When Anita Baturin first started teaching at Vernon’s Beairsto Elementary School in 2002 and held her first dragon parade, leading her new students through the hallways under a brightly coloured cloth dragon, it wasn’t quite like the Lunar New Year celebrations she remembered growing up.
Only one thing was off: the school was dead silent.
“It felt like we were attending a funeral,” Baturin laughed. “I remember at that time (the kids) didn’t understand what it was about, and they were trying to be so respectful.”
Flash forward 22 years to 2024 — Baturin’s final year celebrating her Chinese heritage with her students after announcing she will retire at the end of this school year — and the kids have gotten the message: Lunar New Year is a celebration that calls for abandoning the ‘inside voice’ normally expected in the classroom, for rattling noisemakers made from paper plates emblazoned with Chinese characters, and for bringing the shrieks and shouts of play at recess time indoors to let the dragon snake its way through a rapturous space, like the streets of Beijing, where one of the world’s biggest New Year celebrations will erupt on Saturday, Feb. 10.
Beairsto’s dragon parade took place on Friday, the day before the Lunar New Year, and the kids, knowing it would be Baturin’s last, cheered even louder than in years past.
“It’s bittersweet,” Baturin said after the parade, adding she had to make an effort not to cry. “It seems like it’s an end of a big chapter of my life.
“It was so exciting when I first started this whole thing with the dragon, and it started because I wanted to share something personal about me.”
Over the years, as Baturin has taught about Chinese culture, her Grade 3 students have been interested to know about her parents, and so she’s told them stories.
“We actually FaceTimed my parents and the kids had questions for them,” Baturin said. “They wanted to ask my parents about their background, what their lives were like in China, what the traditions were like back then.”
Baturin’s dad came to Canada when he was 11 years old. He lived with a foster family and spoke only Chinese. He moved from family to family until he settled in Vancouver, “and that’s when he really grew up and became more Westernized,” Baturin said.
When he was marrying age, he returned to China where he met Baturin’s mom, and then he returned to Canada with her.
“Her stories are fascinating, too, coming over as an adult without knowing the language and also not knowing anybody here,” Baturin said.
Life in Canada wasn’t easy for Baturin’s parents.
“Racism was pretty big at the time,” she said.
“What I’m really pleased about in our schools and our education system is we are working so hard at teaching kids how to be anti-racist. And I do see a change in the schools … I think there has been a really good shift, there’s an openness, there’s a willingness to connect with people and accept folks for who they are.”
Despite the pressures to assimilate in Canada — pressures her parents felt as new Canadians, and ones she felt going to an English-speaking school and wanting to fit in — Baturin has been able to retain her culture, and has always delighted in sharing it with her students.
“What I was able to retain was some of our favourite family traditions, and especially Chinese New Year (celebrations), because we always had a big meal; mom would cook very specific foods and each meat or each dish represented something. For example, fish represented prosperity and long life.”
Ahead of Friday’s celebration, the students made wonton soup, a Baturin family recipe, and feasted shortly after the dragon parade.
Baturin has found that sharing her culture has provided valuable lessons for her students about inclusion, acceptance and the power of a diverse society.
“Even though we are from different cultures, we are actually the same, and I hope they remember that and that they cherish those unique qualities. There are so many wonderful things that bind us together.”
Teaching has been Baturin’s biggest passion, but in her retirement, she plans to put more of herself into her other passion: singing. She’s one of the lead singers for the Legendary Lake Monsters, also sings with the local church band Cross and Crown, and recently joined another local band, Six Shades of Grey.
“I’ll be doing a lot more singing, hoping to be more on stage, and travelling.”
She has a three-week family trip to Europe planned for this September.
“I’m leaving on the first day of school because I just don’t know how I’m going to handle that first day if I’m here,” she said.
Baturin says she has nothing but good things to say about working at Beairsto for 22 years.
“It’s a place where we connect, where we have very strong, lasting friendships.”
And thanks to one of those friends, Baturin had good news to share on Friday. Madame Sara McLean, the Grade 1 teacher down the hall, has agreed to carry on the dragon parade tradition at Beairsto in Baturin’s wake.
“I feel so honoured that she asked me,” said McLean, whose class has been taking a more active part in the parade for the past couple years.
“I wanted to continue the tradition. (Baturin) teaches in such a hands-on, fun, engaging way, and I’ve learned so much from her.”
With past students lining the halls to watch Baturin’s last parade, it was a touching way to begin the New Year — and it’s only fitting that 2024 is the year of the dragon.