Tuesday 27 January 2009

All heaven's gifts being heaven's due

The title of this post comes from Ben Jonson's elegy "On My First Daughter", his daughter having died in infancy - an unfortunately common fate for children born in 17th-century England. This post is not about infant mortality, however. This post is about my junior high school English teacher, Mr. Clancey - or Mr. C, as we all called him - who died on Monday after what could only be a losing battle with spinal cancer. Here's part of his obituary, which appeared yesterday in The Chronicle Herald:

CLANCEY, Richard William
July 26, 1943- January 24, 2009. He was a son of William J. and Mary Catherine Clancey. He is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen; Liam, Raina and Fionn, Moira, Dylan, Jake, Sam, and Sylvie, Joey, Ellen, Eamon, Tom; brothers, Jim and Bill. Richard was a family man, wealthy beyond price in the love and regard of his children and the boundless joy of his dear grandchildren. His pleasures were simple, life at the "tree house", a round or two of golf, a day at the beach, winter walks, good books, great music, "kitchen" bridge in pleasant company. The affection and kindness of wonderful friends enriched his whole life and, at the end of his journey, there was much comfort to be found in their care and regard for him. We knew always that we had been blessed, greatly blessed in our friends, and we find our sad hearts a little eased by their steadfast love and compassion. Richard was always touched by the appreciation expressed by you who were once his students, but he was quite astounded by the outpouring of your remembrance and affection in these past weeks. He never realized fully the weight of his influence as the outstanding teacher you described in your letters and cards, as his great ability was ever tempered by his equally great humility. Our gratitude to all you kind young people who recognized his gift by so generously giving it back to him in his hour of need. He loved the residents at Bonny Lea Farm, the family of L'Arche Halifax, and the babies of Project Rachel. He would be most pleased by any remembrance made in honor of his life. "But since it falls unto my lot / That I should go and you should not / I'll gently rise and softly call, / Good night and joy be with you all. / Fill to him the parting glass."

I am not one for revealing very personal things here but I will now, in honour of Mr. C. for to say that he was a great inspiration, infused a love of literature in me, or was the best teacher I've ever had, while all true statements, do not in any way cover it. When I was in Mr. C's English and Social Studies classes, I was a kid well on my way to becoming one of those tragic statistics you hear about on the evening news. Mr. C saw that I needed help in a desperate way and he did the best possible thing he could for me: he kindly and constantly showed me I was good at things - specifically, reading and writing critically - and that was sometimes the only thread keeping me attached to this world.

I called Mr. C before he died, there being no way I could get down to Halifax to do so in person, and he remembered me right away and was amazingly positive. I can't imagine having that kind of strength in the face of such pain.

I know I'm being very maudlin and sad, but there was much to celebrate about Mr. C and my great good luck in having him for a teacher for 3 years. I've been sitting here at work, quite red about the nose and eyes, wondering how best to look back in a positive way. I could only come up with one thing: it's time to write some mini-book reports on the books I remember studying in Mr. C's classes. I'm going to do this based only on memory so these will be very short indeed.

1) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. I recall really struggling with the Renaissance language which is now so second nature to me. Reading this play for the first time, in grade 7, was only about comprehension for me and yet that same year I found myself struggling through A Midsummer Night's Dream on my own, just because I'd glimpsed a whole new world of reading in my first foray into Shakespeare.

This play also provided our entire class with its first real glimpse into SEX, for Mr. C had us watch the Zeferelli film adaptation of the play. The actors playing the titular characters got naked and my whole grade 7 class got very tense.

2) Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan. This is a novel about the Halifax explosion (which occurred Dec. 6, 1917) and killed several thousand people in the city, including the majority of my paternal grandfather's family. I think this was the first instance for me of reading literature translating into empathy for real people; it made the stories of my grandfather's losses real to me. It also made me red about the eyes and nose a lot, and inspired several years' commitment to Canadian literature which I have since mostly recovered from.

3) Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I recall not enjoying this one much; I think I was too young/immature to appreciate Conrad's incredibly concise and dense writing style. However, by the time I got to Heart of Darkness in high school, I was better able to deal with the language than my peers who hadn't been in Mr. C's extended achievement English class.

4) Shane by Jack Schaefer. A classic coming of age/western, I best remember the end of this book which concludes with the kid yelling (I think) "Shane, don't go, Shane!" It's sort of iconic, isn't? I will forever associate this novel with old book smell and hand-written book reports.

5) Of Mice and Men and 6) The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I recall both these books surprisingly well considering it's about 20 years since I read them. I remember lots of details, but most of all I can still feel the creeping desperation in both books and that's probably why I haven't read any Steinbeck since - it's too effective in that regard to be enjoyable.

Also, there was the eye/nose redness surrounding the event of Lennie's demise and George's destruction/loss of his own dream of livin' off the fatta the lan'.

6) The Pigman by Paul Zindel. I don't remember much except maybe two teenagers visiting an old hermit-like fellow; also, the cover featured the two teens wearing jeans and jackets very similar to what my babysitters wore in the early to mid-80s. I was torn between thinking they were hopelessly uncool and wishing I could wear jeans that tight.

7) Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. The language was easier to handle by grade 8 and I've been sonorously intoning "BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH" at the appropriate time every year since. (Perhaps not the most charming manifestation of my intimacy with Renaissance drama.)

These book reports of school days past have made me realize something else that Mr. C did for me - he made me realize school could be fun. Now that's a gift. Rest in sweet peace, sir.


Anonymous said...

I don't think there is a better gift to give than a love of reading. I can still remember my third grade teacher who was particularly encouraging, so can understand how you would feel on hearing of your teacher's death.

Your book reports made me smile and brought back my own school reading, so thank you.

Yuri... said...

That's a beautiful memorial Colleen, and a fitting remembrance :) The teacher that I remember having the strongest influence on me was also an English teacher, and I think that that is probably not uncommon.

I read all of the books you review in public school as well (and saw the Zeferelli film).

The other books I recall from this period include: "The Outsiders", "In the Heat of the Night", "Death on the Ice", "Johnny Tremain", "Wuthering Hieghts", and "Lord of the Flies".

I think its a gift that our public school system includes books that are not only important to our culture, but are also, for the most part, cracking good reads...

Bookphilia said...

Thanks, Sarah and Yuri. I'm glad good teachers have touched you too. :)