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December 1998

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Peter Gzowski's

Remarkable Teachers

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"I’ve got three – all English teachers," the familiar voice announces. "At the Galt Collegiate, there was a wonderful man named Frank Ferguson," says Peter Gzowski. "He had a huge impact on me and hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of other kids.

"Mr. Ferguson, as I called him all his life, had a great gift of illumination. He so obviously loved the works he taught that you would put your own natural aversion to Shakespeare aside and say, ‘If he can get this enthusiastic it must be something.’"

Gzowski calls Ferguson the Mister Chips of the GCI: "People liked him. He had a wonderful, joyful air."

Ferguson did something unusual for a teacher – he was a CCF candidate. Gzowski remembers that this shocked a number of people, including his stepfather, who thought these "radical socialists" shouldn’t be allowed in the school. Ferguson’s political activism didn’t come up in the classroom. "He just talked about the writers we were studying," Gzowski reports.

Ferguson also taught composition. "I could write a bit then," says Gzowski, "I’m a librarian’s kid. I guess I was already interested in many of these things and he continued to fan the flames."

Gzowski enjoyed receiving notes from Ferguson. "When I started to appear on the radio I would get these wonderful, erudite, funny, and occasionally scolding, hand-written letters done in fountain pen on small white stationery from Mr. Ferguson. Frank Ferguson – he had retired – he would sign himself. That was the time I figured out his first name," Gzowski adds.

Helen Rudick also taught English at Galt CI. "She had a naughty turn of mind, which was a great delight," chuckles Gzowski. "She really used to like embarrassing the boys, and she would go out of her way to make sure there were double entendres. And I know that she took great delight in watching us giggle and blush and think it was so funny."

In Grade 11 Gzowski transferred to Ridley, an independent school for boys in St. Catharines. There he encountered Jim Pringle, who came from Atikokan and had been a commando during the war. "This was a guy who had really served in the war," says Gzowski. "I don’t remember the literature he taught, but he was an inspiration to write.

"Some of the darkness of his years in the war would show," remembers Gzowski. "He was occasionally quite morose but also very sharp and quite a pleasure to be around.

"What I remember most," says Gzowski, "was an essay in which I thought I would demonstrate my huge literary gifts. I wrote a kind of stream of consciousness piece, and he just kicked the living Jesus out of it. I got a failing mark and all these caustic comments. Of course he was right. It was a great lesson. I was something of a star in the composition class, and when I got 30, or whatever it was, it was quite a moment. It was very good for me. What it meant to me was don’t be pretentious. Don’t try to be something that you’re not.

"I think it’s what great teachers do, which is not be afraid to kick the pretence out of you. Because he obviously had some hope that I would go into the word business," concludes Peter Gzowski.