in my eyes as we all reflected on our own walk this morning.

This group of “awful” teenagers was in tears again at the Abbaye d’Ardenne as they listened to me tell them the story M. Vico, a French Resistance member, used to tell about the 20 Canadians assassinated at the Abbaye on June 07 and 08, 1944. The silence that permeated the bus for the 30 minute drive to our next stop after they learned what happened in the garden of the Abbaey told me again how “awful” teenagers can be: I looked behind me a couple of times – that kind of silence is usually indicative of everyone being asleep – but everyone was awake, starting out the window deep in thought. (I know, “awful,” right?)

Our final stop of the day was Beny-sur-Mer, the largest Canadian cemetery in this region. I told the group to be back at the bus in half an hour, and in that time I witnessed more tears, many stops to touch headstones, and many bowed heads at those headstones. Despite my instructions to head back to the bus, at the end of our time there I found the group gathered silently around the Stone of Remembrance, which is interesting as that is where the groups have gathered without prompting the past two years as well. No one was talking, and there were a lot of wet eyes. While the group seemed reluctant to talk about what they were thinking, they were also reluctant to leave, in spite of the light rain that had begun to fall. For people who only think about themselves, they sure did seem to be thinking about others at that time.

Tonight we took the group back to Juno to swim, and I think they had a good time judging from the shrieking and laughing as they splashed in the waves and threw seaweed at one another. Yet as one of the participants came out of the water he stopped and looked back, turning serious very quickly. Gabriela was there and asked him if he had lost something, and he replied, “No, I was just thinking about how the soldiers came out of the water on D-Day.”

No teenager is perfect: they sometimes whine when they’re tired, and they sometimes take things for granted. I know a lot of adults – myself included – that do the same. I just wish that more people could see how “awful” teenagers are when they are confronted by these kinds of situations, because that “awful” would turn into “awfully amazing.” I am so lucky to be able to share these experiences with this group of amazing, thoughtful young adults. If this is what “awful” looks like, we’re going to be in good hands in the future.

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