Sunday, 25 July 2010

The People We Are Inspired to Emulate ...

I think we all liked the people who taught the subjects we loved.  They were the teachers who gave us our best marks.  We looked forward to their classes because they provided a respite from the drudgery of the subjects we disliked. Even their homework was fun to do.

I had been a very good student in junior high school, but when the move to Quebec was foisted on me, I found myself floundering in French and Latin, subjects I had loved.  I was 7 years behind in one and a full year behind in the other.  Math had also been a subject in which I had excelled, but suddenly math became algebra and geometry.  Algebra was do-able but geometry was impossible.  I was attempting to do Book 2 without ever having seen Book 1, and my impaired sense of spatial relationships made the challenge even greater. I began to hate school.  I went for tutoring in French and geometry, and managed a bare pass from grade 10 to grade 11, but by then I saw myself as a loser.

The one subject I never stopped loving was English.  I was still getting good marks in Dr. Smith's class, so I liked going to her classes, liked doing her homework, liked her.

Another child might not have reacted as I did, but I had loved school, and my sense of failure in an area where I had been successful was devastating.  I decided that, rather than be seen as stupid, I would begin behaving as if I didn't give a damn.  I would fail because I skipped classes, because I thumbed my nose at homework, because I was baaad ... not because I was trying hard and too stupid to learn.

In grade 11, I started skipping French classes because I felt like such a dunce.  The teacher, Ray Bolla, was strict and reported every absence.  So I began skipping school altogether. To make a long story short, I quit school in November and got a job.

Three years later, after Christmas, with two babies and separated from my husband,  I returned to the school I had hated. Now I was even further behind in everything.  Besides the gap in time,  I had lost a full term, so I was scrambling. 

I had a terrible French teacher, so I went to Mr. Bolla for tutoring.

I didn't attempt Latin this time round, opting for North American Literature and geography instead.

Geometry was just as hard, if not harder, than before.  I was in an enriched math class because there was no room in the regular stream classes.  Now I was doing Book 4 without Book 3.   My attitude however was very different at 19 than it had been at 16,  so I worked rather than giving up, and ended up passing with grades high enough for university acceptance, even in French and geometry.

Dr. Smith was no longer my English teacher.  Instead I had Michael Witham, a teacher I also loved.  He didn't have a PhD but his MA was from Cambridge and he too was an inspired teacher.

Shortly after I returned to school, Dr. Smith asked me to come to see her.  We had a surprising conversation, and she was nearly in tears during it..  She had thought about me often over the years, she said.  She wondered whether something she had done had caused me to drop out.  I had auditioned for the school play in grade 11, shortly before I quit school entirely, and she had given the part to another girl, not because she had read better, but because she could be counted on to show up for rehearsals.

I too had thought about that a few times, and wondered if it might have made a difference, but I didn't tell her that.  I am glad now that I didn't.  I am glad I told her that she probably did the only thing that made sense.  I said I didn't know whether I would have let her down, but it was certainly a good possibility.

Alana Smith was a good teacher, an inspired and inspiring teacher, but even more important, she was a woman who cared enough to worry about the effect of her decisions on her students.

Like all the really good teachers I have known she tried to give us her best. Sometimes, like all decent people, she undoubtedly made mistakes, but those mistakes were not made with any intent to harm.  She was doing her best to do what was right.

I went into teaching because of good teachers like her.  The ones who stand out were: in Halifax, Mrs. Shatford, my grade 6 teacher at Quinpool Road Public School, and Miss Hilchie, my English teacher at Cornwallis Junior High; In Pointe Claire, Quebec, Alana Smith, Lloyd Patch, Win Dixon, Michael Witham, and John Jared at John Rennie High School; and, at  Macdonald College, the education faculty of McGill, Paul Nash.

All of these people helped me in important ways, and all set wonderful examples for any teacher to try to follow.


Barbara Carlson said...

You made a brilliant come back. I would never have guessed at your shattered schooldays.

kingmisha said...

Wonderful memories of some dedicated teachers. Thank you.

Oma said...

I am sure there were others, but one I forgot was John Howse, my homeroom teacher when I went back to John Rennie. He went to bat for me when a small-minded foolish teacher (my incompetent French teacher) tried to have expelled for failing to show up at an after school detention. (It was a misunderstanding and remember, I had two babies at home waiting for me.)

I was disappointed years and years later when I was in my sixties and he was in his seventies to discover that John Howse was politically ultra conservative and stiflingly Protestant.

I realize now that people can house both bad and good traits simultaneously; that good people can make mistakes and have wrong opinions :-)