Remarkable Teachers

Remarkable Teacher Fred Kolar is still an important person for

Russell Peters

by Bill Harris

Anyone who has seen Russell Peters perform one of his stand-up comedy routines knows he isn’t shy. Peters specializes in saying things that others won’t say. It’s all for the purpose of making audiences laugh all around the globe, of course, and Peters takes pride in his bluntness.

One of his favourite targets, as it turns out, is his school years.

Peters has a term for his high school that we won’t repeat here. Suffice it to say that if comedy is the most sincere form of flattery, then North Peel Secondary School in Brampton should be really, really flattered.

“I make fun of it because I actually really liked it there,” says Peters, who has become one of the most famous and accomplished stand-up comedians in Canadian history.

Peters didn’t always like school. But the main reason things started to turn around for him when he arrived at North Peel was his relationship with one teacher in particular.

That teacher’s name is Fred Kolar.

Russell Peters, North Peel SS graduate.

Has Peters ever expressed his feelings to Kolar in terms as blunt as those he utilizes in his comedy act?

“Uh, I don’t think I have,” he says, after pausing to ponder the question. “I think just by staying in touch and being friends with him – you know, I literally see him, in a year, about 15 times, I see him quite often when I’m back from Los Angeles … Whenever I’m home we go out to dinner or whatever.

“Fred Kolar is still an important person in my life.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I’m very proud of Russell but not because he’s famous. I was there when he was performing at Yuk Yuk’s with 10 people in the audience,” says Kolar. “I’m proud of him because he’s a great person.”

Peters, a Canadian of Anglo-Indian descent, has truly become an international comedy sensation, and his no-holds-barred brand of multicultural comedy has played a large part in his success.

Now 38, he was born at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

“I went to St. Cecilia’s in Toronto for Junior Kindergarten,” Peters recalls. “Then, for nine years, I went to George Vanier in Brampton, which is a Catholic school.”

So, that was nine years on a four-year program, was it?

“That’s why you’re the writer and I’m the comic,” Peters shoots back.

Point taken.

“Anyway, I was at George Vanier from Senior Kindergarten to Grade 8,” he continues. “Then I went to Chinguacousy for Grades 9 and 10. I got kicked out of there and went to North Peel for 11 and 12.”

Peters manages to work many of his colourful school adventures into his comedy act.

“It’s true, I do,” he says. “It’s funny because people think I make it all up. And I’m like, ‘No, this is real.’”

We think we know the answer to this already but we’ll ask anyway: Was Russell Peters a good student?

“I was not a good student,” Peters replies predictably. “I was not a big fan of schooling, to be honest with you.

“If you’re artistic, sometimes school can be a bit of a challenge. If what you plan on doing in life entails academics, then that’s the way you should go. But for an artistic person, a free spirit, school in the structured sense can be very frustrating. You obviously need a learning atmosphere but perhaps something that doesn’t have so much structure to it.”

In other words, for a long time Peters felt like a square peg in a round hole.

“For a person like me, who has ADD, my thoughts are scattered whilst I’m talking to you, you know? So for a long time, school was not a good place for me because I’d just get frustrated.”

Does Peters really have attention deficit disorder or is he overstating for comic effect? It’s not like he’s never done that before.

“It was never diagnosed but I’m pretty sure I have ADD,” Peters says with a chuckle that further masks whether or not he is serious. “I don’t have the hyper one, I just have the can’t-focus one, and way more thoughts than one person needs in his life. But for me I guess it works out great, considering my profession.”

As his school years progressed, Peters developed a clear sense of what a good teacher was.

“I’ll tell you something, it’s the teachers that get you who are good,” he says. “It’s the teachers who understand and recognize you as an individual and say, ‘I understand how this kid’s working and this is how he needs to be spoken to.’ It doesn’t work when they clump you together and try to make it formulaic. That’s not how the world works.”

Kolar says that North Peel has a lot of students who have been labelled and the labels have stuck, even though many of them don’t belong in a vocational school at all.

“They’re very, very smart kids and they end up in the vocational system merely because they don’t seem to fit in the normal stream of things. So I try to give them confidence.

“I tell them I will be equally proud of them whether they become a chef or a dishwasher or whatever it is they want to be, as long as they’re doing the best they can and they’re good people. I tell them I want them to be better than me – and they always laugh. But as soon as they laugh, I know I’ve maybe got through to them somehow.”

Peters took chef training with Fred Kolar. “He was a fantastic teacher, a phenomenal teacher. He gave me chef training and I learned a lot from him in that field. But he also understood me as a human.

“Even though he was very encouraging with what I was doing in chef training, I think he understood there was something else I needed and wanted to do. And he gave me the freedom to express myself in whatever way I chose.” So did Peters feel as if he had an immediate rapport with Fred Kolar? “No, he’s a good teacher because you didn’t need to create a rapport with him,” Peters says. “He wasn’t there giving off the vibe of, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to like this kid or not.’”


Peters and Kolar: The admiration is mutual.


Kolar remembers Peters as having a way of reaching out to even the most problematic students in the class.

“He made other people smile, even back then,” Kolar recalls. “And it wasn’t goofiness or vulgar language, it was just the way he was. He’s a people person and people connect with him. He’s still doing it to this day.”

For Peters, the most important thing was not the subject that Kolar taught, it was his demeanour and actions. “He taught his students about respecting other people,” says Peters. “And that’s an incredible life lesson to have passed along.”

It seems that the school gave Peters more than just material for his act.

“I think all of the teachers at North Peel, which is the school I talk about in my act – they made a big difference for me. And as bad a student as I was, it was very conducive to the way I needed to learn.

“Fred treated everyone as an individual, no matter how messed up they were. Listen, we had some messed up kids in our class, let me tell you. When I was in that school we had some real doozies, you know what I mean? But Fred Kolar treated everybody with respect.”

Being treated by his teacher like a person of importance allowed Russell to feel like a person of importance and, no doubt, helped build the confidence he’d need to pursue a career in something as volatile as stand-up comedy.

Kolar also provided a model for pursuing one’s passion.

“On top of everything, he’s also a world-class chef,” Peters says of Kolar. “He was the head of the Escoffier Society when I was in school. He’s a real chef.

“Fred Kolar treated everybody with respect.”

“He could have completely just dashed away from this whole school thing. He didn’t have to be teaching kids. He does it because he loves it.”

That’s one of the keys to success in any field.

“When somebody loves what they do, that’s what makes them good at it,” Peters says. “I love doing stand-up. This is what I love to do and I think it shows in my work. But the same goes for teachers.

“There are people in every profession who do it for the paycheque. But let’s be honest, teachers are underpaid, you know what I mean? They aren’t doing it for the loot. So the teachers who do it because they care about the kids, those are the good ones.”

Indeed, those are the good ones. And for world-renowned funnyman Russell Peters, the best one of all was Fred Kolar.

“That’s what Fred Kolar was for me, a great teacher,” Peters says.

“He’s still at North Peel Secondary School. He’s still there to this day. And he’s still a friend.”

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