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June 1998

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Farley Mowat’s

Remarkable Teacher

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"I’ve always felt, and feel to this day, that she was as responsible as any other individual except my parents for my decision to become a professional writer," says Farley Mowat during a lunch-hour break from work on The Farfarers, a speculative history on the origins of Canada.

She was Miss Edna Izzard, who taught English to Mowat from 1937 to 1940 at Richmond Hill High School in Richmond Hill.

"Miss Izzard was a bit of an odd lady," reports Mowat. "She was very tough, kind of hard-bitten. She had a marvellous sense of humour of a sardonic type. Most of the people in school were afraid of her. She never minced words, and she was absolutely honest in her appraisals."

Mowat launches into storyteller mode. "I remember the first essay I ever had to give to her. I was affected by what everybody had had to say about her and shared the general feeling that she was a tough old bird, so I fooled around with my essay and tried to be satirical.

"She called me in, looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have failed.’

"I thought oh my god, what does she mean? And she said, ‘You have failed in your purpose. Do you know what your purpose was?’

" ‘It was to be smart I guess.’

"She said, ‘Well you weren’t. You weren’t even funny. The thing is, you can write. You may not know it, but you can. So if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly.’ "

Mowat decided this was an opportunity. He says, "It was the kind of hard encouragement that one needs, not soft praise, but tough criticism."

Miss Izzard never pushed Mowat but always told him he could do better. "She’d take a phrase and say, ‘If you wanted to give it more impact, how would you do that?’ And I’d think and say I could change this phrase. She was enormously supportive."

Outside of school, Mowat was writing mostly poetry. "I’d done something I thought was pretty good stuff. She read it over and said the ideas were good and the approach fine, but ‘you’re not going to be a master of the poetic arts. But don’t let that discourage you because poetry is the best possible preparation for prose.’

"That’s a phrase that’s stuck in my mind every since," he says. "If you can condense your material, discipline yourself to put it in a certain shape – this was old-fashioned rhyming verse – you learn more about the use of the language than anything else you can do. I kept writing poetry for a long time, all of it unpublishable. But it sure taught me a great deal about the business."

Miss Izzard didn’t single out Mowat in particular. He says she encouraged anybody who showed any interest in reading or writing.

As Mowat says, "She was an extraordinary person."