But when Canadian alternative band The Strumbellas’ hit song “Spirits” came on one day in March, teacher Jeffrey Munroe asked this Grade 7 class at Toronto’s Bowmore Road Public School if they knew who the singer was — the guy with the beard whose band won a Juno and just rocked the Jimmy Kimmel show.
They had no clue.
Bombshell: It was their old supply teacher Mr. Ward.
It’s just that they didn’t recognize Simon Ward with his new trademark hipster beard.
Then this small special education class showed spirit of their own. Munroe helped them send Ward a video greeting full of questions about something they’ve been talking about in class; how to keep trying when your goals seem out of reach. How not to give up. How to take risks — the good kind.
“I was flattered they were asking me for advice — actually, that anyone would ask my advice,” recalled Ward in an interview from his home in Lindsay, Ont., where he is preparing for an international tour to launch the band’s third album, Hope.
The band was starting when he was a teacher — “Don’t tell the principal, but I might have written a song in the staff room” — and he finally faced a crossroad: Teaching contract or full-time musician?
“It was a tough decision, but I knew if I didn’t take the risk, I’d miss that chance.”
With the growing focus on student mental health, Munroe has been encouraging his students to feel confident enough to take chances, to try things in life that may seem daunting but could pay off — from making a new friend to trying out for a team.
“I want to help them believe in themselves enough to take positive risks, even when other people tell you it can’t be done,” said Munroe.
That’s exactly what Ward went through on his trek to stardom.
“In the beginning we played farmers’ markets and house parties for free; there were six of us in a minivan playing to empty bars across the country,” Ward recalled. “We all almost lost hope. The band took a long time to get a name for itself, but we kept doing it.”
‘Every day is a chance to better yourself’:
Students from Jeffrey Munroe’s Grade 7 class at Toronto’s Bowmore Road Public School posed questions to Simon Ward, lead singer of the award-winning group, The Strumbellas. Ward, a former supply teacher at the school, replied with words of inspiration, excerpts of which appear below.
Q) What has been one of the biggest goals you’ve set that you have achieved?
A) I really wanted to play music around the world. So far we’ve seen every Canadian province, most states in the U.S.A, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It’s magical seeing new places and meeting different people around the world.
Q) What did you have to do to accomplish that goal?
A) We worked very hard and played as many shows as we could to have the opportunity to travel around to different countries. We started out in Toronto and played farmer’s markets, house shows, small venues and anything we could.
Q) Where did you get your inspiration?
A) From personal experiences in life, my friends and family, and the places I live and visit. (In fact … I wrote some songs at Bowmore when I was teaching there!) I try to learn everything I can from people and then write about it in my songs.
Q) Were there any obstacles that got in your way?
A) There were many obstacles — long drives, playing to empty places, spending time away from my family and making very little money for a long time. One thing that kept me going was the people around me. My family and band mates are always very supportive and we like to think we are a big family and are always there for each other when things get hard.
Q) Did you ever think of giving up?
A) I have thought about giving up. Sometimes when you dedicate your life to something it can be really hard to feel like it’s all worth it. But the truth is, I always remind myself that I’m given one chance at life (and) I want to make the most of it. Every day is a chance to better yourself and make a small difference in this world, and I’m trying to do that with my music.
Q) When you achieved your goal, how did it help you in life?
A) For me there are always new goals to achieve, but I have achieved some goals and it’s been truly magical. I was very excited to win a Juno Award, play on national television, and play a festival to over 5,000 people (Winnipeg Folk Festival)! Setting goals and then achieving them is a great way to build your confidence and keeps you motivated.