A Road Not Taken
With all the recent retirement festivities I have had cause of late to reflect on my journey in the education system. One of the frequent questions I have been asked is why I decide to become a teacher “all those years ago.” I have had occasion over the years to mention it on World Teacher Day, but for me, the decision had everything to do with my school experiences, and a challenge extended to me by a very special human being.
I started grade 8 at John Oliver High School (JO) in 1977. I was to have attended Van Tech, but our family moved to a new home in South Vancouver (two block from the Blue Boy Hotel, for those of you who know the area). That meant that I started high school accompanied by none of my elementary school friends. JO was at the time the largest secondary school in the city, so I remember being lost in a sea of people. Two things helped to ground me: I had a consistent homeroom class with a group of students and teacher that I was to stay with for the next five years, and I had a love for sports and was willing to try out for any and all of the school teams.
That year I played on the football, basketball and track teams. It was when I joined that track team that spring that I first met Mr. Hugh Marshall. He was a fixture in the school. He was the head of the PE Department and Athletic Director. To be honest, he did not impress me that year. He seemed at times loud and derisive towards his students and athletes (You could occasionally hear him refer to students as a “horse’s ass”). He at one point that year questioned if I had stolen the football my mother had purchased for me as a birthday present. I perceived him as a “yeller”, and that just did not work for me as an athlete. I generally tried to steer clear of him.
Fast forward to grade 10 and now Mr. Marshall is my PE teacher, and the coach of my basketball and track teams. Our team makes it to the city finals in basketball, and he coaches me to silver medal in long jump. He has long since apologized to me our earlier interactions, and I begin to see the difference between being mean and demanding. I discover that he is dedicated, has a sense of humour, loves kids and has high expectations for performance. I am okay with that. In the changing room after our basketball loss, he tearfully told us how proud he was of us as athletes and human beings. I later remember him telling me that while he did not historically coach senior basketball, he wanted to follow our team into grade 11 and 12.
Fast forward again to my senior year, and Mr. Marshall has become a father figure to me. He knows more about me than any other teacher in the school, and takes genuine interest in my life. He realizes that our family was struggling to make ends meet and through his connections secures me two part-time jobs in the neighbourhood. While our basketball team is not as strong as he had hoped, he tells me frequently how much he enjoys being in our company. He continues to be demanding, and coaches me in breaking the district records in both the long and triple jump. I get selected as the first repeat winner of the Athlete of the Year in the storied history of JO. He helps me secure offers for academic and athletic scholarship offers. I decided that I wanted to go to UBC and knowing that my family could not afford it, he secures me a fulltime summer job in a business owned by one of his siblings.
It is the end of the 1981/82 school year and in one of our many serious conversations, he asks about my future. I tell him of my intention to become a lawyer, and he responds that I should become a teacher. When asked why he felt this way, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” He went on to tell me about how much school (in addition to my mother) had helped me to become the person I was, and that I had an obligation to pay it back. I told about my desire to fight for the underdog, and he retorted that schools were the best place to do this. I disagreed and broke off the conversation.
His words stayed with me for several months as I tried to find my groove at UBC. I would return to visit the school, check in on him, and help out where I could. He continued to press me about becoming a teacher, and I continued to rebuff him. I am not sure what ultimately caused me to change my mind, but I recall telling him that I was going to make the switch and saw him grin before he said, “I knew you would come around. You were meant to be a teacher.” He was right, and since then I dedicated myself to paying it back.
Fast forward one last time, and I attended Mr. Marshall’s 90th birthday celebration (pictured above) a few years ago. Our distant memories only echoed down the halls and into the gym now named in his honour. The celebration was attended by hundreds of his former students and athletes. I had a great visit with him and thanked him again for the positive influence he had been on my life and, and by extension on the lives of the many students I have served. I can still remember his smile, and one of his favourite sayings to his athletes, “Good stuff, old boy.” He topped off the evening with a speech to all of us gathered around him, and something he said resonated most with me, and has been part of my own calling: “Teaching and coaching was not just about playing the game. It was more about creating good citizens.”
Fruits of a road not taken, and the power of the public education system.