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Teachers who have changed my life

Grade 9: Ralph Skinner

I was at St. George's School for Boys for four years, from grade 7 throught grade 10, from ages 11 through 14.  Grades 7 and 8 are a blur -- my parents were separating, and I felt lost, discouraged and very alone.  In grade 8 I was at one point failing Math, and I remember doing so badly in Geography that same year that I only passed because my friend Andrew Leask let me cheat by reading the answers from his test.  

I don't even remember what course I had Ralph Skinner for in grade 9, when I was 13 --- it was history or something similar.  He recognized something in me, and started me reading leftist / Marxist history.  I remember being captivated by the radical critiques in what I read, finding a new perspective that let me see ordinary events in a new way.

I remember few details from that year, but I know that it was Skinner who first kindled what I might call an adult intellectual curiosity. One detail that I do remember -- we went to see an art-house movie together at the Ridge Theater in Vancouver.  I don't remember the movie.

Grade 11 and 12: Stan Copland

I changed schools in Grade 10, going to Sir Winston Churchill, also in Vancouver.  I made the move with my friend Anders Greenwood.  We both felt that our social development would be better served by a co-ed public school, than by an all-boys private school.

Stan Copland taught me English in both grade 11 and 12, when I was 15 and 16.  He had us write "Table Talks", which in his classes meant short reflections on a topic.  I learned a lot about writing from him -- he was a wise, kind man.  It was in Stan's class that I first read William Blake's, "The Tyger."  He liked my interpretive essay, and suggested that I consider submitting it for publication in a teacher's journal.  I didn't, but I kept my love of William Blake's poetry with me always after that.

First year university: Richard Bevis

After a near-disastrous start at Simon Fraser University, I did my first year at the University of British Columbia.  I was in a program called Arts One -- a liberal arts / great books program that took up 3/5th of my class time in first year.  We had shared lectures -- our theme was "the search for the self" -- and then everyone also had a small group of about 10 students.  My small group professor was Richard Bevis, a professor of English.  

We wrote weekly essays, longer versions of the table talks I had written for Stan Copland.  We read Plato, and wrote an essay in the form of a Platonic dialog.   We read Dante, Hobbes, Wordsworth.  I loved the course, and Professor Bevis was a terrific mentor.  He encouraged me to transfer for the next year to the University of Toronto, and I did.

Later when I spend 6 months traveling in South America, he lent me his copy of a book of hikes in South America.

Second year university: Richard Smith

In my second year I was at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.  I didn't have a major yet, but took courses in anthropology, English, and computer science.  I took a course in Latin American anthropology from Richard Smith.  The reading was punishing -- thousands of pages of xeroxed articles, with a focus on Marxist political economics.  Authors like Rodolfo Stavenhagen.  It was a continuation of the earlier experience I'd had with Ralph Skinner.  Less personal -- it was a large lecture, and I had no direct contact with Professor Smith.  But he had an amazing critical mind, and I loved the reading.

It was Professor Smith, I think, who introduced me to Ivan Illich.  I don't remember which book we read in his class, but I'd soon read many of his books.  Just today, my new copy of "Tools for Conviviality" arrived (ironically from Amazon).

Third and fourth year university: Shuichi Nagata

After second year, I took 6 months off to do a Canada World Youth exchange program in Nova Scotia and Bolivia.  I came back for another term of university at the U of T, but it was hard for me to re-integrate to the academic world, and I took the next academic year off to spend 6 months traveling in South America with my then-girlfriend.  I came back to live in Toronto, and was struggling to imagine myself going back to university.  Then I read an article by the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo about how the horrible experience of the death of his wife doing fieldwork with the Ilongot in the Philippines helped him to understand something profound about the Ilongot.  And seeing the possibility of bringing the personal into the academic, I was able to go back to university.

In my third and fourth years, I took at least two anthropology courses from Shuichi Nagata.  He talked about his fieldwork with hunter-gathers in South East Asia, carefully weighing the food brought back by the male hunters and the female gatherers.  And of course the female gatherers contributed more to the collective diet than did the male hunters.  I remember Professor Nagata as a kind, gentle man - like Stan Copland.  He taught me what it was to be a careful anthropologist, a fieldworker.


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Created: February 18, 2018

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