Archive for March, 2022

the teacher who taught me the beginning of everything

God knows how quickly I would have perished had I not been blessed by teachers of miracles. The teacher who truly started me on my way was Dr. Florence Prawer, my French teacher in secondary school and later my French and Spanish tutor as I prepared for graduate school. I learned last week, from my beloved friend B., that she recently passed away.

This is reposted from March 2016:

My friends and readers know that I spend a lot of time thinking about mental hygiene. This is a scary concept when you plumb it. Here’s why: You are the only one in charge of keeping your mind humming strong, and bad habits can be irreversible.

In the spirit of this month’s Easter season, here’s a story I wrote awhile ago of how one teacher sought to redeem an angry and lazy lad:

This Easter weekend I have been contemplating, uncharacteristically, a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 4:30: “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed until the day of redemption.” On this verse the 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney sermonized: “If the Spirit leave you, you will have no heart to offer prevailing prayer, and if you attempt to pray, you will find that your mouth is shut, and if opened it will only be opened to mock God. And you will find as a matter of fact, that instead of being benefited you are only hardened by engaging in prayer.”

That remark reminded me of Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, “Treat It Gentle.” To me, the “It” is one’s muse, the source of one’s creativity. In his book the great clarinetist/saxophonist writes, “Oh, I can be mean — I know that. But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle.  The music, it’s the road. There’s good things alongside it, and there’s miseries. You stop by the way and you can’t ever be sure what you’re going to find waiting. But the music itself, the road itself — there’s no stopping that. It goes on all the time. It’s the thing that brings you to everything else. You have to trust that. There’s no one ever came back who can’t tell you that.”

Bechet tells the story of Buddy Bolden, a brilliant trumpeter whose love of showmanship made his muse abandon him. “You take someone that’s grinning and stomping and moving around on the stand where the music should be going — for the moment you’re lost from the music, you’re so busy watching him fool around. But you get his same record and try to listen to the music then, and there’s no music there.”

I remember the day when I learned about not grieving the holy spirit, about treating it gentle.

I was in ninth grade, French class. We were going over our homework and my teacher, Dr. P.,  noticed that, in an exercise in which we were supposed to rewrite present-tense sentences as conditional sentences, I had changed the verbs only, using quotation marks to indicate the missing words. She took my assignment, explained what I had done to the rest of the class, ripped it up, and noted that being lazy was no way to get ahead in life.

After the bell rang and the rest of the class had left, I told Dr. P. that if she embarrassed me like that again, I would kill her.

Not surprisingly, I was yanked out of Art class the next period. There was my “guidance counselor” and Dr. P. — no disciplinary people like the Vice Principal, and no cops. She told me that, just this one time, she would speak to me in English, not wanting there to be any misunderstanding as to what she needed to say.

Dr. P. was very serious, but without any anger or even sternness. “Mr. Basil, you have a fine mind. Right now you do. And only you are in charge of what gets inside of it, how it runs, how it thinks. I’m not in charge. Your parents are not in charge. Your friends are not in charge. Just you. You’re the gatekeeper. Cutting corners is lazy. If you keep it up, it will become a bad habit. And then you will no longer notice that this is what you do habitually. And then … you will no longer have a fine mind.”

That was it. The meeting couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes. No reprimand, no letter in my file, no call to Mom and Dad. (God knows how much trouble a student would get into making such a threat — even an obviously empty one — today.)

Dr. P. had scared me, but not in the way I thought she was going to: I had never known until that moment in that small office that my mental hygiene was entirely in my care. Dr. P. had also spared me, answering my anger with grace … and with words I could understand.

Blessed is the true judge.

Mission Creep

Medicalizing primary human feelings is a questionable act.

the teacher

This obituary in the Washington Post really struck me.

Just past 1 p.m. on Oct. 9, 1967, a young and trembling Bolivian army sergeant named Mario Terán pointed his M2 carbine from point-blank range at Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The long-hunted Latin American revolutionary, 39 years old and an international hero to Marxist guerrillas, had been captured by an army patrol the day before.

Guevara lay wounded and shackled on a filthy stone floor of a mud hut in the Bolivian town of La Higuera. He looked directly at his executioner and said, as Mr. Terán recounted years later: “Calm yourself. And aim well. You are going to kill a man!” …*

Although Mr. Terán rarely talked of the day he shot Guevara, Bolivian reporters who tracked him down years later quoted him as saying: “It was the worst moment of my life. I saw Ché large, very large. His eyes shone intensely. When he fixed his gaze on me, it made me dizzy.”

After the guerrilla told him to aim well, Mr. Terán said, he “took a step back towards the door, closed my eyes and fired.”

The presence of mind and the generosity of Guevara in these moments are startling.

I doubt I will want another man’s image in my own obituary. But there could be no other way here.

* Other sources phrase Guevara’s last words a different way: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man!” The phrase “Shoot, coward” seems like an addition provided posthumously, as does, to my ear, the phrase “only a man.” Each addition would coarsen Guevara’s display of humanity.

Stunning work

With some friends on Saturday I visited the rennie museum to see a group exhibition of work by photographers Katy Grannan, Andres Serrano, and Larry Clark (their photographs left to right). It was a thrillingly moving experience for me.

This is the museum’s penultimate show, as Bob Rennie, who owns and who restored the 51 E. Pender building, the oldest in Vancouver’s Chinatown, announced last month that the building will soon be home to the first Chinese Canadian Museum in the country. I know the new incarnation will be marvellous, but I will make sure I get down to E. Pender to see this show again, and the last one, too (I don’t believe the artists have been announced for that one yet).

A note about the middle image above, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” You can see the damage to this photograph, which was attacked with hammers in Avignon, France, on Palm Sunday in 2011. Several other large photographs by Serrano in this exhibit had also been attacked in another previous showing, the cracked and smashed glass covered over by bright red tape.

Great photographs teach you how to see them. But not everyone is you.

Sunday reading

Henry James by way of The New York Review of Books is always good:

James summarizes the moral that America emerging from the Gilded Age seems to offer: “To make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t ‘mind,’ don’t mind anything—that is absolutely, I think, the main American formula.” It follows that if you don’t make money you will “mind” the public thinness and waste of American life, and be reduced to “the knowledge that America is no place for you.” There is a grim social price paid by American “progress”; finding in the city streets a “new style of poverty” compared with what he had observed in European cities, James notes: “There is such a thing, in the United States, it is hence to be inferred, as freedom to grow up to be blighted, and it may be the only freedom in store for the smaller fry of future generations.”