Journal: News & Comment

Monday, June 10, 2002
# 10:43:00 AM:

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Farewell, and thanks

I received an e-mail yesterday from my old high school, informing me that my English 9 and 12 teacher, Mr. Robin Baker, recently died. This year, two of my other teachers from that era, Mr. Tosh Ujimoto (Math 9) and Mr. Paul Baumann (every Biology class), retired, and another, Mr. Dougal Fraser (English 10, English Lit 12), left the school because of health problems. I graduated in 1986, and all of these teachers had been at the school long before I arrived four years earlier. They inspired many -- like me.

  • Mr. Baumann's enthusiasm for his subject (I remember his complete pre-empting of a planned lesson to teach us a ton of neat stuff he'd just learned at a seminar on the human skeleton) led me into a biology degree. I didn't become a biologist, but in that degree program I met my wife, and set a course that means I can confidently write a newsletter for a professional organization of physicians this week.

  • Mr. Ujimoto taught me only one course, but his precision on the overhead projector and sly humour helped set me up for advanced math programs in the rest of high school and even university, though I am not naturally a strong mathematician.

  • Mr. Fraser did nothing less than teach me to write. Although jovial and extremely funny (he delighted in having a huge collection of shockingly ugly neckties), he maintained ruthless standards for written English, and assigned us a short 300-word essay almost every class. I usually wrote them on the bus in the morning, which forced me not only to write well, but to write well quickly, and without an outline. Again, I wouldn't be able to do most of my work today at any reasonable, professional speed without those lessons. (My weblog might be less annoyingly large, though.)

  • Mr. Baker, apparently a former hippie, ran the yearbook while I worked on it (and so taught me my first lessons in cut-and-paste layout, long before desktop publishing appeared), had posters for The Doors and Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous With Rama on his classroom walls, and had us not only reading classic works, but also analyzing the lyrics of The Eagles and Peter Gabriel. He'd been to more rock concerts than nearly any of his students ever will. He was a rarity: a teacher cool enough for the dudes in class, but with solid standards that made sure we did our work. He's a big reason why I'm both a writer and a classic-rock musician today.

    He also smoked up a storm. Though he officially died of throat cancer, he really died from smoking, as his colleague, my French 9 teacher Mr. Cam McLaren, did while I was still in high school, as my step-grandfather did in 1981 -- and as Peter Gzowski did this year.

It's sad when your teachers retire. (Though we loathed going to his classes, my Math 12 class was wistful when our mercurial and self-taught instructor Mr. Tony Parker-Jervis -- a.k.a. Mr. P-J -- retired after graduating us, his last class in a long career.) It's sadder when they're killed by a habit. Yet their inspiration remains regardless. And I know that my wife, who is a high school math teacher, inspires kids every day, just as Mr. Baker and his co-workers inspired me in the '80s. She's been teaching for 10 years already, and she doesn't smoke, so she'll almost certainly inspire for another two decades before she too retires.


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