A Life's Story
April 01, 2023
The world was her classroom
Marilyn Drain changed countless lives by gifting her love of travel and bringing history to life as a beloved teacher in the Lord Selkirk School Division
By: Chris Rutkowski
We all have teachers we remember.
They’re the ones who had a profound effect on who we are today. The ones who stayed after class to help us understand fractions. The ones who helped us nail a three-pointer. Or even the ones who simply helped us learn to read.
For many students in the Lord Selkirk School Division during the 1970s and 1980s, Marilyn Drain was that person.
Drain, who taught history, made a point of teaching through vicarious experience. She not only taught about the world but she brought students to it, organizing class trips to distant countries, many of which were on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
When Drain died last March at 87, dozens of her former charges offered tributes and memories of her remarkable influence.
Andrew Smith is now minister-counsellor and senior trade commissioner with the High Commission of Canada in England. He credits Drain with shaping his career when he was one of 25 students who travelled with her to the former Soviet Union in January 1980.
“It was an interesting approach to teaching, as we students studied about the U.S.S.R. for a half a year, worked alongside one another in preparation, and then travelled there together,” Smith said.
“What struck me was just how different that society was. We were high school students and not too worldly at that point, but the stark difference in life, amenities, architecture and the differences between the U.S.S.R. and westerners was evident to us. Trying to reason that out was what piqued my interest in a career that would immerse me in foreign societies that I wanted to understand.”
Smith remembers his amazement when, during one airport security inspection as they prepared to fly out of Moscow, Red Army guards squeezed out his tube of toothpaste completely as they searched the group for illicit paraphernalia.
“I sensed the feeling of mistrust of foreigners even back then,” he said.
Trish Hallson is now a teacher at St. Andrews School, but in 1987 she was one of 36 students who also travelled to the U.S.S.R. on one of Drain’s excursions.
“She truly inspired me,” she says, “with an unconventional approach to teaching. Before the trip, we studied Russian history, culture, language and current affairs. We learned enough so that we knew what we needed to know when we got there… including some Russian words and phrases.”
Hallson explains that Drain’s mission was to expose students to Eastern Bloc countries they might never have known about. One of her fondest memories was when they took a train from Baku in Azerbaijan to Tbilisi in Georgia, visiting towns with cobblestone streets surrounded by beautiful green mountains.
“We even went to Yalta and were in the room where the ‘Big Three’ met,” she says.
Drain’s unique approach to teaching was developed through not one, but three degrees in arts, education and pedagogy. She retired from teaching in 1998, having shown many dozens of students a different view of their world through tours to former Soviet Union destinations and China, Greece, Egypt, Germany and France. Students were expected to raise travel funds themselves.
Jo Davies, now a freelance writer, said that “before taking Mrs. Drain’s Grade 12 course in alternative political systems, I’d never been on a plane or even outside of Canada.
”I’d never realized how much there was to see and experience in my life. On our trip to East Germany in 1989, she encouraged us to expand our horizons. Her curiosity was infectious, and I’ve never lost that need to explore other places and meet new people.”
Drain’s passion for history and travel greatly influenced her students, but her daughters admit there was a slight downside with a mother who was such an ardent educator.
‘Having a teacher for a mom was tough sometimes,” daughter Rebecca says. “I remember wanting her to read me a bedtime story when I was very young, and she read to me from a history book! I had to read Nancy Drew to my younger sister myself.
“And when we were in her classes, she didn’t call on us for answers even though we had our hands up because she didn’t want to show us favouritism. But she raised us to be strong and resilient, and we went on trips with her so we could experience the world through her eyes. It was amazing.”
One of Rebecca’s most vivid memories was riding a camel when they visited the pyramids in Egypt.
“I got a rash from so many sand-fly bites when I did that,” she says with a laugh. “But it was a great travel experience.”
Her mother’s love of history and travel led Rebecca to travel to Tahiti by herself recently, a faraway place described in Mutiny on the Bounty, one of her favourite books.
Drain’s younger daughter Melanie took part in many trips and says while a passion for travel was what most people know about her mother, her other great love was sports, especially swimming.
Inspired by her mother’s teaching style, Melanie was a competitive diver for 14 years and she coached, as well.
“My mom would take me to the pool five mornings a week before school and while I trained she swam a mile or two herself,” she recalls. “She would also drive me every Saturday morning and would watch every one of my dives, marking her papers in between, never missing a beat.”
Both daughters say their mother and father, Robert, who died in 2016, were big sports fans. They had Winnipeg Jets, Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Goldeyes season tickets.
But travel was always at the forefront. They went to Tokyo in 1977 when the Jets played a series there against the Soviet Union; the Jets lost the three games in Japan but won the fourth when they played the U.S.S.R. back in Winnipeg).
Unfortunately, Drain lived with Alzheimer’s towards the end of her life, something she had, in fact, feared during her later years. Her daughters found it particularly hard to see their mother’s decline, especially someone who had given her intelligence and knowledge for the education of so many. Nevertheless, their mother’s legacy lives on through her family and those she taught.
“Mom always encouraged me to be creative; she was very proud that I became a makeup artist and that I travel the world for my training and work,” Melanie says.
In an online tribute, former student Keith Johnson noted: “I have worked for Air Canada for the last 22 years. Mrs. Drain inspired me to see the world, go off the beaten path, explore and experience many things with an open mind…. She taught students much more than any textbook could ever do.
“And for that, we all thank her!”