The Incomparable Mr. G: Part 1

Mr. G. taught me literature and creative writing when I was in high school. He was in his late 50s at that time. During the two years I knew him, I never saw a discipline issue arise in his classroom. He encouraged students to bring snacks and lunches to class with them, and often said he wished we could sit in beanbag chairs instead of at desks; the tone of his lessons was always casual, conversational, often straying away from the material at hand to issues that seemed marginal (but usually turned out not to be); still, no one was ever unruly or off-task. I only once saw him lose his temper, at a crowd who were being extremely noisy outside his door while he was trying to conduct a lunch-hour activity, and it was a fearsome sight – the entire hallway full of students fell immediately stone silent, and not a squeak was heard until the bell rang for classes again. I’ve always wondered what it was about him that inspired that sort of respect.

Mr. G was the director of the school’s yearly musical productions, which were a big deal, involving a cast of almost a hundred each year and bringing in an array of students, not only drama nerds and musicians but also athletes and stoners and high academic achievers. After a friend and I did a special project in Mr. G’s class in which we performed a scene from “She Stoops to Conquer,” he asked me to try out for a lead in that year’s production of “The Pajama Game.” After my audition, he was straightforward about my limitations. My singing voice wasn’t very powerful. What was more, my boyfriend would undoubtedly be given the male lead, and Mr. G was uncomfortable casting us in such close proximity. He was therefore going to offer me the comic lead instead.

I was struck, not only by his honesty, but also by his acknowledgement of the real-life situation within which my academic and extra-curricular life was taking place. He seemed to understand that his students were real people. He knew who was friends with whom and who was dating whom, and had a general sense of the states of our relationships at any given moment. He also seemed to know about other activities we were involved in, and some rudimentary details about our family lives. You wouldn’t think this would be unusual in a small town, but none of my other teachers seemed to be aware of, or concerned about, the life I led outside their classrooms.

At the same time, Mr. G was never “chummy” or invasive; he maintained a respectful and respectable distance from us and from our lives. On the night of our last performance of “The Pajama Game,” he sat the whole cast down in the theatre before the show and instructed us to enjoy our post-production cast party, and “not to do anything stupid.” I’ve often wondered what he did that night, and if it was a lonely feeling for him, sending us off to celebrate without him. I might have felt lonely in his place. There was no question, however, of inviting him to join us; as much as we appreciated him and our relationship with him, the divide between us was absolutely clear, and even if we’d urged him to come to our party, I can’t imagine he would have accepted.

When I went to college – to a campus that was a five-minute walk up the hill from the high school – I asked Mr. G if I could come see him occasionally with some of the fiction and poetry I was writing, and get feedback from him. He said of course, and during the couple of years before I left my hometown, I visited him once every month or so, and we talked about the writing I was doing, and my experiences at college, but nothing more personal than that.

A few years later, after I’d moved away, I was home visiting my father, and I dropped by the high school to see Mr. G. He seemed delighted that I was there. I was studying education, and he tried to encourage me to come back and do my internship with him. This would have made no practical sense, as I was studying to teach English as a Second Language and he was a Literature teacher, but I was touched by his enthusiasm and obvious attachment to me.

That was the last time I saw him. My father moved to Montreal not long after that, and, having few ties left to my hometown, I haven’t returned there in almost eight years. Mr. G would be close to eighty now. I did a Google search a year or so ago and found a couple of local newspaper articles, several years old, about his struggle with cancer. At this point, I don’t even know whether he’s still alive. I should really find out, because if he is, there are some things I want to tell him about what he did for me.

Next post: What I learned about identity, integrity, and teaching from the incomparable Mr. G.

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)

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7 responses

  1. I am learning so much reading these entries. One thing I am learning is what different people I was/am learning with were/are going through as well as myself and what teachers were and were not doing. It is fascinating. Thanks.

  2. I’m glad! I also learned a lot from writing them – it’s amazing how being asked to focus on one particular aspect of an experience throws it into a specific and revealing light. More on that tomorrow…

  3. Great entry. It reminds me again that I have to write a letter to my Mr. G.: Professor Douglas Lochhead at Mount Allison University. He is about eighty as well. But still alive and well and living in Sackville. And I did go back and see him about five years ago and I told him that he was the one who encouraged me to write. I’m really glad I did it, even though it was a little uncomfortable… I mean where can one go in a conversation after one drops a heavy bomb on your lap like, “Um, so you made me who I am, sir. And thanks.”

  4. I ended up writing a letter to my grade 5 teacher, several years ago. He had passed away by then, but his wife wrote me a thank-you note.

    That personal/professional line is so important. I had a fun English teacher in high school, but over the years she increasingly crossed the line from caring, to invasive, and then breaking kids’ confidences to her because she thought “everyone could learn from it.” (The latter didn’t happen in my time when students still liked her, but later on, when my younger friends totally hated her.) She was also way too open about her own private life.

    • londonmabel:
      I finally did write to Mr. G a couple of months ago, and it was a most gratifying exchange – and humbling, as he set me straight on a few factual errors in these posts! I agree that, as attracted as we may be to teachers who are chummy, our respect for them often wanes.

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