Teachers past are not teachers forgotten

“the secret of education is respecting the pupil.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Remember the rows of desks in pblog chairdeskublic school? Remember the chairs attached to them with a bar on one side, as if to reduce the number of possible projectiles a child could manage to lift should an uprising occur – chairdesks, one word, filling the centre of a room lined with chalk boards, bristol boards, and cubbies for your winter boots. I had long forgotten the look of an elementary school classroom. Until, that is, I had the pleasure of attending the 25 year anniversary of the opening of my public school, Morrish PS.

25 years ago, I was in junior kindergarten, and Highland Creek Public School was bursting at the seams. Just a few months after starting the terrifying ordeal of boarding a long, yellow school bus alone each morning, half the school population, led by police escort, hiked the 2 kilometers to our new home, Morrish.

My JK teacher, who would (by her own design) also be my Grade 8 teacher, was Jan Griffen, an artist at heart with a smile that couldn’t be wiped away by even the most annoying children or angry parents. It was in grade 7 that Mrs Griffen lobbied my father to convince me to accept the role of Oliver in the school’s annual music theatre production “Oliver Twist.” Terrified of public speaking, I declined. Seeing Mrs Griffen last week, I couldn’t help but confess that one of my greatest regrets to this day is having turned down the chance to belt out “oom pah pah” in front of an audience who would applause regardless of my pitch.

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How she realized years before I my love for the stage is beyond me. I would, of course, become an actor later in high school, even earning a paycheck parading around the city as part of a 6-member community theatre troupe, and who knows how life’s trajectory may have changed. I’ve always said, after my stint in acting, that “I sold my soul and went to science school,” too scared of the uncertainty (and inevitable poverty) that comes when acting becomes your vocation.

After wailing for what could have been, the two of us immediately broke out into an impromptu “Consider Yourself,” and my regret was never greater.

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Oh, what could have been… 

Next I saw my grade 7 teacher, Mr. Bebbington, who’s first name was John. My memory of Mr. Bebbington would best classify him as a hippie, and this was no less true 25 years later. Mr. Bebbington had us calculate our carbon footprint, annual water usage (read: wastage) and took us on expeditions to forests, fields and ponds where we got to touch nature rather than read about her. But the true value in Mr. Bebbington’s pedagogy came from his constant, unshakable offering of respect towards all the students in the class. He treated us like young adults, and perhaps in grade 7 we were, blog bebbingtonbut it was the first time I felt an adult was treating me not like a child, but as a peer.

I’d had many wonderful opportunities to teach in the last fifteen years; from first aid to swimming to paramedics to undergraduate anthropology students to med students, I’ve often attempted to emulate Mr. Bebbington’s near-peer approach to making students feel welcome, comfortable and embraced.

In Grade 1, I was segregated to a corner with one other student to read the Toronto Star each morning while the rest of the class learned to read. Anil, a brainiac with reading comprehension skills superseding most adults, would sit beside me as he read the front page. “Interesting situation at the United Nations” Anil would offblog whiteer, and I would say “yes, very interesting” as I pretended to understand the newsprint.

For months and months I perpetrated what I can now confess was a total scam: I had no idea how to read the newspaper, except for the passages where Anil acted as an interpreter for written-to-spoken word. I suppose Mrs. White, a traditional-looking school teacher if ever there was one, saw potential in me, albeit ahead of my time. Regardless, I can trace the birth of my competitiveness and drive back to Grade 1, in the corner, with the newspaper, trying desperately to live up to expectations. Of course, 25 years later, I’ve refined these traits to compete against only myself, and drive myself to turn my dreams into reality. Thanks, Mrs. White.

Ms. Davies, the charismatic grade 4 teacher who hasn’t aged a day in 25 years, now runs an art gallery up north. We’ve been Facebook friends for years, though haven’t connected in non-avatar form since I left Morrish PS for the scary halls of West Hill Collegiate. Standing beside my lifelong best friend Thomas, she regaled me with stories of our antics, reminded me how I broke one of her mugs (and adhered to her “break one, buy two” etiquette) and couldn’t stop beaming when she heard of the career moves both Thomas and I had made.

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Mr Epp never smiled, or so I recall the facial expressions of my Grade 8 science teacher. Whether growing plants in different lighting conditions or refracting light through a prism, science was fun, but not funny under Mr. Epp. With an appearance suggesting that Bill Nye owned a branch of his family tree, Mr Epp was the protoplasm of a science teacher. His green-painted classroom lined with science benches and Bunsen burners, we would funnel in from Mrs Griffen’s class to learn about photosynthesis, physics and other things I don’t remember but are likely evident all around me. Oh, magnets, we definitely did something with magnets.  And we found electricity in lemons.  That was pretty mind-blowing for a grade-eighter.

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What I don’t recall Mr. Epp teaching was anything related to the human body, so credit can’t be placed here for my career choices. What struck me at the reunion last week, however, gets Mr. Epp an honourable mention in this post: for a man whose smile I can’t recall, 25 years later it was lighting the room. As students would walk past, he would instantly recognize them, and you could tell that he knew exactly which chairdesk you sat in, and much, much more. The joy he was experiencing hearing of our life adventures was touching, and reminded me what a privilege it is to teach others.

To all my teachers, past and present, thank you for fuelling my fire. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “the secret of education is respecting the pupil.” For the teachers of Morrish PS, Emerson’s message was their mantra. 25 years later, the pupil still feels respected, and reciprocates that respect a thousand times over.

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While digging through old boxes in her classroom, Mrs White found a classic from 1992: “Patterned slide dines at heights to overcome vertical limits imposed by botanical growth” can be ordered in a limited edition print.

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