Life Sentence

Random thoughts about publishing, stamp collecting, politics, popular music of the 60s and 70s, mooses, and my motley other obsessions.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Althea Rhooms

Virtually every day, the kids bring home at least one printed announcement from school, and I have to admit I often don't pay much attention to them. Yesterday there were two from Seth's school. One was an announcement of "important dates" in the next school year: the barbeque in the fall and other essential events.

The other one has left me shaken and upset.

Dear Parent/Guardian

It is with deep sadness and regret that we inform you of the sudden death of Ms Althea Rhooms, past principal of Humewood Community School. We want to advise you of this sad event in case your son or daughter wishes to talk with you tonight about his/her feelings and thoughts.

Seth didn't seem to want to talk about it. I don't think he understands what "the sudden death of Ms Althea Rhooms" really means. I'm definitely feeling a need to talk about it. It's about 5:30 in the morning as I write this. I'm upset enough that I can't sleep.

Althea was someone I probably wouldn't have had much time for in another context: she usually dressed very formally, was deeply religious, and was strict almost to the point of caricature. She also cared very deeply about the kids in her charge, and spent an incredible amount of time and energy making sure her school was the right place for my often-difficult son.

In my childhood, the principal's office was somewhere I avoided rather energetically. In Seth's life, Althea's office seemed to be a place where he felt totally comfortable (as well he might -- he spent far too much time there), a place he went immediately and instinctively if he needed help.

One of my many meetings with her particularly stands out in my memory. I won't go into the details of the unlikely sequence of Seth's misdeeds that had caused me to be hauled before the principal -- they were like something you'd see in a sitcom or one of the Captain Underpants books. I remember sitting in the school office, waiting for the meeting, feeling 10 years old all over again, thinking how unfair it was that I'd been hauled before the principal for someone else's misdeeds.

She started the meeting talking with Seth, making sure he understood how badly he'd misbehaved, but being sure to find out why he did it. I remember him sitting in his chair, abjectly looking like he was trying to disappear as she spoke -- then hopping up and hugging her when she was finished. Then she and I talked, for well over an hour, about my son and his needs, and how best the school and my family could work together to make things work better. I left the meeting knowing that in Althea I had a friend and ally -- and quite an impressive one.

When I first met Althea, I remember thinking (grossly unfairly) "great -- the school's new principal is a young black woman. I wonder what quota system got this job for her?" It took only a few seconds of seeing how effective she was to establish that she'd won her promotion completely on merit. I was really disappointed when she transferred to another school last year. (Yes, the new principal is equally wonderful. But still...)

A tragic-events team from our school board was brought into the school to assist students and teachers in dealing with this tragic news, students were counseled to talk with one another, with their teachers, or the special support team members.

I have real problems with this whole approach to grief, but I'm not going to spoil this with a rant. Another time perhaps.

When we have further information regarding funeral arrangement, it will be made available. Should you have questions or need our assistance in helping your child in handling this sad news, please call the school.

I'm the one having trouble handling "this sad news." I wonder what happened to poor Althea. I hope her end was painless. I'll miss her.

Later: this morning's Star had an obituary.

"She could be strict in some ways, but there was always love for the students and lots of hugs," said Mike Timotheou, father of one of her students.

Rhooms, who loved the outdoors, rowed Saturday in the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival, competing on the Toronto District School Board team.

The next day, she participated in a practice dive at Stoney Lake near Peterborough with her scuba diving club. She had been diving almost weekly for a year, friends and family said.

But on Sunday, she began having breathing problems under water and never made it up. She was 43.


At 12:28 p.m., November 09, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 11:37 p.m., October 01, 2012, Anonymous Prashanth Kuganathan said...

I am only finding out about this today. I am currently 28 years old and live in New York - Ms. Rhooms was my teacher in grade 5 when I went to school in Toronto. She was poised, eloquent, professional.

-Prashanth Kuganathan
PhD Candidate in Applied Anthropology, Teachers College, Columbia University


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