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An Ode to My Grade 9 English Teacher

09/07/2015 07:59 EDT | Updated 09/07/2016 05:12 EDT
Debbi Smirnoff via Getty Images
A mathematical symbol of pi on a baked pastry apple pie.

September -- if you listen carefully, you can hear the sharpening of pencils and the crinkle of snack wrappers. Some tingle with excitement at the thought of going back, and some cringe. I confess that I was one of the former, especially in high school. Maybe it was because I came from a clan of teachers, or maybe my type A personality meshed well with the routine and regularity of academic life, but I dug the beginning of school. It felt like I was supposed to be there, like summer was a bit of a distraction. I liked the work. I liked being with my peers. I also liked (with a few minor exceptions) my teachers.

Okay, I was a bit of a keener, but I didn't think of teachers as being mere dispensers of marks. Because I was raised among teachers, I knew they were human beings too, and usually interesting ones. I did well in school partly because I worked my tail off, but also because acknowledging that my teachers were human allowed me to figure out what they expected, and how they worked. I didn't see past them. I saw them.

My grade nine English teacher's name was Philip Monaghan. Mr. Monaghan was middle-aged and very grandfatherly, with a soft, steady voice and an easy air about him. To help us learn each other's names, he quizzed us on the class using clever puns and pop culture allusions. He read us Stephen Leacock stories using different voices, the way a parent would at bedtime. He told us how he'd mangled his index finger playing a prank on his sister, and that it still wouldn't bend properly. If you were willing to put in the work, he doted on you. If you misbehaved, he told you to "get the hell out" without losing his grin or changing his tone. Mr. Monaghan was a pro. He'd taught for many years, and it was evident that he'd lived a great deal before that.

I was only ever in one of his classes, and I'm pretty sure he retired not too long after that, but I still saw him around. He substituted for other teachers, and couldn't wait to catch up with former students. A handful of us kept in touch with him after graduation, and for a number of years, we received cards at Christmas -- hand drawn with personalized messages in calligraphy. Mr. Monaghan was a poetic soul who was happy to be in the world, and it showed in everything he did. While I was in grad school, he passed away, and it smarted.

I can't tell you in a blog post the impact one semester in this guy's class had on me. To this day, I write in block letters instead of cursive because he, with a smirk, called me "the destroyer of eyes" because my cursive was small and illegible (yes, they still taught cursive when I was in school). I'm still partial to Stephen Leacock. I still remember the pun he created for my unpronounceable last name on that first quiz, how we told me to be proud to be Scottish. To say that he crept into my own teaching practices would be a gross understatement.

It would be a great tragedy if educators like this man didn't get seen, if they slipped into the background with all the chaos in a classroom. As I said before, I was brought up to notice teachers. If I didn't have "good teacher radar" would people like him have blurred into my other memories of high school? Would my career as a teacher, a philosopher, and a writer have been different or non-existent if that first English course had been assigned to someone else?

Having been on both sides of the desk, I'm the last person in the world to see education with rose-coloured glasses. I gag a little when I watch movies that idealize education. Teaching is hard. Learning is hard. Circumstances in schools are almost never what they should be. Nevertheless, I have to insist that students and parents avoid getting so mired in all of this that they don't notice people like Mr. Monaghan. They're there, and you don't have to be an apple polisher like me to appreciate them. Keep this in mind for the coming school year.

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