There was a sixth grade English teacher who haunted me for the longest time. He told me, in no uncertain terms, and in front of the entire class, that I wasn't very bright. English was always my favourite subject. It was the subject I had usually excelled at. I was always lost in books. I loved stories and poems and was always engaged in some sort of imaginative landscaping. This often resulted in me staring out the window, not paying attention to the lecture or the goings-on of the classroom. Me: daydreaming of a distant planet where plants kept humans in pots or some such child-like imagining. Teacher: "Fiorentino! Wake up, stupid! Why are you such a head case?"
I was also very shy. Cripplingly so. Still am. (Although people tend to confuse my public gestures of expression with confidence.) I am very withdrawn despite my predilection for performing in front of crowds. My Grade Six shyness was amplified by the way I was treated in that classroom. I think I hated that teacher until I met another teacher in a Creative Writing class in my first year at the University of Winnipeg. Her name was Catherine Hunter. She was and is an accomplished novelist and poet and her poem "Rush Hour" was the inspiration for The Weakerthans' seminal albumLeft and Leaving.
I dreaded this Creative Writing class so very much that I had visited my psychiatrist before the course began to obtain extra tranquillizers to take if needed, during the class. I kept these little sublinguals in a little bit of tin foil in my pocket. And I would rummage around for them often to make sure they were within reach should I need one. When it was time for me to read a poem, I asked to be excused from the classroom; I went out to the hallway; I couldn't find the pills. I ran, Forrest Gump-style down the hallway, down the escalators, out the door and down Portage Avenue to the safety of my apartment.
I came back for the next class. I found that I had to. And Catherine was stern, stoic, and sensitive. I made it through the course. And it had a lot to do with something very important that she said in the second class. It felt like it was directed at me (although I realize that invoking this feeling is one of the gifts of a great teacher). She said something along the lines of how the young kid in the classroom who is always staring off into space or out the window, lost in her/his thoughts, is not the bad student, he/she is simply the writer of the bunch. I don't know if I have ever expressed to Catherine how much that sentiment meant to me. I don't know if Catherine realizes that she is one of my heroes. I suppose she will if she reads this. It really did mean so much. It helped me to move past years of self-doubt and anger. I wasn't stupid. Maybe I was a head case. Maybe that was OK. I was a writer. I no longer hated that Grade Six English teacher. I came to understand that he simply didn't understand.
I still think back to that Grade Six classroom quite often and I wonder about the number of young writers and artists who are sitting in similar classrooms and feel similarly marginalized. I wonder if these kids will make it to university, or to any other place where someone may let them know that they are OK. I believe that when it comes to early childhood education, the teachers are often the ones who lack the proper education. And the result for children who are "different" is this: the more marginalized and alone you feel, the more marginalized and alone they will make you feel.
Strategies and policies of full social inclusion have helped to facilitate safer learning environments for kids with disabilities, mental health challenges, and non-heternormative orientations, but there is still much work to do. We need to understand that the great work being done in the field of inclusion has implications regarding the way we combat homophobia, transphobia, outsider hate, as well as disability hate.
Since my awakening in that classroom at the University of Winnipeg, the years have passed by with their irritating consistency. Now I am a professor of Creative Writing at a university. I find myself telling my students the same thing Catherine told our class. I build on her observation by also telling them I bolted out of her first class and how it's more than OK to experience these feelings and symptoms. I would like to think that this little speech makes a difference. In most cases I will probably never know. But I do know how much of a difference it made in my life to encounter a teacher who helped me feel included and therefore confident enough to begin my journey as a writer.