Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Remembering the Greats

We all know how much of an impact good or bad parenting can have on who we ultimately become as adults. However, if you think about it (in modern western society at least) we spend a considerable amount of our formative years with our teachers rather than our parents. Depending on your circumstances, looking back you might realize that sometimes there were even teachers who you saw more of than your parents.

In my case my mother also happens to be a teacher. She taught me many things of course, not the least of which was that if you don’t do it right the first time, you can count on doing it again…and again :). A lesson that applies to just about everything in life (Mom, if you’re reading this and correcting my grammar in your head, stop it ♥).

Just about everyone has been significantly influenced by a teacher at some point in their life. Some for the better, some for the worse. For most of us, it was a mixture of both. I've been lucky enough to have some excellent teachers cross my path over the years, whom I’d like to tell you about. But first I’ll start with a couple of ‘the worse’ examples, which some of you might relate to.

There is many a teacher out there who can’t differentiate between ‘independent thought’ and ‘being difficult’. Once in elementary school my teacher demonstrated how we were to tape our art projects to the wall. One might think that art class would be a place where individuality was encouraged. Nope. When I decided I preferred another method of applying the tape, I was made to cut the corners off—thus removing my tape—and do it again so that my project would be the same as everyone else’s. Which of course it wasn't because it was now missing the corners.
On another occasion I got into trouble—actually yelled at—when I pointed out that the model of the solar system we were learning from had the incorrect number of moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. For the record, I was not generally a know-it-all kid, but I was a bit of an astronomy buff (for an eleven year old) and we were using a model that predated the moon landing. Of course, another twenty years has passed, and the figures I had then have since been updated many times over. However, the point is that no one should be penalized for sharing knowledge or questioning the information they’re being given.

What these experiences, among others, basically taught me (not that I gave it much conscious thought at the time) was that there was only one ‘right way’ to do things, and it probably wasn't the way I’d come up with on my own. This leads to anxiety in new situations, and kills creativity in all situations.
Now on to ‘the better’:

Contrary to what I experienced above, once in a while there was a teacher who not only didn't punish my tendency to do things my own way, but actually encouraged it. During another art project, another year, my grade-five teacher, G. Grant, demonstrated a drawing. Without getting into specifics, the rest of the class followed his example while I inverted it. Later, he pointed out my project on the wall to rest of the class. I cringed in anticipation of the ‘constructive criticism’ I was about to receive, but instead G praised me for not assuming that he wanted us to complete the drawing his way. To this day, I think back to that experience when I need to muster a little courage to think outside the box, and remind myself that the outcome can be positive.

Art reminiscence aside, I was more drawn to math and physics than the arts, believing these to be my strengths. My preference for these subjects, though it began in elementary school, was in no small part nurtured by J. and M. Breen. Brothers, and my grade-ten math, and grade-eleven/twelve physics teachers respectively. These were the guys who brought genuine enjoyment of their subject into their teaching.

M used to take things apart at home to figure out how they worked (probably still does), then bring them into class and tell us about it. I understand the importance of coefficients of thermal expansion today (though I don’t recall him using the term specifically) because M was excited to explain how a toaster worked. He also electrocuted us all with a Van de Graaff generator to teach the concept of grounding electrical current. Maybe that would be frowned upon these days? Whatever, it was fun and memorable.

Saving the best for last. Even after years of post-secondary education, the following two high school teachers stick out as the best teachers I've ever had.

With the exception of music, my interest in the ‘artsy’ subjects all but disappeared throughout junior high and early high school. Even music was close to the chopping block by grade ten. Between transfers, retirements, maternity leave, etc, the band program couldn't seem to hold onto a band director for more than a year, and sometimes not even that long. The inconstancy sucked the fun out of it more and more as time went on.

Then J. Hope came along. Glee fans out there will understand what I mean when I say, she was my high school’s Mr. Schue. She never lost her temper or threatened us with punishment. She showed us genuine respect that made us want to reciprocate. J also struck that magic balance of pushing just enough, but not too much. She taught me to do things that I didn't think I could learn. What more could you ask of a teacher? Before she came along, the idea of performing a solo during a concert terrified me. She not only got me to perform them, but to improvise them. Naturally, my anxiety never completely disappeared, but I learned some valuable lessons in overcoming it. I don’t think I have to explain how valuable that is.

Wondering yet how this post relates to writing? We’re getting there.

I have always enjoyed reading. As a kid I could lose myself in a story equally whether it was a novel or a TV show—still can. I remember reading Summer of the Monkeys in grade six. I carried it everywhere with me and took every opportunity I could to steal ten minutes, or half an hour, from whatever else I was doing because I was dying to find out what came next. Meanwhile I'd be dreaming up possible outcomes in my head—some of which included me having been magically transported into Jay Berry’s world.

However, the idea of writing my own stories down never even occurred to me. I was good at math, not English. Ellen-Ann Flynn was the first teacher (to date, the only English teacher) who got me to enjoy English as a subject. I loved her class. She was also the first person who made me feel like I was actually competent as a writer (and she constantly endeavoured to improve my atrocious handwriting. To no avail, but thankfully I learned to type).

Though it’s only recently that I began to pursue creative writing, writing skills are important to any higher education and almost any career. Ellen‑Ann Flynn’s class left me with a level of confidence in my abilities—mainly my ability to improve at something tht didn't come naturally—that was not only valuable, but I believe critical in my adjustment to university-level work.

She also treated us like equals. She had a knack for making her teenage students feel like capable adults, while many others  still seemed to regard us, at this age of transition, as unruly children. There were no taboo subjects; she was not afraid to talk about sex, smoking, or depression. And, despite her own struggles with some of these things, she always brought a positive attitude to the classroom.
More than once when I would encounter difficulty in university, or later in my work, I’d find my thoughts drifting to memories of her class that would remind me: “Oh yeah, I’m an intelligent adult. I can figure this out.”

Unfortunately, this amazing teacher died while I was in my first year of university. I recall thinking then how lucky I was to have had her influence in my life. By the time I was home for Christmas that year she was too sick for any visitors besides family—too be honest, at that age the idea of figuring out what to say to a dying friend would have been paralysing to me anyway—and being away at military college prevented me from attending her funeral.

I was young and I was busy. My sadness at the time was fleeting and life went on. However, every now and then, particularly when I sit down to write, she crosses my mind and I feel sad all over again. Now that writing has become an important part of my life, I would love to share my work with her, hear her feedback, and thank her being the wonderful person that she was. Though there are many other excellent teachers out there, it is a loss to the students who came after me that she was no longer able to be among them.

I’m not sure if I would have ever thought to explore my writing ability further if not for the contribution of this great teacher. I hope I've encouraged you to reflect on some of your own experiences with teachers, good and bad, and consider the impact they've had on who you are today.


  1. Such a great post! I especially loved reading about how much your English teacher had an impact on you! I remember the tape story too - yuck. Way to suck all the creativity out of children, but sadly this is the norm, not the exception.

  2. Although I have heard these stories before, I enjoyed how you paired the good with the bad. Ain't life just like that? It also occurs to me that Ellen Ann struggled with her own demons as long as I knew her, but had huge compassion and generosity of spirit for everyone she knew. She was incredibly beautiful on the outside too. What good fortune that you had time with her and have come to realize how fleeting these opportunities can be. Mom (love ya', etc.)