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June 1999

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R.H. Thomson’s
Remarkable Teachers

"There were two," says R.H. Thomson, actor and current host of the CBC program Man Alive, as he starts to talk about his remarkable teachers, "but one of them truly stands out."

N. Roy Clifton taught geography at Richmond Hill High School in the late ’50s and ’60s, although Thomson never took geography from him.

But, continues Thomson, "He taught me by the kind of person he was. He taught me by what he expected of students. He taught me by being unafraid to push into areas where nobody went."

Clifton ran the drama club and the library. "He was just a teacher who did things," says Thomson. "He raised money to put up lights in the auditorium. He got together a group of interested students and they rented the local cinema once a month to show Hungarian films, Brazilian films, Russian films, films from around the world. Now, this was Cold War time ... brush-cuts, large chrome bumpers and over-sized cars.

"You didn’t go near him if you wanted any social points. He was apt to have you in a drama class in your stocking feet in the gymnasium moving spontaneously to music. In the ’60s, this was not done."

Although he had an interest in drama, Thomson claims his theatrical ambition was to be an usher in Stratford. He got onto the stage at Stratford, and other stages, as well as film and television screens. Thomson was Jasper Dale in the Road to Avonlea series and has played people as different as Hamlet, Dr. Fred Banting and Charlie Grant.

He remembers, "I was not drawn to the drama club, he cornered me. His technique was to catch you between classes on the stairs and say, ‘Will you be in the play?’ ‘But I’ve got to get to class, I’m going to be late.’ ‘Will you be in the play?’ ‘But I’ve got to get to class, I’m going to be late.’ ‘Will you be in the play?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll be in the play.’"

According to Thomson, Clifton was an extraordinary man who had an independence of vision. "He reached out in a very conformist society," Thomson explains. "He was always teaching you, not through a text book and not through sitting in rows in a room, but you were learning in a deeper way. He encouraged you to think, he encouraged you to be utterly independent. He encouraged you to follow your impulses. He encouraged you to be disciplined at the same time, which is a fascinating combination, and he encouraged you not to be afraid of whoever you are."

It wasn’t until they were nearing the end of high school that Thomson and his friends discovered that this conservatively dressed man was a Quaker and a vegetarian. He wrote poetry and had been a barrister and a pacifist during the war. "That just rattled our brains," Thomson remembers. "What was he doing in the gymnasium in stocking-feet moving to Bartok?"

Zenn Z. Zelenyj gave Thomson a love of mathematics. "Zelenyj was a very button-down East European man with a thick accent. He also had an unspoken respect for young minds. He hovers there in my memory as a person who was very valuable to me and I’m not clear why. But I’ve had a love of mathematics ever since and a love of that kind of inquiry. For me, mathematics is not about mathematical operations, it’s about perceiving levels of reality that can only be reflected to you through these abstract signs. It is very hard to put those realities into words but you can deal in these symbols. And he started to open those avenues up for me.

"I don’t know how he did it, except that he was there, he was patient, he gave of his time," says Thomson, who earned a degree in science and physics before going to theatre school. "Like Clifton, he cracked things open in you."

Thomson concludes, "I think if there is anything in common from those two people, it is something of their essences as individuals that meant a great deal to me. I’ll never forget them."