The teacher who changed my life didn’t get a bottle of Riesling or a gift card from the neighbourhood coffee franchise. I don’t believe my mother even sent a thank-you card. Such tokens of gratitude weren’t standard in the mid-1980s.
I thought of Mr. Doyle (like all my teachers, he had no known first name) as I joined a crowd of frazzled mothers in the greeting-card aisle at the drug store the night before the last day of school. He was my Grade 6 teacher. My school experience in rural Nova Scotia until that point had been dispiriting.
One of my first report cards noted I would be a better student if I spent as much time on my studies as I did toying with my hair and chatting with my classmates. This advice still applies.
By Grade 2, I had been moved into a segregated special-education class for reading and writing. At night, my mother and I would sit in the windowless dining room of our apartment cycling through flash cards. I had a habit of inserting words I imagined must be there as I scanned pictures trying to figure out the text.
“Where, WHERE, do you see that word?” my mother would ask in exasperation. More than a few nights ended in tears. I didn’t appreciate her frustration until I sat at my own dining room table trying to explain discovery math to an eight-year-old.
Alone in my room, I would try to read books with a flashlight before opting to tell my own stories to the collection of stuffed animals that loomed over my bed. In the morning, I struggled to fill my daily journal, unsure of how to spell the words tumbling around in my head. I preferred to look pensive over foolish.
Still, when the school held a story-writing contest, I couldn’t resist signing up. In front of my class, I pretended to read from my Hilroy notepad, telling a vivid tale of a farmer’s battle with a greedy rabbit. More than just a rip-off of Beatrix Potter, my tale was an improvised monologue. I became more animated as I went on, energized by my classmates’ delight. The winner was selected by a vote. I won by a landslide and earned the honour of representing my school at the regional championships. To enter, I had to submit a written copy of my work.
I told my teacher I wanted to polish my printing and asked for the night to do it. At home, I tried to document my creation, replacing the words I couldn’t spell with simpler ones. When my teacher asked why I hadn’t submitted the story she had heard me tell, I withdrew from the competition. I told her I was scared of public speaking.
By the time I arrived in Mr. Doyle’s English class, I had decided I was dim. No one had ever actually told me this, but nor had anyone given me reason to doubt it. Mr. Doyle was nearing retirement and so theatrically old-school he would have given a lower mark for being described with a cliché. He taught cursive writing, grammar and the classics.
Most days, I would leave his lessons to go down the hall for tutoring. I don’t know how or why Mr. Doyle intervened, but one day he told me to stay. He moved my desk to the front of the class and told me he expected me to be the first to put my hand up. He told me I was smart. Most critically, he invited me to join his after-school story-telling club.
It was a small group, all the types of freaks and geeks you would expect to join a story-telling club. We sat in a circle on the floor. Mr. Doyle wore a hat with a fur tail he had skinned from road-kill raccoon. That was the first story he told us. I spent months scanning the roadside looking for the opportunity to make my own hat.
There was order to the meetings, but no formality. We didn’t need to write our stories down. We took turns telling them, sometimes building on each other’s narratives. Attending the club meant missing my bus home. I made every meeting. On the walk home, I’d replay the stories in my head and plan for the next week. I wanted to impress Mr. Doyle. While other teachers had certainly cared, he was the first teacher I thought really believed in me.
He caught me cheating on a grammar test one day − the answers were on a sheet of paper I moved out from under my backpack. I looked up and caught him staring at me. We held eyes as I slid the paper away. We never discussed it and I never did it again.
By the end of the year, I had transformed. My learning challenges − we would call them disabilities now − still existed (and do today), but were managed by strategies that only come with confidence. I made the honour roll and stayed on it until graduation when I won a medal for the highest English mark. I should have tried to find Mr. Doyle then, but had the carelessness of adolescence.
Years later, well into my career as a journalist, I tried to track him down. I wanted him to know I had become a professional storyteller, that I could still remember what it felt like to sit in his class and how grateful I was that he saw in me what I couldn’t get on a page. What I found was his obituary.
Year-end teacher gifts are now expected. Both of my son’s teachers this year were remarkable in different ways. One was bright and warm, adored by her kindergarten pupils like a second mother. I know more about her cat, Sally, than some of my close friends.
By contrast, my oldest son’s teacher was hard. She also had the wisdom to see that my clever but maddening son was better motivated by praise than fear. It’s too early to know if either teacher will be central characters in their lives, but I have a sense my boys will tell me so in 25 years.
So as I tucked a gift card into an envelope, I added a note to thank them. Just in case they turn out to be Mr. Doyle.
The Globe and Mail, June 27, 2018