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Remarkable Teacher

Photo of Bestselling author Yann Martel sitting on a stool and leaning on the windowsill. Yann is looking intently at the camera.

The Philosopher King

Bestselling author Yann Martel pays tribute to the teachers who helped prepare him for his literary journey leading up to Life of Pi.

By Russell Smith
Photo: Andrew Querner

Yann Martel is one of the most successful authors in the world. His 2001 novel, Life of Pi, has not only sold more than 12 million copies internationally, but it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, shortlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads and won the Man Booker Prize. It’s difficult to describe the ubiquity of the philosophical fantasy adventure — you see it being read by ambulance drivers and corner-store owners, on the subway and at the accountant’s. And yet Martel is famously modest; he lives a quiet life in Saskatoon and is quick to ascribe his success to his education rather than personal genius.

Teachers, Martel says, have always inspired him. They’ve led him into the life of the mind and of literature, and he firmly believes their work is undervalued. “What I love about India,” says the well-travelled writer, “is the principle of their guru system. The guru is a teacher, and you revere the teacher; it should be the same thing in the West — there is nothing more important.” And, so it’s not surprising that at one point Martel’s protagonist in Life of Pi shares: “It was my luck to have a few good teachers in my youth, men and women who came into my dark head and lit a match.”

The bestselling Martel can still recall three of the brightest burning candles he experienced throughout his school days: Ron Saunders, for geography, Brian Harvey, OCT, for Latin, and Tom Lawson, for English. Martel encountered the first two in suburban Ottawa’s Ridgemont High School, where he was enrolled from 1978–80. It’s there that he realized that the teachers who sparked his most rewarding enquiries were those with a great interest in the physical world and its history.

Geography teacher Ron Saunders left a profound impression with his use of real materials and vibrant examples taken from current events. Martel remembers learning about artesian wells from the 29-year Ridgemont veteran. “I loved geology,” he says, “largely because Mr. Saunders used his hands, he said things clearly and he had diagrams.” To this day Martel can name the three basic types of rocks — sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. And, a preoccupation with the natural world still informs his fiction — the flora and fauna of tropical islands are meticulously and properly named.

The now-retired teacher — who remembers his former student as a quiet, inquisitive and respectful boy — attributes his hands-on approach to making these words stick. He made each type of rock available for in-class distribution, so that everyone could feel them. “When students handle materials, concepts are more easily learned.”

Another of Saunders’ tricks was to look to current events to make his inanimate objects exciting. “If a volcano had just occurred, I wouldn’t continue to follow the textbook; instead, I’d use that example from the news. I felt that if something was contemporary it would have greater impact.”

It’s not surprising that geography would fascinate a teen who grew up speaking three languages, in various parts of the world — Martel’s parents were Canadian diplomats. He was born in Spain and his first language was French. His fiction — including Beatrice and Virgil, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and the forthcoming The High Mountains of Portugal — all revel in international settings.

“Writers have to be interested in the world,” says Martel. “Writing isn’t about writing — it’s about the world and its people.”

Even Martel’s interest in Latin was as much about historical exploration as the language itself. Brian Harvey taught the Cambridge Latin Course at Ridgemont, a sociolinguistic approach that introduced learners to a Roman household. “Latin may be seen as a useless subject by some,” says the writer, “but it was my favourite.” Martel reminisces about the cast of characters: Caecilius, the father, Metella, his wife and Grumio, the saucy cook. They’re the kinds of colourful Europeans who went on to populate his pages.

Latin had other, more practical, uses for Martel as well. The ever-enthusiastic Harvey carefully conveyed the important role the classical language played in building everyday vocabulary: “I spent endless amounts of time on word derivation.” Martel agrees, explaining that it taught him the anatomy of the English language. To inject some additional fun into learning, Harvey would bring his students to Latin Days at other schools — an opportunity for students to wear togas and experience what it might have been like to participate in a true Roman competition. Harvey stimulated students’ imaginations as much as their linguistic skills.

Indeed, Martel insists that his path to writing came not through the study of language alone, but of everything else. Many published novelists in this country emerge from English literature programs; but not Martel, who went on to study philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough. It was, however, a high-school English teacher who spurred that contemplative direction.

“These teachers work so hard. They often coach as well as teach; we open up to them. These are key relationships in our lives.”

After three years at Ridgemont, Martel attended Grades 12 and 13 at Trinity College School in Port Hope. And, this is where he crossed paths with the charismatic Thomas Lawson, who taught there for 33 years.

A demanding teacher, Lawson expanded the realm of English into the world of huge ideas. “I taught Nietzsche, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer,” Lawson recalls, “and I know Yann enjoyed that immensely.”

“Mr. Lawson taught us more than English,” says Martel. “He painted a bigger picture, hinted at a bigger life.” Lawson’s goal in introducing provocative theories was to develop students’ skills in argument and rhetoric: “I used any idea that would encourage them to use their judgment.” Once, he alarmed his students by mounting a fierce defence for French existentialism. He told them that according to Sartre, life is simply what you make of it. Lawson explained that even though it may be terrifying, every one of them was utterly free — and that, for instance, he wouldn’t be able to stop them from leaving the classroom, if that’s what they wanted to do. And, indeed a boy stood up, walked out and went straight to the headmaster and said, “Mr. Lawson is teaching me more about myself than about English!”

Lawson taught debating and public speaking, and founded the Canadian Student Debating Federation. He would often assign essays on contentious issues, telling students that it didn’t matter if he agreed with their position — what he cared about was the quality of their argument. To exercise their comprehension skills, Lawson compiled a book of literary passages for students to analyze. This focus on persuasive expression rather than fact changed the way they looked at language.

Did this idea of persuasive rhetoric successfully sink in with his students? There’s an eerie echo of it in Martel’s fiction, in which rival narratives are given equal weight. In Life of Pi, for instance, the reader never knows if the narrator’s story is actually true, but it’s a more compelling argument than the alternate story laid out at the end.

Throughout those formative years, Martel worked through these difficult ideas of consciousness that influenced his thinking and literary practice. He confirms that he has a debt to those who challenged him: “These teachers work so hard. They often coach as well as teach; we open up to them. These are key relationships in our lives.”

The textures of the physical world; the joy of foreign words; the power of rhetoric — these gifts were the “candles” lit by Ronald Saunders, Brian Harvey and Tom Lawson in the mind of a young man who did not yet know he wanted to be a writer but would become one of the country’s best literary success stories.

A collage of three photos. Clockwise from top right: Tom Lawson, Brian Harvey and Ron Saunders.
Clockwise from top right: Tom Lawson, Brian Harvey and Ron Saunders.

In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity.