Porch views: The unassuming excellence of a high school teacher

My English students have heard a lot of stories about Barry’s Bay and the Madawaska Valley. Many are humorous, a number are inspiring, some are poignant, others are not altogether flattering and a few are downright disturbing. All of them are true, but don’t worry, I never use names.

On the first day back after the March Break, I delayed the scheduled Pride and Prejudice seminars to start English class with another story from my Barry’s Bay archive. This one was about a remarkable teacher who spent her entire career teaching English at Madawaska Valley District High School in Barry’s Bay – Mary Jane Elmslie who died on March 13.

Miss Elmslie was the only teacher who called me a bastard. Some may have thought it; others may have said it in the staffroom. God knows my grade seven teacher, my elementary French teacher, and one of my high school math teachers certainly had cause to do so. Miss Elmslie was the only one to say it to my face.

One day in the fall of 1983, I made a visit to the costume and prop room to select items for a Fall Festival play. A lady’s mink collar from the 1920s caught my eye. It was anatomically complete with tail, paws, head and red glass eyes in its little taxidermied head. It had a clasp inside its mouth which allowed it to encircle the wearer’s neck. Of course, I tried it on.  I also recognized its possibilities.

I stuffed the creature under my sweater and headed to the classroom where Miss Elmslie was preparing to teach my grade 13 English class. Leaning on a student desk and clutching my books in front of me, I chatted innocently. After a few moments I assumed a puzzled expression and began to scratch my chest and abdomen. Within seconds the scratching escalated from casual to frenzied and I dropped the books, reached under my sweater, and flung the pelt at Miss Elmslie.

As is often the case with practical jokes, the reaction was beyond what I imagined. She screamed and fell off her chair onto the floor shouting, “You bastard, you bastard!” and then, “My contact! My contact!” Thinking one of her contact lenses had popped out, I stopped laughing for a moment and offered to help find it. “It’s under my eyelid you idiot!” was her response and I began to understand how painful a stray hard contact might be. It also dawned on me that I might have gone too far with the joke and would have to face consequences, but I was relieved when Miss Elmslie got up, grabbed the mink, shook it in my face, growled “Woermke, I’ll get you for this,” and broke into her characteristic hearty laughter.

Over the course of that year she did get me back with a few harmless practical jokes (I still don’t know if she was responsible for stuffing my locker with crumpled newspaper), but she certainly did not hold a grudge. Just the opposite actually.

One morning in late June, I was at school working on the décor for prom. On her way through the cafetorium, Miss Elmslie stopped to chat and she asked me how my exams had gone. I told her I got all my exam marks and had worked out my overall average. I thought it was high enough to get a few school awards, but I was just one percent shy of a scholarship. “Oh well, that’s life,” I laughed and continued to paint. A few hours later, I was called to the guidance office and informed that a few teachers had made minor adjustments to my marks so that my overall average met the scholarship threshold. I learned afterwards that Miss Elmslie had gone to each of them to see if they each could “find another mark for Mark.” I was dumbfounded. I had no idea that teachers would do that, and I was forever grateful to her and my other teachers for their kindness.

When I teach Grade 12s I try to pay forward the interest she showed in me and my future.  I get to know my grade 12 students and the post-secondary programs, institutions and scholarships to which they are applying, so if they need some extra help along the way, or even a tiny boost at the end of the course, I can help them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in the business of giving away marks – I even have a reputation for being a hard marker. However, given the nature of marking in an English, arts or humanities course, if a promising, hard-working student has an 89, a teacher can usually reassess an essay, reconsider oral communication skills on a seminar or review contributions to class discussions to find another mark – especially if that mark is needed for access to a program or a much-needed scholarship.

I didn’t intend to be a teacher. As a matter of fact, the only reason I went to teachers’ college was that after achieving a B.A. in philosophy at a Catholic seminary and deciding against that career, I wanted to get working as soon as possible. Teachers’ college with a focus on the primary-junior grades was the one-year solution to my problem. After several years teaching just about everything from kindergarten to grade 8 and qualifying for intermediate and senior education by taking English and education courses at both Carleton and Ottawa universities, I taught my first high school English course
at summer school in 1995. When I planned those first lessons on King Lear and Fifth Business, I asked myself,

How would Miss Elmslie do this?

I have asked that question many times over the last twenty-four years. I have taken what I learned about literature and life in Miss Elmslie’s English class at Madawaska Valley District High School and adapted those lessons to my own high school English teaching. So – when I take the time to have a lunch-time or after-school chat; get choked-up discussing a poignant passage; highlight the connections between literature, history, art, philosophy and religion; explain Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes; shut-down bad behaviour with a sarcastic quip; teach research or essay writing skills; relate personal stories to emphasize a point; assist a struggling student prepare for a test; encourage a gifted student to pursue an academic career; or forgive and forget a practical joke – I am trying to do things the way Miss Elmslie would.

As I put the finishing touches on this column, I am getting ready to teach a lesson on a novel I first read in Miss Elmslie’s English class and which I have reread and taught many times over the years – Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business.  Davies attributed his title to a theatre term for the role which is not the hero, heroine, confidante or villain, but the unassuming character who is essential to the plot and whose influence exceeds that of the central characters.

Insofar as she was a mentor, inspiration and friend, Mary Jane Elmslie could be considered “fifth business” in the lives of her many students. To those of us who became teachers, she demonstrated how important the unassuming excellence of a high school teacher can be in the lives of individuals, communities and society.

Photo: Director Mary Jane Elmslie at a Sound of Music rehearsal in 1980. (Jim Haskins collection) 

mark-woermkeAbout the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty.

5 Comments

  1. Mary Major

    To those in Ottawa who have taught with Mark,this article isn’t surprising .He is an ever -vigilant teacher with a great capacity for all that life has to offer .In these days when teaching to many is a job,Mark reminds us all that it truly is a vocation.

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