I wrote the following essay some years ago. I’m reposting it in honour of Teacher Appreciation Day. My theory is that many teachers don’t get to see the impact of the good they do because it takes time for their influence to be felt. This story is about the immeasurable impact one of my best teachers had on my life.
Mr. Law’s word was, well, the law. He was the toughest teacher in my high school; even I behaved in his class. It helped that his subject, English, was the only one I had any interest in.
My friends and I were not exactly the academic elite. We hung out in the smoking area; our boyfriends drove large trucks and loud cars and hadn’t appeared in any graduating class photos. We had permed, feathered hair and a strong preference for black eyeliner and clothing with extra zippers. When we weren’t sleeping during class, we were talking. As one of the leading troublemakers in my set, I’d started my career as a problem student when I got suspended for the first time in Grade 8. That time it was for smoking. After that I got into trouble for an ever-escalating scale of offenses.
In spite of all that, Mr. Law seemed to have time for me. He was one of the few teachers who did at that time. I’m not suggesting he was like that principal who cleaned up the halls of his school using tough love and a large stick. If that were the case, I’d have been one of the first out the door. Nor was Mr. Law one of those To Sir with Love types. A serious man with a rarely seen ironic smile, he was considered a hard case by many.
Maybe the reason he had a bit more tolerance for me than did the other teachers was that we shared an enthusiasm for reading. I read everything on the assigned reading list in the first month of school and, unlike most of my classmates, I actually loved the books chosen. And I liked talking about them in class, even though my comments were less than penetrating.
“Can anyone tell me the theme of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four?” he’d ask.
Deafening silence into which I raised my hand.
“It’s like the whole world becomes like school. It’s a drag. Like you can’t get any privacy. Total fascism, man.”
“Hmmm, yes. I see your point.”
The difference between Mr. Law and the rest of the teachers is that he actually called on me when I raised my hand. No one else cared to hear what I had to say and, looking back, I can’t blame them.
Our agreement on the general excellence of books didn’t mean I was producing top-notch work or anything. I wasn’t scoring straight “A”s in English, belying my otherwise abysmal performance in school.
Any hopes Mr. Law had that my interest in the class readings would translate into academic success were dashed as I produced mostly mediocre papers. But Mr. Law didn’t give up or treat me like the “C” student I so obviously was. And even though I wasn’t about to show it, that meant a lot to me because, as my high school years progressed and I continued what my favorite musical artist at that time, Ozzy Osbourne, would have called my journey “off the rails on a crazy train”, any confidence I’d gained from being a good student in elementary school disappeared.
Grade 11 was the turning point. Would I make it to Grade 12 and graduate? Or would I, like many of my friends, simply fade out of school? In my crowd, there was never any big announcement about quitting. My friends just simply… stopped… going. Dropping out was a process that started in Grade 8 and, for many of us, finished in Grade 11.
There was one group in our school who were absolutely certain to graduate. They were the kids who took a program called Directed Studies, which was developed and run by Mr. Law. Directed Studies was designed to allow the gifted students to explore their many and varied talents; it allowed the smartest kids in the school to mingle with other similarly gifted young people (as though they didn’t already huddle together like the last survivors of some anti-intellectual rebellion.) Anyway, in Directed Studies, or DS, as it was known, students got to choose a field of study and develop their own curricula. They went on retreats to discuss the trials and tribulations of being brilliant: “It’s gotten to the stage where particle physics (neuroscience, nanotechnology etc.) simply isn’t enough of a challenge for me anymore” or “I am so smart it’s actually sort of painful.” At the end of every year they gave a public presentation to show the school and larger community what they’d learned.
The Directed Studies program wasn’t something I spent any time thinking about. It was like the chess club, reserved for academic achievers, the intellectual “haves and have mores”, as Mr. Bush might put it.
So when Mr. Law came up to me after class one day and asked if I was interested in taking DS my jaw nearly hit the floor. Me! In Directed Studies! With all the chess club people! Surely he meant Detention, Special. No, he assured me, he actually meant Directed Studies.
My first instinct was to say no. After all, particle physics was not my bag. My math studies had stalled somewhere around Grade 9. (To this day I require one of those tip calculators when I go to a restaurant: Let this be a warning to all those young people who don’t feel math is important.)
“What would I do?” I asked him.
“Well, what are you interested in?” I’m sure part of him must have been worried I was going to propose a course in dating minor drug dealers. But I didn’t. I was too astonished by his question.
What was I interested in? The truth is, that the worse I’d done in school, the less I was interested in. The chess people, the ones who discussed the latest articles from Harper’s and the Economist in hushed tones in the hallways at lunchtime, now they had interests. Even I knew that “partying” (used as a verb), was not a legitimate interest, but more of an avocation.
Mr. Law sent me away to think of something and that afternoon I did.
I was interested in clothes. Fashion seemed like something I could love. A passion for clothes didn’t have the same “getting above myself” quality that an interest in, say, micro-economics or golf course design would have. I could bring up the topic of fashion out in the smoking area without hitting a wall of blank, fish-eyed stares that told me I’d crossed a line. In fact we often had lively discussions out there about topics such as how acid wash denim was really made and shared the latest news about innovations in curling irons.
So the next time I saw Mr. Law I announced I wanted to study fashion.
He nodded gravely.
Then I surprised both of us. “Historical fashion. 19th century costume design.” I blurted, thinking back to a two-minute segment I’d seen on an educational television program recently.
His eyebrows rose a bit and he nodded.
“Okay. Write it up.”
I couldn’t believe I’d just told him I wanted to spend a year researching 19th century fashion. It was as though merely being asked what I was interested in made me want to come up with something good.
I spent the evening writing up a proposed course of study. It was the first night I’d spent doing homework in my entire high school career. Seriously. And it wasn’t that bad. It was even sort of fun. I proposed spending one term researching 19th century fashions and one term actually making a reproduction of a ballgown from that era. The fact that I a) had no research skills whatsoever, and b) couldn’t sew, didn’t stop me. I was going to be in DS! Us DS types were not afraid to take on a challenge!
Our first DS meeting consisted of me on one side of the room, reeking of cigarette smoke and perm solution, and all the smartest kids in Grade 11 on the other. My presence seemed to rattle them. What kind of meritocracy was this that allowed a smoking area “C” student into the ranks? The DS kids weren’t mean to my face. Years of bullying had taught them better. Instead, they adopted a cautious, slightly soothing manner with me, as though I was an unpredictable and none-too-bright animal like a young badger or a yearling moose that someone had very inappropriately brought to a party.
Amongst themselves they had considerable camaraderie. Mark, a dark haired, gentle boy teased Samantha, the rumpled editor of the student paper about her plan to study bias in the media coverage of the federal election. He teased her about her fondness for “soft science”. I was appalled. These people made jokes about soft science? What in the hell was soft science? And what would they think when I announced I wanted to study fashion design for a year?
Then Mark, emboldened by his awkward flirtation, spoke to me. “I hope you’re pursuing something a bit more quantifiable,” he said. The people around him shrunk visibly, probably concerned that I didn’t know what quantifiable meant and, maddened by frustration, would physically attack him. They weren’t far off.
But before I could say anything, Mr. Law took control. He introduced each of us and described our projects. Art would be studying neuroscience; Tina: Japanese calligraphy. Samantha: Media Studies. Matt: astrophysics. Christopher was going to put Wordsworth in Perspective. Bing: Economic Recovery in Postwar Germany and Susan: 19th Century Costume Design and its Social Relevance.
As he mentioned my topic, I looked from face to face. No one appeared all that impressed by my intellectual ambition, but no one laughed out loud either.
Over the course of that year I discovered the rich history of fashion and what it reveals about women’s roles in society. I struggled to learn basic sewing skills and spent every extra penny (other than those needed to keep my hair in a state of advanced permed-ness) to buy the equipment and materials to make my 19th century reproduction ballgown. I enlisted the help of a whole host of women, from the local seamstress to the public librarian, all of whom became quite fascinated in the subject.
I also got to know my fellow DS students and soon began to appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to dumb down my vocabulary around them or pretend to be stupid to amuse them. That was something I’d learned to do early to avoid the dreaded accusation: “why do you always got to use such big words?”
The Directed Studies kids were so far outside my social circle they might have been my parents’ friends. But I grew to like several of them and they started to like me. I told them stories from the front lines of the Party Nation, which they listened to with the rapt attention of people listening to an astronaut bringing back tales from the moon.
During the presentation at the end of the year, Christopher put Wordsworth into perspective (turns out he was very important). Tina gave a demonstration of Japanese brushwork. Matt talked about what he’d learned about astrophysics. And I came out on stage in a 19th century ballgown complete with velvet bodice and enormous hoop crinoline skirt. I talked about how upper class women were put on pedestals as untouchable symbols of femininity and how their fashions made them literally remote. I discussed how in the Extravagant Period, fashion influenced architecture as doors were made wider to accommodate the giant skirts, how women at the time wore dead birds and insects in their hair as decorations. I talked about how women drank vinegar to increase their pallor and did all kinds of other unhealthy things that made them fit a senseless standard of beauty.
When the talk was over I had an “A” in Directed Studies (the only one in my high school career) and had decided to go to fashion design school after I graduated.
If this was a story and not an essay, I would report that I went on to become the preeminent costume designer of the 20th century. But the sad reality is that I ended up dropping out of fashion design college after six months because I blew my student loan on parties and a green paisley outfit with thigh high green socks and green velvet slippers that made me resemble a slightly rotten zucchini. I spent a year or so working at a variety of low-paying jobs. But eventually I took an English course at university, and when that went well and I entered university full time to do a degree in English Literature, I wrote to Mr. Law to thank him.
Today when I think about who I am and what I do (write novels in which fashion tends to figure prominently) I think of Mr. Law taking the chance and inviting me to join the intellectual haves and have mores in the DS program. Sure, I was a lackluster student before DS and, let’s face it, after. But the fact that one teacher thought I might have some interests worth exploring made me consider the possibility. The discovery that I was interested in a great many things made a profound difference in my life.
I keep that reproduction ballgown in an old trunk in my garage. And sometimes I take it out and contemplate it. Because in that one badly sewn dress, lies the beginnings of a new life, one with interests and passions that run as far and as wide as I can see. Directed studies indeed.
*Disclaimer. Parts of this recollection may be misremembered. I had a misspent youth. But if a few of the details are off, the gist is correct. Thanks, Mr. Law.