Laurel Beechey - The World is a Stage
I think most of the town was in shock last week, to hear that Robin Barker-James had passed away. How could that be? He was too young. He had too many things left to do.
I knew Robin first through theatre. Glendale High School produced Robin’s creation, Dracula, at the Playhouse, decades ago, and he directed and was in another one or two shows with Theatre Tillsonburg. Back then he seemed lost, and although theatre was an outlet for his creativity it wasn’t the niche he needed. That turned out to be history.
If you do Facebook, or read the Ostrander’s Funeral Home website, you will understand what this man was all about. There is tribute after tribute from the students he taught history. But Robin didn’t teach the history we all suffered through; the dry political events that may have orchestrated a war but put us all to sleep.
Robin dared to do what most would never consider, he let you step into and live history. Even the students knew that his style of teaching drove the other teachers and the school board crazy, but he inspired the kids, who learned, not only about the past, but about themselves in the present and gave them the confidence to meet their own futures.
There was the famous 8 km walk by Glendale students from the school to his farm, where they dug out trenches, ate hard tack, bully beef and drank water. Surprise attacks occurred when the students spent a weekend in the trenches as WW1 soldiers.
Leslie Waghorn, one of those students in 1998, and founder of The Scientific Parent, noted, “I remember a girl stopping at one point and saying, 'this sucks.' I asked her why, this was the easy part for us. 'We’re just killing them and killing them and killing them. It doesn’t stop. We have to do this for 45 more minutes. Just killing people. It’s depressing.' 'That’s the point,” I said. I saw the same light go off in her eyes as it did when Mr. Barker-James had pointed out that my sore hands were nothing to complain about. By giving us the opportunity to be outside of the classroom, and gain a first-hand reflective experience of the actual impact of war (however minor), Mr. Barker-James acted as an educational mediator – not a teacher, and yet, higher ranked than any teacher could be. His lessons instilled critical thinking, reflection, curiosity, and a drive for us to understand, which is considered some of the best sort of teaching around.”
History came alive and brought thousands of students and educators from across the continent to the farm. Robin had found his niche. He blossomed. Military tattoos honouring veterans, tours to battle sites in France and a pick your favourite time period history summer camp.
Perhaps one of his greatest deeds was founding the Tillsonburg Military Club, which brought men and women together not only to enjoy history but to change the way Tillsonburg formally remembered our veterans – not for one day, but for a week.
Robin and I had a few conversations when he decided to produce a five-year play honouring the 100th Anniversary of WW1 taking the audience to the trenches and villages of Europe. I couldn’t understand how he could do it. Not being a student of his, I had never seen how he could give you a wooden rifle, and have you believe you had just been kitted up totally and proudly for the war. I can only imagine what he could have produced if he had had the money and the professional people working with him.
His plays were taken from his book the last Trench Fighter. Robin poured his life into that book. The dreadfulness of his childhood, slipped into various parts and characters of the book, as he compared the horrors of war to the horrors of civilian life. He also put in his beloved wife Susan.
Robin and I understood each other and often shared our private lives. It was an amazing how a man who had endured what he had, could end up doing so much for so many. When I finished reading The Last Trench Fighter, I emailed him and told him that he was the last trench fighter; all that his lead character did in the book is what Robin was trying to do in real life.
Over the years, Robin has received many national accolades and awards and I hope that our town will now honour his name.
I shall miss his enthusiasm and energy, and the long chats over the love of history we shared.