Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Teachers

Modern cynics and skeptics... see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.  
John F. Kennedy

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.  
Jacques Barzun

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.  The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. 
Carl Jung

Teacher & Student: A teacher-student monument in Rostock, Germany, honours teachers and the profession of teaching."Teaching is the highest form of understanding," Aristotle once said.
Photo Credit
: Schiwago, 2009
: Wikipedia

Every person has a story about school, notably about high school. For some, it was a period of great personal discovery, about themselves and the world around them. For others, it was a time of misery, of learning facts and of time wasted. There are also the kids who were picked on without mercy, for some reason or another, mostly for being different.

For people who liked high school and found it rewarding, there goes with it memories of a favourite teacher, one who inspired them to strive for excellence. In many speeches or memoirs of the high and mighty, the gifted and the talented, the leaders of society, there is a nod to a high school teacher or two. And, as it should be.

In my case, and I am neither high nor mighty, but a man who has found high school a haven of leaning and discovery, two teachers influenced me: one in the arts, the other in the sciences. My Grade 11 high school physics teacher, Mr. Dalli, was a bundle of energy and knowledge. We were fortunate to have him, a doctoral candidate in physics and teaching us basic science, such as Newton's Three Laws of Motion.

Of course, he was tough on us, often admonishing us forward in his poor English: "If you don't work, you won't pass." Of course he was right, and work we did. We learned and mastered basic concepts, and more difficult ones, which gave us the impetus, the desire if you will, to explore independently.  Mr. Dalli's influence, unknown to him, made my decision on what to study after graduation from high school all the more easier. I would enter the sciences, and that's what I did, first entering a two-year junior college program (called CEGEP here in Quebec) in pure and applied sciences, and then mechanical engineering at McGill University.

If I loved science and the certainty of knowledge, as the universe opened up to me, I also adored the arts, in particular literature and novels, for the narratives that held a truth of their own. That explains why I acknowledge Mrs. McIntosh, my Grade 11 English teacher, as an influence and encouragement in my development as a reader of literature—essential for any good writer.  It was through Mrs. McIntosh, a funny and intelligent teacher, that I wrestled with the texts, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and where I gained some understanding of the themes of literature, forming some ideas of my own, inchoate as they may have been.  Of course, there were many other books, plays, poems and literary pieces that influenced my thinking. (Some are shown on this site's reading list.)

I entered the science stream after high school, continuing on to pure and applied sciences and then mechanical engineering at McGill University, which was challenging and demanding, but I particularly enjoyed conversing with Prof. Forde, a teacher of advanced thermodynamics. After working in the aerospace sector for ten years, I returned to the arts in my mid-thirties to study journalism and English literature at Concordia University. Although I was a mature student, a good ten years older than my cohort, I found the atmosphere of attending classes, learning, discussion and writing papers to my liking. I thrived in that atmosphere of inquiry and discussion.

Here, again, I had many wonderful professors, both in journalism and English literature courses. In journalism, I think of Prof. Crysler, who swore like the old newspaperman he was but taught us the fundamentals; and in English literature, Prof Hoffman, who taught us about classic tragedy and drama in thirteen short weeks. Educated at the University of Chicago, Prof. Hoffman was a tough instructor who didn't suffer fools gladly. Some thought him a curmudgeon. Many students were intimidated by his gruff demeanor.  I wasn't. Perhaps because I was older and had worked ten years in industry, I was well prepared. I enjoyed the give and take of debate and discussion, and sometimes I made a point that impressed the old professor.

I was fortunate to have taken the class in drama when I did, since it was Prof Hoffman's final year in teaching. The course covered such Greek works as Aristotle's Poetics, Euripedes Bacchae, and Sophocles' Antigone; European works like Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Heinrich von Kleist's Prince of Homburg  and  American tragedies like Arthur Miller's All My Sons and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Undoubtedly, reading such works will have some influence on your thinking; it's also true that you might not necessarily agree with the sentiments of the text, or with your professor, but reading critically is a way to develop an ability to think. Such is a gift that lasts a lifetime, and which hopefully can be passed on to your children.

I have always found learning to be wonderful and privileged. In many nations of the world, many are not so lucky, particularly girls. I have not taken such things for granted, and this is a point worth noting. Some hang on to a dream for education for a long time. A very long time. I can recall an event at the convocation ceremony in June 1996, held at the main hall of Place des Arts, home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. I was there to receive my B.A. degree.

At the end of a long ceremony, it came to handing out the doctorates, a much smaller cohort. The announcement was made that one man in his early eighties would be a recipient of that honour; he had returned to university after retiring from running a business for many years. When he was young, that opportunity for education wasn't open to him, committed as he was to familial and business obligations, and yet he had never given up on that dream.

Here he was about to receive a PhD in history, thirteen years after his educational journey began. When the chancellor of Concordia University, Dr. Frederick Lowy, handed this gentleman his degree, the whole auditorium, thousands of graduating students and parents, gave this man a rousing standing ovation.

It was well deserved.


  1. My favorite teacher in high school was Mr. Atkin, who taught geometry. Nevertheless, I never really got interested in mathematics. The subject I most loved was French, although I didn't like my French teachers in high school. My interest in languages was more powerful than my relationship with my high school teachers.


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