Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teachers Who Inspire

I'm sure we all have them: teachers who loom large in our memory, long after the classes are over, and we have made our ways in the world, and you'd think that the days of chalk boards and dreary afternoons and tests were a thing of the past. Yet every now and then I find myself thinking of teachers who made a difference, and four names come crowding to the forefront of my memory.

First off is Mrs. Martin, my grade one teacher at Harry Eburne Elementary (long since closed) in Richmond, B.C. Every student should have a grade one teacher as wise, warm, and kind as Mrs. Martin, who followed my progress through the school even after I left her class, and who must have seen something in me that wasn't apparent when I was six, because she presented me, before I left the school three years later, with a hardback copy of Madeline l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It was, in retrospect, not necessarily a book you'd give to a nine-year-old, but it was a good choice, because I loved the book, and it opened up a whole new world of reading that wasn't even hinted at in the Nancy Drew titles I was then reading.

Next there is Mr. Hehn - first name Robert, I think, but I can't be sure - who was my grade five teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Victoria. He had a passion for English, and for language, and I will be forever in his debt because it was he who introduced me to Norton Juster's wondrous The Phantom Tollbooth, reading it to our class over a succession of afternoons, clearly delighting in the wordplay and the humour. He encouraged me to write a radio play for presentation to the class, the screenplay based on my then favourite TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The text of this play is now (perhaps mercifully) lost forever, but it was the first time a teacher had encouraged me to write something just because I wanted to, not because it was part of the class and would be marked. It was also Mr. Hehn who was responsible for our class doing a radio version of Conan Doyle's 'The Red-Headed League', and who promoted me to the part of Holmes when the girl originally cast in the part developed cold feet. Even though it was to be another two years before this particular seed took root, I trace my awareness of the Holmes stories back to my grade five year. When I moved to Ottawa the next year he wrote to me, several times, and while the letters are now lost, I well recall the delight of receiving them. Thank you.

Then there is Norm Claridge, my grade 9 and 10 Biology teacher at Hugh Boyd Junior Secondary School in Richmond. A less likely sciences student than me would be hard to find; but such was Mr. Claridge's passion for the subject, and his sense of humour, that he made even me fall in love with the subject matter, and understand it (the fact that he was wont to wander around the class with an iguana on his shoulder appealed to me; even then I appreciated the absurd). I spent many a happy lunch hour in his classroom, looking after the gerbils and snakes (not at the same time, of course), and to this day the smell of formaldehyde brings back happy memories. In addition to teaching the finer points of biology, he also instilled in his students the need for precision and detail, all of it conveyed with humour and passion. When I learned of his too-early death a few years ago I felt sorry for the students who would never have a chance to encounter his teaching, and was grateful that I'd known him.

Last - but certainly not least - is Mr. Harvey; Poona to those students brave enough to address him thus (he served in the British Army in Poona, India during World War II). He taught Literature at Steveston Senior Secondary School in Richmond during my grade 11 and 12 years, and I was more than happy to take the course, an elective: the students in it either had a burning passion for English Literature or were there because all the other courses for that block were full, and this was the only option. Poona introduced me to many of the delights of English literature, from the established classics (Shakespeare, the Cavalier poets, the Romantics) to less obvious highlights, such as the ghost fiction of A. J. Alan (he read us 'The Dream' and '17.45' during class; he was probably just about old enough to remember hearing them broadcast on the BBC in the late 1920s). He also encouraged me to go outside the box in my essays, cheerfully agreeing to let me write about, say, English detective/mystery fiction.

In 1981 I was able to go to England as part of a school trip, and Mr. Harvey was one of the guides. It was my first visit to England, and I was thrilled to be there; even more thrilled when, a few nights into the visit, Mr. Harvey took me and my friend Liz to see J. B. Priestley's play Dangerous Corners. In the interval he took us to the bar for drinks - I ordered a brandy, because I couldn't think what else to order (I was only 17, after all, and my knowledge of drinking came from movies and TV) - and then when the play was over he hailed a taxi outside the theatre and took us to Fortnum's Fountain for a late dinner: Welsh rarebit, tea, and chestnut meringues. It doesn't sound like much, but the surroundings, the elegance of the service, and the fact that it was so late in the evening all combined to make it a wonderful end to a truly magical night.

These days, I suppose, a male teacher taking two teenage female students to the theatre and then dinner - unchaperoned - would be little short of a scandal; at the very least, the teacher would be censured for lack of judgement. The record must state that Mr. Harvey was a perfect gentleman; if there was a hidden agenda to the evening then it remains so well and truly hidden that, almost thirty years later, I can't discern it. And I can't help feeling sorry for students who would be deprived of such a treat because - well, because it doesn't look right, or could be open to misinterpretation. That evening stands out as one of the best and most memorable in my life, and I thank Mr. Harvey for it.

Looking back over what I've written, I see that while all four of these individuals were fine teachers, so much of what I remember them for and what inspired me has little to do with the actual nuts and bolts of daily classroom life, and a good deal to do with them going above and beyond to identify my strengths, encourage me in my interests, and in so doing help me to become the person I am today. I was fortunate to have four such teachers, evenly spread throughout my school life; I can only hope that every student has at least one Mrs. Martin, Mr. Hehn, Mr. Claridge, or Poona, to inspire and guide them.


TheMadBlonde said...

Unfortunately, I am so terrible with names, but there are a few teachers who stand out quite clearly even in MY terrible memory.

I was not a lover of math. I never had any great aptitude for it, though I did not fear it. But I remember the instructor who introduced me to algebra & word problems, & the rather grim amusement she felt as I got it all & soared. Except for T/R/D problems, which I NEVER got & which frustrated her to no end.

There was the English teacher who, in a big city public school was SO thrilled to discover she had a student who loved to read, who would read almost anything & NOT just for asignments, then come in & argue about them (she loved Faulkner & the more depressing Steinbeck. I was strictly a _Sweet Thursday_ & _Travels w/ Charlie_ kinda girl). Ms. Barr comes to mind, but I might be wrong.

& then there was Donal Leace, my theatre history instructor. The first teacher ever to call me by my last name w/ a "Miss" preceding it; to have expectations of me that even I was not sure I could meet, but was inspired to try. The first, in essence, not to treat me like a child. We joked about him A LOT, but I honestly wish I could go back, apologise, & learn from him all over again.

Barbara Roden said...

Mr. McCluskey, my grade 11 English teacher, appreciated the fact that I obviously enjoyed the reading we had to do; sometimes it seemed like he was teaching directly to me. He it was who first made me realise that sometimes the most seemingly innocuous observations or comments in a story can have a wealth of meaning under the surface: we were reading Richard Connell's 'The Most Dangerous Game', and Mr. McCluskey pointed out that in the text, when Zaroff thinks he's despatched Rainsford, he hums an aria from MADAMA BUTTERFLY. All very well; but Mr. McCluskey elaborated, saying that the most famous aria from MADAMA BUTTERFLY is 'Un bel di', in which Butterfly sings of the man who will one day come back . . . and chunk, a little bit of subtext was illuminated.

And there was Mr. Beardsley, my grade 11 math teacher. Like you, Karen, I was never a great lover of math; I preferred English, where the answer could be anything (within reason) to math, where the answer had to be x or nothing. At the time I was in high school math was mandatory through grade 11; after that it was optional (unless you needed it for what you were taking in post-secondary). I determined I'd take math through grade 11, and then no more; so it was a shock when, halfway through the semester, Mr. Beardsley (who knew I didn't like the subject) took me aside and said, kindly but firmly, that I was currently failing the course, and had two options: pull myself together and my grades up and have half a semester of dull, boring math, or continue on as I was and have another full semester of it next year. I pulled myself together, scraped a B, and never looked back.

Stephanie said...

I was doing a little googling and came across you blog. I just wanted to say thank you so much for the kind words about my dad, Norm Claridge. It was really nice to read about your experience in his hugh boyd science class. Thanks again!
Stephanie Claridge

Anonymous said...

I also had Mrs Martin and I will always cherish those memories : )