"Only boring people can be bored," my Eighth Grade teacher used to say. About four years ago, I saw those words postered on a wall just outside Blood Alley every night during a string of graveyard shifts in one of Canada's most notorious slums*.
It wasn't the first time since 1991 I had reason to think of Mr. C, and it wasn't the most recent. How do you not constantly go back to the lessons you learned when you were 13? Inside and out of the classroom, that's when we shrugged off the final crumbs of our childhood and learned how to walk in adult bodies. It's when we got our first glimmers of having to take some responsibility for ourselves and when we were lucky, we got a hint of the power that lay in that responsibility.
And we were lucky.
Mr. C told us that he became a teacher because Education was the last thing you could get into at the University of Saskatchewan after you'd flunked out of everything else. He'd briefly been a punk rocker in his youth, he said, until he realized that you couldn't be a punk rocker if you were riding around Moose Jaw in your parents' stationwagon.
Mr. C ran a music appreciation class where we would bring in our own music, play a song and then the class would talk about it, with Mr. C usually schooling us on why the music we liked wasn't as cool as we thought it was, but not in a condescending way. During one class someone (it might have been me, but I don't think it was) played "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes. Mr. C asked for a show of hands if we liked it. All hands up. He asked for a show of hands if we identified with the lyrics of the song. Again, all hands up. I still don't know what to make of that moment, when I realized that all of my classmates, to some degree, felt the same as I did: alienated, shunned, hopeless--even the ones who made me feel that way.
Our school canceled the Valentine's Day dance that year because it fell during Lent. Our class try to reason with Mr. C. "Isn't Christian sacrifice meaningless," our class posed, "when the one making the sacrifice doesn't have a choice?"
"Yeah," I agreed. "If we have to give up dancing, you should have to give up something you enjoy...like music!"
"I'm way past enjoying music. I do it because I have to," Mr. C answered, and we were reminded that the forces that ruled us were often ambivalent.
Mr. C later confided in me that he was just being tough, he still enjoyed music. And, y'know, I was young and naive, but not that naive.
At the beginning of the school year, Mr. C told us that despite what we may have heard about him, we shouldn't get our hopes up. He'd turned 30 over the summer and his good years were over, he said.
I'm older now than Mr. C was when he taught me so much. I wonder how much of his Weltschmerz was a put-on and I wonder how thick he lays it on now.
Mr. C turns 50 today. Happy birthday to one of the coolest people I've ever met. If you're entering his class this fall, I hope he promises the same to you that he did to us, and I hope he keeps that promise in the same way.
mp3: "Summer Nights Lakeside" by Gospel Claws
mp3: "Visions of You" by Modern Superstitions
*in case the face that I was working in a place called "Blood Alley" didn't make that clear enough