– by Albert Berkshire
We all have influences in our life. Those who motivate us to exercise. Those who encourage us to excel. Those who inspire us to write. Those who make us a better person; and in the absence of success, make us want to be a better person. I’ve had a few influences in my life. Some will never know it. Some may be reading this now. Some probably had no idea they would have such a profound impact on my life. And like all great teachers, they aren’t appreciated until years later, and often as a result of deep reflection upon one’s life.
Or in my case, when I had writer’s block and went out for a long run.
Bernadette Meiwald was an incredible influence on me. She might look back at me and think, “I wanted to strangle that kid. Still do!” But what a difference she made in my life, and in my growth as a student. She once kicked me out of a spelling bee because I was convinced a kid from another school misspelled a word and she missed it. In fact, I’m still convinced it happened that way. Despite that, “What are you? Deaf?” is not the right way to approach the situation for a Fourth Grader. It was an early indication that speaking my mind would become a signature trait of mine, if not one that would land me in some serious hot water in the years to come. (and my Ghad, has it ever!) But on that day, I was summarily dismissed from the room, or “excused” as I believe it was called back then, and then “corrected” (as it was called back then) later in the afternoon. In the end, I had to make a formal apology to her in front of my class. In the interest of remaining a “man”, we’ll move on from this part of the story, and into the goods.
Bernie, despite only teaching me in Fourth Grade, ended up being stuck with me for life. Much to her dismay (and likely her sister’s dismay) I became lifelong friends with her niece. So most family gatherings that included Bernie, also included Albert. And there was no escaping it. It’s what we did as teenagers and as young adults. We hung out, and when the “family” was having a party – I was there. So was Bernie, and the look in her eye always said, “You were wrong, you brat.”
I should point out here that her sister, Lorraine, taught me in High School, but didn’t figure as such a major shaping influence in my school life because she taught us Family Studies. That’s the Catholic translation for Sex Education. And being teenagers, we felt we already knew everything, and thusly chose to ignore the class entirely save for the one constant throughout the semester, “Miss, what do you mean when you say “it”?”
I suspect Lorraine had the same feeling each class as did Bernie so many years earlier. “I want to strangle that kid. Still do!” But she did instill in us that it was okay to buy condoms – after we were married. (Catholic School, remember?)
But Bernie did make me realize the value of decorum, the reality of one’s actions, and certainly, being what most Psychologists like to term “the formative years”, she did introduce me to a wonderful addiction – proper grammar and spelling. I am forever grateful to her.
Then there was Stump. Ronald Kelly. The man was aptly nicknamed by the cruelest of high school kids – most likely, my older brother. Stump Kelly was all of four-foot-eleven, pissed off, and still living at home with “Mother” at age 50. (Cue the knife and shower curtain scene. Renh renh renh renh) Now, if you are a person of diminutive stature, this is not a slight to your person, nor your abilities. The fact that some people can’t reach the liquor cabinet is not at play here. It is most notable to point out that Stump Kelly, all just past eye level with a kitchen counter, was a formidable man. (Should Francais be your first language, he was all that, too, avec “tres”) I note this, not in a usually ranting sidebar, but in context, because aside from the pure insanity of his character, he was a force with which to be reconned.
(Here’s an English grammar irony. “reconned” is used in Newfoundland in the intransitive verb form of “reccon”. As in “I reccon”. I know, it sounds very Wild West. Yet, Oxford defines it as a US Military “slang” term for the past tense of “recon”, short for reconnaissance. Strange. The greater irony is that a US spell checker fails to recognize the word.)
Kelly’s Box was my favourite. Stump, may peace be upon him, was undoubtedly the most persuasive of English teachers. That man put the fear of God (it was Catholic school, we had a god) into each and every one of us. He would tell us, “If I see you hanging out in the mall ten years after you graduate, I expect that when I stop you and say “Kelly’s Box!” I want to her you, without hesitation, say to me, “And, but, or, nor, for, and sometimes, yet.”
I’m still torn between WTF? and Mon Dieu!
Conjunctions. He LOVED conjunctions. As do I, to this day. In fact, anytime I hear a person speaking, or read a person’s writing and they string together phrases of English butchery like “and I too, also”, I think about Stump, spinning in his grave.
I also think he was the only teacher in history to take a bunch of students each year and turn us into obsessive compulsives. To this day, I am convinced OCD is a learned behaviour.
Still, there was so much to be learned from this man, and sadly, only a few disjointed years of high school. But (there you go Stump), my foundations were there. I appreciate to this day what he taught us. And (another one for you, teacher) for all the quirks and fear mongering, he genuinely loved the English language.
Or (yes, another)…he was just a cruel bastard who wouldn’t let us leave the classroom until the desks were all perfectly aligned – rows and columns. I hold out hope for the former. That’s the Stump Kelly I learned to enjoy.
And then there was Focus Keough. I had a few dances with Focus. But before I explain his place in my world, I should probably give a brief explanation of his name. Truth be told, I don’t know his first name. We were in Catholic Boys’ School, so it was either, formally, “Mr.” or “Brother”. Later there was “Miss”, even if “Miss” was a “Ms.” or a “Mrs.” I don’t remember any “Mlle”, but we did have one “Monsieur”. I generally got kicked out of that class, French, regrettably not on my priority list back then.
Focus had the thickest eye glasses we’d ever seen. They were so thick, they didn’t even make “How thick were they?” jokes. And for a bunch of pubescent brats in neckties and dress pants, (and no girls to shame us from embarrassing our collective selves), he was target number one for humour. We’d simply never seen anything like him. And what a voice! That man could cause tremors when he spoke. Deep baritone vocals poured out of him like a magnitude 7 quake in the percussion section of a symphony.
Our first encounter was in Library class. Yes. That, in itself, should clearly define how messed up Catholic school was for Seventh Graders. We had Library class. And it had value. We actually got marks in “Library”. It wasn’t a “best whisper” passes thing. We had to learn to do research. And Focus was going to teach us how. How? By giving us 25 questions for which we had the research the answers. Sounds pretty simple. He wrote them on the board, and we had two weeks to get the answers. (Actually we had one night to call around to everyone we knew and get their answers. But, you get the gist of where this is going.)
It was all sunshine and roses until question number six. “Who painted the Fifer?” Someone had to ask, “The what?” To which Focus calmly replied, “The Fifer?”
This occurred at least four times. Then he lost it.
(Pssst! Over here! This should have been a sign of things to come, but we were kids, and we giggled. And it went downhill rapidly from this point onward.)
“WHO PAINTED THE FIFER? EF – EYE – EF – E- ARRRRE!”
Actually, it was correctly titled “Young Flautist” and was painted by Eduardo Manet in 1866. Some things are ingrained in our memories. Did I mention Kelly’s Box?
Later, Focus would come to be my favourite of all my teachers. Sure Brother Blackmore, a former member of the Canadian rock bank The Guess Who was of particular conversational interest. Stick Taffe was one of those all-round teachers who made you feel like an adult, expressed his sense of humour openly, and shored with us the other perfect academia – mathematics. D’Arcy Drury, one of my Journalism professors, tried his best to teach me brevity; but no one lit up a room, or Shakespeare, like Focus. He would read to the class, changing his voice for every character, yet never falling out of each character. He was a master of the art of voice work. But that was never his goal. In essence, he was simply conveying to us the sheer brilliance and beauty of Shakespeare. He wanted us to understand the beauty of the English Language.
In the ensuing years, I began a long, continuing love affair with the English language. And while I studied Journalism and Business (never formally pursuing English Grammar in post-secondary school), I learned to love the nuances of English sentence structure. She is, after all, a beautiful and complex language. And in every correspondence, I like to think I’m doing them justice. Bernie, Stump, and Focus.
Albert Berkshire is a writer, producer and voice actor. He lives, writes, plays, and consults for clients on Canada’s West Coast. At present, he is in the middle of five books. Two he is reading, and three he is writing. And while he may be forced to write in “street” for his work, he never misses an opportunity to relish in the nuances of engaging communication. Well crafted writing, a la Bernie, Stump and Focus, has helped make his company, GreatCreative.Com, successful. For a much shorter, and less frequent rambling, follow Albert on Twitter @albertberkshire.