It’s as clear as if it happened yesterday. The past forty years hadn’t fogged up the rearview mirror. I was sitting in class waiting for my College Physics course results. The room was quiet, my head – not so much. Self-doubt and anxiety were performing a duet at rock concert volume.
It’s not so much that I thought I had sucked at the lab. I knew I did a good job. But it was the act of sitting there, waiting. I had this tight knot in my stomach; it was a knot tied there many years before by my 7th-grade teacher. She was everything my Physics teacher, Paul Riverside wasn’t.
Miss Ratched (not her real name) gave us weekly tests. On Fridays, she’d call out names in descending order of grades. Each student in turn walked to the front of the class to collect their paper. For the first few called, it was a triumphant march. But triumph morphed into humiliation the further down the list your name was. Miss Ratched’s smile became more sadistic as the names were read.
The pause between the names got longer. The few remaining students melted into their seats. The rest of us squirmed. After the last walk of shame, she’d straighten up from leaning back on her desk and take a menacing step towards us brandishing her best “Pennywise” smile. “Have a Good weekend” followed with the ominous, “See you on Monday.”
I was now sitting in my college class waiting for Mr. Riverside to call my name. I couldn’t get Miss Ratched’s sadistic smile out of my head. She disappeared when Mr. Riverside called for everyone’s attention.
“I’m going to break from tradition and ask that this next student come up here to receive his paper in person. (I started to squirm.) I never give a perfect grade, but made an exemption in this case. Gary Blair, come on down.”
Wow! I wasn’t expecting that.
On handing me my paper, he asked if he could use it as a teaching tool for his classes as it exemplified what he looked for. My confidence grew three sizes that day.
I’m sure you had good, bad, and mediocre teachers. And that you also had teachers who handed you the keys to the world’s curiosity cabinet. Paul Richardson, my physics teacher was one such teacher. Another was Ann Dunlevy who was my philosophy teacher two years prior.
If High School was serving me a “lean cuisine” plate of education, CÉGEP (college) invited me to a meaty buffet. (apologies to my vegan friends). I was a 17-year-old Cookie Monster and college was my cookie jar.
My first year was business studies, seemed a pragmatic choice. Boooring!
I switched to Humanities after the first semester. My first class was in Philosophy. Ann Dunlevy was my teacher. Along with Paul Riverside, she would leave a lifelong impression on me. So much so, that forty years later I’m sharing my memories of them with you.
Ann Dunlevy’s passion for philosophy was contagious. Her mission was to turn us into critical thinkers. She guided us through an introduction to history’s great thinkers. It was in her class that I got a sense of my place in the world.
A major component of her class was to break us up into small groups. She assigned each group to a particular philosophy. We were to then research and present our findings and conclusions to the class.
My group explored “Existentialism”. I discovered the post-war works of J-P Satre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. What teenager couldn’t relate to existentialism, a philosophy defined by “angst”? I still consider myself an existentialist to this day. Do we ever stop searching for the meaning of life?
Ann based the class on the short book, “Perspectives, the Story of a Dot, a Line, and a Circle”. It was a little book that held a universe of ideas. It was the perfect can opener for our sealed minds. There was nothing that was “off-topic”. When I heard later that she was a nun, it shocked me. Then again, so was the TV art historian, Sister Wendy Beckett who never shied away from giving us all the sordid details about the artists and their work.
Ann Dunlevy and Paul Riverside were my inspirations.
They changed how I viewed the world and myself. They rose above the typical teacher/student dynamic. They weren’t shy to show their humanness, their vulnerability. They were relatable which made them all the more relevant.
They were teachers, not preachers. They planted the seed of curiosity in me that would grow throughout my life. They taught with humility, empathy, and patience.
Do you have teachers who have influenced you beyond your school years?
Gary Blair is Owner and Chief Engagement Officer for i24 Call Management Solutions and Founder of the Art for Healing Foundation. He's passionate about creating connections between people through both his for-profit and not-for-profit activities. Communication is the name of the game.
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