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Posts Tagged ‘elementary school’

Which teacher(s) changed your life?

In aging, behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting, work on September 17, 2013 at 2:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?

Or felt as confident of my choice?

From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.

Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute examine the “String Thing” they built. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.

My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.

I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.

In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.

I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.

But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z.,  had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.

English: A special education teacher assists o...

English: A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.

Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.

A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.

My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.

He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.

But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.

Career chosen!

I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”

Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.

Which teacher most affected you and your later life?

How and why?

As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?

Coming full circle

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life on September 26, 2012 at 12:20 am

And the seasons, they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came

And go round and round and round in the circle game
— Joni Mitchell

Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?

Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.

The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.

Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.

Like, back where I started.

I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.

So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.

As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!

On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.

I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.

It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)

Our wedding church, St. Andrew by The Lake.

On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.

It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.

As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.

I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.

How about you?

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