By Quintin Wight
I arrived at Richmond Hill District High School as it was
then late in the 1948 school year as a new immigrant from Scotland. I was 13 years
old and in Grade 10. It was not long before Miss Izzard, who taught both English and
German at the time, zeroed in on me as someone with an ear for accents.
In Scotland, I had spent a year living next to a camp for German prisoners of war,
where the camp barber, Gustav Knabe, an opera singer from Hamburg and scion of the great
house of Knabe pianos, had wasted a lot of time trying to teach me to sing. I remained
tuneless, but he did provide me with an impeccable pronunciation of German and the ability
to recite Die Lorelei from memory.
Miss Izzard seized upon this and trotted me from German class to German class to
demonstrate the proper pronunciation of ü and ö and ä. To my mind it was a useless
exercise, for I was always too nervous to perform properly, but she persisted and I stayed
the course until she felt everyone had been indoctrinated.
The pronunciation phase was over soon, although I remained in her German class through
Grade 13. Her teaching stood me in great stead later in university, and later still in
postings to Germany with the RCAF. Her interest in my German accent was replaced, however,
with her interest in my writing.
We all knew, of course, that Farley Mowat had been one of her students. She spoke of
him frequently, often in relation to his methods of composition. In time, when it came to
my work, the name Mowat began to crop up with more and more regularity.
"Quintin," shed say, "You write just like Farley Mowat!" The
important point is that her remarks were not necessarily intended to be complimentary.
Much as she liked Mr. Mowat, she was of the opinion that his style tended to the facile
and involved rather too much hyperbole. "Writing was too easy for him, and its
too easy for you," shed say. "You have to learn some discipline!"
It was hard. As Farley Mowat established in his article, discipline, integrity and
ethics were the foundations of Miss Izzards life. I well remember the day when I
mentioned to her that I had been making some easy pocket money by ghostwriting essays for
university students. I thought it a mark of some distinction that a high school student
could get an "A" in a university level paper, particularly when it concerned a
play King Lear that I had not studied, but had skimmed briefly to spot a few
I imagined shed be pleased at my ability. She was horrified. I did not get a long
lecture in ethics the finer details of such philosophies being hard to impress on a
17-year-old boy but I did get the point that I had disappointed Miss Izzard
severely. That point was much harder to take than a lecture. The knowledge of her
disapproval cut much deeper and lasted much longer.
In the long run, my sin was empty anyway. The university year was ending, and although
I had earned one essay client excellent marks throughout the term, he flunked the final
all by himself.
For Miss Izzard, the day did not end when the school doors closed in the afternoon. If
some function of note was taking place in Toronto the release of the motion picture
Romeo and Juliet was an example Miss Izzard would stuff her battered car with
students and career off downtown. The term "battered" for her car is
significant, as is "career."
She was short-sighted, but hated wearing her spectacles when driving. Partly for that
reason, but also as a point of personality, she paid scant attention to such mundane
trifles as traffic signs and rights of way. Every once in a while she would drive on to
Yonge Street at the intersection near the school, be clipped by an approaching vehicle,
and wind up in the vacant lot on the corner.
On one occasion, I was in the back of her car with a couple of other students on the
way to some affair in Toronto when we were passed brusquely by another car driven by a
well-dressed woman. "She cant do that to me!" said Miss Izzard, as she
pulled up to the other car at a stop sign and rammed it smartly in the rear. The impact
knocked the other drivers hat over her eyes and undoubtedly shocked her into
confusion, giving Miss Izzard enough time to pull round the car and sail serenely on to
Stern and imperious as she could be, Miss Izzard was not above debating with students
on an equal footing. I once challenged her in class over her interpretation of a
particular phrase in Romeos final soliloquy. After half an hour of argument, she
said slowly, "Ive been teaching it that way for years, but I think youre
right." Far from considering the point trivial, she later proceeded to announce to
the other teachers that a student had persuaded her to change her mind.
I was graduated by RHDHS in 1952, but did not escape the attention of Miss Izzard. We
exchanged letters frequently, and when the RCAF posted me to British Columbia in 1957, she
arranged for books to be sent out to help with my university studies. She attended my
wedding in 1960, presenting us with a fine carving set I often feel symbolic of her
approach to criticism. At the height of my artistic phase I sent her one of my paintings.
In retrospect, it was embarrassingly amateurish in execution, but it remained in prominent
view on her living room wall until her death.
Every time I managed to get back to Richmond Hill from wherever the RCAF had sent me,
my immediate goal was a visit to Miss Izzard in early years alone, then with a
wife, then with children. I hasten to add that I was not some anointed soul. A veritable
procession of former students crossed her threshold in retirement.
I was one among many whod sit and talk of travel, art, politics, and whatever
other topic came to hand. She was truly interested and involved in the lives of her
students, as confessor, arbiter, and, if necessary, shoulder to cry on. In todays
parlance, she was a community resource.
Many years after high school graduation, I was a major in Mobile Command Headquarters
in St-Hubert, Québec. One day, my immediate superior, a lieutenant-colonel who had been a
fellow student at RHDHS, came into my office bearing a copy of a report I had written.
"Youve phrased that just right," he said. "Miss Izzard would be
pleased!" It was the ultimate accolade.
Quintin Wight retired from the Air Force in 1990 as Director of Intelligence and
Security Automation and now pursues his interests in minerals and photomicrography. He is
the author of The Complete Book of Micromounting and the mineral quintinite was named