Home away from home
It would be difficult for most Italian-Montrealers to walk through the halls of Lester B. Pearson High School and not spot at least one relative’s graduation photo lining the walls.
When the high school first opened its doors in 1976, the student body was predominantly of Italian descent; that’s still the case more than 40 years later. As one of the biggest English-speaking high schools in east-end Montreal, Pearson has been a home away from home for the thousands of teens who have spent their secondary school years here.
Frank Di Mora was one of those teens. He graduated from Pearson in 1980 and is now a science teacher at the school. “Back then the school had things that you couldn’t afford at home, like colour TVs and computers. We all lived in the neighbourhood around the school, so we’d come here on weekends to watch movies in the auditorium. We’d stay here after school for hours playing sports. We spent more time at school than at home.”
As a first-generation Italian-Canadian, Di Mora says attending a predominantly Italian high school made him feel like he belonged somewhere. “It was a feeling of community, of family. The teachers were from the same culture as well, so we all understood each other as immigrants, as Italians. And we had hope in the future as first generation Canadians.”
There are now 980 students who attend Lester B. Pearson High School. Like many English-language public schools in Quebec, Pearson has seen its enrolment numbers decrease steadily over the years. There were more than 1,500 students who attended the school in 1976 when it first opened its doors. It was built to accommodate the needs of the growing English-speaking community in the northeast end of the city, a community that was predominantly of Italian origin.
Di Mora says that although times have changed, there’s a lot about Pearson that hasn’t. “There’s still always that aura of home around this school. It’s still very much culturally connected to the community; the parents are always involved. I love watching the kids look at the graduating class mosaics and finding one of their parents or another relative.”
Terry Morabito is another Pearson graduate who now teaches at the school. Morabito says she applied to work at Pearson as soon as she got her teaching degree. “It’s amazing coming back here. I get to sit in the staff room next to teachers who were my mentors. I had my favourite math teacher, Mrs. Claudia Cardone, who I idolized, helping me out in my first year as a teacher,” says Morabito, who graduated in 2000. She says having a culture in common with students and their parents makes it easier for teachers to connect with the teenagers.
Rosina Mucci agrees. She now teaches English in the same classroom she once sat in as a student. “It’s such a strange feeling,” she admits. “But it’s so wonderful to know that I may be inspiring students the same way I was inspired by the wonderful teachers that taught me.”
Paul Karpontinis is one of the few teachers at Pearson who is not a former student. He says when he first started he was struck by the strong sense of community at the school. “It was surprising to see how all the students look out for each other because of their strong cultural connection to the community. And that connection has spilled over to the school,” explains Karpontinis. “I’ve been here long enough to have taught students, siblings and cousins from the same family. In doing that, I feel like I’ve become a part of these families and a part of the tapestry of Lester B. Pearson. It’s something special to become part of that history.”
Joseph Vitantonio is the principal of Pearson, as well as a former student. “I think a lot of people realize just how special Pearson is only once they’ve left,” says the 39 year-old. “When you go to CEGEP, that connection isn’t there. You’re no longer one of 29 Italians in a class of 32 students. That cultural connection is gone, and although it’s wonderful to make new friends, you can’t talk about your nonna’s pizza or your mom’s biscotti. That sense of familiarity is what makes this place so special. It’s what keeps former students, like myself, coming back.”