Four Friends

In 1977 I was having my left lateral meniscus removed as a result of a motorcycle calamity when I met Dutchie Mathison. I do not recall how much time I spent in the hospital, but I had to have stayed long enough to have a visit from the itinerant teacher providing education for sick children in Maple Ridge – Mrs. Mathison. I cannot tell you what Mrs. Mathison looked like or what schoolwork she brought for me to do. I was only twelve, and it was only months after my mom had died. This time of my life was a blurr. I was in what some describe as survival mode; a term used to describe a stress response to a trauma and when worry takes over your life.

What I do remember about Mrs. Mathison is warmth.

Over forty years later I casually mentioned in conversation with my youngest daughter one day, “I’d love to own a ‘Dutchie’ one day.” And unbeknownst to me this wish was recorded. Jenna began this past spring to keep track of our wishes. She was compiling personal gift lists for each of her family members on her iPhone. And with the advent of Christmas she returned to her lists and began the hunt for a “Dutchie” in hopes of surprising her mama.

With excited anticipation on Christmas morning she handed me a pink foil wrapped present tied up beautifully with a teal satin ribbon. “This is a photo blanket,” I excitedly guessed. “Go ahead and guess away, mom. You will never guess in a million years.” And she was right! Complete with the original receipt I was gifted the original “Dutchie” titled Four Friends. Tucked in with the painting was also its inspiration: “The sepia faded snap brings images flashing back through the decades. I remember my twin sister and I and a Christmas that brought two store bought dolls from a far away “in town granny”. The memories are as precious now as the dolls were then. Thus Four Friends…”


She surprised her mama all right, with a gift from heaven!

This year has been a season of lament. April 23, when my dear sister passed away, I entered a season of loss like I have never experienced before. The hopeful anticipation of Advent was distant and far from my grasp this year as I wrestled the weight of Nancy’s death and Christmas time without her. Grief continues to lurk like a thief in the bushes and ambush me when I least expect it. Yet, this Christmas morning I was surprised by joy – the kind of Joy that C.S. Lewis describes as the “region of awe.”

No, I cannot dismiss the experience as accidental.

This painting was the only Dutchie that Jenna found—in Essex, England a mere 7,562 kms from Maple Ridge —on a site called Pretty certain this was the right one for her mama, my daughter set out to gratify her mama’s wish. The owner had bought the painting years before on a trip to Vancouver and promised Jenna she would look into shipping costs and insurance upon her return from Egypt but told Jenna that she would only be in England for four days before going to Chili, so she would have to arrange things quickly. Arrangements were made and the seller kindly sent Jenna updates as she tracked its journey, “coming home.”

Jenna did not know the painting was of two sisters until its arrival. She too experienced unexpected Joy!

I have a note from my sister (my brother-in-law gave it to me at Nancy’s funeral) that I carry in my wallet: “I will always be with you, when you see or hear something special you’ll know.”

Of one thing I am sure. I have evidence that God exists. Just as David prayed with confidence I also believe with confidence that God has kept count of my tossings and collected my tears in His bottle (Psalm 56:8).

For this wonderful Christmas gift I kneel and say thank you.

Letter to our Prime Minister

Penny Shepherd-Hill

21528 124 Avenue

Maple Ridge, BC

V2X 4H3



July 22, 2014


The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.

Prime Minister of Canada

Prime Minister’s Office
Ottawa, Ontario

RE: Legislative Reform In Special Education, Specifically Class Composition


Dear Mr. Prime Minister:


We, British Columbians, need you. If you are not aware of the conflict between the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation and the provincial Government you need to be, as all good leaders watch their followers closely. I am completing a Master’s degree in Special Education at the University of British Columbia and believe we can still respond to the conflict in a proactive and systematic manner. However, such response requires a leader in the role of a teacher who can help people perceive reality afresh. Furthermore, it requires a national discussion on the effects of legislative reform in special education across our country.


While BC responds to court rulings and legislative reform[i] that require we provide “equitable access to education for all students,” research indicates that we are not alone as we grapple with a lack of resources. In fact, all provinces across Canada are facing the same unprecedented demands that the “equitable access” policy is placing on education. Does it not make economic sense, then, to initiate a national discussion aimed at developing systemic change for the benefit of all Canadians?


I believe a map with an accurate picture of reality can be created by engaging people at all levels across all provinces. From there we can chart progress toward generative change and move beyond reactive and responsive behaviour. That said, I believe it is time to look beyond the superficial conditions and events of the BC Teacher’s strike into the underlying causes of the problems — and thereby see new possibilities for shaping the future.


I believe it is the principle of inclusion itself that is at the root of the dispute in my province, yet peripheral issues from both sides serve only to distract attention, away from the practical disparity between limited public funds on the one hand, and unlimited public demands for services on the other. Even if public funds were more readily available—to help teachers acquire the skills that are truly requisite for teaching “inclusive” classes, for instance—we all know that money is just a band-aid. Systemic change requires that we examine our statutory commitment to education made to all children. In so doing, fiscal responsibility needs to be defined; jurisdictional boundaries need to be examined, and roles and responsibilities need to be clearly understood if we are to fulfill our mandate of looking after the marginalized in society.


In a general education class its composition is varied and most often includes students with and without disabilities. Current teacher training programs prepare teachers to effectively teach students without disabilities. Subsequently, I used to think that systemic change lies in equipping teachers with the necessary skillset to teach students with learning disabilities. I have since discovered that systemic change truly lies at the federal level within a set of national standards. It is my hope that a federal presence and national discussion can bridge the gap between federal legislation that mandates equitable access and its provincial delivery.


While education is currently a matter of provincial jurisdiction I urge you, to disturb the equilibrium. I urge you to initiate a national discussion. I urge you to help Canadians create a framework from which they can build a web of interdependence where ideas and people mutually support each other purposefully, much like bees in a healthy hive. A good leader can abandon him or herself to the strength of others.


In sum, the issue is class composition, specifically the formidable problem in establishing the concept of appropriate education, especially when individualized education is considered. All provinces across Canada are grappling with this same issue. What is appropriate education? The purpose of a national discussion would be: 1) to explore class composition and examine the educational implications of equitable access to education for all students, 2) to identify the issues of similarity across the provinces, and 3) to collectively investigate a unified solution, perhaps a set of national standards, to ensure our statutory commitment to education made to all children is indeed being met across Canada.


Will you lead us in this endeavor, Mr. Harper?


I look forward to and anticipate your thoughtful reply.



Yours sincerely,



Penny Shepherd-Hill

Phone: 604-463-2524

Cell: 604-358-4468

[i] see Philpott, D.F. & Fiedorowicz, C.A.M. (2012). The Supreme Court of Canada ruling on learning disabilities: educational implications. LDAC National. Retrieved from Newsletter/ Nesbit, W. & Philpott, D.

“‘…adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children…’ This is a significant recognition that needed services must be provided when required as a matter of course. Educators at all levels need to pay particular attention to this binding statement.”

The Ultimate Nightmare of Parents

What drives a young teenage girl to suicide?  Rosalyn (pseudonym) had lost all hope of overcoming her learning disabilities and in an attempt to end her life on Wednesday drank anti-freeze.  The doctors believe her mother found her “just-in-time”. Today is day 3 of her survival.  She has had dialysis twice and there is hope of recovery.  However, she is angry and sad because her efforts were unsuccessful.  Her parents are confused and in shock.  Rosalyn is an example of those children Dr. Siegel writes about in her book Understanding Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities (ISBN 978-1-926966-29-8).

In Dr. Siegel’s Introduction we read, “We live in the midst of an educational tragedy.  Schools are failing to identify and treat many children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.  There is a battle among parents, teachers, educational bureaucrats, and related professionals, with children caught in the crossfire.  There are no guns, tanks and explosives in this conflict.  The weapons in this struggle are complicated laws, requirements for extensive testing to identify a learning disability, destruction of students’ self-esteem, belittlement of parents’ and teachers’ concerns, inadequate teacher training, blaming academic failure on behavioural problems, and erecting senseless barriers to reform.  The result is tragic.  Many children who struggle with learning become nameless, faceless ghosts haunting our schools and later our jails and mental institutions, or living dangerous and aimless lives as homeless people on our streets.  Some die at a young age from drug overdoses or suicide, the ultimate nightmare of parents” (emphasis my own, p. 13).

If you are the praying type I covet your prayers for Rosalyn and her family as well as all of the children “caught in the crossfire.”


I love words.  My kids used to tease me, “Why do you have to use such big words?” they’d plead.  “Can’t you just say make ‘bigger’ instead of ‘augment’,” they’d complain.  Three of my biological children are now teachers and guess what?  They love words too!

The trouble with loving language is that writing an academic paper that should only take 4 hours easily becomes 12 or 20 hours as I labour to find just-the-right word!

I don’t write conventionally (is there such a thing?) but I do enjoy wrestling with expressing my thoughts.  I have posted my Proposal to the Teachers’ Regulation Branch for your perusal.

Last year I wrote a children’s story about how the letter C got its sounds.  You will be able to download it soon or find it in your local book stores.  I have some prototypes available if you are interested.  Please send me a note if you are interested.

If you’d like to read my proposal to the Teacher Regular Branch of British Columbia, feel free to access it here: Speech #10.


Portrait of my nephew

Portrait of my nephew

I love nothing more than fostering creative courage in those I have the privilege of teaching to paint.  Ever since I can remember my favourite gift under the Christmas tree was my “artsy” gift.  I remember the year I received a leather tooling kit.  I spent hours embossing and tooling various projects that my loved ones accepted with whole-hearted enthusiasm.  Another year I received a wood burning kit.  That was the year my parents were putting an addition on over the garage.  Yikes!  My creative genius was not so whole heartedly welcomed after I carved a beautiful scalloped edge along the newly installed window sill.  The spanking I received, while it no longer burns my bottom, reminds me that there is a place and time for everything.

I love to paint.  When my youngest, Jenna, was born I opened a small home based art studio in the small town of Pitt Meadows.  My studio was open for ten years.  During that time I painted anything that didn’t move (almost).  The standing joke was that my family was scared to stand still for too long lest they be painted! Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 12.15.49 PMI think the pinnacle of  those years was not one, but two projects.  Along with some colleagues from the International Tole Society, I was chosen to paint a Christmas tree ornament for the White House.  At the time, the president was Bill Clinton.  Visiting the Smithsonian Institute to find my Christmas ornament is on my bucket list.  The other commission to provide tremendous joy was painting furniture for one of the rooms at Canuck Place – a children’s hospice that provides specialized pediatric palliative care.  The theme I chose was dolls and toys.  Unfortunately the only picture I have is slightly cut off.  However, it is worth showing for no other reason than it’s a bit of my history…Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 12.16.03 PM

Today I foster creative courage in my grade two students and paint only for family and friends.