Sarah Polley’s Remarkable Teacher
"I learned so much about myself because of the freedom she allowed us in class and the kind of excitement she instilled in us about being alive," Sarah Polley says about Bev Panikkar, her Grade 2 teacher in 1985 at Bayview School in Toronto. "She’s really an incredible person."
Polley is a young actor best known for her role as Sara Stanley on Road to Avonlea and a series of leading roles in critically acclaimed films such as The Sweet Hereafter, Go and The Hanging Garden.
Having skipped Kindergarten, Polley was six when she entered Grade 2 shortly after she began her acting career. She spent only one year in Panikkar’s class, but the character and attitude of her teacher made such a strong impression that Polley loved school every year after and believes that it shaped much of her outlook on the world. "She had a huge influence on every part of my life."
She remembers clearly the first day she and her classmates entered Panikkar’s classroom.
"There was nothing in it. It was bare and really daunting. I thought it would be a very dreary year." There was a sense of apprehension among all the children at what they were in for. The teacher sat in front with a big stencil board and a magic marker, says Polley, and she asked: "What do you want in your classroom?"
That simple question had an enormous impact. "We spent the morning putting up our hands and saying what we wanted and she wrote it all down. It gave us an incredible feeling of being able to be involved in creating our own environment. Kids don’t get that experience very often."
"Then to come in the next day with the classroom filled with all the things that we wanted. It was such a ... empowered is such an overused word, but it really was an empowering experience," says Polley.
Panikkar’s class was set up as a series of activity centres where children could work on various subjects. But they were also encouraged to put energy into what they loved. For Polley, that was writing.
"I spent days and days when I was in Grade 2 writing stories. I would just go in like it was an office to get it done, and Mrs. Panikkar would let me read my stories to the class.
"We had reading partners, students from Grade 5, and as we were all walking down the hall one day, they were in front of me. I heard Mrs. Panikkar say, ‘This one’s going to be a writer,’ as though she thought I wouldn’t hear. But in retrospect, I think she knew I would hear. But she had this very grave tone in her voice and it was this amazing thing of being taken seriously all the time by this adult."
Even when Panikkar had hard days, she gave the impression she loved being around kids and loved helping them learn, says Polley. "She was someone with a light, bright spirit. She laughed all the time, like someone who loved what she did."
Polley remembers the sense of respect for every child that was a characteristic of Panikkar’s interaction with her students.
One day a troubled classmate began to act out, screaming at the teacher who couldn’t get her under control. As she tried to carry the girl out of class, Panikkar was struck in the face and her nose began to bleed, but she never lost her composure or her temper, says Polley. "She was completely calm and gentle, and never betrayed any kind of alarm. I remember that having a huge impact on the way I treated that girl, who wasn’t some kind of threat or pariah. She was just someone who was having a problem, to be gently dealt with. The way she treated us and being able to see how she treated that little girl really influenced our relationships to each other."
Polley also credits Panikkar with having influenced her awareness of social issues. "She was never preachy, but she was always involved in something in her community and I’m sure she brought that into the classroom. Her real respect for other human beings, even if they were just six years old, is something that has stayed with me and has been an incredible inspiration to me in how to deal with other people."
A couple of years ago, Polley and Panikkar ran into each other in a shopping mall, and have met periodically ever since to talk about those days in Grade 2. Polley was moved to write her former teacher a lengthy letter about all her memories of that special year.
"There must be thousands of teachers walking around right now who couldn’t possibly know the impact that they’ve had on someone’s life and on who they’ve become," says Polley. "It’s the most exciting thing in the world to let someone know how much of an impact they’ve had on your life."
Panikkar, too, regards it as a blessing to know how much being in her class meant to her students. "It makes everything worthwhile. I’ve shared Sarah’s letter with others because I think there should be a student at some time in every teacher’s career that tells them the kind of influence they’ve had. It was a very special gift for me; I’ve never received a gift like that before."