CFUW-Stratford Club Member Sharon Malvern

Club member Sharon Malvern continued our exploration of the club’s 60 year history speaking about “English as a second language: CFUW volunteers and the Boat People.”

Ann Reynolds introduced Sharon, who received her Honours BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1966.  She taught in Stratford secondary schools for many years, specializing in English and English as a Second Language, including time as the Head of the English Department. She has also authored articles for the Beacon Herald and the Stratford Festival. A past president of our club, she has been a member since 1970.

The “Boat People” were mostly Vietnamese nationals who had worked for the US or South Vietnamese governments and fled to Cambodia or Laos when the war ended in 1978.  They paid large sums for transport or resorted to travel in small fishing boats, not fit for the journey.  Flight was perilous, and an estimated 200-400 thousand died at sea. Survivors were clustered in refugee camps, many in Malaysia, that were equally unsavory.  Canada agreed to accept refugees who were over the age of 19 or married. Many churches in Perth County sponsored families. Refugees who arrived in Stratford, Listowel and area were used to an intense urban environment and terrified by the prospect of living alone in rural conditions. The local superintendent of education, Keith Thomson, contacted Sharon, who was on leave at the time, for assistance. There were 88 children of all ages, in 17 schools, who knew no English and were arriving with continuous intake over a year. Sharon worked with secondary school students. Initially there was no classroom available so Alastair McLeod created a makeshift shed in the workshop at Northwestern. Eventually, they re-located to the library at Central High School.  The students were very traumatized: they had survived war and refugee camps; missed their fathers, many of who were lost or dead; were in an unfamiliar climate and eating foreign food. When leaves began falling in autumn, they thought the world was coming to an end.

Sharon taught ‘survival English’ – how to shop, bank etc.  This was important to the whole family since these older children became responsible for the communication needs of their younger siblings and parents and many teenage boys were the ‘head’ of their households.  The library had adjoining seminar rooms, which were used for small group teaching.  CFUW volunteers were critical in this activity, since they helped with reading skills and one-on-one teaching. This allowed Sharon to focus her attention on new arrivals.  Volunteers used money, toys, newspapers etc. as devices for instruction.  They took students shopping (Canadian Tire was a favorite). These activities helped build student confidence. Most students needed to overcome cultural taboos. For example, it is OK to make a mistake, it’s part of the learning process, it’s OK for girls to be educated and participate in decision-making, and the police are not your enemy. CFUW volunteers found the experience very rewarding and were pleased that students grew to trust them.  The students took regular secondary classes in the afternoons and not all teachers in that program were happy about the added responsibility of students who lacked the needed educational background. However, the Vietnamese excelled at several skills, especially shop and needlework. They loved music, singing and playing instruments. Like music, mathematics is language-neutral and many were quite advanced, even though they approached problems differently. Most males were physically fit and found sports a good way to integrate and make friends, but female students were not used to participating in physical education.  Resource materials for teachers were scarce and it took effort to learn their customs to avoid making cultural mistakes and to help the students avoid offending Canadian sensitivities.  School continued in summer months in mornings and in the afternoons students spent time at Wildwood, including overnight camping.

Vietnamese teachers came here to inspect the schools and teachers. Apparently Sharon did nothing right!  She did not use a podium to put herself “above” the students, she allowed students to make eye contact, she did not treat males as superior to females (males were supposed to get first chance to answer questions etc.), she used too many props and aides, and there was too much laughing in the classroom.  Her husband Ken was the vice-principal at the time, which they found appropriate because his position was superior to hers.  Eventually, they noticed a book of Shakespearean plays in the classroom and suddenly all was well – even though she was not actually teaching Shakespeare.

By 1980 most of the local boat people had moved to the Toronto area where there was a Vietnamese community and access to familiar food and other goods.  Many kept in touch with local sponsors and teachers, who were invited to weddings and other family events.  Overall this period of Sharon’s career was a remarkable experience that challenged her teaching skills and provided a unique glimpse into another culture.  She was grateful for assistance received from CFUW volunteers and noted that some also worked with elementary students and preschoolers. Others assisted sponsor families in a program for mothers, which was challenging, as most Vietnamese women were unwilling to participate in classes.

Pat Reavy thanked Sharon for informing us about this aspect of club activity and helping to build our club’s history.