Tag Archives: mentors

A sort of homecoming (Part 1)

“And you know it’s time to go

through the sleet and driving snow

Across the fields of mourning to a light that’s in the distance”

A Sort of Homecoming. U2

In my last post I reminisced about a favourite high school English teacher who had recently passed away. At the end of the post I mentioned how his funeral was coming up but that I had a work commitment that prevented me from attending. Well, that evening I broke the news of Mr. Pauls’ death to my wife (she knew him a bit from the days we attended that church before we were married) and she strongly encouraged me to reconsider going to the service. Another pillar of that faith community had passed away in September, and I was unable to attend his funeral and I regretted it afterwards, and my wife reminded me of that.

So, after thinking about it some more, and looking at my options, I decided to rearrange my Wednesday schedule, get someone to cover for me at my work meeting, and prepare to head back, physically and emotionally, to somewhere familiar and yet now quite foreign: my home church.

Or I should say, my home church growing up. Since getting married and moving across town over a decade ago, we’ve joined a new faith community (I guess you can call it that. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the right term) which feels more like home for us, with all of its dysfunction and uncertainty and hand-wringing, than our old church now does. In fact, the last time my wife and I were actually physically in our old church was on our wedding day, believe it or not. That was almost 12 years ago. It wasn’t like we made a conscious decision about not going back. It wasn’t like we said to the church, “thank you so much for nurturing us all those years, for loving us and cheering us on and weeping with us and inspiring us, but we’re now done with you, k bye.” It just happened. We moved across town, we were within walking distance of a new church, we thought we’d check it out, before we knew it I was in the choir and met some people and we were in. It seems cold, I know. And maybe it WAS a little cold, but sometimes you need to have a clean break. It does seem a bit strange, looking back, that we never had a reason or a chance to go back. No major funerals (until now), no weddings, no dinner theatres or fowl suppers, no concerts. Ah well, what do we say around here? Onward.

And yet there’s something about your childhood memories that somehow have a way of seeping into your bones and staying there, latent, until something like a death brings them up to the surface again. I shared a couple of stories about Mr. Pauls in my last post, but that was really just scratching the surface. So many more have bubbled up in the last couple of days. Some of them aren’t really even stories, in the traditional sense of the word. They are more like sketches, or brief images or sounds. Remembering the glint in his eye, or his laugh, for example. Sometimes the stories get jumbled. I remember one that I was PRETTY SURE involved my friend Ed, but as I remember it, I don’t think he could have been there. Maybe it happened and then I told Ed about it after and he liked it. I’ll have to ask him about it. Anyway, I think it must have happened after church one Sunday. Mr. Pauls’ grandson was being baptized and after the service there was a crowd of mostly ladies around the mother and infant, fawning over him, taking turns holding him. The centre of attention. A few feet away, standing by himself and quietly observing the scene was Mr. Pauls. I stood next to him for a bit and he turned to me and said, “Boy, that kid sure has a shock coming to him!” and we both burst out laughing at the sentiment. Classic Mr. Pauls. Here we were at his grandson’s christening, and he couldn’t help but think about “the human condition” and the “suffering and cruelty” of the world that his child would have to eventually have to endure. This sketch doesn’t put Mr. Pauls in a particularly good light, but hopefully it gives you a tiny sense of what he was like and why I loved him so much. Another thing he used to say, and which I’ve taken to heart over the years, is that it is better to be a pessimist instead of an optimist because you’ll always be slightly impressed that things sort of work out. My wife hates this idea (typical optimist!) but I’ve found it has served me well over the years, and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed life any less because of it, in fact I’ve enjoyed things much more. I’m rarely disappointed. A snatch of poetry just came to mind that echoes this sentiment. I’m sure we studied it with Mr. Pauls.

“Therefore since the world has still,

much good, but much less good than ill.

And while the sun and moon endure,

Luck’s a chance but trouble’s sure.

I’d face it as a wise man would,

and train for ill and not for good.”

That just came from some part of my brain that hasn’t been tapped in almost a quarter century, people! (I did just do a google search to get the poet’s name, A.E. Housman, but I had the quotation correct, word for word. I guess I’m still a bit of a show-off. How can you guys STAND me?)

So later on today I’ll head back to my childhood church, to remember a childhood hero, and visit with childhood acquaintances, church family long forgotten, and high school classmates. We never did get to gather 20 years later, as Mr. Pauls had jokingly suggested in grade 12, after we had lived life, to discuss the themes and ideas in the poems we were reading. But it’s been more than 20 years now, and we’ve all been out there, making our way the best we can, we’ve had our hearts broken, probably broken one or two ourselves. I never did punch anyone, but I did tell a family member to “Go Fuck Themselves” once and I’ve never regretted it.

So rather than gather one last time in that second floor English classroom, a classroom that no longer exists: (our high school was torn down a couple of years ago to make condos), we’ll be gathering at my childhood church to remember and honour a man who I initially feared, but who I eventually came to respect and even love.  I wonder what ever happened to all those black and white author photos that hanged so precariously on top of Mr. Pauls’ chalkboard? I never attended our high school reunion a few years ago. I made a flippant remark to a classmate who asked if I was going: “Well I still see everyone I care to see from high school, so what’s the point?” but that wasn’t exactly true was it?

In many ways, this afternoon will be in itself A Sort of Homecoming.

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How Noble in Reason, How Infinite in Faculty…

Hey gang,

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.

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