Guest post by Phil Hall, fellow Trillium nominee: “a crucial, unmagical gift”

Trillium sessile, Curtis Botanical Magazine, 1788

I posted a while back about being nominated for the 2012 Trillium Book Award, and mentioned that the list of nominees was eclectic. Lately I’ve been wondering how my fellow nominees would muse about children’s literature. What books stayed with them from their childhoods, and why? I’ve invited them to post here over the next while, and am happy to share this first contribution from poet Phil Hall, whose book Killdeer has already won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Phil joins another Trillium nominee, Ken Babstock, on the Griffin shortlist.

Thanks, Phil, for this lovely contribution. Does anyone out there have teary teacher stories to share?

When I was in grade 6, I went to Lamb’s School, an SS # in Verulam Township: 8 grades, 8 rows, 1 room, boys’ & girls’ entrances, the teacher a local farmer’s wife, Mrs Knox.

To extend the lunch hour, to finish her thermos of tea, Mrs Knox began to read to us at 1:00 each day.

After she rang the bell & we rushed in sweaty from lunch, we would put our heads down on our desks & listen, perhaps drift slightly to sleep…

She read The Yearling! I wished my dad was named Penny. I wished we lived in a swamp.

She read Beautiful Joe! Dickens in dog-town. My ears hurt when Joe’s were battered.

“More animal stories!” We liked not having to get right back to work. She read My Friend Flicka.

Then, in that dark spring, she began to read the sequel to Flicka – Thunderhead

A novel about a horse who is a throwback, a white foal, perhaps albino, he doesn’t look like either the stud or the mare, he has a wild spirit, maybe one blind eye. (Here is my grade 6 self remembering.)

But this book, unlike the others read to us, is not really an animal story. We are past the animal story now. This is about hard ranch life, the disappointments of marriage, a wife’s despair.

We kept our heads down all that week, but we didn’t know what the hell was going on…

Friday, fifteen minutes into our quiet-time: the rancher, in a rage, has gone to the far village to carouse & get drunk, his wife is slumped in profile under a big monkey tree, its branches are thrashing, a storm was coming in, Thunderhead can be heard stomping the boards of his stall, snorting & whinnying as if on fire…

Mrs Knox stopped reading. Mid-sentence. She had stopped reading. We woke up. We waited. One of us looked up. We all looked up.

Mrs Knox was standing before us. Holding the book. Red-faced. Crying. She was crying.

We watched her crying. We listened to her crying.

She said – as if she were an illustration voicing her caption –  ‘I can’t go on with this!’

It was a crucial, unmagical gift she was giving us, but we didn’t want it.

I loved my teacher. Not quite like a kid does. I thought, I will go to the barn & shoot the horse. If only she would stop crying & keep reading…

Childhood was over. I don’t remember what happens after that.

Phil Hall was raised on farms in the Kawarthas region of Ontario and attended the University of Windsor in the 70s, where he received an MA in English and Creative Writing. He has published numerous books of poems, four chapbooks, and a cassette of labour songs. Recent books include An Oak Hunch and The Little Seamstress.  Killdeer won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and is shortlisted for the 2012 Griffin Poetry PrizeHe is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and lives near Perth, Ontario.

Trillium Jury Comment: Phil Hall’s Killdeer migrates all our basic borderlands: part memoir, part essay, part poetry, all insight. From highway scars to birdwings, crumbling basements to coastlines, Hall’s essay-poems illuminate not only the big issues, but also the essential paradoxes of everyday life. A sure, wondrous, profound pilgrimage of a book.


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15 responses to “Guest post by Phil Hall, fellow Trillium nominee: “a crucial, unmagical gift”

  1. What a wonderful idea for a series, Kristen! I loved this, Phil. It’s amazing the impact our earliest narrators had. I can still hear the voice of the substitute teacher who read “The Highwayman” to us in Grade 5, in a prefab trailer classroom in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Not the greatest poem on earth, but the greatest way to pull kids into rapt attention.

  2. kristendenhartog

    Thanks Nathalie!

  3. Oh! I actually got all teary reading this! I remembered being read to, our heads down on our desks. I remembered being read The Hobbit, in grade three, in the cemetery next to our school, under a big tree.

    And I remember my Soc prof crying in class once when he started telling us a personal story of his time in Harlem, NY (I think). He dismissed us mid-class and left the room before we did. I think crying in public is one of the most vulnerable and powerful things a person can do. It reflects not only the person but the story they’re telling (or reading).

    • kristendenhartog

      Great stories, Steph. I wonder how it feels from the other side — being the teacher who breaks down?

  4. Jeff

    Very short and powerful anecdote. I remember being read to in grade school and how it was both transporting and relaxing. I recall too, on very rare occasions, seeing adults at their most vulnerable and feeling both embarrassed for witnessing their pain but also to connected to them in a strange way. Involuntarily they let themselves be human in front of a bunch of kids and that helped me grow up.

    • kristendenhartog

      Yes, you put it so well. Showing that kind of vulnerability really gives children something to think about. They’re so used to being the ones crying.

  5. Lovely piece, Phil. Hmm…let’s see. My iconic school reading experience?

    Grade 4 in Northern Ireland. Late afternoon in our private school which looked like a small stone castle. A older man (the superintendent of the school?) would come into our class, thin, worn, in a shapeless overcoat. He’d sit at the front and tell us Irish Fairytales from memory. I remember few details, but do remember the slanting sun across the ancient desks, his sonorous deep voice, a story about a girl choosing a cape that seemed the most plain but being rewarded by its having a bejewelled lining. That year, I was never able to be ‘a knight of the times table’ — who knew what to do with the 8 times table?– and I was always placed far in the outfield of the cricket matches where I would be lost in revery under the tall oaks, the cricket match a distant ritual between white clothed classmates. Others would talk to the teacher about the proper application of linseed oil on cricket bats and other fine points of cricketry like sticky wickets. Sometimes the whole boys school had a running meet, dressed only in our white underwear and plimsoles. We swan naked. We hit each other with our red pocket sized hymn books. I felt disconnected and dazed. But listening to the teacher read this stories, I was THERE. I was transported. I heard every detail. Even the grass blades and trees seemed different as I walked home after hearing him. At home, I wrote strange incantatory texts on cue cards trying to evoke the numinous preternatural language of the folktales, the teacher’s mysterious voice. At eight or nine years old, my brain learned to squint, to hold things in resonant soft focus, to use language to uncover what I thought was really going on.

    • kristendenhartog

      Such a great story, Gary. My daughter is just that age now, and I love the way you’ve put this — “my brain learned to squint, to hold things in resonant soft focus, to use language to uncover what I thought was really going on.” I must tuck it away for future rereads.

  6. Marilyn

    I really enjoyed Phil’s contribution. We were read to in school too, and I also did it as a teacher…one of my favourite parts of the school day. Can’t wait to hear from the other nominees.

  7. Michelle

    When you mentioned a teacher crying in class, I immediately thought back to a day in my Grade 3/4 class with one of my favourite teachers, Miss Cratzbarg. She was an engaging, energetic teacher always laughing, joking and encouraging a positive classroom environment through music, games and listening to records on rainy day lunches etc. One morning, however, I remember seeing her whispering with another teacher before announcements and then watching tears roll down her face during the playing of the National anthem. Shortly after she told us that one of our classmates, Connie Barbeau a nine year-old girl, had been killed the night before riding her bike on Byron Avenue near the school.

    It was one of the first times that I had seen a grown-up cry. Instead of making me feel sad though, Miss Cratzbarg’s news actually made me feel ashamed. Even at that age I was conscious of who fit in and who didn’t in the classroom social order. Connie was a bit of a loner like I was but in her case it was not out of shyness. She was a little awkward (her toes pointed in when she walked, she had a slight lisp and her front teeth crossed into an overbite). I remember laughing when some other classmates had called her “Barbeque Barbeau” a few days before. So as we sat in silence after hearing Miss Cratzbarg’s news, watching her wipe her eyes and hearing her blowing her nose, all I could think of was that no one could ever be mean to Connie Barbeau again but we wouldn’t have any chances to make it up to her either.

  8. What a beautiful, beautiful piece by a beautiful, beautiful poet!

  9. Pingback: Guest post by fellow Trillium nominee Tony Burgess: “something sacred” | Blog of Green Gables

  10. I remember Connie. I was at the cottage when I heard on the radio that a drunk driver had killed a boy on Byron at Clarendon. I immediately told my parents that I hoped it wasn’t Connie’s brother who was a bit of a daredevil. When we got back to Ottawa, my friends were all gathered round the corner of Clarendon and Byron. They were crying and told me that Connie had been killed. She was crossing Byron Avenue on her bike when she dropped a Partridge Family Card that a friend of mine had given her. The drunk driver came over the hill on Byron and ran her over. Her leg was trapped in the wheelwell but the driver didn’t stop. He pulled her approx. 2 blocks down Byron. I often think of her… So sad!

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