In the Footsteps of Our Teachers

October 5  is the United Nations, World Teachers’ Day. A day to bring awareness and appreciation to the role teachers play in education and world development. As an educator, it is a day for me to reflect upon the important influence my own teachers have had on my life.

Growing up, as a young child, I had many false assumptions about my teachers. I was one who thought they lived at school in some elaborate underground bunker. That they did not have families, go shopping, go on vacations or live real lives. To this day, I cannot picture Mr. Matte, my Grade 6 teacher, as ever having been anywhere else but our classroom. I half expect him to still be there today.

I also believed that all teachers had been well-behaved, model students when they attended school. The fact that I am now a teacher, dispels such assumptions. No, teachers do not live at school, nor were all of them the best of students.

Truth be told, I was not, myself, the most engaged, dutiful learner in the classroom.

A navy blue cardigan, white collared shirt and a gray skirt represented my five years at Immaculata High School in Ottawa. Being a bit of a fashionista, I often mixed in different, colourful accessories, to be quickly told to remove them. I would forget to wear my uniform on certain days, especially on days when I felt compelled to showcase a new item in my wardrobe. There was a particular set of “I Hate School’ shoelaces I favoured. When they remained unnoticed by teachers in my blue suede flats, one solitary lace held my hair back, but was duly noted by a teacher. It was removed. The battle of the uniform was a battle of wits, and an ongoing one.

The school auditorium and the piano were a regular draw for my friends and me. I loved to listen to the musical talents of my friends: Kathleen, Maureen, Ted and Dave, who played renditions of the Beatles, Chris De Burgh and other rock classics. We sat around the large, black grand piano in darkness for fear of getting caught. The area was off-limits. A slew of school staff frequently chased us away. However, the acoustics of the auditorium made it so worthwhile that, despite repeated reprimands, we continued to return.

My hidden secret life as a high school student can now be told–suntanning on the school roof during lunch, a trip to McDonalds in the back of a pickup truck through downtown Ottawa, a prank call to the city morgue about a dead nun in the chapel. My friend, Maureen, would knock on my classroom door to falsely indicate I was wanted at the office and we would head off for an adventure for the rest of the afternoon.

Our adventures were tame by today’s standards. Nonetheless, we  made countless trips to the office to explain ourselves.  Maureen’s careful defense and rebuttal of our objectives lead her to be called the “Philadelphia Lawyer” by our principal. Funny, yet prescient. She is today a prominent lawyer in Toronto.

I was more interested in the social aspects of school, rather than the academic ones. I would arrive early in the morning, and was always one of the first to school. I would wander the halls and watch the school slowly come to life, as friends and staff arrived. While I would not have admitted it then, I loved school.

If school had simply been a “meet and greet”, I would have been set, an A-student. But, there were classes in between.

I was THAT student.

You know that student. The  one who completed the Physics, Chemistry and Math homework sitting outside the classroom, 15 minutes before the bell. I was a potent mix of teenager hormones and angst, mixed with the lyrics of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

That is, except for when I was in Mr. Roger Dowdall’s English class. For Mr. Dowdall, I travelled the whole nine yards. I was a different student in his classroom.

To this day, Mr. Dowdall and his class are vivid in my mind. He was a tall, lean, bespeckled man who wore bow ties. We sat in wooden desks, with the flip top and we could overlook Bronson Avenue from his classroom window. Mr. Dowdall was passionate about what he taught. He excited me about the texts and themes of the literature he introduced. He made me see things I had never seen before in the books we read, and in my heart.

I discovered my love of English literature sitting in Mr. Dowdall’s classroom. While the works of Chaucer and Dickens would have been met with a puzzled eye roll at the beginning, Mr. Dowdall used to bring the characters to life by reading the passages aloud. His enthusiasm for these works slowly began to intrigue me.  I quickly developed an aptitude for deciphering Old English and Shakespearean sonnets, and began to display an ability to use direct quotations to back up any argument. Books like the Heart of Darkness  (Joseph Conrad) and Lord of the Flies (William Golding) spoke of the dark edges of humanity and allowed for analysis of character based on psychological theories. I realized my love of looking through the lens of literature into the deeper aspects of human existence.

Despite my somewhat apathetic attitude and early resistance, Mr. Dowdall recognized that tiny spark in me. And, he steadfastly refused to let me go.

One day in class, Mr. Dowdall did something unexpected. He read my work as the exemplary model. At first, it felt so unfamiliar. When asked to share, I asked him to read it aloud for me. But, as time went on, when he asked, I began to read my own responses. I became proud of my work.

His recognition of my work, lead me to strive for greater success. I memorized text, studied theories, went beyond the classroom instruction to learn more. He never knew, but I spent time in libraries researching themes and background to the texts we read. I read about Freudian and Jungian Psychology, Yin and Yang. I wanted to know and understand more. He made me eager to learn.

Mr. Dowdall found his hook with me and had reeled me in. He glimpsed my ability – that hidden, obscure wick of interest and he kindled and lit my flame. A flame that still burns brightly today.

In Grade 12, Mr. Dowdall helped to organize and chaperone our trip to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. There, the literature we had studied was brought to life: The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Streetcar Named Desire.  I can still hear Stanley Kowalski’s agonized pleas, “Stella, Stella, Stella…” on the Avon stage.  During the trip, I got to know my teachers, including Mr. Dowdall, better. I enjoyed meals with them, went to museums and strolled the streets of Stratford together. I am not sure that he slept at all during that trip, but I sure did.  I discovered that the teachers were people just like me. This trip is one of my best memories of high school.

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When I think of reasons why I became a teacher, Mr. Dowdall is on top of my list. Because of him, I went on to Carleton University and continued to pursue my interest in English Literature. While there, so much of what he taught me continued to influence my work – the themes and the messages of the works I studied. I could find him in the Romanticists, the Shakespearean works and in the Existentialists. As I did, I realized that Mr. Dowdall had left an indelible imprint on who I am.

On this World Teachers’ Day, as educators, let’s honour the teachers who impacted our lives. Who saw the glimmer of hope within us, and helped us to find our own strengths and ambitions. Who set us on the path to becoming teachers.

Teachers inspire, lead, guide and open minds to vast and unknown places. Teachers shape us, define us and know not how far their influence travels. And, the most amazing thing – they find ways to guide those lost sheep–like me–back into those green pastures.

As teachers, in the years to come, we too will be most remembered by those students who, like me, were the square pegs in the round holes. We will be remembered by the students to whom we gave the extra help, lent the listening ear, and went that extra mile. It is up to us to determine what their memory of us will be. Sometimes those square pegs are the ones who grab our attention, make us yearn to move them forward and are our best teachers. Teaching can sometimes be magical when all those pieces fall together. When we are able to ease a student towards the light and towards their own potential.

I also challenge you, today, to, like me, seek out your most influential teachers and thank them. Chances are, you are an educator today because of the impact of one, or many of your own teachers. We all walk in the footsteps of our predecessors. Honour one today. Take the time to reach out and tell them.

Thank you, Mr. Dowdall, for seeing that tiny spark in me and for not giving up on it. For having high expectations, being so impassioned about what you taught and for instilling in me, and others, a love of literature.

Mr. Dowdall, I am a teacher today because of you. I continue to walk in your footsteps, and in doing so, attempt to inspire, and ignite that spark in each of my own students. In me, your legacy lives on.

For this, I thank you from the depth of my soul.

 

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