It’s Tuesday morning, 8:25 a.m. to be exact, and seven-year-old Grace Ashworth is standing in the secretary’s office at Donald Fraser Memorial School in Plaster Rock, N.B. O Canada has just been sung throughout the school and so everyone is standing. Glancing down at a small piece of paper between her fingers, Grace, who is in Grade 2, clears her throat and then speaks into the school’s public address system.
“Today we are going to honour and remember the following soldier who died while serving our country in World War II. Sergeant Roy Wintfield Vickery, Dec. 15, 1943. Could you please remain standing for a moment of silence in his memory.” There is a long, near noiseless pause up and down the school’s hallways, throughout its offices and kindergarten to Grade 5 classrooms. “Thank you, please be seated.”
While returning to the classroom, Grace passes beneath a collection of photographs, part of a work in progress known as the Honour Wall. Up there looking down at her is Sgt. Roy Wintfield Vickery. His face is among more than three dozen photos of young men who served and sacrificed their lives in the First or Second World War.
Down the hall in Grace’s classroom, teacher Susan Harrison has just asked her students to name the soldier who is being honoured on this day. When their young voices answer in unison, Harrison turns to her whiteboard and, in large print, spells out the name. “We then spend some time talking about the soldier,” explains the teacher. “The name stays up there throughout the day.”
Altogether, 50 soldiers from New Brunswick’s Tobique River Valley fell in the two world wars. The names of all 50 will be read over the public address system on the anniversary of their death. At least 19 different Grade 2 students will see to that.
This ritual of recognition, which includes the Honour Wall, is part of a wider commemorative effort spearheaded by Harrison and the school to emphasize the importance of learning and remembrance among the very young. Other activities include weekly visits from veterans and Legionnaires from Marble Arch Branch, the planting and maintenance of a Peace Garden for the “50 Fallen” and the wearing, modeling and even marketing of special clothing and accessories, including T-shirts and tote bags that draw attention to the 50. Proceeds from sales are funnelled back into the various remembrance projects.
The culmination of these efforts will soon be found in a book titled Written In Stone: Remembering Fifty Fallen Soldiers From the Tobique River Valley. “When it’s finished, it will be a valuable resource for community members,” adds Harrison. “Some family members have told me this project has allowed them closure and they feel comfort knowing that the community is doing something to remember their loved one who fell during conflict.”
Veterans bring the valuable experiences into the classroom and help students examine and interpret copies of military service records, including attestation papers and casualty forms, says Harrison, who obtains copies of these historical documents through the Library and Archives Canada Lest We Forget Cenotaph Research Project. “It’s fascinating to watch the veterans interacting with the students. There is such a connection between young generations and older members of the community. These gentlemen develop a grandparent-like relationship with the students, and the students develop empathy for these senior citizens.
“What Susan and the students are doing is priceless,” says veteran and Marble Arch Branch member Eldred Bucci. “It is really wonderful that we can get in and talk to the students, and we just don’t talk to them about military stuff. They ask lots of questions and we answer them as honestly as we can. Another thing that is really beautiful about this is that the students recognize us out in the community.
Bucci believes none of it could have been done without the teacher. And even though Marble Arch Branch has only 135 members, and is struggling to make ends meet, veterans still see regular visits to the school as a top priority.
Harrison believes remembrance should not be viewed as an event that happens once a year. “People have told me that Grade 2 kids are too young to know about remembrance. Well, there are many opportunities and the students are eager to participate, and what they are learning benefits them and our community.”