Teachers Who Have Availed Me Much

This week Sir Adam of Lipscomb asked:

Going through some old papers my parents brought from their house last week, I found several notes to my parents from teachers I’d had growing up. I got to thinking about the legions of teachers I had for the first 21 years of my life, and wondered:

Who were the 5 that had the greatest impact on me as a ppererson, for good or ill?

Because of the places I grew up, and my education experience, I find that I had many more horrible teachers than good ones. But there were some who stood out and who affected me deeply. Let’s see whether I can put them into chronological order. One note: this week I simply must extend the list to six points.

  1. Mrs. Sawatsky was my 3rd-grade teacher. She was a very sweet woman, and I know she had a very big soft spot for me. She was, I think, my first teacher when my family moved from the idyllic world of the Nova Scotian countryside to the sudden violent horror of Northern Saskatchewan. I don’t want to say anything about that sudden violent horror except that Mrs. Sawatsky’s sweetness in the classroom, her willingness to let me go to the library for books, or stay in the classroom when going outside at recess would mean risking life and limb and a broken nose, made that first year bearable. From her, I learned to expect that a teacher should love her (or his) students and I learned the kind of feeling it is to get really positive feedback from a female I wasn’t related to.
  2. Mrs. Bremner was my 6th-grade teacher, and she was sort of a slightly more stern Mrs. Sawatsky all over again. I’m quite sure in her class I was her favorite. I remember her encouraging me in my writing, and in my vociferous reading… she even created an extra-credit program for the class, where kids who finished their work quickly weren’t, as in other classes, told to shut up and be quiet! We were, instead, given the choice of a huge array of little projects set up according to the month’s theme, which was usually some kind of ancient mythology. I got right into the Greek gods and I think the Norse gods as well, though I felt the Roman pantheon was just a rip-off (and an unimaginitively-executed one) of the Greeks. Anyway, I remember writing a poem, as a class project, and the job was as follows: we were to color in a butterfly and write a poem about it. I’d just begun writing poems then, and what I wrote about was how all the grown-ups I knew were off their rockers when they talked about accepting people “despite” their differences. My poem took apart that philosophy, and used the butterfly as an example of how we ought to see beauty in the differences between us—differences in color, in thinking, and in religion (for that year I’d met my first non-Western, non-Christian peer, and she’d talked about how she’d been called a “fucking Paki” when in fact she was Indian). In fact, my poem argued that we ought to accept and celebrate one another because of all of our differences. I remember Mrs. Bremner being a very attentive teacher; she actually read all the homework we gave her, and I remember there being perhaps a tear in her eye when she read that. (It might be that this experience was why, even when I realized it wouldn’t get me money or power or even women, I keep being drawn to writing poems, because in writing poems you can say things that actually touch people in a place where no other communication can touch them.) She praised it, not only to me but to my parents, and she hung it up at the top of the tackboard in class. I suppose I should look her up and send her some of my poems now… maybe she’d get a kick out of that.
  3. Mr. Osiowy was probably the most odd teacher I’d ever encountered by the time I’d first reached Saskatoon. There was a certain kind of roughness around me that had developed because, well, I’d lived in a place where most kids had not gotten the chance to go to the public library and read; most kids had not gotten the chance to live with parents who didn’t get drunk every night. Which meant that, unlike those unfortunate souls, I responded to school very well, and had grown used to apparently being the brightest kid in class. By the time I got to high school, I’d finally learned that, wow, fashion actually helps you blend in even if you’re smarter than the other kids and stick out, intellectually, like a sore thumb. (And let me tell you, this attention to difference that people always complain about in Asian cultures—it exists in the West, too. In a little Northern town, being the smartest is a crime punishable by all kids of ostracization, if you don’t learn to hide it well.)

    Well, anyway, by this time for me, I was pretty much used to using my intelligence as a kind of social weapon, and I very quickly sensed I would need to do this to get by in my new high school. There were jocks everywhere, and they were not like the drunkards of my earlier northern high school experience. They were very organized, very influential socially and even with some of the teachers, and they were premeditatively nasty, rather than just stupid and suddenly violent. In Osiowy’s class, ridiculous things like spelling tests done in partners&%151;and this in the eleventh grade—gave me ample opportunity to preemptively mock the jocks I sometimes got paired with. And I did so, viciously as I could. Some of the stuff that man taught us was at the level of elementary school kids, but it actually challenged some of my classmates. I found this ridiculous and didn’t hide my disdain even for a moment.

    And so I ended up in the hallway a lot, and began to hate this man, this teacher I found so ridiculous. I began to cuss in his class, almost without thinking about it, just to get thrown out, because at that time the class bored me and I could at least read in the hallway, or write poems, or listen to my walkman. Well, finally, he kept me after class and I told him I thought the work was too easy, that it would have been too easy for me five years earlier, even. We talked and talked and somehow a strange transformation happened, where he found something to like and respect in me, and I in him.

    I knew for sure that we had mutual respect when, one class, he started putting poems on the overhead projector and asking the students to guess who’d written them, and what they were about. First was Yeats, I think, and then one by Donne or Shakespeare, and then, shock of shocks, I saw one of my poems up on the overhead screen. He grinned at me and asked the class to interpret the poem. It was a little thing, something like this:

    I once thought a perfect word.
    I almost said it.
    Now I am silent.

    The interpretations were quite widely varying, and I saw some students trying to understand the poem while others, especially the ones who fancied themselves clever, rather obviously made up all kinds of interpretations that didn’t even connect with the poem. It was amusing but also very instructive for me. Finally, Osiowy revealed that it was my poem, and asked what it meant. I informed him that the poem was completed, and that whatever meaning it had, needed to be gotten from the poem itself. He agreed, a funny smile on his face, and then asked, “But what were you thinking about when you wrote it?” I explained a little, about how sometimes internal experiences seem so clear, so simple, so “perfect” in their expressibility, but then when you try talk about them, you fail to even get close to expressing what was so clear in your mind. And I suggested, perhaps, from the way so many interpretations were possible for my poem, that it was also itself an example of the kind of failure that is possible in trying to communicate an idea that is, on the outset, relatively simple. And I’ll be damned if I am not still working through that lesson in my writing. Anyway, thereafter he and I got along famously, even though he kept on giving us ridiculous paired-spelling tests.

  4. While I took music lessons from various people over the years, some of them for a long time, there was a summer when, because he’d been hired as the composer-in-residence of the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra, an old jazz-scene local who’d gone to Eastern Canada to study music composition, Bill Richards, was on staff at the SYO summer camp. Now, I was a participant in this camp, on the string bass, but I was never much of a string bassist. I liked the instrument, but not enough to learn it truly properly. My real love was the saxophone, and my deepest musical interest was jazz. My folks knew this, and I think the director of the SYO knew this too… so, somehow, under the rubric of the SYO camp deal, it was finagled that for two weeks I think it was, Bill Richards and I had an hour a day to meet in a room with a Fender Rhodes piano and work through jazz theory and improvisation. This, to me, was an amazing opportunity, and I think it was the beginning of the time when I began to understand there was more to jazz than just playing the “acceptable notes” in the chords, and that at the same time there was more to it than playing random “sheets of sound” which I was hearing (though not yet very perceptively) in all the free jazz records I was borrowing from the public library. Those hours with Bill were so packed with information, references, explanations, and ideas that I’m still working on mastering some of the things he showed me. A few years later, I dated a girl whose brother had taken jazz piano lessons with Bill, and when he let me look through Bill’s lesson notes, such a flood of, “Oh, yeah!” came back to me. It was like that, being in a lesson with Bill—like a flood washing over you and all you could do was hang on and hope that the copious notes would resuscitate some of the information that you missed at the time because that man gave you everything he had at any given moment. And from him I learned that a teacher’s job is always to give, and never to bullshit the student.
  5. Robert Lemay was my composition professor and also became my friend, when I was studying music in Saskatoon at the University. Although I’d actually dropped out of the music program to escape ridiculous politics, and I didn’t need any more music classes, I still loved writing music then, and I was sure I could learn something studying with him, so I took his composition class. He was so nitpicky, so attentive to tiny details, and when I saw recitals of his works, I understood what that pickiness translated into: music that had not one iota of bullshit in it. There was no faking it, for Robert. If you weren’t sure what something ought to sound like, it was time to go sit and experiment with sounds until you knew, and when you knew, then it was time to write it down, as clearly and exactingly as possible. Robert and his wife are wonderful people, they eased my move to Montreal, and though I am out of touch with them now I do think of them from time to time. I am certain Robert is still winning prizes for his remarkable (and, because of the way he has musicians perform, very entertaining) compositions, and that his wife Yoko is still performing brilliantly at the piano. I don’t know what he’d think of the music I’m doing these days, but who knows… I do recall his fondness for Tom Waits, something I didn’t understand then but totally understand now. Anyway, the biggest lesson I got from Robert was that details are everything, and that in any area where you rely on “faking it”, you’re going to be very weak… but that with some really hard work you can get past faking it into doing whatever it is for real. And I learned that this is often well worth the trouble.
  6. In my last year of university, I decided to expand my degree to a double honors in music and English lit. I’d taken a couple of literature electives along the way, but in that fifth year of studies, I took almost all lit classes, in order to fulfill all the requirements as quickly as possible. For my “early literature” credit I took a class with the title, “Chaucer and his Age,” which was being taught by a new young Medievalist from down East (that is, Ontario), a fellow by the name of Andrew Taylor. Now, this man was a dynamic teacher; he was crazy about the Middle Ages, and it was, with him, a virulently infectious thing. Andrew’s most wonderful trait was that he always found ways to connect up the world of the late Middle Ages with the modern world. I found myself suddenly surrounded by the echoes of a strange time when priests ran the world, when the merchants were only beginning to gain the power they now hoard so efficiently; I could smell the candle smoke and see inkstains on the fingers of the clerkes around me. I even became fascinated with the Lollards, a group of would-be Protestants who, predating the printing of the Bible, conspired in its translation and criticized the church from the shadows. The time came alive for me. Now, it’s not that I didn’t curse Professor Taylor for forcing us to learn how to pronounce Middle English… it seemed that he only called on me to read a passage out in class on the rare days when I hadn’t prepared, and I reviled the whole practice. But he read our essays thoughtfully, he was always willing to make a very animated example of some point he was trying to illustrate. He gave us assignments that not just made us think, but made us get a better sense of how medieval scholars thought. My favorite was the glossation exercise—we had to find a magazine article and then write glosses (commentaries) into the margin. Mine was a virulently athiest gloss on some article from a Christian campus newspaper, which he very obviously rather enjoyed. The man’s energy, and his passion for the Middle Ages, were inspiring and most of all they inspired in me my own passion for a certain kind of study of the Middle Ages.

The most important thing to me is that, in my teaching, I try to do what these people demonstrated. I try to devote myself to the students who give a damn, and open as many doors as I can for them during a single hour a day, or whatever. I try to demonstrate as much excellence for them as I can, and I make a huge effort never to pretend I know the answer to a question that in reality stumps me. In the classroom, I’ve learned that one needs to be very tactical, and not waste energy; but one needs to do this because, where and when it counts, a teacher’s energy is precious, it can change the direction of a life, and it can have consequences that nobody imagines (just as I am sure none of the people I have mentioned would ever imagine themselves on this list of mine).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *