After 42 years of teaching, Gerard Landry is heading off on a well-deserved retirement. Students say his influence changed their lives.
Landry had only recently graduated from St Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia, when he hopped on a plane and moved to Yellowknife in the late 1970s.
“My intention, like a lot of other people who come up here, was to come up here for a couple of years at the most, get that experience, and eventually return to Nova Scotia when the job situation would open up,” says Landry.
“As it turns out, Yellowknife is just a great place for me to be – lots of opportunities. It was a young town that I found dynamic and vibrant in a lot of ways, much more so than the rural area that I came from in Nova Scotia.”
The hardest part of leaving Nova Scotia was saying goodbye to his baseball team.
“I had a strong group of friends there, a very close group of friends where we went to school together and we socialized together and the most important part of it is that we played ball together.”
Landry was originally a physical education and core French teacher at St Patrick Elementary School.
“It seems like all the kids like phys ed, or I would say 90 percent of the kids like phys ed. It was great to be teaching something that the kids liked and looked forward to,” says Landry.
“I remember sometimes getting 100 kids staying after school to participate in gymnastics club.”
This is where Landry met Rob Hart, then a fifth-grade student taking Landry’s core French class.
Hart grew up to become a colleague of Landry’s, teaching English.
Hart describes Landry as “very accepting to ideas and you always know that he’s very sincere. Everything he did was: how can we make it better for the kids?”
He added: “When I picture him, he’s always in front of a classroom standing behind his little podium there, but he’s always got a smile on his face and the kids are relaxing on the couch or in their chairs.
“And they’re paying attention, too, because he’s engaging them in a special way.”
Gerard Landry playing baseball for a team of teachers against students in 2019. Photo: St Patrick High School
Landry taught Hart many lessons, but the main one from his 25 years teaching with Landry is to give students the benefit of the doubt.
“Even before our new late policy, he was the famous person where if report cards were due Tuesday, he would accept stuff Monday night and be like ‘OK, I’ll take it from you, no problem. I’ll make sure it’s in there.’”
When asked if there was anything he would like to say to Landry, Hart jokingly replied: “I think I would say come back next year! He’s such a strong person internally and externally. Just go on and live the life he deserves, which is a great one. He’s got a great family, great health, and make sure he takes care of himself.
“And he’s going to go off and have a thousand more adventures. So go and have some great adventures and come back and teach a couple more years after that.”
‘A literacy legend’
After teaching for four years at the elementary school, Landry decided he needed a break from the phys ed. He moved over to St Patrick High School in 1986 to teach English and has been there ever since.
Landry quickly adapted to the classroom and soon developed his unique style of teaching.
“He was always pushing us to go deeper and have more critical analysis. He really would prompt for more in-depth responses. So, you’d give him an answer and he would want more. He always wanted more,” says Denise Hurley, a former student and now colleague of Landry.
After finishing high school, Hurley had the chance to return to the school and teach English with Landry for a year.
“Even as a former student, he never made me feel like anything other than an equal and a partner in teaching. It was really neat to be able to teach alongside him,” says Hurley.
“If you needed something, or you’re like, ‘Oh, I really want to do a unit on literature circles,’ he would say, ‘I have a binder on literature circles, just let me find it.’
“And he’d go into his classroom and, to anyone else other than Gerard, it was a disaster, it was a mess. But he knew exactly where everything was.”
Gerard Landry with a school soccer team in 2008. Photo: St Patrick High School
Hurley says the main thing she remembers from Landry’s classes is his passion for teaching.
“I think probably 50 percent of the people who read Timothy Findley’s The Wars read it because Gerard Landry was so passionate about it.
“He’s a language arts legend. A literacy legend. I’m just really lucky that I was able to have him as a teacher.”
Excitement and energy
Landry prizes above all the relationships he made with his students.
“Sometimes we can go through life where we’re kind-of putting on a false front because we want to appear strong,” he said, “but I think sometimes the best experiences are the ones where you feel comfortable enough where you can be open with kids and make yourself vulnerable and learn from each other.
“[The students] see that I’m human and that I have my weaknesses, and I see that they’re human and they have their weaknesses. When you can function at that level, you’ll both be honest about what you’re going through in life and you’re both open to learning from each other.”
Teaching English has helped Landry to learn just as much from his students as they do in his classes.
“I’ve taught an awful lot of students who struggle as much as the characters in the books I’m reading,” he says.
“The courage they show in trying to overcome those issues in their lives is extremely enlightening.”
Among the students Landry inspired to go into education is Ben Beland, who just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history and a Bachelor of Education in social studies.
“My entire last year at St Pat’s really solidified my decision to become a teacher. Mr Landry is definitely a big part of that,” says Beland.
“I always felt that even though he had been teaching for however many years, it was almost like he had the excitement and the energy as if it was his first time ever teaching. It really felt like he was learning with us as opposed to teaching to us.
“I think that he is definitely going to be missed, but I think he’s leaving an incredible legacy behind.”
‘I’ll take it month by month’
Gina Michel, at Weledeh Catholic School, hadn’t considered becoming a teacher until Landry and others told her she would make a great one.
She recalls Landry commenting, “Now we’ve got you!” after she won a scholarship that could only be used if she went into an education field.
After attending university and finally deciding to study education, Michel remembers thinking, “God damn it, Mr Landry! You got your wish.”
“He had this way of demanding the very best from you,” she says. “Even when you thought it was, he kept pushing you further and further to realize even my best can be better and better every time.
“I just think he’s a phenomenal teacher and a phenomenal human being. The passion he has for helping others, not just in their schoolwork but also on a daily basis and in their lives… he touches so many students in many, many ways that he just doesn’t even realize.”
Gerard Landry participating in 2018’s “twin day” at St Pat’s. Photo: St Patrick High School
Landry’s message to future students is to “read books, read something, reach out to your friends that have internet access, listen to a podcast, make a podcast, start a hobby, a journal.”
“Especially right now,” he says, “you’re living through history, so your reaction to this is going to make history. So get involved in life is what I would say to them, and inform yourself as much as possible, Listen to others and get involved in life.”
Landry had been hoping to start his retirement by going to Spain and walking El Camino in August and September, but has now decided to visit his parents in Nova Scotia.
“I’ll just take it month by month. I do hope to read more, I hope to write more, and I hope to volunteer in something, although I haven’t really decided exactly what that is yet.
“Other than that, I hope to exercise a lot. I’m kind-of into that, and I guess I’m going to find out who I am without my teaching job.”
Correction: July 6, 2020 – 16:47 MT. The first version of this article stated that Ben Beland possessed a Bachelor of Art Administration. In fact, his degree is a Bachelor of Art in history.