Mr. T has been very open with the students at Belmont Elementary when they ask questions about his uneven gait or the shaking and jerking of his body.
Depending on the age of the students, Jamie Thomas explains that he has a disease that causes the involuntary movements.
“Right now it’s not much worse than a nuisance,” the 60-year-old said of his Parkinson’s disease.
But he knows the future, having lost his father seven years ago to the progressive disease.
“I know what to expect,” he said. “I know my body’s going to slowly deteriorate but I’m going to fight it as long as I can.”
Parkinson’s disease has forced the longtime local teacher to a 60 per cent reduction in work hours as it became progressively worse.
The disease is gradually taking away the two things Thomas loves the most in this life after his family – teaching and his ability to play music. A multi-instrumentalist and composer, he’s enjoyed playing the ukulele for 50 years. He first noticed problems with his hands while playing the ukulele a few years ago.
Thomas is overseeing one last big musical production – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – before leaving the job at the end of this school year after his daughter, Brittany, urged him to go out with a “bang.”
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After a few years of teaching in the Maritimes and the Far North and brief stints at a couple of other local schools, Thomas has taught at Belmont. He’s been a teacher for 38 years and in the Langley School District for 29. He was with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble for more than two decades.
In his time at Belmont, he’s led the charge that has made the elementary school home to ambitious musical stage productions every second year.
“This is the culture of this place, this is what we do, this is what the cool kids do,” Thomas said.
He credits the rest of the staff and school community for being willing to take on the challenge of big productions because while he spearheads the show, they would not be possible without lots of support. The massive sets require that the gym be off limits for other activities for about two weeks prior to the show, a big impact on the rest of the school, he noted.
There’s also what the students in the show learn, aside from hitting a certain note or hitting a certain curtain cue.
Thomas is the first to admit he’s a task master. The students have to be a rehearsals before school, during lunch breaks, evenings and weekends, at the same time as doing well in their other classes.
“There’s some really important life lessons,” he said. “I’d like to think that this show and all of our productions help prepare our kids to be better members of the community in the future.”
Thomas also wants the kids to understand the sense of community that is required to do what they do.
“Every aspect of the show, the costumes, the makeup, the choreography. There’s a whole team of people,” Thomas said.
The school has staged plays such as Seuss, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver, Pete’s Dragon, and Annie. But the students also learn from other projects Thomas has done, including a concert of his original music at the Rose Gellert Hall in 2005 and a fundraising CD that raised funds for the Boxing Day tsunami in South Asia back in 2004.
What other school gets 1,500 people to a Christmas concert? The school has to rent space for its concert because the demand for tickets is so high. Large numbers of former students attend and sing the Belmont Christmas song Thomas composed alongside current students, staff, and families.
“We have closed every Christmas show for 25 years,” with Christmas at Belmont, he said.
Thomas and his wife, Wendy, moved to Chilliwack several months ago, and he hopes to do substitute teaching either there or in the Langley district.
“I’m going to fight,” he said. “This isn’t the end of my teaching career.”