Monday, August 20, 2012

I Remember - Thanks Mr. Sturm

I have a very poor memory, especially of my childhood and teen years. These gaps concern my parents but I have come to accept the huge holes in my memory. This is why, when I remember something, it is pretty significant and surprising.

In June, as I was co-teaching a media literacy lesson in the computer lab to some intermediate division students, I quoted my Grade 12 English teacher. It turns out that it’s a small world, because the Grade 7-8 teacher with me that day recognized the name of my former teacher and my school – he even claims that he remembers being in my class back in high school. (I searched my yearbook for proof but couldn’t find my colleague’s picture.) He had very vivid recollections of this particular teacher and, to my surprise, despite my faulty memory, so did I. What I cannot recall is whether or not I actually told him what an impact he made. Heck, I just quoted him last week in this very blog! I’ve hunted him down, found a contact email, and I hope he takes the opportunity to read this open letter.

BPCI Writers' Club: Winnie, Sean, Brian, Mike, Mr. Sturm, ZsaZsa, Kiran, Gita, Diana

Dear Mr. Joel Sturm,

My name is Diana Maliszewski (nee Diana DeFreitas) and from 1985-1990, I attended Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute in Scarborough. You were my Grade 12 and OAC English teacher. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for teaching me and to tell you that I remember.

I remember the inventive strategies and methods you used to motivate and instruct the class. I probably still have a “Sturm Buck” somewhere around, with your daughter’s photo on it instead of Queen Elizabeth, which we were able to earn if we participated in class. We used to have to compile portfolios, which might be commonplace nowadays but was quite avant-garde in the 1980s. I worked really hard to develop items for that portfolio and reflect on what they signified. I can still recite part of the best poem I ever wrote (for your class), a response to Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”. Mine went like this …

Have we but world enough and time
Each man would give a dame this line …
[I forget the next few lines but it ends like this]

Words are wind, though you protest
Your vow can’t be put to the test
So woo away, I’ll stay as chaste
And worms can have what you would waste

I remember the little nuggets of wisdom about life and literature that you’d impart.

  • Having a humorous scene in the middle of a tragedy is like eating lemon and chocolate ice cream together. The chocolate makes the lemon so much more tart; the lemon makes the chocolate sweeter.
  • The sounds words make and the feeling they invoke when you say them are significant. That’s why you named your daughter Jessica Sturm – Ursula Sturm would be too heavy on the tongue and in the mouth.
  • Writers must personalize large-scale tragedies. Saying six million people died during the Holocaust shows it is a horrible thing, but hearing about one family’s horrific treatment gives those hollow numbers more of an impact (and you’d tell the story of a pregnant woman bound and thrown into a cold puddle, going into labor and dying as the baby ripped her apart from the inside as her family watched helplessly and the guards at the concentration camp laughed).

 I remember that you were a witty speaker and had a way of lifting one eyebrow. I practiced until I, too, was able to raise a solitary eyebrow on command. You didn’t suffer fools lightly and had high standards and expectations. During our conference on my English Independent Study Project, you remarked, “Guilt, Jansenism and Fifth Business – what an appropriate topic for a good Catholic girl to study”.

I remember that you ran a Writers’ Club, which we called the Quisquiliae Society – quisquiliae being a Latin term that meant garbage. You encouraged us to carry a notebook around to write down ideas as they came to us. You even popped by the yearbook office when we held a surprise birthday party for the assistant editor, Kiran.

I remember what you wrote in my yearbook when I graduated – not the usual platitudes, but this: “Isn’t it wonderful to be unique – to be gifted with ability, compassion, wit, good humor and selfless generosity. It’s a gift and a burden. Be careful. People will be jealous of you and will come gunning for you just because that’s what they’re good at. Use every defensive tactic you ever learned in Phys Ed and use your blessings. You’ll have lots.”

Don’t tell the others, but you were my favourite high school teacher. I’m a teacher myself now. I’ll be entering my sixteenth year in the profession and I’m amused to see how much of an influence you’ve had on me. One of my favourite lessons uses currency with a teacher’s face on it for students to earn (not for participation in this case, but for collaboration while researching) – reminiscent of your Sturmies from long ago. My students tell me that I’m pretty funny and I still use that eyebrow lift to express surprise or disbelief. I run clubs too, and let my students take the lead, like you did long ago with the Writers’ Club. I believe in letting people know when they’ve done something wonderful and sir, when you taught me, you made magic. I appreciated it all and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Diana Maliszewski

1 comment:

  1. I love this! He was my favorite teacher too. Such a tough nut yet so wonderful and encouraging. I really respected him and think of him often.