By now, my school days have beome a largely impressionistic jumble of images distorted by time and memory. Moments both large and small stand out from the haze, like the time my Grade 4 teacher found a boy named Ziyad in the broom closet devouring a box of Christmas cookies meant for the entire class. Her invectives bounced off him like toy arrows as he continued cramming them in his mouth. (Years later, we would work at the same student newspaper together in university.)
However, there are two integral parts of school that I remember with relative clarity: Teachers and first loves. The latter were usually short-lived (and best reserved for another editor’s note), but a number of teachers have shaped my life in deep and lasting ways.
My first GILT (Great, Influential Life-Changing Teacher) was Gilles Dubois, my Grade 5 homeroom teacher in Montreal. He was a wild-haired bachelor in his mid-50s who lived in a house in the woods and kept four dogs. Gilles was the kind of man who would find a family of mice living in his oven and allow them to stay because he couldn’t bear to throw them out into the cold. He would launch into monologues about the importance of nature and being good to each other – then when the bell rang, he’d realize he’d forgotten to give out homework for the day. In spite of his loopier qualities, Gilles was a passionate teacher who scrawled long, thoughtful responses in my notebooks.
Grade 5 coincided with the onset of puberty – an especially awkward time for me, as I’d shot up over the summer to become the tallest girl. I reacted by developing a bad slouch and burying my nose in books. This didn’t escape Gilles. One day, he gently took me aside and said: “I know it can be hard, but you are a talented student who has every reason to stand tall.” I was too embarrassed to say anything, but my slouch had mysteriously disappeared by the beginning of Grade 6.
Six years later, I met my second GILT at the American International School of Guangzhou. Where Gilles was dreamy and absent-minded, Donna Spisso was shrewd and demanding. There were only about eight of us in her Grade 11 AP English Language and Composition class, but we were all terrified of her. Ms. Spisso systematically excised the fat from our bloated prose, tearing us down to build us back up again. She taught us that messy thoughts led to messy writing and showed us the unique satisfaction that came with precise word choice.
We began to thrive under Ms. Spisso’s tutelage, but I was becoming apprehensive about the future. I resigned myself to the fact that visual arts would probably not be a viable career, but I also couldn’t see myself pursung a degree in English. One day, Ms. Spisso asked: “Have you ever thought about journalism?” I hadn’t.
She introduced me to the works of Jan Wong, a Chinese-Canadian journalist and former foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wong had been one of only two foreign students allowed to study at Peking University. Since then, she’d led a tumultuous and sometimes controversial career. At 16, I found her writing to be brash and meditative by turns – but always thought-provoking.
Halfway through the year, I learned that my family was moving back to Canada. When I went to say goodbye to Ms. Spisso, she surprised me by folding me into a bear hug. Her parting words were simple: “Keep writing.” And I have. But before that, another teacher had to show me how to stand tall.
Here’s hoping your kids will meet their Gilles or Ms. Spisso this year.
photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p7 of the beijingkids September 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com