There’s nothing traditional about Melody Russell’s journey. From PEI, to Damascus to Uganda, Melody’s story is fueled by a healthy dose of ingrained curiosity and the need to explore beyond the next horizon.
by Karen Horsman
One could argue her curiosity was influenced by several things. Her parents were always intrigued by other cultures, with her father having a particular interest in China. It was easy to find an atlas in her childhood home in PEI and there were many robust conversations about other lands. Melody was also an avid reader who longed to explore the globe. There was a large Lebanese community on the island and she found herself immersed in the culture and the stories from that part of the world. The exposure to Arabic and Middle Eastern traditions was to have a major impact on Melody as her adventurous spirit grew. “I think when you grow up on an island, you sit on a beach and look out over the water and wonder, huh, what else is out there?” she says.
The island culture also instills a love of music and theatre in many of its residents. In fact, Melody’s passion for theatre dominated her early academic years. She went on to participate in children’s theatre and thrived in the arts world, where she found a sense of belonging.
A new beginning
Melody was still involved in theatre in Grade 11 but something changed. Her family moved to Saint John, New Brunswick and she learned to adapt to shifting environments. At her new school, Melody was enrolled in an advanced chemistry class and the subject matter was quite different from her old school. It was a turning point since she soon realized that not only was she good at the arts, she also found science fascinating.
She went on to the University of New Brunswick to study sciences, earning top results in her class. It was Melody’s academic standing that caught the attention of the Dean and she was asked to join a mentor programme. Her training as a mentor encapsulated a range of issues from time management to eating disorders. It was an amazing experience. “This is where the idea of becoming a teacher began,” she says. “Helping and supporting students was so rewarding. I was inspired to pass on my love of science to others.”
Ready for adventure
Melody’s first teaching job was in a high school in Calgary but the itch to travel was getting stronger. With the reality of student loans and the drive to teach, she knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Then a door opened. An off-the-cuff comment in the staff lounge about an opening for a chemistry teacher at a school in Damascus was all it took. Not long afterwards, her bags were packed and she was off to Syria. She had just settled in and begun her tenure at a well-established international school when she woke on September 11th to the news of the attacks on the United States. It was an uncertain time for everyone but Melody says she felt well taken care of by school officials and a thorough exit strategy was put in place. Fortunately, there was never a need to leave the country and her stay in Syria was a time of growth and exploration. She formed meaningful friendships and traveled extensively in the region to immerse herself in the culture. But the call home was strong and after four years, it was time to head back to Canada.
She returned to a new home in Toronto and became a member of the faculty at Bayview Glen. The mentoring role she had been assigned so early in her career became all the more relevant as she quickly embraced the Upper School mentoring programme.
Melody’s insatiable curiosity and desire to help struck once again as she was watching a documentary one evening called Invisible Children. The story focussed on Northern Uganda when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was waging war on the people of that country. At the end of the film, there were suggestions on how to help, including a teacher exchange programme.
That summer, with passport in hand, Melody went to Uganda to partner with a teacher at an all-boys school. Many of the students and families had been directly impacted by the brutality of the LRA. The exchange programme’s focus was on building a relationship with the host teacher and sharing experiences and educational perspectives. There were also 110 students in each class. Melody remembers how the boys would carry their chairs from class to class and rush to sit at the front. “People don’t often think about innovation in an environment where students have to carry their chairs and there’s no internet or text books but that’s exactly the situation when you have to dig deep and think of creative ideas,” she says.
Her teaching partner, Odong Robert, had a single copy of the curriculum so together they developed labs that could be more easily distributed to the students. Melody brought an old laptop and at an internet café, she showed Odong how to find resources online. They worked together to adapt many of the activities using materials on hand. There was also the sharing of philosophies: “In Uganda, teaching was not a well-respected profession. Part of the relationship was to emphasise the importance of the role,” she says. “One of the most impactful aspects of the programme for me was the discussions around ethics of aid and exchanges versus the concept of trying to fix something. I think about a lot of these ideas on Round Square trips.”
Odong Robert was one of six teachers to be chosen for the North American part of the exchange. Melody flew to New York to help with the orientation for the Ugandan teachers and to reconnect with Odong. It was a thrill for her to see the teachers experience so many firsts, like snow and outdoor skating. It was another deep connection made through mentoring and learning.
For 13 years Bayview Glen has become home. Melody has mentored and taught countless students who have benefited from that insatiable curiosity and her legendary work ethic. As for what’s next? There’s a good chance, during a break from school, it may involve a suitcase and a burning desire to explore what is over the next horizon.