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Doc's life: loving, learning, teaching

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At 99, school's founder still works for no pay

Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

Published: Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Agatha Sidlauskas is 99 years old. She will, of course, make it to 100 on Feb. 5. What? Like a century is a big thing to her?

Dr. Sidlauskas, or Doc, as she's known, is not even retired. She still assesses students interested in enrolling at Venta Preparatory School, named for a river in her native Lithuania, and helps hire teachers.

Doc, after all, shatters convention. She still cooks, reads voraciously, gets along at home with a cane, hates her hearing aid, conducts long conversations, makes funny asides. Pretty decent for someone born the year the First World War began.

Agatha Sidlauskas, the founder of Venta Preparatory School. She will turn 100 years old in February and still does the psychological assessments of the kids who want to attend the school.

Who starts a school after they retire? She did, founding Venta in 1981 in the hills outside Carp after taking a pension from the University of Ottawa, where she was a leader of the Child Study Centre.

Who works for 32 years without drawing a salary? She does, never taking regular pay for her work at Venta. "I don't need it."

What studious academic drives a Porsche? She did. Two of them, plus a Jag and an Audi.

Who speaks five languages? She does, plus a rumoured fluency in Latin, but, seriously, who would ever know? Who calls death "soul flying," as in: "All this life, you know, is a condition for my soul flying?" Doc does.

Who answers a question about her childhood happiness, like this? "I wouldn't say happy in terms of external bounciness." Yeah, Doc again.

It might, indeed, be all the languages bouncing around in her head, but absolutely she has a circular way of answering any question, sometimes with syntax that is cute but baffling.

"I was happy that my work was not (as a) drunkard, or somebody making money, but my work was loving. That is a great satisfaction."

Venta, which offers instruction to 75 students from JK to Grade 10, is having an open house Thursday, from 9 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Doc will likely not be there, in any case certainly not on display.

To this day, she lives on the rolling 20-hectare site, where class sizes are under a dozen and tuition runs about $21,000 a year, about double for boarders. Alumni include Donald Sutherland's daughter and a couple of Chrétien children.

Agatha was the seventh of nine children and grew up on a farm, looking after geese and cows. Lithuania was about to be riven by war. She lost her father, a soldier, before she reached age five, but remembers touching his stubbly beard.

She had to flee to Italy to pursue higher studies. In Milan, she earned a PhD in 1943 in child psychology, a field that was still emerging and where diagnostics were yet being developed. She arrived in Canada in 1948, worked two years as a domestic until she found a position at the University of Ottawa in 1951. She would remain there almost 30 years.

In the summer, she ran a camp for children on the current property, which eventually

developed into a school. When you ask about her approach to teaching children, especially those with behavioural problems, be prepared for a long, detailed answer.

"You cannot describe this program in one way," she said Monday. "I simply say knowledge of the nature of human beings in general, this child in particular and then accommodation to the conditions."

Essentially, her approach is this: Begin with a thorough assessment of the child and his family, then shower the pupil with individual attention and a program that suits him, with a heavy reliance on music, art and physical exercise. And avoid negativity.

European-trained, it is perhaps not a surprise that she is a fan of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher (1861-1925) who helped give rise to the Waldorf schools, now found around the world.

She sees music as a means to open up the child, let him feel like part of a functioning group. It is not considered an "add-on" at Venta but a central part of learning that occupies several hours a week. "When the body is involved, somehow the child gets out of his isolation."

Doc says it is also important to focus on the child's physiology, with an eye on good nutrition, possible allergies, improved co-ordination. "The basic difference between what we are talking about here and what goes on in (public) schools is that, in schools, no one asks how the child feels about himself."

Hers is a life full of improbabilities. She spent a lifetime studying children, but has none of her own. Physics and cosmology were her first loves, but circumstances steered her toward psychology. The influence of family has been a professional preoccupation, yet she was separated from hers for 30 years.

"I love studying," she says. It is a grey November afternoon. No students are about and she sits near a fire in a sunny room set in a pinecradled hillside. This is where she evaluates students.

"Fall in love with our work," she says of her motivation, in this examined life, now well past 36,000 days long.

And didn't you just, Doc? Head over heels.