Unlike some of my students, I have loved the beginning of new school years
Special to CBC Radio
On the morning of Sept. 2, 1969, I began my secondary school English teaching career in a small southwestern Ontario town. More than four decades later, I taught my last English lesson. My days at the "chalk face" have left me with a wealth of memories and every year — especially in early September — they delight and sometimes haunt me. Students often dreaded this week, but I always looked forward to it.
In my very first class of Grade 11 boys on that 1969 Tuesday, I was 23 and determined to make the glories of the English language and literature indispensable to the lives of my charges. Thus, I outlined what I expected of homework assignments. A large and angry-looking lad at the back of the classroom rose slowly to his feet and exclaimed, "I ain't doing no (insert expletive here) homework. You can just (insert well known two-worded expletive suggestion here.)"
I stood there in my new bell bottoms and flashy blazer, fuschia shirt and wide yellow tie and thought, "My career is already over." I did the only sensible thing. I left the classroom and walked shakily to the vice-principal's office and conveyed the good news of my brilliant pedagogical debut. He said, "Oh, that's (name withheld). He's on probation, but I guess it's just not working. Sit down while I call the cops."
Fifteen minutes later, I meekly followed two giant OPP constables down the hallway to my classroom. One of them leaned in and crooked a finger at the lad who rose from his seat, grinned at his classmates and followed the officers out. I squared my shoulders, straightened my tie and re-entered the classroom at which point the boys broke into applause. As they quieted, one of my new students said, "Don't worry about that, sir. You just start again." So I did. And didn't stop for 44 years.
There are wondrous things to recall about the thousands of young people who suffered through the dubious benefits of my tutelage. One Grade 9 student achieved a kind of immortality when he said out loud, "I love this class! It goes by really quick! I hardly notice it." I once asked a senior student how she had enjoyed the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt, a 511-page, serious addition to the corpus of post-modern novels. "It didn't suck too badly," she said. A perfect chance, I thought, to illustrate the notion of "Damned with faint praise."
A young man in a senior class kept falling asleep during my lessons on the proper use of the semi-colon (a lesson half as long as the lesson on the use of the colon, although the colon as an object of humour lost some of its appeal when I turned 70.)
I accosted him with, "Look. I'm not that boring."
He said, "Sorry sir. It's not your fault. I'm working the night shift at the auto plant."
I said, "Why do you have to work the night shift?"
He said, "I have to pay for my car."
I said, "Why do you need a car?"
He said, "To get to work."
I taught Hamlet well over 100 times, to the point where I could intone the soliloquies without the aid of the text. I never tired of it, and I was especially attached to certain moments in the play. In Act III, scene iii Hamlet comes across Claudius praying. He wants to avenge Claudius's murder of his father. The prince argues with himself about killing him then and there, but decides to wait until Claudius is committing a sin rather than praying, ensuring — he thought — that the guilty soul would go directly to Hell and "... his heels ... kick at heaven." It seemed to take ages for the students to figure out what Hamlet had done in challenging the power of God since only God can condemn a human soul to Hell. This direct challenge to God's power of course leads to Hamlet's downfall.
Eventually, a student, usually a young woman understanding the full catastrophic consequences of Hamlet's decision would say "OOOHHH I get it!" (the sound English teachers love to hear more than any other — the sound of a young mind unlocking a mystery by combining a variety of insights — possibly the most important purpose for teaching great English literature).
It is always foolish to ask former students what they remember about school, but once I overcame my usual prudence and asked a particularly gifted student what she remembered about the years in my English classroom, hoping perhaps that it might involve Hamlet or Macbeth or Possession or a great poem. She answered with, "Goooood idea!" swimming in sarcasm. "Really?" I said. "Yes. Whenever you thought a government or historical or political thing was particularly dumb, you'd say, 'Goooood idea!' I love it. Still do."
Further, lest you get the impression that I am some kind of combination of Mr. Chips and Pollyanna, I also remember the very hard times — the times when no matter what I tried, I could not prevent a student from making a terrible life-altering decision, could not keep some from what we euphemistically term, "conflict with the justice system" or drugs or violence.
And there were students I lost to drunk driving, disease or neglect. I grieve them all.
Nevertheless, early September is the time of new beginnings. This year the homework will get done, they will pay attention in class, they will love all the jokes, they will obey their parents and they will all grow up to be lovely, accomplished, hard-working, law-abiding credits to their families and, of course, their English teacher.
Brian Kellow is an English teacher based in London, Ont.