By Linwood Barclay
It was in Grade 5, I think, that it first occurred to me that teachers are people.
Up until that time, I had not given it much thought that my teachers might have lives outside my suburban Toronto classroom. They were there when I arrived at 8:30 in the morning and there when I left at 3:30 in the afternoon. For all I knew, they slept at school. Made their meals there or had them sent in. Such details did not concern me. I did not imagine them with homes and families of their own. I suppose this has something to do with a child's egocentric view of the universe. These teachers were only there for me. To teach me. What else could they do that would be more important than that?
But then one Saturday morning, on the weekly trip with my parents to the grocery stores (it was never just one; we drove from place to place at dizzying speed to take advantage of every chain's weekly specials, which were advertised with much fanfare in the newspapers) I saw my Grade 5 teacher, on whom I had (I'm laying my cards on the table here) a huge crush. I had just downed a hot dog, and was sipping on my Honey Dew orange drink, fresh from the huge, clear globe it had been swirling in a moment earlier. She was coming around the end of an aisle, pushing a cart, and I think she said hello first, and then my parents were chatting with her, and I was pretty much struck dumb.
Several things amazed me. The first was that my teacher existed on a Saturday. The second was that she appeared in public places, outside of school. And the third was that she was a consumer of food. She ate. I looked between the steel bars of her cart to see what she was getting. Bread, milk, eggs. A box of cereal. It was unthinkable.
I didn't have much to say to her. Like many children confronting their teachers outside of the classroom, I was overwhelmed by shyness and awkwardness. And on top of that, here she was talking to my parents. What might she disclose? Nothing good could come of an unscheduled parent-teacher meeting.
And then she was gone, and I didn't see her again until the Monday morning. But she seemed different to me then. I felt I knew her in a way that none of my classmates did. Our relationship had changed. The fact that she did not speak of our encounter did not for a moment mean our bond wasn't a little more special. At least thatÕs what I told myself.
By the time I was in Grade 8, my parents had bought a cottage resort up in the Kawarthas, and my teacher, Mr. French, a young, single guy relatively new to teaching, said in June, as school was wrapping up, that he might drive up and see it sometime. My parents said heÕd be welcome to sleep in our travel trailer.
I wasn't surprised that he took them up on the offer; what surprised me was that he showed up at our camp in sandals, shorts and a pullover T-shirt. His toes were visible. He had knees. Where was his jacket? What had become of his tie? It was just as well I was moving on to high school, up in Fenelon Falls. I couldn't have gone back to his class and ever taken him seriously again.
It was in high school that I learned that teachers not only could be people, they could be friends.
One I remember in particular was my art and drafting teacher, a somewhat eccentric individual man who lived on his own, appeared in the company of attractive young women and drove a flashy Thunderbird convertible. He took an interest in my artistic abilities, and we seemed to enjoy each other's company when I attended one of his classes. I still remember what it meant to me when he showed up at my father's funeral, when I was 16. He knew plumbing and carpentry, and my mother asked if he could do some work at the resort. Our rental cottages were a tad on the rustic side, without inside conveniences, and our men's and ladies' rooms needed a bit of upgrading. We worked side by side a couple of days after school, picking up lumber, installing a urinal, running pipes up to a new wash basin. We used a special glue to fuse the plastic tubing together, and had to leave the door open because of the strong chemical smell. It was an eyeopener to see a teacher doing this kind of work, talking about things other than school, swearing when he hit his hand with a hammer, and quite often when he did not hit his hand with a hammer.
Years later, I am always interested to hear, from my own children, details of the private lives of their teachers. My daughter happened to mention that her drama teacher once taught theatre to inmates. Neat. (He was, to the best of my knowledge, allowed to leave at the end of the day.) And being married to a kindergarten instructor, I'm always witnessing the thrill a child experiences upon seeing The Teacher. Small children point and tug on their parent's sleeves. "There!" they whisper. "My teacher!" They look wide-eyed as they run into her in a mall, spot her putting an industrial-sized container of Tide into her car at Costco.
Being married to an elementary school teacher is a lot like being married to a rock star; you can't go anywhere without being recognized and stopped in public. My wife tells me that once, in an overly long ladies room lineup, she ran into a student and her grandmother, who took the opportunity to ask just how her little granddaughter was getting along in class these days.
I think teachers understand that the rest of the world is not being nosy. Okay, maybe a little. It's only natural to want to know more about these people we spend our days with, who help prepare us for the world. It is helpful to know that they come to school with more than just marked papers and lesson plans. They come with histories, with their own sets of joys and triumphs, tragedies and setbacks.
Too often we think of teachers as a collective. Teachers this. Teachers that. But they are all individuals. And often it's from these qualities of individuality that we draw our greatest lessons.
Linwood Barclay is a Toronto Star columnist and author. His most recent book is Last Resort: A Memoir, published by McClelland and Stewart.