GIFTED teachers are celebrated in story, song and episodes of Glee, but their most important legacy is that their lessons are remembered forever.
They’re the educators who spot something special in you even when it completely eludes your parents. My favourites were always English teachers, because that was my one good subject. Sometimes, however, exceptional instruction can even make a remarkable student out of an inadequate one -- or so I’ve been told by Coach Carter, To Sir With Love, and numerous other movies whose goal is emotional uplift.
While being cool shouldn’t be a prerequisite for teachers, kids can sure benefit from the input of instructors who at least recall their own youthful foibles. Such a fellow was my best teacher in high school, a tall, pale, dark-eyed man with longish black hair and beard who went by the name of Laurence Priebe.
“Mr. Priebe” had a sarcastic spirit and a renegade, romantic, Heathcliff air that never dissipated, even when he was picking his nose in class.
The best thing about him was his imagination. One sunny autumn day, Mr. Priebe led us grade nines outdoors to the field hockey pitch to act out Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. (I excelled as the ‘frumious Bandersnatch.’) He must only have been a few years out of university himself, and what he liked most was getting us to defy our inhibitions. The adolescent persona is a fragile thing, still under construction, and he made us understand that it was fine to keep the kid in us.
Another day, we arrived at our classroom to find one of our fellow students on the floor, covered in ketchup. It was Anthony Tross – I had a crush on him at the time so I remember that tragic discovery well.
Our mission was to solve the crime by looking for clues that Mr. Priebe told us were all over the classroom and in the hall. These were pre-CSI and Google days, so we wandered vaguely about the bland space trying to make mountains out of molehills and then wrote down our individual versions of what had happened. At the end of the class Mr. Priebe informed us that, just as there was no real murder, he had set out no clues. We’d just made them up, and that was A-okay.
We were slated to have our first encounter with Shakespeare in Mr. Priebe’s class. Before we dove in, he got us talking about a news event. It seemed that our then-Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, was an epileptic and had collapsed in the House of Commons during an international crisis. Could he still be trusted to govern? Should he be ousted, even against his will? How far should the House go to get rid of a leader whose health issues suggested that he might not be up to the task?
We engaged in a teenagerish debate on the topic until Mr. Priebe had had enough of our simplistic logic and inflamed retorts. Actually, he said, no such collapse had occurred and that it was Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, who was thought to have had “the failing sickness,” a euphemism for epilepsy. Might that explain the dramatic events that transpired in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar?
With that introduction to the Bard, we were putty in his hands, memorizing characters’ speeches to bring the play to life in the classroom. I remember practicing lines with my best friend Rebecca while in the ski hill lineup, so fascinated with Julius Caesar (and Mr. Priebe) were we.
In grade 10, our teacher introduced us to the classic poem Lord Randall. You may have studied it yourself. The Anglo-Scottish ballad, whose author is unknown, features a mother asking her son a series of questions that begin, “ O where ha’e you been, Lord Randall my son? O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?” His answers eventually lead to the conclusion that he has been poisoned by his “true love.”
This story is so compelling that it has inspired musical versions, including Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – which contains the lines “Where have you been/my blue-eyed son/ Where have you been/my darling young one?” -- and made appearances in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, among other literary works. It was not dramatic enough for Mr. Priebe, however.
He prodded us not to accept the obvious answer that Lord Randall’s sweetheart was to blame. Why would she do such a thing, after all? What else might have made him so weary? By the end of the class we’d convinced ourselves that Lord Randall had lost his blood to Scottish woodland vampires, at which point Mr. Priebe informed us that no, Lord Randall’s sweetheart had just poisoned him and we were way too easily led.
That, by the way, was 40 years ago. I’m sorry to report that Mr. Priebe died young. I wish every student at least one teacher with his fierce intelligence and determined joie de vivre.