"My high school, Lisgar Collegiate in Ottawa, had its 150th
anniversary about seven or eight years ago," says Adrienne Clarkson. Before the
event, the school asked graduates what kinds of events they would like. Clarkson wrote
saying, "I would like to have a 40-minute period with Mr. Walter Mann."
Apparently others did too. "They had to take the school gym and put seats in it -
there were 800 of us," she reports. "He was 88 years old and he came in, and he
sat down and he looked exactly the same - the sports jacket and these very highly-shined
wing-tip shoes and wonderfully tight-knotted tie.
"He just sat down and read us a poem and it was 'My Last Duchess' by Browning and
I think about half of us wept, we just wept. He always believed that the murder had just
happened and that the duke had almost been caught in the act by his next visitor and he
set up these wonderful scenarios. 'There is my last duchess there, hanging on the wall.' I
can hear his words."
Canada's new Governor-General calls Walter B. Mann the most marvellous teacher she ever
had and the greatest influence on her life apart from her parents. Mann was the one who
steered Clarkson away from the goal of studying mathematics at McGill as her brother had
done and convinced her to pursue English and philosophy at Trinity College at the
University of Toronto.
"He always began each class, if we were doing poetry, by reading the whole poem
aloud to us and then asking us if anybody would like to read it as well. So then somebody
else might read it and then he would just sit for a bit and look at us and we would look
at him and then he would make some wonderful remark."
Clarkson, who was a voracious if indiscriminate reader, credits Mann with instilling a
love of literature and fine writing and influencing her in many ways.
"I don't even look at the world of nature without thinking of Mr. Mann," says
Clarkson. "He would get you up to the blackboard and he would put 'tree' up at the
top and then you had to list as quickly as possible as many trees as you could imagine.
So, you would never use 'tree' in a conversation. You would use chestnut or oak or maple
or birch or tamarack."
"He also loved good writing. It wasn't just because it was on the curriculum - he
had a sense of moral value, as well, that he communicated through literature. For
instance, we had two poems by D. H. Lawrence - Lady Chatterley's Lover was still banned
and we knew about that. One was called 'The Piano' and the other 'The Snake.'
"'The Piano' is about a child sitting underneath a piano while his mother plays
and feeling everything that you do about family and beauty and love, and the nostalgia of
the poet for that time when he was more innocent.
"In 'The Snake,' a traveller goes out in his pyjamas after a siesta and nearly
walks on a snake. It is filled with immediate reactions, which are that he wants to kill
the snake and then he doesn't kill the snake. And, of course, it is a big moral triumph
that he doesn't kill the snake, the helpless creature, just because it is repellent to
him. Anyway, we had the whole period on these two poems and then there was this long
silence and we looked at him and he looked at us - there was quite a lot of silence in
that class. Then he looked at us and said, 'I ask you, could the man who wrote these two
poems be considered ever to be immoral?' And we all knew what he meant and, of course, we
all said he wasn't immoral, he is a wonderful writer.
"Through that," says Clarkson, "he taught us that writers are people who
know what right and wrong are in a true sense as opposed to just a socially-accepted
Mann was a frequent CCF candidate in Ottawa, but as Clarkson remembers it, he always
lost his deposit. "He believed in taking care of people and he lived his beliefs. He
never, never mentioned it in school. We never heard a word about political views in that
sense. But what he did do was teach us large political ideas, really big things that
mattered, like what is 'doing the right thing.'
"He was very egalitarian in his viewpoint without being overtly militant. He never
listened to any of that stuff that boys should do this and girls should do that. There was
never an inkling that there was any difference among any of us. There was never a hint
that we were not his equal, in age or experience or anything."
Mann also coached public speaking. "Whenever I speak today," says Clarkson
"I can see Mr. Mann sitting down there in the audience looking at me with his eyes
slightly crinkled. He had a completely bald head, although he was probably only about 40,
and this moustache, which he would gnaw on slightly when he was a little agitated. He was
just terrific at coaching. When you went to compete he would be there."
The Governor-General says she had many good teachers. But Walter Mann was "just a
very extra special person."