Award-winning author Ian Williams on his middle-school teacher, who encouraged his love of writing.
BY Richard Ouzounian
PHOTOS: Justin Morris; courtesy of Peter Lucic
On the evening of November 18, 2019, Ian Williams made his way to the podium at the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom in Toronto, through a haze of colleagues' cheers and congratulations. He'd just won the Giller Prize — Canada's richest literary award — for his first novel, Reproduction. In that heady moment, in a heartfelt acceptance speech, Williams thanked Peter Lucic, the teacher who introduced him to the world of writing at Sir John A. Macdonald Sr. Public School in Brampton, Ont.
"When good things happen, people say it feels surreal," says Williams, now a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. "It feels like you are multiple people at the same time, living multiple realities at the same time. In that instant, I was the university student who needed to thank Margaret Atwood for what her work meant to me, and I was also the 12-year-old boy who spent three magical years with Mr. Lucic."
Lucic describes the young Williams he met in 1991 as shy. "It was hard to get a fix on him at first. But I immediately noticed his meticulous handwriting."
"Yes, I was shy, right until university, I think," says Williams, with a laugh. "Brainy and quiet and introverted and watchful."
The class that Lucic taught, with his teacher partner Ursula Keuper-Bennett, was part of a Peel Board of Education program for students identified as gifted. "I spent three years with Mr. Lucic," recalls Williams. "He made an impression on me from the beginning. A large, teddy bear kind of man. Very gentle. He was our school dad. There was such warmth from him."
"If you have kids for three years like that," Lucic volunteers, "you can truly personalize the work you do with them. You can almost become a kind of conduit to their futures."
To the young Williams, it was a lot simpler. "We'd just show up and trust him, and together we'd all get our stuff done. You don't realize you're learning. You're just in a space and time with someone, rather than being instructed."
One of the things Williams remembers most vividly about Lucic is that he would read novels and stories to them aloud … through a microphone. "We were working in a pod situation that served two Grade 6 classes," explains Lucic. "One very large room with a dividing wall separating it into two smaller classrooms. I needed the microphone to be heard, but I also enjoyed the drama it gave the readings."
Williams chuckles at the memory. "Oh yes, he was a bit of a storyteller. When you're in Grade 6, you're a little bit too old to be read to, but you still like it." What kind of stuff did Lucic read? "An eclectic selection," he says. "Some award-winning books like Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia and others that I just enjoyed, like Roald Dahl's The Witches."
To the young Williams, "It never felt like something was missing. It all felt really organic. In Grade 6, we wrote every single day. We'd get a seven-minute power writing exercise. We got a topic and then wrote as much as we could. We wrote poems or stories." Lucic's teaching partner would suggest a topic and provide the structure. "We kids just got on board and ran with it," says Williams.
From Lucic's memories of the time, it was a period of wide-ranging artistic experimentation. "Sometimes we'd put together journals. I remember one was called Choices. Ian wrote a really interesting poem about two sisters, one of whom was being abused by her father. It was almost scary."
Lucic recalls an Open House activity called The Imagination Café. "During one session, I remember Ian playing the piano while his classmate Vicki read a poem. It was truly moving. Kids serving hot drinks and selling cookies. There were a lot of different coloured lights and music suited to a coffee house atmosphere. Many of the students' poems were illustrated and printed for the audience."
Williams now sees that "Mr. Lucic had a bunch of these old-soul kids who could nerd out on their subjects. There was a stable community in that room with a person who was looking out for us, which left us free to be ourselves." He says Lucic understood that the best thing he could do for his students was to encourage and support them, rather than critique them. "He kept us excited about what we were doing. He was a brilliant educator."
Lucic was also broadening his students' horizons, introducing them to the internet many years before it would be become common practice. "I came to computers fairly early," admits Lucic. "I'd bring in these old Commodore PET computers and wire them into a primitive network. I got funding for a phone line and modem. This allowed my young authors to connect online with the International Poetry Guild at the University of Michigan and WIER (Writers in Electronic Residence) at York University."
Williams brightens at the memory. "He had us on this makeshift computer network with guys from the University of Michigan — Americans and Canadians swapping poems in the early days of the internet! We had current affairs projects that connected us with American kids, learning about each other and the tech world that most people didn't yet know existed. He gave us challenges. He was preparing us for a world that he saw as digital."
Lucic brushes aside any suggestions he was a prescient educator. "You just do what you need to do in teaching and hope it will be what the child needs."
Clearly his work suited Williams's needs; he went on to earn his Hons. B.Sc. in psychology and English, as well as an MA and a PhD in English, all at the University of Toronto and all by the time he was 25. He then taught at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts and published a short story collection and two poetry collections, one of which, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
But Fitchburg was also where Williams lost all his worldly possessions when the condo building in which he lived burned to the ground. He moved back to Canada and started writing Reproduction shortly after.
In his mind, he now brackets the night of that fire with the night he won the Giller Prize. "Those moments have something in common because they're very clarifying." Williams recalls what he said to himself as he watched his life going up in flames: "Ian, you'll have to rebuild yourself again, but you have everything you need in your head."
He knows he began to discover that confidence in Peter Lucic's classroom nearly three decades ago. "Something magical is possible if you trust the people who are guardians of your childhood," concludes Williams. "And Mr. Lucic always delivered. He never disappointed that trust."
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College's Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.