Even if she hadn’t just completed the coup of a lifetime—leading Selwyn House through one of its greatest moments while battling stage 4 cancer—Minna Shulman would be the most obvious person to receive the school’s greatest honour.
Therefore, not a single Selwyn House constituent was surprised to learn that the school’s retired Dean of Students will be receiving the Speirs Medal on Founder’s Day, Nov. 28, 2019.
Long before her recent crowning achievement with the International Boys’ Schools Coalition Annual Conference on Boys and the Arts— with an emphasis on mental wellness— Minna had already spent a lifetime doing the kind of work that has made her indispensable at Selwyn House.
She was born in Vandalia, a small town in southern Illinois that was the original state capital. She was the fourth of five children, the only girl in her family and the only Jewish girl in her school.
Her dad, born in Jackson, Tennessee, was youngest of eight siblings in a family whose father had fled Lithuania to escape religious persecution. The brothers got into the oil exploration business in East Texas and then across the US Midwest. Her father rose up from manual work in the oil fields to become head of the family company: Shulman Brothers Oil.
Minna’s mom, originally from Houston, was the proverbial matriarch, keeping everything and everyone together. She was the town’s greatest volunteer, and served on the Vandalia School Board for 20 years, the only woman on the board and always the secretary.
Minna received her BEd in elementary education from the University of Colorado while also volunteering with children in a Denver housing project and at a women’s health centre on campus. It was in Boulder that she decided she was more suited to the social work she saw going on around her than she was to the demands of teaching.
“I hated disciplining students,” she recalls.
In 1975 she earned Master’s Degrees in Social Work and Education/Counselling from Washington University in St. Louis, while also running a high-school counselling program and working at a women’s centre. For two years she was a school counsellor in nearby Jennings, Mo.
On a blind date she met her future husband, Steve Rotman, a transplanted Montrealer. They were married in 1976 at age 25.
From 1977 to 1979, she and Steve (now an architect) traveled in Europe and Africa, where Minna taught assertiveness training at an American University in France, also working as a nanny and a waitress in France and London.
Back in the U.S. in 1979, she took a job as the first woman at the cheese counter at Balducci’s in Manhattan and began a 10-year period in New York. “I felt I belonged in New York,” she says.
During the 1980s she worked as a Director of Special Programs for the Victims’ Services Agency of NYC, and then the Director of the National Law Enforcement Training Program. She became a mother in 1981 to Daniel and Maia in 1985, while continuing to work full time and chairing the Parent Association at PS 234. The family moved to Montreal for a one-year trial in 1989 in search of a more familyfriendly lifestyle, which they found immediately.
Part of Minna’s negotiation with Steve to move to the city of his birth was to have another child. She negotiated well, and in 1991 gave birth to twin daughters. Although she did not return to the paid workforce for a few years, she was a founding member and the second Chair of the Westmount Teen Centre Board, working with such Selwyn House School notables as Rob Wearing and Tom Pitfield. Minna also headed the Roslyn Home and School Association. From 1996 to 1999 she worked part time with Jewish Family Services on a preschool intervention program for high-risk families.
In 1999, she had the good fortune to meet Will Mitchell and Carol Manning and fell into the job of working part time at Selwyn House School as a counsellor, where she launched programs for students, including the SHS Big Brother Program, and programs for parents and faculty. In 2007 she took over the job of running the annual Grad Weekend activities; in October 2008 she planned and ran the school’s Centennial Conference: Educating Boys for Global Responsibility.
The next year, Minna was named Dean of Students by her new headmaster, Hal Hannaford, and began to work full time with school administration.
With Hal’s push, Minna became a trustee on the IBSC Board of Directors in 2011, took on many interesting projects and became the head of the Coalition’s Research Committee. In May 2017, Minna ran Selwyn House School’s first IBSC Regional Conference, Enhancing Boys’ Lives Through The Arts. In June of this year, this final phase of her career culminated with the incredibly successful 2019 IBSC Annual Conference in Montreal.
Over the years, Selwyn House, like many schools, has adapted to the changing needs of today’s students. There is now a much greater awareness of learning differences and special needs.
“We were able to work with the faculty to offer extra time and smaller exam spaces for boys who were slow readers or had disabling anxiety or ADHD,” she recalls. “This was a precursor to our hiring our wonderful learning strategists and starting the Student Success Centre. It also opened the floodgates on parents sharing their understanding and assessment of their sons’ learning needs. This openness was very helpful to the students and the faculty. Today, 20 per cent of students need special services.”
Family is of utmost importance to Minna, her own and all families, and she advocates a “back-to-basics” approach to counter current trends in society. “There used to be a lot more parental involvement, along with organized religion and other community support groups,” she says. “The community looked out for you.” Today’s families often don’t even eat dinner together, she laments.
But she still loves our Selwyn House families.
She would prefer that we all learn to slow life down and pay more attention to what really matters.
And what matters most? “I feel my biggest responsibility is to listen and not judge,” she says.
At one point she made a pledge to herself: “From now on,” she said, “I’m going to try to do everything with love.”
For videos and photos of the IBSC Conference, including Minna's Hawley-Jarvis acceptance speech, click here
To read the entire 2018-2019 issue of Veritas, click here