As with books, there are some teachers that stay with us forever — the Mrs. Walterses and the Mrs. Knoxes of the world. Who were yours, and why?
In 1969 I was in Mrs. Walters’ grade 4 class. Mrs. Walters was the first person to expose me to the idea that the greater world is primarily an emotional one. That whatever we may learn in class, or from grown ups, was no preparation for how we would feel when and if we became individuals. She used to say that we were not all going to grow up. That some of us would act like children our whole lives. This turned, for me, the cracker jack tagline ‘some kids never grow up’ into a shattering truth. I actually stopped eating it. I believed in Mrs. Walters. It was a bridging kind of belief. Childhood unreality and unnamed fears crossing over, slowly, and arriving at the rough emotional perimeter I would gradually become me.
One day she swept up to the blackboard and wrote in giant block letters – SPEED KILLS. She went back to her desk and said ‘This isn’t always true.’ She was being deliberately cryptic and as we stared at the words, wondering if she meant fast cars or rockets, we knew that it had something to do with someone she knew. That something awful had happened and it had been lied about and that we should know. We were important enough to her that she would trust us to know the truth, even if we didn’t understand what it meant. We felt a responsibility to her world.
In the early spring a horrible war began. The boys were ambushing the girls on the trail and throwing hard apples at them. It was violent and unmerciful. By the time the school bell rang there would often be groups of bruised girls crying in the foyer. And then the boys would fight each other, some out of sudden wild chivalry, others to avenge the wounding of a sister. It was an awful time. Confusing and dangerous. The principal dragged offenders in, but the war dragged on. Until Mrs. Walters closed the door, and went to her chalkboard. When the door closed we knew. I don’t remember exactly what she wrote, there was drawing too, but she was identifying us as sexual beings. That we were on the brink of some of the strongest desires we would ever have and that with that came a responsibility. She used words like abuse and power and control. Her jargon was hippy talk: make love not war. In fact, her husband looked like Jesus and instead of kissing in the parking lot they joined peace signs at the fingertips. She framed it so that if we expressed ourselves in a loving way – kissing behind the school, holding hands, even spinning the bottle, then the war would be over. And the principal, the authority, could still be opposed. We could still be offenders.
And the war ended.
In the last week of school Mrs. Walters read us The Light in the Forest. It was the story of territorial wars between Colonialists and native Americans. A boy is taken from his colonial family by the Leni Lenape tribe and raised as an ‘indian’. He is then traded back for land into a culture he was born into but doesn’t understand. His loyalties become torn, his identity is shattered and betrays both sides. In the end he must accept his colonial roots and declare his native family, who he loves, his natural enemy. It’s a complex book for ten-year-old minds. In 1969 no parent discouraged kids from playing cowboys and Indians. In fact, we watched the redskins and gunslingers chase each other up and down the same pass every Saturday afternoon. We understood that.
Mrs. Walter warned us that Friday was going to be tough. That The Light in the Forest would conclude. And I recall that morning. Kids being quiet at their desks. Mrs. Walters saying nothing as she prepared to read. It wasn’t dread or apprehension we felt, it was that we were all about to do something sacred. We would emerge with more important thought than the principal or the vice principal or gym teacher had ever had. We knew this. We were about to feel the ending of The Light in the Forest.
And much like in Phil Hall’s fine story here, Mrs. Walters couldn’t finish it. She wept because she knew the end. The boy and his Indian family would meet in the forest and declare each other enemy then slowly part ways. She couldn’t read that to us. So she asked the class to pass it around, reading a few sentences each until the book was done.
Tony Burgess is the author of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, Caesarea, and Fiction for Lovers, which won the ReLit Award. In 2008, acclaimed director Bruce McDonald adapted Pontypool into film and Tony was nominated for a Genie Award, and won a Chlotrudis Award, for best adapted screenplay. He lives in Stayner, Ontario, with his wife and their two children.
Trillium Jury Comment: Part genre parody, part postmodern game, Tony Burgess’s sixth novel is a darkly absurdist fusion of the coming-of-age story and the nineteenth-century adventure tale, an after-school special helmed by David Lynch, a wild metafictional romp through places real and imagined, and also a shrewd and surprisingly sensitive treatise on human cruelty, suffering, and compassion.