Some people, just by being true to themselves, send ripples of glad tidings throughout a community.
Soft-spoken Myrna Canon, who turns 65 today, is one of those people.
Canon, freshly retired from teaching preschoolers at Hilltop Children’s Center since 1978, will receive plenty of cards and visits from former students and their parents this week.
But the crowning event reflecting her place in the community happened Sept. 16. On that warm day, more than 200 former students and parents gathered in the basement of Queen Anne Lutheran Church to honor her in a heart-rending celebration of laughter and a few tears.
The Philippine native sat on stage in a traditional dress, radiant and smiling. Two pigs, brought by her family, were roasted outside and a sumptuous spread laid out downstairs, donated by Kerry Sear, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle.
Virginia Anderson, former director of the Seattle Center, served as master of ceremonies. Theater director and teacher Arne Zaslove, sporting a bandana, ran the kitchen.
“She’s a saint,” Zaslove said of Canon, who taught his two children. “I’ve never met anybody quite like her. She has a glow. She has a spirituality and humor that is real.”
Indeed, Canon’s Filipino heritage and devout Catholicism have grounded her in her teaching career of 41 years — seven years in the Philippines and 34 years on Queen Anne — and in her life.
“We live simply,” she said, smiling.
With quiet humor, Canon calls her 105-year-old, upper Queen Anne home where she’s lived with her husband, Jess, since 1978, their “starter home.” The couple have a son, Jerund, 39, who works as a computer expert for local law offices.
The Canon’s front-yard garden, with its unique topiary shapes and religious statuary, is well known to passersby.
“Gardening is my passion,” she said. “I see it as a metaphor for my profession. You plant and fertilize, but you also need love and care. If you see a plant not doing anything, just like a child, that’s when a teacher comes to help.”
Importance of early education
Canon’s father was a college professor in the Philippines who had earned his doctorate degree in psychology at the University of Washington. Her mother had been one of his students.
Canon was one of six children.
“This was the daughter of mine who would be a teacher,” she remembers her father telling himself. “He instilled in us the value of education as your protection for the future.”
That message was reinforced by her father’s experience with discrimination in this country in the 1930s, the prevalence of which Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan, buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, chronicled in his classic book, “America is in the Heart.”
Educated in Catholic schools, Canon graduated to teach kindergarten. All through her teaching career, she said, the magic of being a child never left her: “I reflect on my childhood, being free to explore my surroundings. There was a timelessness. I felt I could take my passion to these children.”
She and Jess had married in the Philippines. Arriving in Seattle on a fly-now, pay-later plan, Canon went to work at Hilltop in 1978, starting out as a substitute teacher. Jess spent his career as a bookkeeper in the local fishing industry. In those years Hilltop was headquartered at Queen Anne Lutheran Church, before moving to 4 Nickerson St. in 2008.
The school, which features programs for kids ages 2 to 10, emphasizes teamwork and creative expression. As with any teacher, conflict resolution was part of Canon’s beat.
She recreates a hypothetical conversation in which one child has hit another. Addressing the aggressor, she would say, ‘I see you are frustrated. Check in with your friend. Ask him if he is OK. Maybe the other child says, ‘No. Why did you hit me?’” She then turns back to the aggressor: “Does your friend need a hug? Are you ready to play and be nice?”
“You have to be present all the time,” she noted.
Other Canon maxims: “Use words, not spanking.” “Take a deep breath” (advice for herself and the children). On success:” It does not consist in falling down but getting up again.” And, perhaps most importantly: “Love first, teach second.”
Over the years Canon took her students on field trips, including trips to students’ homes, laying down those invisible song lines where, like an extended family, kids and parents have kept in touch over the years.
Retirement idea came in a dream
“When I gave notice, it came up in a dream,” Canon recalled. She said she heard a voice ask her two questions: “Did you find the joy in your life?” and “Have you shared it with others?”
This happened last August.
“The next day I went to my supervisor. God was manifesting in my dream. I could answer those questions, yes.”
Jess retired seven years ago; now it is time to spend more time together, she said:
“I miss the kids, but when it’s time, it’s time.”
Her Sept. 16 retirement party featured young dancers from the Filipino Community of Seattle (FCS), who performed the national dance called tinikling, in which two dancers hop around a pair of moving bamboo poles held slightly off the ground. It is a dance of skill and grace and beauty. It was important to Canon that her native culture share the spotlight.
Thanks to all the donations, the lavish feast was delivered on a shoestring budget of $800. Amazed at the feat, she likened it to the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Master of ceremonies Virginia Anderson, who was nearly 50 when she adopted her daughter, recalled: “Myrna became an incredibly important part of my family. I chose Hilltop because the sense of belonging and partnership in raising a child. There’s an innate sense of the individuality of a child and nourishing that; at the same time, there are community and behavioral norms. Myrna let them push and challenge and also created a container for them.”
Anderson said, after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, she had to worry about securing the safety of people at the Seattle Center; her child was at Hilltop. She somehow knew that things were OK.
“It’s a leap of faith,” Anderson said. “I am eternally grateful that the first person outside the home that influenced my child was Myrna.”
Zaslove, whose two children were taught by Canon, echoed Anderson’s sentiments.
“She would never, ever flinch in her teaching a child manners and how to share and all the good things you would want your children to be,” he said. “She would refer to her life’s work as her parish.”
“I’ve known her for 15 years,” Zaslove continued. “She looks the same. She hasn’t aged.”
Zaslove compared Canon to certain musicians who stay eternally young. “You have things to do here, to do good,” he said.
Canon has a DVD of her retirement party, which still delights her, though her emotions at the time were mixed.
She cites Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over,” she said. “Smile because it’s happened.”