Guest post by fellow Trillium nominee Tony Burgess: “something sacred”

Trillium rhomboidal by Pierre Joseph Redoute, c 1800

The guest posts by my fellow Trillium nominees are continuing to come in. Tony Burgess, author of Idaho Winter,  writes today’s piece, and it’s yet another fantastic teacher story.

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?

Tony writes:

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 BewdleyPontypool Changes EverythingCaesarea, 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.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Guest post by fellow Trillium nominee Tony Burgess: “something sacred”

  1. lillianna

    It is a poignant moment in childhood when we see a teacher, parent or other adult in a position of authority express themselves sensitively, in an unrestrained manner. At that moment we learn they too are emotional beings and open up to learning from the messages they give us. Wonderful story Tony. Thank you for sharing these books from your childhood Tony, Phil and Helen.

  2. Thanks Lillianna. I’m loving this series too. There’s another post to come later this week.

  3. Ann T

    I’m enjoying reading about these special books and special teachers from your fellow Trillium nominees. What a treat!
    I was such a bookworm from such a young age I don’t know if I could pick a single book as a favourite. Each one I loved until I finished the next one, which I then loved better than the one before. I huddled under the covers with a flashlight until all hours of the night devouring stories.
    As for teachers, I had a truly rich mosaic: in grade 2 my teacher had short black hair cut in a pixie. She wore miniskirts and pale, pale pink lipstick and swooned over the song Love Is Blue, which the whole class learned to sing. In grade 3 my teacher was less of a romantic, and I learned to turn my ear to accents, because she pronounced oil like aisle, and made bury rhyme with furry. In grade 5 my teacher wore beautiful saris and brought some to class that we got to try on. She spoke English to us, but her words had loops and curls attached that I weren’t there when I said them. My grade 6 teacher wore her hair in a tightly rolled French knot, kept her bright red lips pressed together and her tongue rolling in her cheek. She clicked a pen endlessly, and from her I learned to get the spellings of words absolutely correct in the spelling bee lineup, or risk her displeasure and the humiliation of being told, curtly, to sit down.

  4. Love these details. My Miss Way (grade 3) reminded me of Snow White and taught us how to make candles, like pioneers. My mom may even still have that lumpy candle! I wonder if teachers realize what an impact they have on kids — if teachers remember being in the student seat themselves.

  5. Helena

    A children’s book about teacher stories. That would be fun! Thanks for these great recollections…..

  6. Mariam

    I am going to seek out The Light in the Forest. I love the way the teacher had each child take a turn at reading the ending out loud. They became active participants by taking the story in quietly by listening, and then also giving it back through their voice to the rest of the class. Brilliant. Thanks for a great post Tony.

  7. Well said Mariam. Thanks for chiming in.

  8. Marilyn

    I love all these teacher stories too. Thanks for this one Tony. Teachers have such an important impact on the children in the class. When I was a teacher my favourite part of the day was just after lunch when it was story time. No matter what grade it was the stories were loved by the children and me. Now that I’m retired I go once a week to read to a group at a long term care home and they love it too. They sit very still and listen to every word. You don’t have to be a child to enjoy having a story read to you.

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