We all have people and events which influence our lives. Sometimes they are small, subtle, unnoticed and we are only able to identify and understand them much later on, if we are lucky. Other times they are grand and dramatic and easy to recognize. Some change us for the better, others for the worse, and if we are able to calmly reflect back through our lives with clear enough lenses we can spot and comprehend them. For me two such moments happened in your classroom. Both were quiet and understated when they occurred but both fundamentally altered the course of my life and my capacity to be the person I am today.
It’s important to note I was set up well in advance not only to have everything I could need to face the various challenges of my life but also to find a genuine home in your classroom by the bottomless and ceaseless love and support of my incredible parents. From my earliest memories they have embraced me for who I was, whoever I was, without hesitation and encouraged me to think, question, explore, and imagine to the stars and beyond. They still do. All thoughts and ideas are welcome and being happy, healthy, and whole have been the only conditions. Which is why I felt so at home in your class. Never in my entire academic career did my home and school worlds feel so completely and wonderfully the same.
I had the immense privilege of being in your class for both my grade six and grade seven years. It was the very end of the 80’s in small town Ontario, population around thirteen thousand. You were kind, soft-spoken, patient, and ran an organized, thoughtful, and intellectually open class. It was an honor and delight to have you for two years in a row but the moments of tremendous impact both happened during the first of them and both in the second half of the year.
The first life altering impact, you got me reading. I don’t mean you taught me to read or forced me to read ‘real’ books by assigning them for class. I mean you got me to start reading. It was your ‘third term novel study program’. You turned us all loose to read whatever we wanted, no limits or restrictions. We could read anything. You put a large piece of chart paper up on one wall and for each 100 pages we read we got to color in one square. For each completed book we then had to answer a single essay question about it, usually on general themes or underlying messages, before we could start another one.
You had a rather stunning collection of recipe cards with essay questions on them, one for pretty much every book in the school’s rather decent little library. If we came to you with a book you hadn’t encountered yet we left it with you for a couple days so you could glance it over. You then returned it to us with along with a new recipe to add to your collection.
Some of us pecked at it, some of us dove on in. Some of us read pretty conventional and predictable things, some of us took full advantage of the wide open freedom. I remember one of my friends revisited his entire collection of choose-your-own-adventure books. You didn’t bat an eye, he got the same question per book as everyone else. I also remember another friend being rather profoundly disappointed you never reacted in the slightest to her selections from her mother’s collection of six hundred plus page hard core romantic novels.
Up to that point I hadn’t really read much of anything, having been rather underwhelmed and ultimately a bit resentful of the books we would get assigned to read. You told us to read whatever we wanted so my first trip to the school library I wondered and wandered looking at covers and descriptions until something appealed. And then I found it. A soft cover novel in the fantasy section with the picture of a shrouded rider atop a horse charging through sand and brandishing a glowing curved sword entitled The Blue Sword.
It was a tale about a young woman in an invented world who wanders away from a colonial estate and gets taken in a by a desert tribe, learns to sword fight and to ride without reigns or stirrups, tries to broker peace between the desert clans and the colonials encroaching on their lands, and winds up discovering an inner capacity for sorcery just in time to save everyone from an invading horde of inhuman lizard people. It was sweeping, operatic, engaging, and had the tiniest font size I have ever seen in a published novel.
The question one your recipe card asked whether I thought the main character belonged to the colonials, the desert clans, both, or neither. It got me to take the story I had found so engaging and really look at it, examine it. You let us read whatever we wanted, the only condition was that we thinking critically about it. You had that in common with the amazing music teacher I later had in high school.
I loved the book, I loved thinking about it in greater depth than simply being entertained by it, I was hooked and the next thing I knew I had become a voracious reader. It eventually got the point I wound up reading 24 books during one summer road trip across the country, I was chewing through books so quickly I was scooping them from grocery store check-out racks. And it wasn’t long after that I began to write.
I had been scribbling little stories for as long as I could remember, there was story about a unicorn that lived on a mountain which got published in my school newspaper when I was in grade two. But a couple years after your reading program got me reading I started working on my first novel. It was definitely a freshman effort and has since been completely rewritten but working on it, thinking about it, and eventually reaching that elusive back cover was unlike any feeling I had ever known.
At the moment I currently have five completed manuscripts in various stages of development, self-printed my first novella, written plays which have toured provincially and internationally, worked briefly as a freelance writer, and will be diving into the wonderful world of pitching literary agents later this year.
I was born with the storyteller gene, no question, but who knows how long it might have taken me to build my relationship with language or what shape it might have taken if those seeds hadn’t been so deeply planted and welcomingly nurtured so early in my life. You not only sparked my passion for reading and everything beyond you also taught me all stories have meaning and value as long as we take the time to examine them with perspective. That has become a prominent corner stone of the person I am today.
The other impact came not too long after my eleventh birthday that spring. As most elementary school teachers do you taught all subjects and had a flare for showing how things interrelated if you looked them from the right perspective. Math led to the sciences but also to economics which then influenced just about every aspect of society, personal psychology linked into social psychology and then to government and beyond. And it was during one of these overlaps, how biology affected behaviors and attitudes, that you casually mentioned without any trace of bias or opinion there were different types of sexuality.
You calmly explained terms like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. You talked the fact there were girls who liked boys, girls who liked other girls, boys who liked girls, boys who liked other boys, and some people who liked both. You spoke about the fact people had different attitudes about it all, some people were very accepting while others vehemently disapproved. You explained that some people thought it might be a matter of choice but more and more evidence was starting to show it was likely something people were born with.
You spoke without the tiniest hint of opinion or agenda. You neither praised nor condemned, you simply laid out the facts and realities for us. When speaking of those who disapproved you neither agreed nor judged you simply stated the truth and offered potential context for their perspective. The implied message was one of acceptance but there was no finger wagging in any direction and you were calm, honest, and comfortable talking about it all.
And it landed on me like a thunderbolt.
Hearing the words, the explanations, clicked together a whole host of thoughts and feelings and questions which had been bouncing around inside my newly eleven year old head unnamed and only partially formed.
So that’s what that was.
I had always been an introspective kid. I had known there was something about myself which felt different in some way. And now I had language for it. It was an actual thing. There were people who were like me. It wasn’t right or wrong it simply was, and it was real. And my impulse to keep the thoughts and feelings and questions to myself was also a real thing, there was a reason for the instinctive hunch.
It might just be the way I was but many people’s attitudes about it weren’t very positive. There were the predictable grumblings and snickers from the boys in the class which you promptly put a stop to pointing out that whether or not you agreed with something it was always important to remember how you behaved could have a powerful impact on other people, which meant we needed to act with responsibility and consideration. It was a lovely and important message but it came on the heels of a demonstration of just how prevalent the ‘disapproving’ attitudes were.
Almost instantly my sense and certainty of myself crystalized. I knew who I was and I knew I needed to take a good critical look at the world and people around me in order to figure out how I wanted to approach things. Like any typical eleven year old I spent some serious introspective time asking myself some hard questions and eventually making unwavering vows to myself.
It was clear this new truth I had realized about myself would not be well received by those around me so it was going to be in my best interests to keep it to myself, most likely until I graduated high school and was going away though I vowed to tell my parents before I did so. I was never going to pretend to be something or somebody I was not, however, so there would be no cover stories or false relationships. I was going to be myself, just with that part of me kept private. I would be honest if asked directly but it would be ideal if that were avoided if possible.
See? Typical eleven year old stuff.
I was able to navigate the rest of elementary school and high school without any shame or self-hatred over that closet door or what was behind it because I had recognized and accepted myself. It wasn’t right or wrong it was just who I was and I was able to see it that way because of the combination of your honest and accepting description and my parent’s perpetual message I would be loved and supported no matter what.
And I followed through on all of my vows. I never pretended to be anyone other than who I was, I kept my closet door closed to everyone until my first year of university. I told my parents before I left for school, as vowed, and my reason for waiting had nothing to do with any worries about how they might react. I just knew I couldn’t live one version of my life at home and a different one outside it. If the closet door was going to stay closed then it needed to stay closed. They were fine, as I knew they would be, and though I know my delay stung a little they fully understood my reasons for it.
This approach might have somewhat doomed my relationship with the romantic and sexual world, I’ve posted other articles on that self-engineered tragedy, by my relationship with myself and my choices is healthy, positive, and fully intact. I am who I am today because you handed me two incredibly crucial pieces of the puzzle that spring in your classroom.
As with so many teachers the ripples and results of the impacts you have on your students can never be fully measured. Sometimes even the smallest gesture or statement can have completely life altering effects. As the son of a teacher I know you do it out of the deeply rooted desire to educate and empower the young minds you are gifted with and not for praise and accolades for it.
But you deserve them. I can point directly to the formative moments which have shaped the person I am today, the person I have worked hard to be and am extremely proud of. And two of the core and crucial ones happened in your classroom.
I have always been grateful for the way you handled the concept of sexuality that day but the more I have looked back at it the more I realize how insanely luck I was to have it presented to me in such an open, supportive, and understanding way. At that place in that time…that’s not just lucky, that is like winning the lottery five times while being struck by lighting.
You did that for me and I have absolutely no doubt in saying I am certain you have done so for many, many, many others. You were clearly born with the the amazing teacher gene, no question.
It may not be why you did it, but THANK YOU!!