Hamlet’s Great Foe

An essay by grade 11 student Carmina Cornacchia.

If Hamlet were its one-hundred-and-eighty degree opposite—a comedy—the audience would swoon from joy when Ophelia and Hamlet were married at the end. Unfortunately Mr. Shakespeare did not have such joviality in mind. It is pitiful indeed, that their two aching hearts fall still before joining hands in holy matrimony, but for these purposes their tragedy illustrates a theme of utmost importance in the play: mortality. For some, the use of that word may be amemento mori, or “reminder of death” in the way that a skull might remind one of their eventual end, and of course mortality is literally present in Hamlet. However, its meaning expands to vast and decadent layers. In “The World of Hamlet” by Maynard Mack, he comments that the play emanates mortality in the sense of, “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, not simply death” (Mack 53). Mack comments that the play exemplifies this “heartache” through the idea that human intent is ephemeral (53-54), and through themes and imagery of infection (54), poison (54-55), and loss (55). Mortality is the harbinger for the great tragedy that is Hamlet.

Mack provides ample substantiation for his interpretation of mortality. He remarks that Hamlet first acknowledges mortality when he realizes that humans can end up at a crossroads of poor circumstance out of pure probability, not their own fault, and that this can be the end of their character (Mack 53). Hamlet says it precisely: “nature cannot choose his origin” (Shakespeare 1.5.26). Mack states that Claudius too has noticed a deeper mortality; to his taste, love “dies of its own too much” (53), and so does human will (53). Mack exemplifies this with an excerpt from the vicarious play that Hamlet commissions to “catch the conscience of the king” (Shakespeare 2.2.607). The play’s “king” takes the affection of the “queen” with a grain of salt, knowing that her love is at the mercy of her recollection, which is not a reliable engine of intent (Mack 54). The strongest of Mack’s examples seems to be Claudius’s thoughts on intent. For a human may be ardently intending to carry something out, but that intent is dependent on his fleeting recollection, and the limits of his mind (Mack 54). A perfect example of Claudius’s description is Hamlet: instead of taking revenge on Claudius as he intends, he procrastinates and puts on a play instead. One example that Mack omits is Hamlet’s discussion of his own mortality in the soliloquy that begins, “to be, or not to be, that is the question” (3.1.56). At first glance the soliloquy is about literal mortality, and Hamlet’s decision to either commit suicide or not. But the soliloquy is also about the deeper facets of mortality and the way human endeavours are ephemeral much like their lives. Mack so eloquently describes this as, “Human weakness, the instability of human purpose, the subjection of humanity to fortune—all that we might call the aspect of failure in a man” (Mack 53). Hamlet is contemplating suicide, but a form of the aforementioned “failure” in his mind leaves him paralyzed and immobile at the thought of it. Hamlet describes his current disposition thus: “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment…turn awry and lose the name of action” (Shakespeare 3.1.79). This soliloquy, especially the aforementioned excerpt, is deeply multi-faceted. On the one hand, Hamlet is toying with the thought of his literal mortality, or the thought of committing suicide, and on the other hand he is exploring a more complex interpretation of mortality because his mind’s inhibitions render him incapable of carrying out his actions. His very will to end his life is mortal in itself. It is in concepts such as these that the pure genius of Shakespeare is most striking.

Mack goes on to elaborate that mortality extends to the concept and imagery of what he calls “infection—the ulcer, the hidden abscess” (54). He credits Miss Spurgeon with this addition to the lengthy list of concepts presented in Hamlet. Her proposition entails that Hamlet’s responsibility to avenge his father is a product of pure misfortune (54). He has had it thrust onto his unstable shoulders, and they are crumbling beneath the gravity of the expectations (Mack 54). The idea of having responsibility thrown on Hamlet’s shoulders without his consent resembles an infection, for he with the flu did not request his contagion (Mack 54). Rather, it has spread to him by virtue of probability, and he happens to be the victim (Mack 54). Not only has Hamlet acquired this infection from chance, but also it will surely consume him as well as those around him, all of whom are innocent in the matter (Mack 54). In Miss Spurgeon’s opinion, Hamlet’s situation is “the chief tragic mystery of life” (Mack 54). Mack states that the first time Hamlet acknowledges that he was born into this responsibility is: “when he describes how from that single blemish, perhaps not even the victim’s fault, a man’s whole character may take corruption” (53). The idea of the “corruption” of “character” is provocative here, and it could not be more true to Hamlet. Because of Hamlet’s disease of obligation, he will plunge his sword through a tapestry in order to kill whom he believes to be a spying Claudius, but is in fact Polonius. For this action he seems to feel minimal guilt: a sign that he has become morally disengaged. In reply to his mother’s cry of disgust, he counters: “A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother” (Shakespeare 3.4.27). By this point in the play, the infection has irreversibly consumed Hamlet’s personality. It is of the essence to recollect that at the beginning of the play, Hamlet was a scholar from Wittenberg; he had no interest in revenge, despite his spurn for Claudius. The inadvertent donning of this particular responsibility is the “corruption” that Mack speaks of, and corruption has a way of becoming one with its victim.

Mack points out later on that the “infection” is not a disease per se in Hamlet, it is a substance, and by extension a specific person (54). This substance of great significance is poison, and Claudius is the root cause of the poison that seeps through every Danish family’s door until, “there is something rotten in all of Denmark” (Mack 54). Mack  continues to say that Hamlet, Gertrude, Laertes, Ophelia, and the nation at large suffer from this poisonous infection that spreads like a plague (54). According to him,

Hamlet tells us that his ‘wit’s diseased,’ the queen speaks of her ‘sick soul,’ the king is troubled by ‘the hectic’ in his blood, Laertes meditates revenge to warm ‘the sickness in my heart,’ the people of the kingdom grow ‘muddied, Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts’; and even Ophelia’s madness is said to be ‘the poison of deep grief’.(Mack 54).

One example that Mack omitted is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They too are infected by Claudius’s plague when they agree to comprehend through espionage, “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus” (Shakespeare 2.2.17) in regards to Hamlet’s state of mind. This spreading of evil to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are relatively innocent, through the imagery of poison brings to mind the concept of “the king’s two bodies”. This is the idea that the king has a “body proper” and a “body politic”, the former being his literal body, the latter including the entire country and its people. This is the idea that when the king is immoral, it affects the body politic, making the people “unwholesome”. The poison of Hamlet begins with a single drop in an elderly man’s ear, but by the end it has grown to an ocean that swallows up any character of importance, some even being killed by the poison they intended for others. Laertes is the supreme culprit for the play’s tragic finale, and by the end nearly every character has died because of his dripping green fingertips. That is what seems to be the case. However, despite poison being the primary source of maleficent diversification and ample death at the end of the play, it also causes a renaissance of sorts. As Hamlet is taking his last breaths on the floor of the castle, he bids Horatio “to tell my story” (Shakespeare 5.2.356). Thus, poison perpetuates the tragedy lest it be repeated. Poison acts similarly to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in a way; they both ensure that the errors made over the course of the play are not repeated, but one pertains to future generations in Hamlet, the other pertains to the audience. Regardless, both assign meaning to the suffering.

Mack’s final argument about mortality is that: “the chief form in which the theme of mortality reaches us, it seems to me, is as a profound consciousness of loss” (55). The late King Hamlet’s anguished position on Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius is a model for this loss (Mack 55), and he expresses his melancholy so: “So to seduce! — won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen” (Shakespeare 1.5.45). Hamlet’s father is in such disbelief of how quickly Gertrude’s love for him dissolved that he no longer sees her as “virtuous”.Ophelia evokes a similar reaction to Hamlet when he detonates with fury (Mack 55), telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare 3.1.121). Ophelia registers this outburst as nonsensical ramblings being emitted from the shell of a man with whom she was once affectionate (Mack 55). She comments, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (Mack 55), in other words, she has lost contact with his ephemeral “noble mind” to the infectious nature of Claudius (Mack 55). One example that Mack omitted is Horatio’s loss of Hamlet, which is perhaps the most stirring part of the play for an audience member, especially after hearing the heart-wrenching, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (Shakespeare 5.2.365). That being said, Mack’s initial statement about loss being the “chief form in which the theme of mortality reaches us” (55) is slightly unstable, especially in the choice of the word “chief”. If there is to be a supreme representation of mortality over-arching the play, then that is to be found in the concept of ephemeral intent. This idea that our intent can fade, change, or be manipulated is essential to the philosophy of the play and is the manifestation that gives life to the minor concepts of mortality as infection, poison, and loss. In Mack’s work he cites Miss Spurgeon, who insists that the concept of infection is “the chief tragic mystery of life” (54), but it seems that the washing away of human intent is more impactful because it is the sweeping generality that encompasses infection, poison, loss, and yet also swallows all three of them up as examples ascribing to a higher meaning, which is this: human consciousness is mortal without having to die. Intention can die out like a fire ember in the wind, without anyone to mourn for it. If a human is a product of their intention, then this is the ultimate tragedy.

But wait: there is more to the story. For neither Hamlet nor Hamlet are mortal; they have both been conserved in their entirety, and they could not be more vivacious. For every time someone opens up the script another soul empathizes with Hamlet’s story, his intentions, and his suffering. So in the end, there may be sustenance for Hamlet. As Shakespeare so wisely affirmed in his Sonnet 18, “ So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (13-14). “This” pertains to the play. As long as the universe is intact with all its stars in line and celestial bodies in order, man will never cease to acknowledge the tragedy of Hamlet.

1. Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet”. United States of America: The Yale Review, 1952. Print.
2. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. China: Cengage Learning, 2001. Print.
*Note: I assumed that The World of Hamlet was printed in the USA, because it did not say where it was printed in the handout.


All We Want is Love and War

A short story by grade 10 student Frida Purdon.

Three goddesses sit on the curb and chew bubblegum. It has just rained. The sky is tender like a bruise. It is the moment when people begin to notice the presence of silence after the storm like a man sitting in the corner of the world wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a pipe.

This is all very poetic of course. In fact, at this moment, the least poetic things in all the universe are the three elegant goddesses sitting on the curb, blowing pink bubbles. It is their perfection that is disturbing.

They subconsciously finger the human prayers in their laps and, with their smooth hands of moonlight flesh and birdsong bones—hands like summer nights—they rip them, these prayers, into smaller and smaller pieces.

The first goddess is Athena. Her hair is shaved close to her skull and her teeth are very white against her black skin. She wears big gold hoop earrings and a red bandana. She smells like New York bagels.

During Paradise Lost, Athena lead the Peace March.She and the wolves and the birds and the bears stood before the Gates of Eden and hollered, cried, lit the skies on fire and waited for some entity to use its immense voice and fill the basins of emptiness within their chests, fill them with love or art or misery or the ocean, which was so human it hurt to swim in it. They waited there until they could wait no longer. Lips and eyes burning like infidelity, they stuck their signs into the ground and then slipped away. The signs are still up there, white and distant, protesting one form of darkness or another.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” says Athena, loading her gun with pink cartoon hearts. Her many bracelets clatter around her skinny wrists. The words To Be or Not To Be are embroidered on the back of her leather jacket above a sewn illustration of spider with a long, oblong face and glistening doe eyes.

The second goddess is Hera. She has heavily penciled eyebrows and short purple hair. Her nails are ragged and short. She has a voice like a dead woman’s dream of walking barefoot on broken glass.

And Zeus can never get enough of her. His hair is soft like dandelion seeds and he takes pictures of Hera at the Heavenly Wafflehouse, whipped cream smeared on her upper lip like oblivion. The storms ravage this land and Zeus tattoos a skull onto Hera’s shoulder, says their love is as bright as a mortal’s. Outside, the souls ache breathtaking colour and rustle in the Destiny that sweeps the world and all its vestigial questions. Inside, the lamp burns. Zeus and Hera’s shadows on the wall look like dark children catching butterflies with nets and giving names to all the things they don’t understand.

“And I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” Hera says, sipping her Coca Cola with a straw.

The third goddess is Aphrodite. Her hair is tangled and her knees scabbed. Her socks don’t match and her overalls are covered in obscure stains like clouds with no one to turn them into familiar shapes. A key hangs from a shoelace tied around her neck. Her face is smudged with soot. Her breath smells like a poem dragged itself to the back of her cavernous throat and died.

“She tied you to the kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair and from her lips she drew the hallelujah,” says Aphrodite, poking at an animal carcass smeared across the road with a stick. Her eyes are enormous, like the infinity you feel when holding a newborn in your broken arms.

Across the divine street, a boy finds a golden apple. Being a good person is what pays the rent in this heavenly dominion so he decides to ask the goddesses sitting on the curb and chewing bubble gum if the apple is theirs.

“Is this yours?” the boy asks, “I’m Paris, by the way.”

Athena says, because the apple is not hers, “Nobody wanted your dance. Nobody wanted your strange glitter, your floundering, drowning life and your effort to save yourself, treading water, dancing the dark turmoil. Looking for something to give.”

The apple is not Hera’s either so she says, “The whole shadow of man is only as big as his hat.”

But Aphrodite is hungry and even though the apple isn’t hers, she says, “I desire the things which will destroy me in the end.”

The boy smiles. Aphrodite grabs the apple. She bites into the fruit and tastes all the wonderful things about death.

“Thank you.”

The boy nods, runs his hand through his hair and walks away. The other goddesses throw her scornful looks. They never approve of Aphrodite’s little games.

At a party later, Paris will tell a joke and a very pretty girl will laugh. She will cover her mouth with her hand.

Her eyes will be like the language of flowers.

“What’s your name?”


“Well Helen. Do you believe in love?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Do you believe in war?”

“War believes in me. You know, every baby born is the Devil’s attempt to become a better person for the one he loves.”

“So you believe in love.”

“I guess.”

Athena and Hera find Aphrodite in an alleyway. She curls and twitches as though burning in a fire. Her eyes are misty, her lips form words but the letters are made of blood and bone, things they haven’t learned yet.

They shake her shoulders, slap her flawless cheeks.

“Rage, I will sing your rage, Achilles. I will sing, I will sing, I will sing.”

Dragging her through the streets, she kicks and splutters, cries and scratches.

Under a tree, Helen and Paris spill into each other.

“I will sing, I will sing, I will sing for you, Achilles.”

“Hush, Love.”

“Rage! I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry . . .”

“Hush, now. It’s okay, Love, you’re safe. It’s okay.”

“Rage . . .”

When Aphrodite was little, she always used to love building things. She could make a desert out of a sea, a night out of a day and out of a man, a grief so magnificent it gleamed like a polished car in the driveway.

She would tie her hair back and plunge her hands into his mind.

When she was done, her face would be ruddy, her hands bleeding.

“Do you believe in love now?”

“Yes,” says Helen. She smiles. It is dark and all Paris can see are the corpses of men scattered like roses thrown at an opera singer across the land.

Paris takes her hand.


And so it begins.


Mother Goose Strikes Again!

A Short Story by grade 10 student Nicole S. Entin

Edgar Allan Poe was sitting at his writing desk, sifting through applications for the latest position in the Court of Stories. E. L. James had just been evicted, because people finally realized that her writing was utter trash, and she was not fit to serve as a member of the Court.

“Nevermore,” his raven muttered as Poe tossed out application after application. Not just anyone could be a member of the Court of Stories. The Court consisted of the best writers of the past, present, and future, and they came together in a monthly meeting to decide on which people to bestow creative inspiration. But for some reason, Poe couldn’t find anyone right for the position.

Suddenly, the room shook as if a bomb had just gone off. The raven squawked loudly, and flew up in the air in a panic. Poe stood up, dusted off his suit, and went to the door to see what was happening. When he peered past the threshold, he recoiled in shock, the whiskers of his mustache curling in pure fright. Before him was a sight more terrifying than his childhood poetry. A tiny old woman with a large black hat jammed overtop her corkscrew grey hair stood in front of him, almost blending into the monochrome palette of the Court’s main hall behind her. She looked up at Poe and beamed.

“Eddie! How’ve you been, sonny?” she asked, wrapping her arms firmly around his midsection. “Underfed, I can tell.”

“Mother Goose,” Poe mumbled, detangling himself from the woman’s surprisingly firm grip.

“I’ve come to apply for the Court position,” Mother Goose declared, flopping down in a large chair, and taking stock of her surroundings. The office was dimly lit, with a tiny white noise machine on a stand, and a bookshelf containing tomes that looked even older than her, and much more boring. Dissatisfied, she began to rummage through the carpet bag she was carrying, and pulled out a large hip flask. Taking a deep swig from it, she smiled contently, the lines in her face becoming even more pronounced.

“That’s the good stuff. Much better than whatever’s in that cask of am- amontilly- amitil- forget it,” Mother Goose said, pulling out a slightly damp resume that smelled of alcohol. She handed it to Poe, who took it delicately between his forefinger and thumb.

“Ah, yes,” Poe stammered. “Well, Mother Goose, given your record, the other council members and I thought it would be best not to,”

“The other council members? Phooey,” Mother Goose scoffed. “Take that upstart playwright. Entin? She can’t tell an adjective from an adverb. You need a member with panache. Style. Good looks. You need me!”

As Mother Goose fluffed her hair and batted her eyelashes, Poe was seriously considering getting the raven to claw her tongue out.

“Mother Goose, I’m not going to sugarcoat this anymore,” Poe said, trying to sound brave but failing miserably. “Over the past four hundred years, you’ve been reported to be an alcoholic, a lunatic, and have taught children how to efficiently hide a dead body.”

“Eeper Weeper was tame stuff,” Mother Goose retorted, putting her feet up on the red silk-upholstered footstool, her boots leaving distinct scuff marks on the fabric. “I’m teaching people to use their existing career skills!”

“You call stuffing your dead wife up a chimney ‘tame stuff’?” Poe gawked.

“Sounds like something you’d write, Eddie,” Mother Goose countered. “At least read the resume.”

Poe stalked behind his desk with a grumble, and flipped to the first page, which bore a glossy photo of Mother Goose astride a large version of her namesake bird, wearing a tight-fitting minidress. He quickly flipped to the next page.

“Has intimate knowledge of William Shakespeare’s work,” Poe mused. He then looked up sharply. “Why is the sentence followed by numerous winking faces and hearts? And why is the word ‘intimate’ underlined five, no, six times?”

Mother Goose leaned back in her chair, her red lips twisting into a deceptively sweet smile. “Ah, Willy was my first love. Our time together was grand, I tell you. I was his Juliet. His Desdemona. His Lady Macbeth.”

“But unlike all three of them, you’re still very much alive,” Poe muttered.

Mother Goose ignored him, and continued. “My writing has taken me all around the world. In all sorts of places. Have you ever tried vodka, Eddie?”

Seeing that Poe shook his head in response, she pulled out a long blue bottle and two red Solo cups from her carpet bag. She uncorked the bottle with her teeth, and poured generous amounts for each of them.

“This is how the kids do it, Eddie. No taste, but then again, who are we to judge? I teach them how to stuff their spouses up chimneys, you write short stories that’ll scar them for the rest of their lives,” Mother Goose mused.

She held up her cup for a toast, her wide blue eyes sparkling with wit and trickery. “To the Court of Stories.”

“Hear, hear,” Poe answered, and downed the drink. He coughed violently, scaring the raven again. For a few minutes, the room reverberated with the sounds of hacking and bird screeches. When he recovered, Poe hesitantly held out his cup for a second. Mother Goose smiled, and poured again. And again. And again.

Over the next hour, Edgar Allan Poe wondered if he should start writing comedy more often. He certainly had plenty of material for a second lifetime of work. Mother Goose had regaled him with stories of her travels. She had rambled for a solid half-hour about Mary Queen of Scots, the subject of “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”, who had a secret fondness for agriculture, and could rival Mendel in her crossing of plants. Not to mention the stories she had about the French Revolution.

“I had attended all of Marie’s parties,” Mother Goose slurred through her seventh shot of vodka. “They were fabulous. She had hired all of the best pastry chefs in the country, ‘cause boy did that lady love her cake. She would have given each town a personal royal baker if she wasn’t given the chop first. Why do you think she said, ‘let them eat cake’?”

For some reason, Poe laughed at her last comment. He always did have an unabashedly morbid sense of humour. But now, and it must’ve been the alcohol talking, Mother Goose turned to a more serious topic.

“I remember being a young woman when the Black Plague was in its final years,” Mother Goose said. “The suffering I had seen was unbelievable. Sometimes, I still see the faces of the doctors in my nightmares, covered in those awful, bird-like masks. The children were the worst, quarantined in rooms, on their own. They had no one to help them, to comfort them through their pain. So, I came to them, wearing a mask of my own. I called myself ‘Mother Goose’ because I didn’t want them to be afraid of me. None ever saw my real face, but they weren’t as scared as they used to be when the doctors came in.”

With tears streaming down his face, Poe ripped up the rest of the resumes in the pile on his desk. His enthusiastic movements had scattered the fragments across his meticulously cleaned Persian rug, but in his drunkenness, he had forgotten to care. “Mother Goose, I’d like to extend an official invitation to you to join the Court of Stories.”

“Are you sure?” Mother Goose asked. “I mean, I’m a lunatic, drunkard, and a bad influence on children. Just look at the sign over there.”

She pointed to the large poster of authors who were to be approached with caution, her face wedged between that of the poet William “The Great” McGonagall, and Stephenie Meyer.

“Forget regulations!” Poe screeched, now sounding almost like his raven. “This is the time for change in the Court of Stories. We’ve tried to be so selective, so grammatically and morally correct all the time, we’ve lost sight of what writing meant to us.”

Of course, this was the exact opposite of what Poe believed, as he’d often go into an apoplectic fit when he’d see a misplaced comma or a preposition at the end of a sentence. But, when you’re drunk, you often mix things up (a lesson to all you kids reading this: alcohol abuse can make you do stupid things).

Poe rummaged in his fine oak desk for a form, and presented it to Mother Goose along with a fountain pen. “Sign here please.”

Mother Goose reached for the pen, missed, and tried again. Her clumsy fingers finally enclosed around it on the tenth try, and she scribbled her signature on the form.

“Well, Eddie, it looks like you all aren’t a bunch of fuddy duddies after all- forgive me, I’ve forgotten how to curse. It’s the result of writing age-appropriate material, more or less, for four hundred years,” Mother Goose declared.

“Less,” Poe added, as Mother Goose picked up her carpet bag, the empty vodka bottle, and her hat, and sailed out of the office. She planted her shiny leather boots firmly on the black and white marble floor of the main hall, looking around at the somber busts of authors, and elegant vases of cream-coloured lilies. Mother Goose had plans for the Court of Stories, and they may or may not have involved coffee and donuts every Thursday, and a change of curtains on the windows. She never did like the colour mauve.

A heartwarming card

Drs. Frank Sottile and Sarah Witherspoon, while on sabbatical at U of T, brought their son Sam to the Abelard School.  We were very touched to receive this card from them, as the year comes to a close.  We will miss Sam, and wish him well as he returns home!Sottile's Card

Joseph Sproule’s 20th Reunion Speech

At Abelard’s 20th Reunion celebration on May 26, 2017, our alumnus Joseph Sproule gave a touching and eloquent speech — he generously agreed to share it on our blog:


Good evening, everyone. It is with great pleasure that I join you all today to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Abelard School.

I had the good fortune to attend Abelard in its first three years, a formative era that may be thought of as a kind of Abelardian Paleozoic, during which the school emerged like some glistening scholastic tetrapod from the steaming jungles and verdant swamps of the late 1990s. Some of you will remember those days well; while others were still young tykes, as yet unaware that you would one day tread the halls of our beloved school. Either way, whether by means of memory or imagination, I ask that you now cast your minds back through the mists of time to the hazy summer of 1997…

Allow me to set the scene: The first Harry Potter novel has just been published; Backstreet’s Back is the number one album in the world; Titanic is pulling in billions at the box office; and, in an old bank building across from an abandoned train station at Yonge and Summerhill, four teachers are in the process of opening a new school.

Who are these intrepid educators? None other, of course, than Abelard’s founders – Michelle Lefolii, Alina Rossinsky, Shai Maharaj, and Brian Blair – a potent pedagogical quadrumvirate brought together by shared vision and a passion for teaching. That vision and passion – as well as a great deal of hard work and dedication over the subsequent two decades – has borne rich fruit: the hundreds of students who have benefitted from Abelard’s unique approach to education; the community that has grown up around the school; and, of course, the Abelard School itself, which continues to go from strength to strength.

But permit me to speak for a moment, not of the Abelard of today – a school coming into its maturity with an established reputation for excellence and a burgeoning legion of alumni – but of those early years at Yonge and Summerhill. It was a time of new beginnings, of infectious imagination, dynamism, and energy. The shape of the school was still being moulded into its now familiar form, as teachers and students came together to participate in a wonderful academic experiment. But, even then, it was already so very Abelardian: brilliant, fun, challenging, and, let’s be honest, at times more than a little bit quirky. Whether reading French literature, learning the functions of the organelles, translating Attic Greek, or playing cards at the picnic table in the school parking lot, I remember there being a vibrant energy in the air. It was more than just the excitement of attending a new institution; it was the sense that we were taking part in the creation of a new community, bearing witness to an idea being transformed by inspired teachers and enthusiastic students into a reality.

Over the years, that idea has taken on a life of its own, and there have been many twists and turns in the Abelard story. Staff and students have come and gone; the school has moved location twice and will soon do so again; new courses have been offered and curricula have changed. But Abelard has remained Abelard, strengthened and sustained by a network of past and present teachers, students, board members, parents, and other friends of the school. The spark that was lit in the summer of 1997 has grown into a sacred flame, lovingly tended for the past two decades by an ever-growing number of people with ties the school. Indeed, one could argue that those people are the school, and the friendship and support that we offer one another is one of Abelard’s most precious legacies. The Abelard School’s gift to its alumni is therefore much more than a rich education and a rigorous intellectual preparation for later life; it is also the circle of friends with whom we continue on our journey long after our high school years are behind us.

Today, seventeen years after I graduated, I still feel as much an Abelardian as ever. I sit on the school’s board, rarely miss an alumni event, and keep in regular touch with my many high school friends. I also feel connected to the school in less tangible but equally important ways. As a doctoral candidate here at the University of Toronto, I’m constantly aware of Abelard’s lingering influence on both my conduct as a student and as a teacher – indeed, on my approach to learning and my attitude to life more broadly. It is a reminder that the Abelardian education not only imparts information but also fosters a truly scholarly ethos – a lifelong commitment to intellectual curiosity – both to seeking knowledge and to sharing it and using it for good. I am certain that in all of your varied and multifaceted lives, you too can identify threads that link you back to Abelard in one way or another.

I would therefore like to finish with an expression of thanks: to the school’s founders for making their dream a reality that has blessed us all; and to the many teachers, alumni, administrators, and friends whose unwavering dedication has strengthened and enriched the school over the years. As the Abelard School prepares to enter a new era in its expanded Church Street premises, I think there is good reason for confidence; the past twenty years have seen the school’s roots grow deep and its foundations strong; and the ongoing support of the Abelard community will no doubt ensure that the school continues to reach ever greater heights in the years to come.

The Extended Community

If you read the promotional materials for smaller schools, you’ll see things like personalized learning and small class sizes listed among the advantages of attending academies like ours. While these are absolutely important considerations for people looking into a school, we like our small classes because our tight-knit educational environment allows us to foster relationships that form a much larger extended community. We recently spoke with some of our alumni who still frequent Abelard as volunteer tutors to find out why they keep coming back to our school. For them, it seems, it is all about the relationships too.

Noa Magen, a 2015 alumna who now studies Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, tutors French at Abelard. She says that Mr. Blair’s philosophy class inspired her interest in how we know things, and that he is a big reason that she is in her current field of study. She is tutoring French in part to keep up skills and in part because it feels nice to help the next generation; she knows how rigorous the Abelard program can be–she recounts having already read most of the books assigned in her first-year university literature courses in our grade 10 English class–and is happy to pay forward the support she received while a student here.

Samantha Odrowaz-Sekely, another 2015 alumna now studying History at U of T, also tutors French at Abelard. She echoes Noa’s feelings about the kind of support she received at our school. In addition to gaining a lot from Abelard’s advanced curriculum, she says that her teachers knew her well enough to recommend books and extension opportunities that suited her interests specifically. She continues to visit Abelard as a tutor because she likes to help and, like Noa, she wants to keep up her skills. She has also found that investing in interpersonal relationships has resulted in new opportunities: Mr. Young invites Sam back to helm two of his history classes each year.

A 2016 graduate, Maxim Vorobyov visits us regularly as a math tutor. Unlike Sam and Noa who attended Abelard for grades 9-12, Maxim joined us halfway through his highschool journey in grade 11. He likes tutoring math because it keeps him connected with the foundational skills that he still uses in University, and equally because he doesn’t want to lose touch with the school. One of the things that most stands out for him about his Abelard experience is that he, like Sam, felt heard by his teachers. Dissenting opinions, as long as they were well researched and well articulated, were treated with respect.

We love hearing from and working with our alumni. Particularly now, as we celebrate the school’s 20th anniversary, it is extremely valuable to us that we celebrate the the connections that make up the extended Abelard community.

On Computer-Free Classrooms

Computers today are everywhere, and it is understandable that many students and their parents feel with some urgency that technology needs to be part of the classroom. At Abelard, we do believe that technology has a place (in our computer science class, for one), but we continue to resist allowing students to use technology in most classes for several very important reasons.

At a practical level, when students’ use of technology is not being structured by a teacher’s assignment and supervision, it can be distracting. Although we certainly see students preoccupied by phones every once in a while at Abelard, it isn’t only our observation that makes us wary of the free-for-all use of computers. A study published last summer in the journal Labour Economics looked at how unstructured technology use impacted test scores and found that, “highly multipurpose technology, such as mobile phones, can have a negative impact on productivity through distraction” (Beland and Murphy). This distraction, they found, was reflected in poorer results on test scores across all grades. A distracted student is less successful.

Further, and perhaps even more importantly, our focus at Abelard is University preparation. At the core of University studies is the ability to think deeply and critically, and there is evidence that students who take notes by hand develop these skills better than those who use computers for note-taking. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer study whether digital note-takers perform better than their long-handed counterparts and unequivocally land on the side of students who take notes by hand. Their primary observation is that computers facilitate a verbatim transcription of notes, while people who take notes by hand organically synthesize and summarize ideas. This in-situ mental processing develops precisely the critical thinking tools that our students will rely on in University.

There are further reasons for limiting technology use in the classroom that have to do with social development, learning focus and attention, and improved work ethic, but for us these are secondary to the measurable beneficial effects of an old-fashioned classroom on our students’ success both at Abelard and in the future.

Works Cited

Beland, Louis-Philippe and Richard Murphy. “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance.” Labour Economics, Vol.41, 2016, pp. 61-76.

Mueller, Pam A. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2014.

The Model UN Trip – A Student’s Perspective

We asked one of our grade 12 students to share her account of the school’s trip to participate in the Model UN. This is Lili Coelho’s story.


Last month, a group of Abelard’s politics students traveled to New York City for a three-day model UN conference. It was a short yet hectic trip; every moment was occupied, and the pace never slowed. It was something that many people never have the opportunity to experience, and as a grade 12 student, I’m infinitely glad that I did.

Our trip began with a bumpy morning flight and a day of sightseeing. While I had been to New York before, I’d never spent much time in the city—full of iconic landmarks and vibrant activity, it was quite spectacular. We walked through Times Square to Strand Bookstore, then to Greenwich village for a cozy Italian dinner. Our group spent the first day together, enjoying each other’s company, before we were launched into the conference proper. It was truly a great way to begin the trip—surrounded by friends, enjoying the sights.

We visited the Natural History Museum on the morning of our second day. I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that the dinosaur skeletons and the habitat displays made us feel like kids again, fascinated by the natural world. It was a snowy day on the Upper West Side, but after the museum we leisurely strolled back to the Hilton, discovering shopping centers and incredible cafés along the way. Back at the hotel, it was finally time to prepare for the opening ceremonies at the United Nations Headquarters itself—we put on our best clothes and made our way out.

I wasn’t anticipating a wait of over an hour in below-zero temperatures, but that’s what we got. Airport-level security slowed the line down to a crawl, and we ended up huddled together for warmth beneath the unforgiving wind by the time it was our turn to enter. No matter how painful the wait was, though, it was worth it. As I walked through the halls of the UN to the General Assembly, all I was wondering was “whose footsteps am I following?”

The General Assembly itself was more grandiose than the pictures had made it seem. While we all wished that we could have had the closing ceremonies there so we could actually vote on resolutions, I think being there really got us all into the Model UN mindset. The keynote speaker was polarizing, so I won’t elaborate on that—but it was incredible just to be there.

That night, the conference finally began. The first committee session was a haze of networking, note-writing, and figuring out how everything worked. I think a lot of us felt out of place—many of the American schools in attendance had been to multiple other conferences in the past few months, and we had to pick up a lot of knowledge as we went along. However, over the course of the session I became not only more comfortable, but confident enough in my position on the issue being discussed to go up and speak in front of approximately three hundred people—as someone who has always been extremely anxious in public speaking situations, that was huge for me. The session lasted until midnight, and my partner and I left feeling satisfied and excited for the next day.

I think that, over the course of four more sessions, we all surprised ourselves. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear any of my classmates (apart from Randa, my committee partner) speak in their respective committees, and the next few days were so hectic that there was barely time to talk to each other. I went up to speak a

few more times, and we ended up writing an entire clause in the working paper that eventually became a resolution. Randa and I made friends and we made enemies as we became more involved in the process than we ever thought we would be. At the end of committee sessions, when our resolution passed, we were exhausted, but happy and satisfied with what we had accomplished.

On our final night, most of us ended up leaving the Delegate Dance (which was far from an Abelard-style party) to spend some quality time together in one of the hotel rooms. We shared our experiences from the conference and reflected on them. While we all accomplished different things in our committees, all of us enjoyed the experience.

Our final day was much like our first. After the closing ceremonies, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then walked around the city for the final hour before driving back to the airport. And that was the end of the trip.

Overall, I’m incredibly glad to have participated in NHSMUN. Those of us who went are, of course, extremely grateful to Mr. Blair and Mme. Rossinsky, without whom the trip wouldn’t have been possible. It’s strange to think that in just a couple months, I’ll have graduated—the end of an era is approaching. It’s experiences like this that’ll make me remember my last year of high school fondly years down the road. Thank you to everyone who made it possible.

Athletics at Abelard

We wrapped up February with a school trip to Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a ski resort just North of Barrie. Many of our students are accomplished skiers, but even novices were confidently completing runs by the time we left the slopes. While athletics are not a major focus at Abelard, we do value and applaud students’ sporting efforts. Health Canada recommends that high school students get 60 minutes of daily physical activity, but reports that only one in eight actually get the exercise they need (Picard).

We recently sat down with some of the school’s more ambitious athletes to get a sense of why they dedicate so much of their ‘down’ time to exercise, and how they balance the rigours of an Abelard education with hours of extra-curricular training. Lavan Balendran is an avid runner and keen swimmer, while Carmina Cornacchia is a competitive swimmer who is up and training most mornings before many of her classmates are even awake. Elias Zaarour, now in his last year at Abelard, has recently transitioned from being a nationally-ranked speed skater to a crossfit athlete. Emma Adamson-DeLuca and Milena Loginova are both avid ballet dancers who train several evenings a week and most Saturdays. Roberta Vakruchev pursues several sports, and Jackson Levine is into competitive Olympic weight lifting.

When asked why they do what they do, the overwhelming consensus was that time spent exercising helped relieve stress and achieve a sense of personal balance. Carmina, Lavan, and Roberta, in particular, reported feeling focused and in-the-moment when pursuing their sport of choice; while training, their everyday worries were put aside because the physical activity demanded their full attention. Our athletes also reflected on the sense of accomplishment they feel when they achieve a goal, whether that ambition is beating a personal best or getting through the next class or training session. Milena noted that even though she only started dancing a few years ago, every newly acquired skill pushes her to keep going. Although it might seem counterintuitive, our athletes all also agreed that the time they dedicated to training ultimately helped their academic performance. Emma explained that with a limited number of hours to accomplish school work, she is less inclined to procrastinate and so is readily able to complete her assignments. Elias and Jackson spoke at length about how competitive sport taught them how to set goals and how to productively deal with failure.

There is considerable research that backs up what our students report – in addition to gains in physical health, regular exercise helps reduce stress and improve mental health as well (“Physical Activity”). As the weather turns and we return to warmer and longer days, we should all be looking for ways to get a little more exercise.

Works Cited:

“Physical Activity.” Health Canada. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/physactiv/index-eng.php

Picard, Andrew. “Only 1 in 8 Canadian kids get enough exercise, report says.” The Globe and Mail. 23 August 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/only-1-in-8-canadian-kids-get-enough-exercise-report-says/article4189297/