Brand building through storytelling

Teachers who changed my life

I was buying an ice cream cone one bright day last June when a voice behind me exclaimed, “I know you!” Not a chance, I thought. This portly, balding fellow with the double scoop of chocolate Oreo surely had me confused with someone else.

Then he described me as I’d been at age 20 in his Renaissance literature class at the University of Toronto, right down to who my friends had been. My God, it was Professor Marinelli! He’d been slender then, with long, elegant hands that would gesture in delight as he sat cross-legged on his desk explaining one of Spenser’s images. And he’d seemed tall, as if the sheer breadth of his knowledge had given him another six inches.

We chatted awhile about my work as a journalist, and I didn’t think to mention what a splendid teacher he had been. Nor did he say what I hoped he would-that I was one of his finest students. What about all those A essays I’d written? The awards I’d won for excellence in English? The class discussions I’d dominated? I headed back to work feeling vaguely disgruntled.

A month passed before I thought of Professor Marinelli again. Then one night, in a melancholy mood, I turned to a poem that had comforted me often since I first discovered it in his course on the seventeenth century.

Poets back then had two favourite themes: sex and God. The poet I liked best, John Donne, juiced up his godly poems with such racy turns of phrase that he might as well have been writing about quivering loins. The poet who left me yawning, George Herbert, served his spirituality straight up.

Herbert had seemed downright sucky to me until Professor Marinelli taught us his deceptively simple poem about a generous host, called “Love,” who lays on a lavish spread for a guest who feels unworthy. Love’s kindness finally persuades the guest to eat. There’s lots of symbolism here for Christians, and we discussed that in class. Yet there’s also meat for every unbeliever who has ever felt unworthy, and we talked about that, too.

I didn’t believe in God then-I had more faith in Led Zeppelin and Mexican grass. But in that classroom, it crossed my mind that there could be such a thing as a state of grace.

Professor Marinelli died last summer. He suffered a massive heart attack around the time I last pulled Herbert’s poems off the shelf-perhaps the very day. Finding his obituary as I drank my third cup of coffee, I wondered why my eyes filled with tears. At first I thought it was guilt for not having thanked him that day in the ice cream parlour, when we talked only about me.

Then I realized that, like all great teachers, he hadn’t been looking for thanks. For him, it was enough to share his delight in the transformative power of poetry, and he created the illusion that only the poems themselves were flinging open the doors of my mind. In fact, his own gracious benevolence was changing me, too. I remember how thoughtfully he answered students’ questions, no matter how clued-out them seemed to me.

But maybe I was the one who didn’t get it. You didn’t have to be the best to have a place of honour at Professor Marinelli’s table. You had only to want to be there.

Think of the people who gave you strength, and I’ll bet you think of teachers. Whether they taught The Iliad or The Cat in the Hat, the mysteries of the solar system or the rules of basketball, they were really giving lessons in living.

Great teachers inspire us to embrace possibility and reject can’t-do-it-mental blocks. As a friend of mine says about our yoga teacher, whose knowing hands coax us into poses we never dreamed we could hold, “If Marlene were teaching parachute jumping, I’d jump out of a plane.”

I’ve had teachers who stunned me with their thunderbolt insights about books I forgot long ago, and teachers whose luminous moral integrity I ignored until I found it steadying my soul years later.

Like the rest of my Grade 12 class, I used to snicker at dotty Mrs. Wight, who rouged each cheek with a vermilion circle and sometimes wore her shapeless knit dresses inside out. Our eye-rolling didn’t faze her; she liked kids too much. One time she paused in a lecture on The Brothers Karamazov (she was prone to reveries) and said, with a look of startling tenderness, “None of you have done anything irreparable yet. You’re too young.”

I thought there was no ferocity in her-until the day I made fun of a purple poem by a fellow student. Sarcasm seemed natural to me because my parents trained it daily on the world and on each other. But Mrs. Wight would not have it in her classroom. She tore down the aisle like an avenging angel and dragged me out of earshot for a talking-to on arrogance. “He’s in love with words,” she reminded me. “That’s a wonderful thing.”

She never caught me laughing at a classmate again.

Of all the uses people find for their energies, I can’t think of one more vital than teaching. At its best, it just might be the purest expression of our need to connect with one another. Does any other relationship allow less room for power games? There’s no expectation that the parties be equal, as in friendship or sexual love, and none of the dependence binding parent and child.

But there’s plenty of passion and excitement in the passing on of valued traditions, be they Shakespeare’s plays, the asanas of yoga or the rules of the road. Thank goodness you don’t need a teaching certificate to be, from time to time, a keeper of the flame. All you need is experience to share.

I’d never have broken into journalism without the help of pros who showed me the ropes. I remembered their mentorship when I landed my first editing job. I’d spare 15 minutes for every would-be writer who called me for advice and coaxed countless beginners through three and four rewrites.

Most had no talent, but the best of the lot are now breaking front-page stories, publishing books or even running magazines. They could teach me a thing or two, and that’s as it should be. I’m proud to see them join me at the banquet table.

First published in Pathways in slightly different form, January/February, 1994. Copyright Rona Maynard.

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