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Teachers

My kids went back to school today, despite Maya’s current professed desire to end her schooling at grade 6. It prompted this reminiscence: 

When I went to university, I admit I started off quite confidently. I had graduated high school at the very top of my class, walking away with a handful of awards for the highest mark in various classes. I decided to do a combined English/History degree. 

My first essay was in English, on Great Expectations. I got a B. It was a bit of a shock.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only kid used to acing everything who received a cold wake-up call when starting university, and in fact, there were those whose shock was significantly larger. One of those was my cousin, who was taking some of the same courses I was. Her English essay was utterly dismantled and the professor wrote that at good start for her would be to learn how to write an essay. This was her first inkling that her high school education had failed her on a basic level, and my first inkling that I owed a great debt to someone I thought I hated.

I remember sitting in the hallway in our residence after that essay, teaching my cousin the mechanics of writing an essay. Thesis statement, topic sentences – she hadn’t a clue. I had a clue because of Mrs. MacDonald, who I had for grades nine and eleven English. Mrs. MacDonald didn’t just say, “Here’s a topic, go write an essay.” Oh no, she made us do outlines and come up with a thesis statement and put topic sentences on cue cards and do rough drafts, and hand each stage in to her to be marked. I hated that. I thought she was so very anal retentive and annoying and fussy. Now I think the woman was a saint, dragging all those ungrateful students through the mechanics of writing a proper essay. By the time I realized the debt I owed her, she was gone from the school and I never got to thank her. It’s too bad, because I don’t think she got thanked too often.

I also wish I could go back and thank Mr. Shepard, my fourth grade teacher. He made made stay after school shortly after the year had begun and said he noticed I sucked my thumb when I was concentrating and was being teased, and offered to help me stop. We made a deal. Every time he caught me sucking my thumb, he’d tell me to do ten push-ups or sit-ups, his standard punishment for small transgressions like talking to a neighbour when you should be working. He never embarrassed me by saying why I had to do this and the equation of thumb = physical exercise quickly broke me of the habit.

There was Mr. Penton, who taught me that history wasn’t about boring dead people after all, triggering a life-long obsession with the subject. He was followed by a woman who was not only a favourite teacher, but one of my favourite people, Professor Catherine Brown. When I entered her first year history class, I thought they stuck the decrepit old lady with the first years, so the first lesson she taught me was not to judge someone by her looks, as she was sharp as a tack. I switched to a full History major thanks to her and she guided my university career after that. I loved her.

University was where I met most of the teachers who had a profound effect on me. There was Gary Watson, who treated me like an adult and and equal, and Bronwen Wallace, a brilliant writer, who taught me to appreciate poetry and Lionel Lumb, who made me feel like I was good enough to do anything I wanted to. 

It was good to have all those people build me up before I went and had children to tear me back down again. Oh, kidding. Sometimes they are nice to me. Not as often as the dog is, but still.

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