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The Mother of All Degrassi by Linda Schuyler

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

The Mother of All Degrassi takes us on a voyage through time and place in this, her memoir. Most Canadians will have heard of Degrassi at some point in their lives, whether they watched the television series themselves, or with their children, or borrowed episodes to use in the classroom to teach their students about life. But how Degrassi originated, its transformations, its effect on those it touched and those who were involved in its growth, and on the woman herself, is the subject of this story.

This is a tale of an ambitious, energetic, feisty, risk-taking woman who listened to her heart and her spirit, who played the game to win, transforming disastrous moments into a multi-million dollar empire. It is the story of a woman who touched the lives of millions of viewers over a period of forty years, and changed the lives of countless child stars who found their start at Degrassi.

Her memoir is about revelation and risk-taking, daring and dogmatic perseverance, inspiration and hope. And I bet you’d never even heard her name before. Linda Schuyler stood strong behind the scenes, cradling her young actors, and leading her team. I’d certainly never heard of her until recently, though I knew of Degrassi. Living near Toronto, Ontario in the early 70s, 80s, and 90s gave me an edge because that’s where it all began. Or did it?

Entangling business with personal, Schuyler’s memoir is structured somewhat chronologically but supplemented with natural turns and flashbacks when she’s touched by a certain moment or brushed by a special person, and life changes. Yet, she returns to one pivotal moment time and again.

Schuyler wanted to be a mother more than anything else yet was unable to conceive. She suffered with endometriosis, possibly caused by a bodily wrenching in a near-fatal car accident in 1968. She was working at a pub in England when she met Simon, a handsome young man who offered to take her water-skiing in the Lake Country. They were joined by his friend, Elliott. Afterwards, while driving back to London after a long playful day in the sun, their car collided with a double-decker bus. Schuyler was the lone survivor but wore the scars of that moment forever. And from that wreckage emerged a filmmaker, storyteller, teacher, and businesswoman.

Her “giddy, schoolgirl sense of excitement” (47) permeates the text. Flush with media terms like blue-skying, footage, rough picture edit, 16 mm, and Bolex, Schuyler interjects the more technical edges of film production. If you’re at all interested in media studies, this book is for you. In fact, I’d make it part of the syllabus. Yet far beyond that, in its very heart, it’s an emotional story, and a quick and entertaining read that feels real and genuine. Even moments of name-dropping feel natural—that’s just how it was when you happened to be seated next to Hugh Laurie at Bob Newhart’s table in L.A. picking up a Television Critic’s Choice Award (2005).

Rife with teachable moments—Schuyler is at heart an educator—she reminds us that writing for kids means confronting the issues of the day. Degrassi was real and raw. From the beginning, no issue was taboo, and over the years the episodes involved all manner of sociopolitical topics that affected teens. “Our serious subjects for the first season were underage drinking, parental abuse, adoption, bullying, and teen pregnancy . . . pills being sold as drugs, bad date advice, a thwarted pornographic viewing, and the formation of our one-song-wonder rock group — The Zit Remedy” (90). Later stories involved racism, homophobia, and the impact of social media.

Schuyler experienced bullying beginning in grade three, when her family moved from England to Paris, Ontario. The taunts of “Limey Linda—slimy Limey Linda” haunted her. “I consider Degrassi to be probably the world’s longest running anti-bullying campaign,” she revealed at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2020. Perhaps, Degrassi was in-part her revenge. Because Schuyler’s family were immigrants like so many of the children she taught, she understood their experiences and dilemmas, and she wanted to tell their stories. In her first low-budget film, Between Two Worlds, she told the stories of her inner-city Toronto class as she taught them about media. The film was broadcast internationally, and Degrassi was born. Schuyler’s elements: “casting age-appropriate actors, taking chances on fresh talent in front of and behind the camera, naturalistic settings and dialogue, and setting the stories in a lower-middle-class environment” featured in five hundred episodes (60).

Schuyler’s memoir is a celebration of a life well lived, of a woman who loved and lost, followed her heart, then fell and rose again.

The Mother of All Degrassiis published by ECW Press.

W. L. Hawkin writes and publishes with Blue Haven Press. Her latest release, Lure: Jesse & Hawk, is a romantic suspense novel set on a Chippewa reservation.


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