David Suzuki recalls Louise Wyatt

The Learning Partnership's governance report


"The thing about Miss Wyatt was she was fearsome, absolutely terrifying... she was such a presence."

David Suzuki

David Suzuki started school late. Not that he wanted to. Now a renowned scientist and broadcaster, young David was living in Vancouver, a happy five-year-old, when his family was uprooted and dispatched to the BC interior.

It was 1942. In the public hysteria after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, people of Japanese origin were considered a security threat. Even though Suzuki's parents were born in Canada and spoke English at home, the Suzuki family was interned in a shack town near Slocan City in the Kootenays. David Suzuki's life changed forever.

The BC government refused to fund education for the interned children but in due course the federal government stepped in and two teachers arrived for the hundreds of kids."I started at age 7," recalls Suzuki. "They skipped me through three grades in one year and as a result I got lousy formal training. They were doing division and multiplication in Grade 4 and I didn't have a clue. So my father gave me spelling and math. But mostly he inspired my love of the outdoors. He was an avid fisherman and he took me camping and hiking. He was my most important teacher in terms of my love of nature."

After the war the internees thought they could return home. But their houses, fishing boats, shops and possessions had been confiscated and auctioned off at a fraction of their worth. The government forced them to settle east of the Rockies with whatever belongings they could carry in suitcases or face deportation to Japan.

The Suzukis moved to Ontario to work as farmhands in Leamington, outside Windsor. David learned quickly that hard work and a good education were the only possible escape from this life of poverty. His family resettled in London, where David enrolled at London Central Collegiate Institute.

That's where he encountered Louise Wyatt.

"The thing about Miss Wyatt was she was fearsome, absolutely terrifying. She demanded that you deliver. She was such a presence because she had such high standards.

"She was a very important figure in my life. She always expected more of me than I could deliver. Even if I got an A on a paper, she would let me know if she thought I could have done a better job. She expected the best of me."

Louise Wyatt taught English literature and composition.

"She was a great teacher. She would break into long recitations of Shakespeare with no embarrassment, and she wrote a play in which I had a part. Because of our admiration for her we wanted to live up to her expectations of us.

"I have one absolutely humiliating memory of her. In those days, at the end of Grade 13 there were standard exams. I came out after the English composition exam and there was Miss Wyatt. She asked me which topic I had chosen for the essay part. Well, I had written about A Day at the Circus. Her face crumpled. She was so disappointed. Other topics were more challenging and I did a cheap thing by describing the sights at the circus, the colours, the smells. I had taken the easy way out. To this day I remember it. She knew that I knew I had taken the easy route."

Suzuki and Wyatt reunited for CBC TV's biography series, Life and Times.

Louise Wyatt did not influence David Suzuki's career decision directly. He says he knew all along that he wanted to study biology.

"But her profound effect was that I became a writer as well. Many university science students are poor writers with an attitude: 'I'm a scientist, I won't have to write.' Well, I was a writer. I always credit Miss Wyatt with that. There's no doubt that she had an impact on me."

After high school Suzuki lost touch with Miss Wyatt. More than 40 years later the two were reunited for a taping of Life and Times, CBC TV's biography series.

"The TV crew found her in an old folks' home in London. She was 90-something. She had shriveled into a tiny woman. I remembered her as 6 foot 6 - you know how it is when you're a kid," he says.

"She grabbed onto my hand and told me, 'I remember your face. It was so alive, and then a black cloud would come over it.'

"I was a loner in high school. I was conscious of the fact that I was Japanese. I told her on camera that I had been self-conscious. I also told her that I felt I hadn't delivered. It was very moving."

David Suzuki and Louise Wyatt stayed in touch until her death a few years ago.

Although he was a solitary teenager, Suzuki did well in high school and won a scholarship to Amherst College, a private school in Massachusetts.

"That experience made me as a scholar."

He was enthralled by his embryology and genetics courses and remembers his third-year biology classes vividly. "William Hexter would take us into an area of genetics and ask questions. For example, you have a family with dark hair and brown eyes but one child has red hair and light eyes. How can that be? Professor Hexter posed interesting puzzles for his students. He turned genetics into detective work.

"When I became a teacher myself I tried to challenge my students with an interesting fact and have them unravel mysteries. He gave me an approach to teaching that I tried to copy."

William Hexter is now retired but the two have maintained contact. "He was instrumental in my getting an honorary degree from Amherst, one of my greatest academic honours."

Suzuki graduated from Amherst in 1958 and earned a PhD in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961. It was an exciting time to be a scientist and he came to believe that science could eliminate superstition and ignorance. He returned to Canada to teach genetics, first at the University of Alberta and then at the University of British Columbia.

Pushed by his students, Suzuki read widely about the practical impact of genetics. He began to understand that genetics had been the rationale underlying the incarceration of the Japanese-Canadians during World War II.

"This grotesque intersection of two great passions in my life - genetics and civil rights - was an agonizing confrontation with the intersection of science and society," he has written. "Scientists need to learn more about the social ramifications of their activity as revealed by history . Above all, we must encourage public discourse about the interface between science and society and support those among our students and colleagues who enter this arena."

To this end David Suzuki has written more than 30 books, including science books for kids, and hosted several award-winning television series. On CBC Television's The Nature of Things, Suzuki presents complex science stories in understandable terms.

In these ways he encourages debate about science and society, a discussion begun by his father, honed by his high school English teacher, and inspired by his university biology professor and his students.

David Suzuki is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist, writer and broadcaster. Professor emeritus at the University of British Colombia and chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, he hopes to lead Canada towards a sustainable ecology by the year 2030. Suzuki lives in Vancouver with his wife, Tara Cullis, and their two children.

Louise Wyatt taught English in London until her retirement in 1969 after a 35-year career. She passed away in 2000 at age 92.