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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 5, April 2004

English 11 and life lessons

by Karen Larsen

Bob Kirby was a talented and an innovative English teacher. I liked him, and I enjoyed the time in his English 11 class. But I wasn’t passionate about To Kill a Mockingbird or Shakespeare’s plays. I preferred flirting with the boy in front of me, gazing at the maple trees outside, and admiring my teacher’s crisp oxford-cloth shirts. English wasn’t my passion, and I didn’t always pay attention during class. Our major term assignment was a "contract" package. Today’s teachers would dub it a writing portfolio, but that jargon had not hit Burnaby Central in 1975. Kirby gave us a big list of assignment options (character sketches, chapter logs, narratives, and more). Each assignment had a corresponding point value. We had to choose exemplars of our work, submitting samples that totalled 100 points.

Part of the contract was the choice to write a verse or to analyze the meaning of a published poem. I hated writing poetry, but it seemed the lesser of two evils, since the analysis option allowed the possibility of misinterpretation. I penned a sappy ode entitled "Nothing Is More Precious Than My Mother’s Love."

Weeks later, I grinned at the 92 boldly printed in red on my paper. Kirby’s "See me to chat about your assignment" surprised me. Discuss my work with a teacher? How unusual.

I hung around his desk until he finished bidding goodbye to his students. He placed his well-polished loafers on the wooden desk, crossed his legs, and leaned back in his chair. "Did you show this poem to your mother?" he asked.

"No," I replied.

"Why not?" he wondered.

"I didn’t have time before the assignment was due," I lied.

"It’s a lovely tribute to your mom, and I think she’d be touched if she read it."

"Okaaaaay...if you think I should show her, I guess I will." I couldn’t wriggle away fast enough.

I was secretly thrilled that Kirby had spoken with me about my writing. I thought that grading papers meant checking the spelling and grammar, not musing about the underlying meaning. Furthermore, that was the first time since elementary school that the notion of showing written work to someone other than the teacher had surfaced.

I didn’t show my mom the poem, though. It’s still in my house, somewhere among the buried treasures of the basement. In our family, we have never spoken openly about the emotions we feel for one another, so the verse remains hidden. Even though my teacher promoted sharing, I wasn’t ready for it.

Kirby had a point, although I’m not sure that I understood it at the time. He wanted his students to write for a purpose, and with an audience in mind. He encouraged me to go beyond the authority reader to share my thoughts with an ally reader. Looking back, as a mature woman and a teacher myself, I realize that Kirby’s lessons went further than the English 11 curriculum; they extended into the personal realm and taught about human interaction as well as reading and writing. Maybe I should have paid more attention during English 11.

Karen Larsen, a Langley teacher, is currently on leave.

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