Michele Landsberg's Remarkable teacher:
Vera Vanderlip

"She was such a thrilling teacher—very demanding, very strict, very dry. She almost never said well done, but you knew that she approved when you really worked hard," Michele Landsberg says about Vera Vanderlip, her high school teacher in the mid-1950s at Earl Haig Collegiate Institute in Toronto.

Landsberg is the well-known award-winning journalist and author who writes regularly for the Toronto Star, advocating for the rights of women and children.

Meeting Vanderlip was the bright spot in an unhappy period, says Landsberg. High school was "a dismal educational experience," she remembers. "The 1950s were a nasty time to be an adolescent. There was rigid conformity, extreme sexism. Everything was so conventional and anti-intellectual."

The family had recently moved to a new housing development. "It was in a raw, new suburb. Nobody else read books. Other people used to make fun of me for writing poetry. I was just a fish out of water," says Landsberg.

"Languages were my great passion. I loved Latin, but I also wanted very desperately to learn classical Greek. Don’t ask me where I got these ideas. I was a bookish kid. I loved to read and I read all sorts of stuff as a teenager."

In Grade 9, at her new school, Landsberg went into the office and said, "There’s no Greek listed." There was no sympathetic response. "They just looked at me and said ‘go away.’"

By the next year, Landsberg’s situation had changed. Her older brother, who was attending the University of Toronto School, mentioned that they wouldn’t be able to use the gym because Grade 13 exams were being held there. He said that people could come from anywhere and write the Grade 13 exams.

"I guess this was for mature students. I don’t remember under what auspices I was able to do it," says Landsberg, "but I went in and wrote off my Grade 13 English comp and grammar. They were two separate exams, I think, and I got first class honours. In the fall I went back to school and slapped down those marks and said ‘There, I don’t have to do English any more. Teach me Greek.’

"Now they had to deal with this lunatic. ‘Well, go see Miss Vanderlip.’ So I went to see Miss Vanderlip and she said, ‘Of course I’ll teach you Greek. Greek is my main subject and you come to school every morning at 8 a.m. and I will teach you Greek.’

"Can you imagine what this teacher did for me?" Landsberg asks today. "She was willing to come to school an hour early every morning to teach me Greek, one on one. She was such a fine teacher because she was making a maximum effort freely, giving this to me as a gift and she expected the highest effort from me."

Landsberg laughs with delight as she thinks about the academic rigour Vanderlip demanded. The reading list included Homer, the New Testament, Plato – all in classical Greek.

"This was the high point of learning for me in my whole life. I don’t think I have ever had a more intellectually thrilling experience than reading Homer and Thucydides and Herodotus and it was just so great."

"The Greek I learned from Vera Vanderlip has informed my whole life. It has enriched my vocabulary tremendously. I don’t remember consciously, it’s just that a strange word will appear and the meaning swims up from my subconscious."

"The experience of that learning, the lucidity of the way thought was expressed in Greek or the cadence of Homer will always stay with me as a peak experience of learning—learning for the sheer love of it. There was no reason to be learning this except that I wanted to and I loved it."

Finding a teacher with whom she was so much in tune intellectually helped Landsberg endure what she now calls the "tremendous insensitivity" of the time.

"I was one of only two Jews at the high school. It made me different. We studied the Merchant of Venice in Grade 9 and when someone stood up and asked what the word usury meant, the teacher said ‘Oh, Michele can explain that. Stand up, Michele, and explain what usury is.’ That was the 1950s," says Landsberg. "It was just the worst decade. So you can imagine what a beacon of light Miss Vanderlip was to me. Her intellectual clarity, her commitment, her sense of what was truly lasting and important meant so much to me."

A second student joined Landsberg in Grade 11 and the two of them studied Greek right through to graduation.

Landsberg remembers Vanderlip returning from a summer holiday in Greece and inviting the two students to look at her slides of Greece.

"It was a very formal and polite occasion," says Landsberg. "We were a little embarrassed to be in a teacher’s home. The dividing lines back then were so different. There was a great formal space between teachers and students. But I really adored Miss Vanderlip and was grateful to her and loved her. But in those days you didn’t ever say a personal word to a teacher and the teacher never said a personal word to you."

For many years, Landsberg regretted that she had never been able to tell Vanderlip what an impact she had made. She heard that her teacher had died and wrote a tribute to her in a Toronto Star column.

"And then I got a letter from her saying she was far from dead and she had very kind things to say about what a wonderful student I had been. So we did have that exchange after all." Vanderlip had moved on to a university teaching career, retiring as Professor of Classics at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.

"It was wonderful she was able to go on and have an academic career because she was a real scholar."

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