Walking around the hallways of Queen Elizabeth right now feels a little weird. The always crowded halls of Queen E are now missing the usual chatter, laughing, and overall commotion that is so familiar to anyone who has spent any time at the school. It has been about two weeks since high schools had to switch to online learning, and a few teachers are still working from school. I walk past a few teachers who wave hello, and I can see the hint of a smile behind their masks. As I enter the classroom, and I notice a small Shakespeare bust staring back at me from across the room. Above the teacher’s desk hangs a gold and black flag emblazoned with a badger; below that flag, I spot a small picture of a man with long black hair who is wearing dark robes. Behind me is a cute little reading corner, a reminder of a time when small shared spaces were not something we had to worry about. Yes, this is definitely Ms. Ambrozy’s room.
For any student who has been in Ms. Ambrozy’s class, it will quickly become clear just how passionate she is about the power of storytelling. “My first love I think, has always been literature, and so I wanted to find a job where I could talk about books all the time. This seems to be the best place to do it,” she explains. The piles of books around the room further prove her point. “I’ve always had a book with me, there’s not a day that’s gone by that I haven’t read something,” she tells me, and any student, or friend of Ms. Ambrozy will tell you that is not an exaggeration. Ms. Ambrozy lights up as she shares that, “reading is almost like a pillar of my life, and yes, English has always been a passion. Thinking about human condition and human nature through literature has always seemed like this really beautiful thing.”
When you’ve experienced so many lives through the countless pages of worn out books, you might think it would be difficult to pick out a favourite. Ms. Ambrozy did not hesitate to express her love for Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. “My parents were kind of strict and wouldn’t let us watch things like The Simpsons, but I could read whatever I wanted,” her eyes gaze past me, to a place far removed from 2020 as she tells me about this foundational moment in her childhood. “When I was 15, my mom gave me a copy of The English Patient… I was young when I read it, and it changed my life. I don’t think I would be here, in this place right now if I hadn’t read that book. I read it maybe twice a year.” Ondaatje’s award winning 1992 novel takes on the perspectives of four different characters in an Italian villa during World War II. “I remember being so shocked that somebody could so poetically summarize the human condition… It just stays with me, and yeah honestly, I think that book altered my life,” she explains. With such high praise, I consider checking the book out myself, when Ms. Ambrozy warns me, “read the book, don’t watch the movie.”
Behind Ms. Ambrozy sits a pile of papers, and a computer humming along as we continue our interview. This is only her first week back at school after taking some time off since September to focus on her Masters programme. She’s currently working on a Master of Arts in English and Film Studies. “I haven’t taken any film courses yet, but I do like studying film,” she explains. “I actually love movies.. I miss going to movies,” she says in a nostalgic tone that is all too familiar to everyone in 2020. Ms. Ambrozy tells me that she chose to do her Masters “for pleasure,” which is not exactly a word I would personally use to describe graduate studies in English Arts. She partly agrees with me, as she explains, “it sounds funny coming out of my mouth now, because it’s been so unpleasurable, the whole experience. It’s just been so much work, but I think I’ll be glad I did it.” So what does one do when pursuing a Master of Arts in English and Film studies? “I got to experiment with different forms of creation like poetry and different text forms that I’d never worked on before, and… I have met some amazing artists, and I’m really lucky that I got this opportunity.” As an English teacher though, Ms. Ambrozy’s Masters turns out to not just be about her own love of reading, but also about helping her pass on a love for stories onto her students. “It makes me a better English teacher, which is really the underlying goal,” she explains. “It helps me remember what it’s like to be a student, and how fraught the experience of writing an essay can be… how personal it can feel.”
About two years ago at the Jubilee Auditorium here in Edmonton, after the convocation ceremony for Queen Elizabeth’s class of 2018, I stood next to Ms. Ambrozy as we said goodbye to the recent graduates. We wished them well in the future, snagged some pictures, and shared some occasional parting words of wisdom. A student approached Ms. Ambrozy, and thanked her for having had the opportunity to be in her class; both Ms. Ambrozy and this student were fighting back tears. Ms. Ambrozy shared with this student a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which I will never forget. I will not share this quote for fear of spoiling this beautiful moment, but having known this student, I felt like it perfectly described her. These are the sorts of connections that students experience when in her English class. Ms. Ambrozy tells me that “in English we’re always talking about emotion, or human nature. It’s a space for sharing and telling stories.” Ms. Ambrozy is open about her own experiences, and gives her students a platform to feel comfortable being themselves. She tells me about a moment that is very special to her, “when I got into my master’s I had a student who wasn’t even in the country, but she heard from a friend that I got accepted . She sent me an email all the way from Vietnam saying, ‘Miss I heard you got in congratulations!’ and it was so representative of what I think Queen E is, and who Queen E students are.”
As our conversation goes on, the sun begins setting through the windows in Ms. Ambrozy’s room. It is mid-December, and the days in Edmonton are about as short as they get. The stack of papers which is still all over Ms. Ambrozy’s desk is a testament to all the work she could be doing instead of having a chat with me about her favourite books. It does not surprise me at all though that she jumped at the opportunity to share some of her time and contribute to The Knight’s Post. If there is a single word that I think most people would use to describe Ms. Ambrozy, it is kind. For her, this is a trait that has been central to her personality since childhood. “My grandpa… used to sit up with me when I was little. I lived in Calgary, but I would come visit him in Edmonton, and he would take me to Shakespeare in the Park,” she begins, “it was he who first introduced me to Shakespeare.” She continues, “[we] would talk about books even when I was little, like eight, or nine. He never treated my opinions about books like they were stupid or childish. It was really affirming, and he cared what I thought about books.” If this sounds familiar, that is because for many of us, Ms. Ambrozy has been that person who will sit down and listen to what you have to say without judgement. Ms. Ambrozy describes her philosophy for life as “kindness wins in the end. I honestly believe that, and it’s how I try to live my life.”
When she’s not reading, teaching, or spreading kindness, Ms. Ambrozy can be found planning her next trip. Unfortunately under our current circumstances, many of those plans have been put on hold. She tells me about her last trip, “I’ve been to Iceland and Italy recently… I just really love food, I love to experience different things in life.” Some of her other passions include exercising, and a recent love of boxing. It may seem bizarre to think about going toe to toe with Ms. Ambrozy in the ring, and she acknowledges this oddity, “I never thought I’d be a person who would like fighting with someone in a ring, but I really like it.” Unfortunately, boxing gyms are currently closed, so she has turned to one of the constants in her life to help her get through the pandemic. “I’ve had the same best friends since I was 12, they’re like family to me. I talk to them multiple times a day, and they help me maintain stability in my life.”
As our conversation comes to a close, Ms. Ambrozy shares that through all the hard work of working on her Masters over the last few months, she’s missed working with her students. “I talk about [my students] a lot in my grad classes, and I’m so grateful to teach everybody,” she shares while laughing. “Students are the best,” she tells me, “I was trying to explain this to people in my grad classes who aren’t teachers. Just how much joy you can experience with students.” In the midst of a pandemic, and everything that comes with it, Ms. Ambrozy is happy to be back in her natural habitat. Even if things aren’t exactly the way she remembers from the last time she taught in her classroom, there’s still a twinkle in her eye as she talks about her excitement to be back. “When I wasn’t teaching here I felt such a void in my life because these small moments of joy… feel like such a gift. [Those moments] when students care about you as a person.”
It seems like Ms. Ambrozy’s lessons of kindness through literature have paid off in droves. While classes may continue online, she is working her hardest at making sure that those Google Meets continue to be “a good place for bringing in stories.” As we head into our winter break, I am sure many will find themselves curled up somewhere cozy, with a good book. In that time, hopefully we consider some of Ms. Ambrozy’s words of wisdom when it comes to literature, “that truth can be found in fiction… [and] there’s wisdom in stories, we can all draw from that.”
For more stories about Queen E students, staff, and alumni, keep an eye on The Knight’s Post. As well, make sure to follow Queen E on Instagram at @queenelizabethhs
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