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High School Teachers

Powell River writer and singer-songwriter Pat Buckna began his music career in Calgary in the 1970's, spent a number of years in the Arctic including a stint as a photographer-reporter for a community newspaper, and was responsible for bringing over 750 performers to the NWT pavilion at Expo '86. In 2019, he wrote and published Only Children - A Family Memoir - and runs a small recording studio on Texada Island. He lives in a small Canadian coastal community two ferries north of Vancouver, BC. 

In Grade ten, I studied Russian, French and English. Back in those days, learning Russian was thought to be of some advantage for university. Our Russian teacher, a woman whose name I can't remember, was young, attractive and patient. Our French teacher, Miss Hawley, or Mademoiselle Hawley as she often corrected us, had any number of verses she made us memorize—including sing-songy rhymes accompanied by flamboyant hand gestures.

Our Russian teacher taught us the 33-letterforms of the Russian alphabet, and highlighted the syntactical differences between English and the Romance languages. Miss Hawley's French was like a prissy variation of English. Russian was a brand-new way of thinking.

In Russian class we had to memorize several new characters and sound combinations that had no equivalent in English. Many familiar letters—for example, p and c and m—had different pronunciations in Russian. Even more unusual were the lack of articles. Unlike French, where gender determined which article to use—le livre and un livre, la bouche and une bouche—Russian nouns stood on their own.

There was no a book or the book, there was just book. In Russian, when you said, "I have a book," the words literally translated to, "By me, book." As a result, when a Russian speaker speaks English, they often sound terse or gruff.

Sounds like 'ge' and 'ka' and 'shot' seemed to have been coughed up from deep in the speaker's throat. The letterforms for che and zhe and tse and shcha were unusual, the differences in pronunciation subtle. But as we learned and began to understand the meanings of words and how sentences were constructed from those words, I appreciated the passion, the beauty and the depth of feeling that could be expressed by those speaking and writing Russian.

Like poetry, there were few extraneous words in Russian. Each noun was potent. The proximity to other words and their relationships mattered. Context and inflection determined meaning. There was no room or need for frilly attachments or arbitrary embellishers. "Ya pon-ee-my-u. I understand."

Twice a week, morning classes began with Russian, followed by French. By the time I got to English composition in the third period, my written sentences had become a pastiche of letterforms and grammatical constructs which bore little resemblance to any of the three languages I was studying, yet paid homage to all three. Articles would either be left out or transformed into French-i-fied le's and la's, often nouns were written in Russian script, letters like t and s often replaced by their Russian equivalents, acute and grave accents adorned many of my vowels, and a pointy circumflex often crowned the odd e or two.



Russian studies were cancelled half-way through our second year. Our Russian teacher was pregnant and left at Christmas.

One morning in late spring, I wore blue jeans to school and had combed my hair down low over my forehead until it touched my eyebrows. Mademoiselle Hawley took one glance at me and wagged a finger.

"Mais non, you will not come to my class looking like one of those kind of boys. Off you go to the office."

Appearances didn't matter much to Gloria Dalton, our English teacher. Gloria, a saviour of sorts, easily overlooked our grammatical abuses, and spent most of her time gently pushing us to transcend rigid forms and exchange conformity for more individual forms of self-expression. In 1968, my final year of high school, Mademoiselle Hawley continued her melodramatic antics in class while I continued to lose interest in la belle langue. One day, just before graduation, I tried to convince our English teacher to cut class and join the rest of us across the street at the Dairy Queen.

"C'mon Gloria, it'll be fun," I said, but she only smiled.

That afternoon, a group of us who'd ducked out of Social Studies class, smoked and sipped coffees at the Dairy Queen.

"She isn't coming," said one of the classmates I had told.

"Just wait, she'll be here," I said, although I had begun to have doubts.

A few minutes later, Gloria—head shrouded in a scarf, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses—appeared at the front door. A few students who hadn't heard about her invitation appeared uneasy, thinking she was here to report them to the principal. Gloria sat down at our table next to the window, took off her sunglasses and undid her scarf. She grinned, then leaned back, and lit up a smoke. No one said anything.

Perhaps we all understood that this was one of those times where words, in whatever language we could have chosen, would only have diminished and diluted the triumph and freedom we all felt.

Nothing more happened that day at the Dairy Queen, the afternoon our English teacher snuck out of school to join us. We laughed and smoked and finished our coffees, then we all went back to school. Even though nothing happened, everything changed.

~ Pat Buckna, from his book: Only Children: A Family Memoir — available as a Kindle e-book and in paperback.






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