Teacher brings ‘left out’ stories to school stage

Terrance Saunders By Melania Daniel
Terrance Saunders
By Melania Daniel

Growing up in the Caribbean, Terrance Saunders had no inkling he would end up a drama teacher in Canada.
After completing his undergraduate education in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at York University, he returned to his Bahamian homeland with his mind set on a career in his country’s foreign service.
However, he currently instructs students in drama, history and languages at Lawrence Heights Middle School in North York and has been a teacher for 29 years.
“That’s an interesting thing,” said Saunders, “because my mother is a teacher and it was never in my dreams.” However, Saunders has another interest from early on. “I’ve always had a desire, as a young boy in the Bahamas, to be involved in theatre.”
That desire began to take hold when he was six or seven after he was exposed to summer workshops in dancing, theatre and acrobatics for local children put on by an American. These annual camps ended with elaborate theatrical pieces.
“I saw every production – Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Oliver – all kinds of interesting stories,” Saunders said.
What struck him the first year he saw the show was that the cast was predominantly Black, an insight that influenced his focus on bringing to Toronto schools the unknown or little mentioned stories about contributions of Black and other minority Canadians to the military and cultural history of Canada.
Saunders found his way back to Canada and part-time teaching when Bahamian Foreign Service job openings did not materialize and started teaching in 1989 with TDSB.
The first school play he did in Toronto was In Service, a dramatization of a story by Nova Scotian writer Maxine Tynes about Black women going “in service” as live-in domestics in homes of white employers. The production was staged to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in 2000.
It was a story that was not previously known and the audience loved it, says Saunders, who focuses mainly on productions that mark special events observed by the school board.
“When I started teaching drama, I built my program around the assemblies the board always highlighted,” said Saunders. He has focused increasingly on Remembrance Day assemblies, “looking at those stories that have been left out” in order to honour “the untold others.”
For the 2001-02 school year Saunders produced “The No. 2 Construction Battalion” about a little known Canadian battalion of Black soldiers who served in World War 1. He first encountered that story when he discovered Calvin Ruck’s book while studying for a bachelor of education at U of T in 1988.
Saunders said he makes sure the terms of his teaching contract are at the forefront of his theatre while pursuing TDSB’s mandate to teach in ways that reflect his students and make every child feel comfortable.
His productions have not been entirely about military matters. He’s brought to his school’s stage titles like Bad Education which looked at the aboriginal experience in residential schools among other topics and his 2006 An Ode to Madam GG.
That play saw then-governor general Michaelle Jean in the audience. Student actors traced her arrival in Canada from Haiti, her rise as a CBC journalist and appointment as governor general against a theme of key moments of Haitian history.
It moved Jean to tears.