My Gibson 175

My first great guitar, as it turns out, has a checkered past. You can read my initial blog story from a few years back, before I knew her pre-me history here:

I first learned about my guitar’s history from before she was mine when I saw a  photo on a Facebook post by a mutual friend that showed a legendary Montreal band opening for the Beach Boys in the mid sixties. The guitar player (Bill Hill) had an ES175 with a Bigsby (by Gretsch) whammy bar. Such a visible unique mod. I was sure it was my guitar. I contacted the man who posted it, Don Graham, another legendary player. He told me what he knew about the guitar and I then contacted Bill who told me some of this story:

JB and The Playboys

A young Bill Hill was at loggerheads with his dad over…… hair! It was the sixties. Exasperated, his dad said “ If you get a hair cut (my choice of style) I will buy you a brand new Gibson guitar”. Bill was emulating Elvis’ hair at the time, long and greasy so dad chose a “bean shave” for the budding guitarist. True to his word, Hill Sr. took Bill to a store that was owned by his friend, looking for a deal.   Do Re Mi music on rue de Bleury, south of Sherbrooke St. had an impressive line of Gibson guitars on display and after trying them all, Bill had his dad buy the Gibson 175D that I now own.

Bill wasn’t quite satisfied, as the guitar did not have a whammy bar. He took the guitar over to Anton Wilfer, a luthier on de Maisonneuve at Mackey and ordered a Bigsby vibrato and had it installed. Bill jokingly referred to the guitar as a “Gretschson”. Ironically Wilfer’s store is the same place that uninstalled that Bigsby for me a decade later. 

Bill loved the guitar and took it everywhere with him except the night it was stolen. There was a teen hangout/ disco on what was then called Dorchester boulevard (now boulevard. René Levesque )called “Snoopy’s” which was part of music mogul Donald K Donald’s empire. Donald let the boys practice there. They left their instruments overnight one night and in the morning discovered the place had been cleaned out. Guitar, bass, microphones and more. Even the cigarettes from the cigarette machine, all gone. Like the Grinch had arrived to steal Christmas. 

I know the feeling of senseless loss and hopelessness he must have felt. I remember the first time I dropped this guitar and she split open like a ripe watermelon. The gig bag strap broke and the strap holder peg that holds the tailpiece in place was driven into the guitar like a blunt chisel….. I thought it was the end…. pretty sure that is the same feeling.

When I heard that the guitar that I own had been stolen before, I immediately felt conflicted. This guitar that I loved so much was “stolen goods”. I felt ashamed, and that the guitar was now somehow less mine, the joy of having owned this guitar diminished by this new knowledge. It was a guilt for something that was not mine to be guilty about. My anguish was eased a little when Bill told me he had had a chance to get it back, but didn’t. He had seen the guitar a few years after it was stolen hanging in a pawn shop, but he had neither the proof that it was his, nor the money to buy it back as he had just purchased a Gibson Byrdland. Hearing this cleared my conscience, as there had been no indication at the guitar store I bought it from that it was a fenced item. Ours was a legal transaction.

After we had talked, I wanted at least to show Bill the guitar, and I brought it with me to one of the Keepers’ gigs. He played it for a minute and asked me if I was interested in selling it back to him. Again, the conflicted feeling. How could I sell something so precious to me? How could I ask for money for something so priceless from someone who had been so wronged? 

I had already met Bill Hill before making this connection. He plays in a band called The Keepers. The night I first saw them in Pointe Claire at the Mayfair tavern, singer Allen Nichols was sitting in with them. It was a sort of reunion of “The Haunted” and the “Playboys”. Great stuff. Bill was playing a Telecaster and is a “finesse” kind of player. He knows all these cool fills and stylistically à propos voicings that might be lost on most ears, but not mine. We became casual friends. 

Recently, another friend posted a picture of a beautiful Gretsch 6120 “Nashville” for sale. My wife Sharon drew my attention to this post  and said “You should buy it!”. I had just spent an unexpected load of money on a huge car repair, and I told her all my reasons not to buy yet another guitar. I am not a collector, I’m a player. My negativity lost, so I sent a message to my friend Victor who said he had posted it for  Bill Hill. My heart leaped. I now knew it would be a quality instrument, well maintained and well played…. for a minute I considered offering him the 175 as a trade, but rejected that thought and just forged ahead. I texted Bill and said I’d like to buy the guitar. He ascertained that I was serious and immediately took his advertisements down. We made an arrangement for me to see it the day after my vaccination. I sent him an e-transfer even before I tried it. 

The guitar is lovely of course, we chatted and laughed about tons of things, He told me some of the goofy trade offers he had received….hilarious!  some of the details in my story that needed filling in as well. 

It was a lovely visit. As I was leaving, guitar in hand, he said:  “I’m glad it was you that got this”.

Me too!

Me and the Gibson Charlie Guerin on keys. Original photo by Ross White 1994
The “girls”
I call her “lollipop” as I got her after my vaccination

This is the star of the story.

Lotto Quebec

Entering into the Clicsanté website to get a vaccination appointment opens up a task akin to Sisyphus rolling a stone up a hill only to have it roll down for eternity. The system is ass backwards. It may have been designed by “Ding et Dong”. 

At first you have to select a service, which these days is getting a Covid vaccine. Then you have to choose a region by entering a postal code. Fair enough. So far so good. A page of warnings comes up to inform you of the restrictions for your region, another page which reminds us of the curfew…well, DUH! Then you press “continue’. I timed out at least 20 times before I finally read the time out warning which suggested I press “refresh”.

Don’t! 

I did. Back to square one. If you get past this point, you choose a venue…. If you get past this point, which I didn’t…… I finally gave up, but nevertheless Sharon persisted!

When I did this exact same exercise for my flu vaccine, I would choose a venue only to be told there was no availability at that venue…..why not blank out the ones that are complete? Why not just list places and times available? Ding et Dong really did their work!

Back to today.

Sharon got past the wall (several times) and was able to pick a date and time, but while she was writing out the info…. phone number; my mother’s maiden name and my father’s first name; and what brand of monkey wrenches we have used by date and time, weight and colour….the time would be taken and like Sisyphus she’d be sent back not one step, but all the way to the beginning. The system could be set up better nest ce pas?

Booking a hotel or an airline ticket (remember when we could do that?)on-line was a snap compared to this craps shoot. You would reserve a time and have a deadline for completing the transaction. Not here… it still shows as open even if you clicked it and the unannounced race is on. Let’s say you type slowly…. Sharon and I are still relatively dexterous and not strangers to computers, but she timed out 7 times from the last stage. I timed out 20 times from several levels below.. She had “error” and “refresh” messages that sent her back to square one. Sharon was using both her iPad and her phone. I was just using my laptop. Multi-platformed and still the difficulty…Imagine people less agile, less aware of the digital world….further along on their biological clock….

I could feel Sharon’s and my anxiety level and blood pressure level mounting with each try and on my part there were multi-syllabic multi-linguistic and perhaps transcendent and inter-galactic swear words coming out of my mouth. 

Sharon finally got through and I now have an appointment, so, yay!

It should have been easier than that. I am left with the same feeling I had when I took a day off to buy Bob Dylan tickets which were to go on sale at noon. I was in line at eight A.M. and there were about 50 people ahead of me. Should get great seats, right?! Wrong!!!!! I could not believe how shitty the selection was for the highest priced tickets. It seems the scalpers and on-line preferred customers got first choice. It was like being the last table to be called to the buffet table at a wedding. Injustice is everywhere!

There are up sides to this, is I have an appointment and will have a better chance of riding out this pandemic safely.. Sharon now knows my phone number off by heart and my medicare card as well, and the birds don’t repeat my swear words…. 

Take that, Covid 19!

Comfort Zone

I just stepped out of my comfort zone. I was picking up Sharon at the hairdresser’s and there was a group of about eight middle aged and older men standing around drinking coffee in front of the deli next door. I watched them for about a minute. They looked very happy and comfortable with each other. Perhaps old friends, perhaps an after meeting chat for a 12 steps program, I don’t know. They were standing in a loose circle with maybe three or four feet distance between them.

The temperature is minus twenty degrees this morning, so their breath was actually visible and I could see that they were each breathing in part of each other’s breath. My internal voices were vacillating between “live and let live”, “Mind your own business” on the one hand, and “do your duty” and “it’s everybody’s business” on the other. The second voice won over, and I exited my car and I approached the circle and said “excuse me”, informed them that I could see their breath and that they were each breathing in each other’s breath. They thanked me and backed away from each other, but if there was any spread of germs, it was already done. I did not want to be “that guy” or a “Karen”, The party started to disintegrate after my little say. I felt like an uncool dad asking kids to break up a party….then I reflected on my 11 months of social distancing and my sacrifices and the sacrifices of so many to try and slow the spread of this virus and the shameful examples of negligence and ignorance shown by some citizens of this province, the rest of Canada and elsewhere in the world.

The men totally agreed that they needed to be more mindful and no-one told me to fuck off, so if they all stay healthy it is a “win/win”. If one of them spread the virus, the group would not be so cheerful in a month.

I guess the teacher in me found and used the “teachable moment”.

O.D.D

Twenty years ago I met a student who was particularly difficult to reach, and was determined to have her own way at all times. She had transferred into the school after the term had started, so needed remediation to get to the same level as her new classmates. She had chosen to play the clarinet, and was struggling frustratedly with it.

At our first remediation (recess or lunch) session she informed me that she wanted to learn “Hatikva” which is the national anthem of Israel. To me, this was like wanting to run a marathon after just learning how to toddle. I told her something like that, and suggested we learn “Ode To Joy” first as it had a limited number of notes and was attainable in a few days.

She said: “Don’t worry, I have O.D.D.” I had just arrived at this school myself having immersed myself doing music therapy with children with Autism and other puzzles for the previous ten years at a special school. I said to her “I’ve heard of P.D.D, ADHD, and other learning differences before, but I have never heard of O.D.D. What is it?”

Her response was quite well informed. It included these traits: “Often loses temper; Is often touchy or easily annoyed; Is often angry and resentful; Often argues with authority figures or for children and adolescents, with adults; Often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules; Often deliberately annoys others; Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehaviour; Has been spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past 6 months.” Quite a mouthful for a child in eighth grade. I asked her what the difference was between this diagnosis and being a spoiled brat? She didn’t skip a beat and answered: “the name”……”and money”…. An absolutely brilliant answer to my question.

She did get Hatikva down, and performed it in public after about a month. She was brilliant in so many ways and I am not sure if her determination was a result of this peculiar label or the label was as a result of her focus and grit.

Fast forward fifteen years, I saw a business card on the wall of the staff room where we go to find substitute teachers. Her name was on one of those cards. I was hoping beyond hope that a colleague would one day hire her and we could meet up under these very different circumstances and I could see for myself if she had outgrown the ODD, and if not, how she survived in the profession. Alas, never happened.

“The name…… and money!

Swiss Steak

Every time I see the street sign for “rue De Salaberry” it makes me think of the words “Salisbury steak” which in turn reminds me of my least favourite dish that my mum would make regularly for us as we were growing up. It was not “Salisbury Steak” which is basically pub burger with peas and gravy. I used to order Salisbury Steak at Toe Blake’s Tavern when I was out for a “cultural soirée” with my deplorable friends and the Rib Steak was sold out.

Mum’s dish was something called “Swiss Steak”. Sounds exotic, right? Well it isn’t. No Swiss clichés anywhere. No Chocolate, no cheese, no yodelling, no Alpenhorn, no watch…..not even neutrality. Maybe somewhere in the world there is someone who knew how to cook this dish and make it palatable, but my mum couldn’t, and neither could Sharon’s. To be fair, my mum’s cooking could not be described flatteringly or truthfully. Best approached with humour and sarcasm (and a plan B).

When I described it to Sharon just now I said it was like a Sandal boiled in tomato juice. She howled at the description, but this still requires some clarity, however. The Leather sole was boiled in a black iron pot that was only ever used for this. A Civil war relic. Not sure WHICH Civil War either. My guess would be the British one in the mid 1600s. The Sandal was boiled until it was Petrified into curled up pieces of ironwood surrounded by the ghost of a red mushy “sauce” It resembled a head on collision between a produce truck and a truck carrying roof shingles. Even that might have proven tastier.

To try and cut a slab of sandal, the cutlery needed to be Military issue. It would bend a fork and blunt a knife. By the time cutlery was discarded and furtive fingers used, it was also cold. If one had teeth, one could perhaps tear off a chip and try to chew some nutrition out of it. This would result in a pulp that needed to be washed down with water or strands would lodge between the teeth unable to be flossed…. eventually dissolving after several days as the acids in the mouth fought to erode the strands.

There is only one other childhood dish that is even in the same league. The lunchbag letdown of Fried Bologna sandwiches ………with Ketchup…..

Three Vignettes

Splinters

I had a visceral memory the other day. I remembered sitting on the arm of an armchair looking over my father’s shoulder as he read a story to me and I was stroking my father’s stubble. My father was clean shaven for most of his life and at the end of the day his stubble was like sandpaper.

It made me think of a similar situation from years ago when my young daughter was sitting with me as I read to her and she stroked my stubble and said very dreamily… “all the splinters from long ago!” 

A “Licking”

My dad’s knee made a clicking sound when he climbed stairs. It was from a war injury when his plane crashed near Tufino in British Columbia. He also had a small bump on his shoulder from the same accident. He never talked about the accident or ”the war” either, unless prompted.

I could tell my dad’s mood from how quickly he climbed the stairs from the speed and intensity of the clicks in his knee. His feet didn’t make a sound as the stairs were covered in carpet.  If I was “awaiting the wrath of Dad” as in…”wait till your father gets home”…. the clicks had an intensity different from end of the day trudging Willie Loman.

I am from a tradition where spankings were in order if a child transgressed. It was not referred to as a “spanking”, but a “licking”, as in “you’re asking for a licking”. I don’t remember at what age the spankings stopped, but it was certainly before I was ten years old. It’s not that I stopped transgressing at ten, or that dad gave up on me, they just didn’t seem to be working on this hard-headed punk.

Pause for thought

A funny thought occurred to me the other day while standing at a urinal in Chapters Book store. I wondered if the slit in the front of my underwear was biased for right handers. 

I am left handed and usually just pull the top down and under. For some reason I used the fly on this occasion. I looked it up on Google and lo and behold, I am not the only lefty that pulls the underwear down rather than use the fly…. The design is meant for rightys as is the zipper on pants. The stuff one learns…..

Bizarre Dreams

 I recently had a disturbing dream about a very nice girl I knew in my early years (elementary school through grade nine) until my family moved away from the area.

In my dream, this girl I remembered was as vivid as anything, except that in it, we were both adults, and I was in my role as a teacher,and she, a visitor. Perhaps it was a parent-teacher night. It was an unusual situation, It was nighttime in a school that I never taught at. The room we were in was like a classroom I may have been in before at Roslyn School in Westmount. Not that exact room, but it had that same vintage (ancient) smell, and feeling. Both of my girls had attended Roslyn, so perhaps it was from those drawers in my memory let loose seemingly at random in my dream.  

I don’t recall what it was that she and I were talking about, but out of the blue I asked her if I had ever been mean to her when we were kids. She astonished me by saying “as a matter of fact, you were!” Then she disappeared as the scene shifted and I was scrambling to find my day book and a pencil because I realized I was going to be late for another class and someone kept kept turning the lights on and off in the classroom making the search more difficult.

I woke up. I desperately wanted to find out if and how I had been mean to her, and to make an amend. I had been rocked by her quick response in my dream, as I had no recollection of ever being unkind to her. I realize it was only a dream, much like my entire childhood is dreamlike to me now. 

I remember all sorts of foolish things that i did as a kid that I would never do now. Saying racist things like calling french kids “pepsis” and saying insensitive things to kids with handicaps, etc. Laughing at racist or sexist jokes that weren’t funny.  I chalk it up to childishness and ignorance and just selfish unawareness. My parents did not teach me to be a little dickhead. I don’t beat myself up over it, but being aware of it now has helped me evolve into a kinder and more tolerant and open human being. 

My music teaching career has provided me with many opportunities to observe and challenge similar behaviours and try and teach children to be empathetic and aware of the harm and hurt that such loose and thoughtless language and behaviour causes. Music is an amazing resource for teaching (as Elvis Costello wrote) Peace, love and understanding.

It was only a dream, but there was such clarity about what she said, and it was definitely her, not some vague composite memory like the room and the situation was.

It has been 50 years or so since we were classmates and Sunday School mates as well. I hoped that if I did or said something to her in those early years that caused her any sort of pain or anguish, I wanted her to know I was deeply sorry and I would ask her forgiveness. 

In my conscious memory, she was someone smart, friendly and pretty who I genuinely liked and my father teased me about. I think I may have let slip that she and I were friends. Maybe she was the only girl on a birthday party list or something else very innocent. He would embarrass me on purpose calling her my “girlfriend” in a mocking tone. He was teasing, but i remember the shame and embarrassment I felt at that tender age. Just writing this now evoked that visceral memory again. 

The cruelty of waking up with this shame and this mystery unanswered is why I sought her out on social media and wrote her with pretty much this same story.

My friend promptly replied in a beautiful letter which I have abridged here:

“Oh my goodness Ian! I had a huge crush on you in elementary school and you were never, ever mean to me!!! I remember your infectious sense of humour.

I remember how kind your mom was. I think I went over to to play at your house a couple of times. And you invited me to your birthday party which was very cool for me. 

That day, your mom gave me an empty red velvet Valentine’s box that I kept for a long time to put my stamps in. 

While your dream got it all wrong, the timing is interesting.  

Thanks for reaching out and rest assured, you were a really nice kid.”

Whew!

Perhaps bizarre dreams are a part of the aging process where we look back and try and make sense out of the voyage we have all been on. Seeking affirmations or refutations of memories, decisions, choices, roads not taken, successes, regrets…..

Truth be told, I had had a crush on her as well, and my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. I am relieved that my dream had some truthful memory in it, but that I am absolved from being a jerk. At least, in this case.

August 25, 2020.

This is my first Rentrée sans rentrée in many, many years. The last time I felt like this was in my twenties when I took a semester off from University. August for teachers and students is like one big long Sunday night. For the past 19 years  I have worked full time in July at a day camp for exceptional children, so my Augusts have usually meant only two weeks of vacation and around ten days of “Sunday Night Syndrome”.

As I write this, my former colleagues are in meetings to plan out the year ahead (like last year’s plan ever panned out…). I am not among them. I had chosen 2020 as my retirement year four years ago. I progressively cut down on my hours and teaching load from 100% down to 80% (4 day week) for two years. This was just a leave of absence because the school board only allows a 2 year progressive retirement. Same dif. The last two years were officially progressive retirement at 60% (legally I was still 100% status so as not to affect my pension. 

Last school year, of course, came to an abrupt end a week after returning from March break. Confusion, fear, more confusion, anger, disappointment, more confusion. It seemed like no one in charge had any clear idea of what to do besides shutting down. Initially I was presumed to be excused from work in that I was over 60 and have an underlying condition. Then the “suits” decided that 70 (who in their right mind would teach young kids at 70?!?!?) was the cut off point and I was to report for duty. The “suits”  decided that “no matter what”, music and phys ed were not going to be taught. Other teachers at the school had to Zoom their classes to mixed results. We (the specialists) were instructed to phone the kids on Individualized Education Plans to engage them in French conversation for a few minutes each week (Smell busy work?). This, in my case was pointless, useless, fruitless…need I go on? My calls ended up being a chat with the parents of the kids and some very distracted conversations with kids who would rather be playing video games. I would go into the school building once a week with mask on just to shuffle some papers, pack crap and catch up on “the latest” which was usually pretty lame. 

So, the final concert I would have prepared never got done. I had carefully planned a series of interesting songs and even had the kids pre-prepared in some cases. It was to be a swan song for my teaching career. Didn’t happen. The grad ceremonies were weird and disjointed. Last year’s grade sixes I had known since Kindergarten and I am particularly fond of them. Of course I showed up for their “Grad” even though attendance was not mandatory. 

I had been dreading the whole rigamarole around retirement anyways. Speeches from people who barely know me (we had a new principal) and empty platitudes from people who talk shit about me behind my back. That part I wouldn’t miss. At the online graduation there were a few words spoken by my friend Stephanie, but in the itinerary my name was spelled wrong. Mr. Hatchet. This rankled me, as I had been at that school for nine years. My name pronounced in English sounds a bit like Hatchet, but in French (which is how I was addressed at this school it sounds more like Hawn shay. I pointed it out to the staff before the grad, and the teacher responsible for the agenda blamed spell-check. What a maroon….We are teachers. Spell check my level of being offended. I said “You did a real hatchet job on my name.”

I do have some fine friends on staff, however who had been secretly planning a send off with my daughter returning from NY and people who I loved from across my career. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously it was cancelled. My friends on staff did treat me to a brunch without fanfare and a parent made a lovely cheesecake. Perfect. I was content with that, but I was still feeling a bit sore that my send-off was pretty lame. Then came the surprise.

My wife is a shutterbug. I pose for photos all the time. She called me outside on the Saturday morning after my last day at School. She claimed there was something weird in the ditch at the front of our home. I played along cluelessly even though there was nothing weird in the ditch besides her and her camera. She got me to make silly poses for about five minutes, and just as I was finally getting fed up with “just one more” a parade of honking cars with kids yelling and balloons and placards streamed by. they drove by, but I say streamed because I had tears streaming down my face. this was such a kind and meaningful gesture. There were gifts, cards, videos, a cross stitch image of Bob Dylan! Many, many, many wishes and love.

A few of my friends and former colleagues made videos. Two sang me personalized songs. It was a bit overwhelming. I realized that I HAD made a difference in some people’s lives and that was so much better than the chore of a retirement speech…..

Many people ask me “what are you going to do in retirement?” If only they knew what it is like to be blessed and cursed with being a creative person. I won’t have enough time to do it all, but I will enjoy each day doing what I love doing. Living is a gift. I am glad that I was an effective teacher for most, sorry for the ones I couldn’t reach. I will miss the eager tentative faces that will congregate in a few days, but I won’t miss the bullshit of office politics, the bloated, dysfunctional School Board or the dance of explaining what it is I do in the classroom to clueless drudges.

My friend Nathalie sent me this message last night.

“I know, I know, it was technically in June. But for me, it’s today that it really starts. The evening when you go to bed and don’t have to think that TOMORROW you have to go back for another year. I’ve seen you with the children and you fitted(sic) right in. I know that there are a lot of little ones who will miss you this year and the ones after. Enjoy the coffee tomorrow morning, the one you won’t have to bring in a travel cup! Remember, while you are listening to your music, there will be a bunch of us listening to those long-ever-lasting-f…en-meetings! Happy retirement!”-Love,Nath

Miss Duke

I just read an obituary for a beloved High School Phys Ed. teacher who touched so many lives in a positive way. One of the testimonials from one of his former students stated that “Chuck” had stood up for him twice to prevent his expulsion. I never knew “Chuck”, but the stories in the comments generated by his obituary and the personal testimony of some of my friends and acquaintances who knew him made me think immediately of Miss Duke.

I attended three different High Schools (sequentially….). The second High School I went to was a big rural “Regional” high school. My classmates came from very diverse communities. People from my region tended to come from educated parents who had recently quit the urban scene but still commuted to the city (an hour away). my region was also a ski resort, so many outdoorsy families as well. Other stops on our school bus route picked up regular kids whose parents (or parent) perhaps worked in retail, or trades or other jobs that one would expect to find in a small village or town. Other buses that fed the school had kids that came from very rural communities where farming and occupations like well-drilling and/or septic tank maintenance or tractor repair were the norm.

Miss Duke was not that much older than us grade ten students. I believe it was her first posting out of teacher’s college. She was very prim and proper. In a way, like Mary Poppins. She came from a small farming community herself and was perhaps the first one in her immediate circle to get a college education. She was passionate about books! She got excited about poetry. She loved to invite opinions from her students and was very disappointed in students who were apathetic, dull, or unthinking.

I was also passionate about books and poetry and finding meaning in the seemingly meaningless. My lifelong friend Jon describes himself and me as “searchers, seekers, on the road”. Not just passengers. I also really liked hallucinogens and pot. Miss Duke was the epitome of sober, (but I digress).

I was a royal pain in the ass to some of the other teachers who I deemed to be “assholes” whose classes I treated as non-compulsory, but in Miss Duke’s class I was attentive and contributed to the class discussions in a way (so I am told) that was beyond my years. I never skipped her class. Miss Duke inspired me. She stood up for me when “the suits” wanted me gone from the school for spotty attendance to certain classes and the various shenanigans and general mayhem that my cohorts and I fostered through our increasingly counter-cultural behaviour via music, dress, attitude and drugs. Rebel without a cause.

One of these events was “Mandrax Day” (which was never pinned on us) which caused the school to close early one day as there were dozens of us completely, howlingly bent…. It has reached legendary proportions by now, so you can’t really believe a word I say about it, except that a buddy of mine swiped a huge pile of Mandrax from his granny and gave them out to the adventurous (quite ignorant and stupid, actually) like me. Mandrax is sort of like Quaaludes…. a tranquilizing effect if taking properly, but quite a bit of fun if abused. Naturally, we abused them.

Many (40) years later as my generation’s parents started to die off, I got re-acquainted with one of my cohorts and one of my best friends as he returned to Quebec to attend to his ailing father. We had a great visit and his wife snapped a picture of us at one of the lookouts on the mountain that dominates the Montreal skyline. It was great to see him as we live very far apart. I didn’t know I’d be seeing him two weeks later when his father died and he had to fly back.

I attended the funeral with my buddies and it was great to get reacquainted and reminisce about things. Miss Duke was at the funeral as well, and I was delighted to catch up with her after four decades had passed. I was talking with her when my friend’s wife interrupted us to give me a gift that she had brought from Winnipeg. I unwrapped a coffee mug with the image of us that she had taken two weeks previously on it. Underneath the photo were three letters: BFF. I jokingly asked my friend’s wife if it stood for “Big Fat Fuckers”? Probably shouldn’t have done that in a church hall with my former English Teacher present…..

I actually thought nothing of it until the next day when my phone rang. “Ian!” barked the oh so familiar authoritative voice from a different age. “Miss Duke” I meekly replied, knowing I was in deep shit. She exclaimed:”I have a bone to pick with you”… I replied desperately: “I am so sorry to offend you by swearing yesterday….” She replied, cutting me off, “I don’t give a shit that you swore,” she continued “Don’t you Ever, EVER put yourself down!” Then she said “Now, please give me your mailing address”.

My eyes welled up as I hung up the phone, and I felt so amazed that she would take time out to guide me after all this time. It was a balm in a particularly hectic time in my life. I felt loved.

Three days later, a package arrived in the mail.
I received perhaps the best note anyone could receive from a mentor.

Along with the note, she sent photocopies of my correspondence with her from the mid-to-late seventies. She kept the originals!!!!! I read them aloud to my eldest daughter who was sick at the time. We both wept with joy.

January 2011

Dear Ian,
Your ingenious
ability to compose
brilliant thoughts,
always tempered by
your magnanimous heart,
Still (almost forty years later)
Takes my breath away!!

Enjoy your “diary”
Louise

framed

Which, in turn, inspired this poem….

Miss Duke

Duke had my back
Back in the day
When not much
Went my way

She stood up for me
When it counted
A teacher, a mentor
who really cared

She laughed at my
confounding questions
and deflected my
Angry Young Man
Into words and
Self-esteem.

Protected me
From the suits
And the jokers
who spat,
who never understood

She got me.
She had my back.
I wrote.
She wrote back.

Even now,
When fallow years
And other roads
Diverge,
She has my back
Still

Everyone should
Have a hero like
My Miss Duke.
I hope she knows.

As a postscript to this poem which I sent her, and may have slightly embarrassed her, She knows.

It is important to let people know how much they mean to you. It takes next to nothing to say kind, real, heartfelt things to make the world a slightly better place for people that matter.

Broken

She was a delicate, sentient child. I liked her. She had ideas and questions and interests well beyond her years. An engaged child among ball chasers, cliques, gossip mongers and acrimonious whiners and tattletales.. Her heart had been battered and bruised by the cruelty of not being “one of” of not being the “same as”. She had entered our school in second or third grade after many of the bonds among children had already taken hold. She had come from overseas. Over the same ocean that the grandparents of her tormentors had traversed. Just not from the same country of origin.

She devoured books and was teased for it. She wore clothing that matched. She wore ribbons in her jet black hair accenting a Snow White kind of beauty. She liked classical music on the radio.

Her mother was very protective. The little girl was not allowed to be photographed, was not allowed on school outings and was not permitted to be on stage for any kind of presentations. The mother somehow believed her child had a rare beauty that would (not might) attract kidnappers. This maternal attention I am sure contributed to the torrents of teasing that she endured.

She adhered to the teacher on duty at recess. She knew that harm would not befall her in our shadow. It was at recess that I got to know this child beyond what we experienced in the classroom. She spoke of her habits and desires and provided stimulating conversation beyond her years. One particular recess in the spring, just before her graduation stands out in my memory. She was walking beside me in her stylish red matching rain gear and red boots. I asked her if she had chosen a high school yet. She lit up and exclaimed that she had passed an entrance exam to an exclusive French all-girls private school that favoured students like her: Studious, cultured, inquisitive, eager to learn. None of the kids at our school ever went there. She said to me: “monsieur, I will be so happy to leave behind these bad memories and start brand new with maybe some new friends and a clean start.” I wished her well, and I was thankful we had had that conversation. I felt relieved that at least someone and something was going right.

Not being allowed on stage, the child missed her graduation ceremony, but I am pretty sure she was relieved to not have to attend the “Grad party”. She sought me out on her last day as everyone was emptying their lockers and gathering their stuff for the last time. She gave me a little card and thanked me for teaching her and for being understanding. I remember wishing her well and asking her to let me know through her younger brother how things were going at her new school.

In August of that year after a well deserved summer break I was issued my new class lists and I noticed that her brother was not on there. I asked about it and was told “Oh, haven’t you heard?” I replied in the negative. Her brother was not coming anymore. The family had split and he was now in another district. It is always tragic to hear about families breaking. I asked “What about his sister?” I am very low on the totem pole when it comes to news,

“She died this summer!”

She had gone to La Ronde with her brother and was on the roller coaster when she fainted and had to have emergency services called for her. They went to the hospital and ran tests and found a hitherto undiagnosed heart anomily. The little girl was given some follow up appointments, maybe some meds and was told to take it easy.

Several days later she was swimming in their backyard pool and had a heart attack. Her non-swimmer brother witnessed it helplessly calling out frantically but unable to reach her. She drowned.

Her little heart gave out. They said it was a congenital defect, but I knew differently. I knew that it had already been weakened and broken hundreds of times. My heart broke a little when I heard the news.

The spiral downward for their family was swift….differing ways to grieve and the brother probably confused as hell. The cracks in the family may have already been there. I don’t know.

My little friend never got the second chance she so desperately wanted. She was never kidnapped either. I swore I would never forget this child nor the profundity of this story.

I was recounting a little of this tale to my daughter recently. She had asked me if I had ever lost a student to death. I was telling her in detail but I was horrified that I could not recall this child’s name. This child I swore I’d never forget.

Angry with myself and a little disappointed in my fading mental acuity, I went over all the clues I could fathom. I remembered her brother’s name. It was unusual {as was hers). In my lengthy career these were unique monikers that I thought I could never forget. I messaged my friend (a colleague) who was teaching at the same school at that same time. She had a vague recollection and had to use her “sources”. I remembered the face, the clothing, the oddness of the name. I finally wrote “it sounds like…..” and we both got the flash. It is not necessary to name her for this story, nor is it ethical to write it. I have it in my notes.

Her little heart gave out. It just broke. She might have had a chance if she had been kidnapped.