You might remember me from a couple of courses you taught in American History in 1996 and 1999. If not, no biggie, it was a while ago, and I wasn't exactly a student who participated a great deal in class (though I was listening). But as you may recall, your teaching made an impact on me, both in terms of the content of the courses, but perhaps more importantly, in the way you taught, and developed personal connections with your students.
Let me tell you about where I have gone since the last time we spoke. I left Queen's to pursue music, which I did with some great personal experiences, successes, failures, and lots of kilometres notched through Canada and the US. A few years ago, I made the switch to a new career, teaching, which I am currently in the midst of my first year. I am employed full time as an English, and Special Education teacher in a school in Toronto.
When I think about how to reach students, I operate on the premise that they are people first, that all want to learn, and it is my job to find a way to connect with them on some individual level. I think back to your lesson on the Beats in 1996 when you read Howl in your bathrobe, flushed a novelty toilet for its ability to punctuate, and wrote on the blackboard with your foot. While I haven't used that exact lesson plan, I try to remember its spirit when I approach my own teaching practice. I see how much benefit taking a personal risk in sharing your passions with students can engage everyone in the room, and extend learning outside of the classroom.
I'm pleased to report to you that I was able to engage a reluctant First Nations student last spring in his grade ten English class by introducing him to Alan Ginsberg's poetry. After I asked him to read CIA Dope Calypso to the class, he began to ask me where he could find more examples of his work. You and him probably have a lot in common. As I got to know him last year, he shared with me his experience as a protester involved in the rail blockades near Deseronto, and was even featured (while clad in a Zapatista style bandana) on the front page of the Toronto Star during one of these events. It was huge privilege for me to teach him and other members of his community last year. Through his and others actions, I really came to see clearer parallels between how American and Canadian societies marginalize dissenting groups, and that Canadians really have little idea the degree of distrust, anger, and despair that exist in aboriginal communities. I learned so much about my world from my students, and would not have gained these insights had I remained the stoic expert at the front of the room.
Anyway, I decided to write this update to you when the news networks declared an Obama victory. Tonight has been a bit of victory party for my friends and I as we have marked the end of the Bush (aka space chimp) presidency, and have celebrated the election of Barack Obama. You might be wondering why such a long message from a long-lost former student, and perhaps we can chalk it up to the empty bottles of red wine on the coffee table. But something about seeing an African American elected in a landslide sent me back to my time in your classes, imagining such a “naïve” notion being tossed back and forth amongst the group. Who knew it could happen so decisively, and that Oprah would be the a kingmaker. (did you predict that she would be involved, by the way?)
I hope you are well, and would like to congratulate you on your retirement. Keep up the attacks on Palin. She makes the space chimp seem qualified for office. I expect to see her as the face of clean coal by the beginning of the next news cycle.
Queen's History, 1999