I hate to start off the new year on a bit of a downer, but I just found out today that my Grade 12 English Teacher, Mr. Pauls, passed away on January 2.
I was blessed with many excellent teachers in high school. (I also had a few terrible ones, but that is how it goes, right?) I’m happy to say that Mr. Pauls was definitely in the former category. I think part of the reason why we had such a high concentration of quality teachers was that our school offered an International Baccalaureate program (or I.B. as the kids called it). If pressed, I’m not sure I could actually tell you what I.B. is/was, I believe it sold itself as an “advanced educational program for gifted kids” or something. I know the sales pitch worked because our high school attracted kids from outside our catchment area, but my friends and I went there because it was in walking distance. (It’s the same way we chose which church we now go to: walking distance. What are we, European? But I digress.) Needless to say, my friends and I weren’t in the I.B. program. That was for the smart kids. We were too busy riding our BMXes to the comic book shop, playing D&D in my friend Steve’s basement, and getting my friend Ed to buy us beer on the weekends. Even though Ed was the youngest of our group, he had the swagger that was able to pull it off.
But back to Mr. Pauls. He was definitely in his element when he taught I.B. English, but some of that enthusiasm rubbed off on us “normals” too.
Mr. Pauls had a legendary reputation. He was tough. He was an asshole. He was mean. He smoked in his office. He hated kids. I can tell you that only a couple of those things were true. (He was tough and he DID smoke in his office. I walked in on him one time smoking and he nervously tossed his cigarette out the SECOND FLOOR WINDOW and coughed and said, “Jesus, Trevor. Don’t you ever knock?” and then he had a sweet glimmer in his eye that said, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this but we’re cool, right?” I never ratted him out. THAT would have been an asshole move, and I was many things in highschool but I don’t think I was an asshole, and neither was he. He also didn’t hate kids. He cared deeply about us, in his own way.)
He was definitely intimidating, but I knew another side of him, because he was a regular attender at the church of my childhood. He sang in the church choir and sat next to my Dad. My Dad, a university drop out but also a lover of arts and literature, would come home from choir on Wednesday nights full of stories about chatting and joking around with “Harry”. He loved him, and loved being his friend, and so by the time I got to high school, there were really two Mr. Pauls that I had to reconcile. The “church” Mr. Pauls and the “school” Mr. Pauls.
Careful readers of this blog will remember I had the lead role in our grade 11 production of “Pippin” which went sideways a few weeks before we were able to put it on and it was cancelled. That was the first time I really had much contact with him, and I saw him at his very worst. I learned later that he was so disappointed FOR us, not AT us, which is a distinction that should be made.
By the time grade 12 rolled around, I finally had a chance to be in his English class. That previous summer, the summer between grade 11 and 12, my Dad took his own life and I was still reeling from it.
In some ways, I still am.
I still remember my seat. Third desk from the front, third row in from the door. His classroom was decorated with 8×11 black and white framed pictures of famous writers. I don’t think I ever got to know all of them (there must have been 20 of them up there) but I certainly could pick out the “bigs”. Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Beckett, Dickens, to name just a few. I wanted to prove to Mr. Pauls that I was just as smart as anyone in those dumb I.B. classes, and I wanted him to like me. It was my last year of public school and I wanted to do it all and leave a positive impression in my wake.
A couple of weeks into class, he asked me to stay behind. I thought, “Oh jeez. Am I in trouble? It’s too early to be in trouble, right?” At the end of class, I approached his desk.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
He looked confused at first and then remembered what he wanted to say. “I’m so sorry about this curriculum. The god damned school board sets it. And grade 12 is all about death, mental illness, suicide. I hate that I have to put you through this.”
I was so relieved I wasn’t in trouble. I felt a wave of adrenaline and compassion wash over me. He was apologizing to me. A nothing grade 12 student, for the upcoming year’s content.
“Oh gosh Mr. Pauls, that’s okay. I’ve always wanted to read Hamlet and now I get to. I’ll let you know if anything upsets me but honestly I can’t imagine anything worse than what I’ve already been through.”
I think he was relieved that we had this talk. “Yes, of course. I’ll even let you guys watch the Mel Gibson version when we are done studying it”.
It proved to be a marvellously rich year for me.
I remember getting to Ophelia’s suicide scene, and Mr. Pauls saying that she was ill and whatever she did under the influence of that illness was beyond her responsibility. I don’t know if he taught it that way other years, but I think maybe he was saying that for my benefit and I was really grateful. He didn’t overstate it, and we moved on.
I’m not suggesting that Mr. Pauls was warm and fuzzy. He wasn’t. On the first day of class he said that he hated us because he got a year older every year but we were always 17. Mathew Mcconaughey made a similar statement a few years later in “Dazed and Confused”.
Another time, in the midst of studying poetry, he slammed his book shut and said “I don’t know why we’re wasting our time here. You need to go out there, get your hearts broken, punch someone, live for 20 years and THEN come back here and we can discuss this stuff.”
I’ll never forget the final exam. It was a quote from T.S. Eliot. “Lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone.” and then one word: DISCUSS.
And you know something?
I COULD. Over that year Mr. Pauls not only challenged and provoked us, but also equipped and enabled us to think about something critically while at the same time showed us how to respond to something aesthetically and emotionally. I wrote for an hour, responding to that one bit of poetry. I can’t tell you WHAT I wrote, 23 years down the line, but I know I put it all out there, knowing it was my last chance to impress him.
A couple of years later, I was hospitalized for my own personal hell version of Depression. Four months of trial and error. I remember Mr. Pauls was the only high school teacher to visit me. (Granted, he was probably visiting me as a church friend. I forgot that he lost a friend too when my Dad died, I suppose. I didn’t have a monopoly on loss, it appeared.)
He started off by apologizing that he hadn’t come sooner. (It was March: towards the end of my stay and I was starting to come out of the darkness some). Even though I had graduated from high school almost two years previous, I STILL wanted to impress him.
He asked me how it was going and I smiled a little, closed my eyes, and recited from memory a passage from Hamlet he made me memorize in Grade 12.
” I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
And he WAS smiling by the end of it. I succeeded, I think. Although he had just one word for me: “Showoff.”
I haven’t seen Mr. Pauls in over a decade. I haven’t been to my old church in over a decade. His funeral is this Wednesday afternoon but I have a work commitment I cannot easily ditch. That night though, I have tickets to a play. It’s not Hamlet, but I think it would be a fitting way to honour a man who was a friend to my Dad and a mentor to me. A man who taught me to love words and how they could make you think and feel at the same time.
I was so busy trying to impress you I don’t know if I ever THANKED YOU. Tonight, these lips won’t kiss. They’ll be praying to broken stone.