Twitter’s Kirstine Stewart honours the unconventional high school teacher who helped her get a handle on her personal brand.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photo: Miguel Jacob
“I’ve always been less interested in what has been than what could be,” writes Kirstine Stewart in her autobiography, Our Turn. Her devotion to what Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “the art of the possible” is a life lesson that she learned from the refreshingly unconventional Suzi Beber during her days at Acton High School.
While they haven’t seen each other for 35 years, the fascinating thing about these two women is that although their lives have travelled wildly different paths, they’ve somehow wound up at the same end point of self-realization.
Stewart’s rise in an industry that’s notorious for being cutthroat is well-documented and well-deserved. It’s the classic tale of a former “girl Friday” who’s hard work pays off, paving her way to becoming the first female head of English-language services at the CBC, and now the vice-president of media for North America at Twitter.
Although Beber’s former student is perhaps more recognizable, the retired teacher’s journey is no less impressive — she made associate head of a department by the age of 26, eventually settling into a vice-principal role at Burlington Central High School. Then, during routine surgery in the late spring of 1993, a series of what she calls “medical misadventures” left her using a walker, with a lasting traumatic brain injury and daily health challenges.
It was during the latter part of the ’90s that Stewart and Beber began their respective struggles — Stewart securing her place at the top of a male-dominated industry, while Beber was busy mastering the fundamentals of daily living from scratch.
“I always carried the memory of Ms. Beber with me in my mind. She knew what she was doing, did amazing work and never cowered to anyone,” recalls Stewart. “That always inspired me, especially in some of my roughest moments.”
Beber admits that although her physical struggles have caused a certain degree of memory loss, she still remembers Stewart from her days at Acton. “Not all my recollections are as vivid, but those ones are,” says Beber. “I grew up without a sense of real confidence, without thinking that anyone believed in me, and I didn’t want that to happen to anyone I taught.”
It was Stewart’s weaknesses, as well as her strengths, that appealed to Beber. “Kirstine was brilliant, but not demonstrative. I had to find a way to bring out those qualities,” explains the former teacher from her home in Victoria, B.C. “I never fit into the regular educational pigeonholes. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise for both of us.”
The teacher who wanted to be “different” wound up with the student who was being labelled with that same word. “I skipped some early grades and was always treated differently — which was at times nice, because I was treated as ‘special,’” explains Stewart, “and sometimes not so nice, because I was treated as ‘strange.’”
And so the stage was set for the two of them to serendipitously meet in the Grade 10 Gifted Withdrawal program. “It was for those of us who had scored really high on our IQ tests,” says Stewart, “but needed our own program to achieve the most we could.”
“Ms. Beber taught us that young women blossom when given the space to talk, think and to be themselves.”
Beber was well-equipped and ready for the challenge. “During my training at York University, I learned that every student had different quirks and should be approached as a unique individual. I enjoyed working with those who had stumbled or experienced behavioural problems. And then there were the students like Kirstine, who were so bright and so ready to learn but needed help to let their creativity loose.”
Stewart recalls the program as one that was largely self-directed: “We were encouraged to do things differently,” says the social media maven, “encouraged to look at everything from a different angle.”
Beber had a variety of out-of-the-box techniques to accomplish those ends. “I would start by giving them quotations, then asked what they meant to them on a global scale. I’d teach courses with names like ‘The Holocaust’ and ‘Human Behaviour,’ as well as ‘Mystery and Imagination.’ They learned things that wouldn’t have been touched on in a conventional class.”
There was one project in particular that remains vivid in Stewart’s mind. “I did an analysis of the ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ lyrics by the Rolling Stones, laying them out against a graph of the historical events discussed in the song. It was that kind of activity and thinking that opened our minds to the endless possibilities available in any work of art.”
With a job that requires a certain amount of standing in the spotlight, it’s not unusual to see Stewart sharing the ranks of a best-dressed list. Interestingly, she credits her high school mentor as having a hand in helping develop her personal brand.
“Ms. Beber was not your ordinary teacher. She didn’t conform to anyone’s conventional ideas of how a teacher should dress — she looked like Debbie Harry from Blondie. She was high-heel wearing, had punkish kind of hair and great lipstick.”
There’s a giant whoop of laughter from Beber when informed of her former student’s portrait of her. “She’s absolutely right. I remember one day when I was wearing purple stockings with purple high heels and I was asked, ‘Is this what you wear to class every day?’ And, I said, ‘No, sometimes I wear my Converse high tops.’”
But there was a lot more to Beber than what she wore. “I always let the students call me Suzi. I was a big believer that if they were going to respect you, they’d respect you for who you were and what you did, not for some title.”
She was right. Stewart respected Beber back then — and still does to this day, feeling that her fashion-forward instructor didn’t just teach the future media superstar about self-image but about how you have to define yourself clearly in your own mind first.
“You know, sometimes it takes someone who doesn’t look like everybody else to lead the way,” says Stewart. “Too often women get rewarded for ‘good girl’ behaviour, for raising our hands and doing what the rules say. Ms. Beber taught us that young women blossom when given the space to talk, think and to be themselves.”
After her physical setbacks, Beber admits that it took much fortitude to map out a new life for herself. Therapy dogs became an important part of it, helping to guide and protect her. In 2001, the former teacher founded the Smiling Blue Skies Cancer Fund. Since that time she’s raised over $1.6 million toward treating canine and feline cancer. The woman who inspired Kirstine Stewart, and so many others, received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Guelph for her charity work. Stewart recalls her time with Beber as the most formative of her life: “She spotted something special in me and encouraged me. That’s all it took and I think of her, with gratitude, all of the time.”
When this sentiment is relayed to Beber, she’s silent for a while and then her voice is thick with emotion as she thinks about her days as a teacher in the ’80s, about the trauma that nearly ended her life in the ’90s and about the amazing world she has rebuilt for herself since. “You can’t just shut the door,” she says. “You have to find the way to open it again.” And, that’s just what Stewart has done in her own life.
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity.