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.