It’s Thanksgiving today in Canada, so in the spirit of the holiday, I want to give thanks to some very important but under-appreciated people: My teachers.
Well, three teachers in particular. After reading this post on the most important lessons a teacher ever taught you, I decided to talk about some of the most valuable lessons my teachers ever taught me, whether they were part of the official curricula or not.
Mr Shearer and the poetry of essays
Mr. Shearer taught me Grade 12 English. I had only heard of him before he became my teacher, but after I met him, I realized that it was sheer luck that assigned me to his class: Originally, I was part of a different class but had to switch due to a scheduling conflict. His greatest lesson to me was about the literary value and potential inherent in essays.
Prior instruction on essays in English class focused on the “hamburger” model: One paragraph for your thesis (the top bun), one paragraph each for your three supporting arguments (the meat), and one paragraph for your conclusion (the bottom bun). Of course, each paragraph had to follow the hamburger model itself and have an introductory sentence, three sentences of juicy argument, and a concluding sentence. In the minds of those teachers, sentences and paragraphs were things that could be assembled like clockwork.
As you can imagine, this led to dull essays with only average grades; my teachers often said that I didn’t address the topic clearly enough.
This changed when Mr. Shearer gave each student in the class a small paperback containing several essays and told us to open the book to one about the growth of public apathy titled “Who Cares?”† He then proceeded to read it aloud to us, pausing to deconstruct how the author stated his thesis, built his argument, and used rhetorical devices to grab the reader.
This lesson (or series of lessons – I seem to recall that Mr. Shearer took his time) was no less than a revelation. Before this, thesis statements were bald, bare things: “[Object X] is a major theme in [Story Y].” But here was a thesis relevant to real life argued in an organic, persuasive manner. Here was an essay that marshalled pieces of evidence from numerous fields to prove its point. Here was an author whose essays weren’t hamburgers; they were steaks.
The crux of this lesson hinged on one sentence: “He stabbed her.” At this point in the essay, the author was describing the murder of Kitty Genovese, and what it illustrated about the apathy of the modern-day citizen. Mr. Shearer took the time to note that this sentence was quick and violent – like a stab itself – and punctuated this with a turning thrust of his fist.
“He stabbed her.”
That’s when I realized that sentences and paragraphs didn’t need to be built like clockwork anymore.
Later on that year, Mr. Shearer took us through Hamlet and Brave New World. However, my time with him was short. He was diagnosed with cancer during the school year and replaced by a supply teacher. The following school year he was in and out of class, replaced by a battery of teachers, until he died in the spring of 2003 a few months before I graduated.
I think the shortness of our teacher-student relationship has contributed to that lesson on essays remaining so vivid. Whatever the reason, Mr. Shearer, thank you.
An interesting side note: I think I can also thank Mr. Shearer for my interest in Roman history. One day in class, he mentioned that “I, Claudius” was one of his favourite shows. I had no idea what “I, Claudius” was about for several years, but knew that I wanted to see it based solely on his endorsement. When I eventually found out that it was about the beginning of the Roman Empire, and found out about the “History of Rome” podcast around the same time, I knew that Roman history was something I wanted to dig into more deeply.
† Research has led me to believe that the essay “Who Cares?” was originally written by John Leonard for The Nation in 1979 and then republished in his book Private Lives in the Imperial City. I have yet to confirm this as I can’t find a full-text copy of the essay online.
Mr. Flahiff and the art of caring
Let’s put it this way: How many high school teachers can you think of who have a legitimate fan page on Facebook?
Mr. Flahiff can’t be pinned down to a year or a class like the other two teachers. When I was in high school, he taught art, and his classroom was located in the Music Hall, my school’s semi-autonomous nerd enclave. You know what I mean: The sort of place where music kids, drama kids, RPG-playing kids, and even the occasional stoner hung out – and this was before “Glee” made singing in school choirs cool.
Mr. Flahiff was the unofficial Den Father for all of us. He always kept his door open, even during his classes, and would allow students from the hall to wander in, talk to him, and talk to his students. He would let us listen to his lessons. He would let us eat lunch in his classroom, or hang out there after the school day was over. He was the quintessential Awesome Teacher (and like many Awesome Teachers, he butted heads with the school administration, but that’s another story for another day).
Most importantly, Mr. Flahiff listened to his students and gave them a supporting ear whenever they had problems related to their classes or their homelives. This meant a lot to me and to a host of other students (many of whom are now “Fans of Flahiff” – seriously, you should check the Facebook page out).
He is now semi-retired, but this doesn’t mean that he’s drifted away from his students. Even now, I see him at birthday parties for my friends. Hell, I invited him to my 25th birthday party, and he so impressed some of the other people there that they joined his Facebook group upon only a few hours’ acquaintance!
It’s hard to name the lesson he taught, because so much of my interaction with him was outside of the classroom. It’s simple, though: we learned that a teacher could move beyond caring about us as students and start caring about us as people.
One last note: Mr. Flahiff and Mr. Shearer were very good friends. When I took Mr. Shearer’s philosophy class in my final year of high school, Mr. Flahiff was one of the teachers brought in to take over for him when his health failed. If you think about it, they were a Tag-Team of Teaching Awesomeness.
Mrs. Anderson and the perils of credit cards
Of the three teachers, Mrs. Anderson retains the most mystery. Mr. Shearer died 8 1/2 years ago and Mr. Flahiff is on Facebook, constantly in touch with his legions of students and friends. But after Grade 6 ended and I moved on to a different school, I visited Mrs. Anderson only once in our old classroom. Her most valuable lesson was off-the-cuff and definitely not part of the traditional curriculum, but out of the three teachers listed here, her lesson has been the most tangible.
She taught us how credit cards work and how credit card companies make money.
I have no recollection of what spurred this impromptu lesson, but I do remember her taking up her usual spot on the big chair in the carpeted corner of the room and us sitting around her feet. She proceeded to explain how people used credit cards, and how credit card companies charged interest on purchases. She then explained that credit card companies offered a “minimum payment” option, but that interest still accrued on the remaining balance – and that if you kept on paying the minimum payment, the interest would keep on accruing, ultimately costing you more than the purchase itself.
This knowledge wasn’t useful when I was 12, but I kept it socked away as I grew up. I didn’t get my first credit card until I was almost 21. Since then, I have tried my hardest to pay off the complete balance month after month, even while paying for all of my Ryerson courses out-of-pocket without any loans, grants, or bursaries. I’m proud to say that I don’t have any credit card debt.
Two nights ago I decided to try to find Mrs. Anderson. I took a look at my old report cards to learn her first initials, and used some educated guesses about her name and location to find her on Google. I saw one very promising website with more information, and sent an email to the address listed on that page. I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get, or even if I’ll get one at all. I’m not even entirely convinced that I’ve found her. But if it does turn out to be her, I just want to let her know: Thank you.