Hurricane Eye, Part One
I had approximately two dozen teachers in the four and a half years I was in high school. Some of them drifted through my life, lasting either a few weeks or even a year without having any impact on me at all. There were also a handful who mattered, who genuinely affected me, usually in a positive way.
My experience with teachers- and authority figures in general- was much better in high school than elementary school. The teachers in high school were less controlling and patronizing. For the most part, they had senses of humour. They were generally flexible and relatable. Out of all the teachers I had, these eight stand out. They’re the ones who had the largest impact both on my life at the time and the person I became later on. As usual, all names have been changed.
She was there at the beginning. At the start of grade nine, I was thoroughly confused about what the expectations were in high school. How does one act and behave? What are the rules? I was used to teachers being inflexible and often humourless hard-asses. Mrs Ahmed taught my learning strategies class, in which a pack of retards get thrown together in a classroom and ostensibly learn how to learn.
In one of our first assignments we were supposed to write about what we did over the weekend. This was a useful exercise for most of the students in the class, who had profound reading and writing disabilities. However, it was a breeze for me. In about fifteen minutes I’d written two pages of complete fiction about how I’d attempted to take over the world with the help of mind-controlled penguins.
A few days later Mrs Ahmed took me aside.
“About this journal entry you wrote for me…” she said.
Oh shit, I thought. Here’s where the shoe drops. I’d had a lot of “conversations” with teachers about my unconventional writing assignments in elementary school.
“It was really good,” she said. “Quite imaginative. It is clear that you do not need the extra writing practise. In the future, if you like, we can find alternative work for you to do.”
I was agog.
“No, no, it’s all right. I’ll do the journal writing,” I said.
She accepted this.
Mrs Ahmed went on to teach me three classes- more than any other teacher. We got along well. I was the only student in her two learning strategies classes without any behavioural problems, and so while everyone else was going bananas, she and I would quietly commiserate at the front of the classroom.
“Only six weeks until summer,” she’d say to me.
Mrs Ahmed was the first teacher I could reason with, whose decisions were not edicts from on high, but rather the reasonable conclusions of a human being.
She was the reason I became an honour student in high school. Even though I was smart, I’d never been successful at school. For most of elementary school nobody could figure out what the hell to do with me, what my deal was, or what I needed. So I just mentally checked out and coasted on mediocre grades. Whenever I got my report card, I barely even glanced at it.
In grade nine, I was enrolled in a mainstream science class. It was taught by Mrs Borst, who was intimidating and sharp-tongued. In less than a month I was completely overwhelmed. My parents decided to switch me to the retarded science class, and when Mrs Borst found out that was going to happen, she phoned my parents.
“He’s getting a 90% in my class right now,” she said. “I will not allow him to switch.” She and my parents both knew that she couldn’t stop them from transferring me to another class. “I’ll tutor him myself if that’s what it takes. Either after school, or at your home.”
In the end, she did both. I was terrible at science and had a limited short-term memory, so she grilled me endlessly and enthusiastically about everything in the curriculum. I remember endless tutoring sessions in the prep room next to her class, and I remember the cognitive dissonance of her showing up at my doorstep and showing me flashcards at my dining room table. I remember the day of my final science exam meeting her for one last tutoring session.
In the end though, in all honesty, it wasn’t her hard work or dogged belief in me that made me a better student. It was the first thing she told her parents when she phoned them: “He’s getting a 90% in my class.”
That’s pretty good, I thought to myself. I wonder how long I can keep that up.
I was skeptical of him at first. He came across as a stereotypical jock, and initially I assumed they’d gotten some meathead from the phys-ed department to teach drama. Actually, drama was the only subject he taught, and he was an honest-to-god actor who was involved in a local theatre company. Even after I found out about that, I wasn’t sure about Mr Tobias, because he was gruff, cantankerous, and had a bone-dry sense of humour. I couldn’t tell if he liked me. He had reservations about me, too. My parents had meetings with all my teachers at the beginning of the year, and Mr Tobias was taken aback by the news that I had dyspraxia.
“Is drama class really a good fit for him?” he asked.
Then he saw the first drama skit I performed, and was impressed by my enthusiasm. I discovered Mr Tobias’ secret: if you took his class seriously, he took you seriously, and would bend over backwards to help you succeed.
I remember having some kind of struggle in his class, and afterward in the hallway he took me aside and told me what he’d be willing to do to help. I don’t remember the details, just the expression on his face: so earnest and genuine.
He also figured out how to get me to memorize a Shakespearean monologue; no small feat with my memory problems. He told me to type up the monologue on my laptop until I could remember the whole thing. It took seventy-five minutes.
She taught my grade ten gifted class, and had herself been in the gifted stream. It was obvious; she was one of us. She bragged about having a holographic portrait of Charles Dickens in the foyer of her home, and offered up recommendations for the anime fans in the class (of which there were many). I remember her telling us about a short Christmas story she’d sent out to her family and friends over the holidays, about a serial killing Santa Claus who dismembered his victims and mailed the body parts as gifts.
“Some of the people I sent that to haven’t really talked to me since then,” she said, with a hint of confusion in her voice.
I remember the support she gave me as a writer. Creatively speaking, high school was a difficult time for me. I got very little work done, because so much else was going on in my life. I remember writing a short story for her that she raved about. She told me she was jealous of my talent, and mentioned to my parents at parent-teacher interviews that she thought I had a future as a writer.
Ms Hesselberg also launched a playwriting contest at the school, which I won.
“I’ve read your play about six times, and I still don’t completely understand it,” she told me, “but it’s obviously brilliant.”
I can’t accurately explain how much it means to a budding writer to see their work performed on stage. Seeing other people take my writing so seriously led me to take my writing seriously as well. It was shortly afterward that I began to self-identify as a writer, instead of as someone who merely enjoyed writing.