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Leaving her own legacy: with terminal brain cancer prognosis, Maureen Tonge reflects on nearly 30 years of teaching

“Don’t limit yourself. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Know that you are capable of far more than you could possibly fathom.”

That is Maureen Tonge’s parting message. 

Tonge, originally from New Brunswick, has been a teacher at Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin high school since 1992. She has seen generations of school kids pass through the halls and file out in graduation gowns. 

Maureen Tonge, a teacher at Sir John Franklin high school for almost 30 years, urges students to "not limit themselves". Photo sourced through Facebook.

Tonge, now two years retired from teaching, walked away after she was diagnosed with brain cancer. She has surpassed the original prognosis telling her she wouldn’t see 2020, but when Tonge says this is probably her last winter, she seems to mean it.

She has been told she has five months left to live, and says she plans to spend that time with the people that mean the most to her. 

Last year, Tonge addressed Sir John Franklin’s graduating class. 

In her address she spoke of giving up the need to be perfect, the need to be right, feelings of envy and resentment and self-judgement and trying to be everything to everyone. She says addressing the class of 2019 “was truly a dream come true.”

“I’ve made some amazing connections over the years that I taught so it was really special.”

When Tonge went into teaching, she thought it would just be until she figured out what to do next. At a certain point she says it became clear, “this is what I’m meant to be doing.”

Though she would never say it, the hoards of former students she remains in "almost daily" contact with speaks volumes about the lives she’s touched. She keeps in touch through email, social media, and snail mail, where, even still she receives gifts "out of the blue."

“She has inspired a broad range of students in all kinds of ways,” says Pam Schlosser, head of the high school's math department. “Her students leave her classes with an appreciation of art, a sense of mindfulness and a confidence in their individual talents."

Schlosser began at Sir John Franklin the same year as Tonge. She says that beyond the curriculum, Tonge taught on “releasing limiting beliefs and adopting liberating beliefs, adopting an attitude of gratitude, being kind and showing compassion, being fully present, and being curious.” 

Tonge has also been a yoga teacher for over a decade and was one of the founding members of Collective Soul Space studio. She says teaching is in everything she does. The creativity and patience she has learned are among the tools she has taken from her years as an educator that continue to serve her into her diagnosis and everyday life.

Schlosser says that Tonge spearheaded the school’s “Leaving a Legacy” portrait project. The assignment is part of Tonge’s art class where students create portraits of Northerners. Among the portraits hanging in the high school are Indigenous leaders, Northern Educators, and Sir John Franklin alumni. Without Tonge to run Leaving a Legacy, the project is deemed complete. 

Schlosser, though, contends it will “remain unfinished until Maureen’s image joins the collection.”