Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My opportunity to say thanks

A few educators are on the list of unforgettable characters encountered in my youth but none stand ahead of Frank Gumley, my home room teacher in grades eight and nine. This week, a number of his former students, including wife Gwen and I, gather in White Rock to celebrate Frank's 90th birthday. I imagine he'll still command the room, still refer to me as "No-man" and still demand my shirt be tucked-in. Perhaps we'll get a few new illustrations of applied science from his RAF days. He never called himself a hero but we knew that having been at the centre of every significant battle and vital operation, he must have been one. The fact he was 16 when WWII began never seemed too significant.

Mr. G's nominal specialties at Brooks Junior High School in Powell River were math and science but his real forte was challenging kids to explore worlds previously unknown. He taught us that seemingly obscure things learned today would be the basis of critical knowledge we need tomorrow. With his genial style, learning was never arduous, it was satisfying, even delightful.

I got after-hours exposure to Frank because I palled with his oldest son and frequently spent time in his basement, listening to records sent from England by my friend's grandmother. We regularly played the first album from a Liverpool group that soon achieved a fair degree of success. We also spent hours spinning two Peter Sellers disks, one with Sophia Loren in which something went boom, boody-boom, boody-boom and another recording, Bridge on the River Wye, from the Goons along with Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller. My lifelong fascination with British comedy was formed in those days.

Being in the Gumley classroom was life changing for me in a unique way. Students were seated alphabetically and that caused Ms. Farnden to sit immediately in front of Mr. Farrell. Fortunately, she always did homework and prepared for class. More importantly, she collaborated with the slacker behind who did not. That same good woman has been my wife for now more than 44 years so I'll tell Frank Gumley that at least one person was impressed by my presence, if he wasn't.


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7 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Norman. Who would have thought that the alphabet could have set the direction of your life?
    How are teachers to cope now with the mighty distraction of the cell phone?

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  2. What a great piece, Norm.
    I think we all we all have a Mr Gumley in our lives and just don't take the time to recognize, remember or give thanks. I had "Clem" for homeroom at Brooks and while he didn't set me on any paths he still brings a smile to my face.

    Good to see you posting again. I was wondering...

    Tim.

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  3. "I talk to trees................that's why they put me away." The Goon show, probably the most underrated, but most influential comedy show of its time.This is unlike the goon show in Victoria, which has to be the most overrated and out dated episode in BC government yet. Staring many half-backed players, funded by Daddy Warbucks, (Enbridge, SNC Lavalin and a host of fly by night companies) and featuring herself, a SFU reject, Premier Photo-op, whose claim to fame is showing more clevage and any other Premier in BC history.

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  4. What a great story, Norm. There must be many who've had an influential teacher, although I've noticed among some of my more unfortunate acquaintances a dearth of such early mentors---often substituted by a lasting hostility toward any authority. Yet there have always been those rare individuals for whom even budding sociopaths have special affection. I wonder if a clunky surname like Gumley is a prerequisite for receiving such unlikely respect.

    For me it was Mr Cawthorne, Henry Peale Cawthorne, a tweedy English vet with a waxy combover, reeking of tobacco, whose clomping footsteps seemed to echo from within his hyper-inflated chest, whose cataract-covered eyes seemed to dangle in deep sockets on thin sheets of lizard-like skin behind perennially grimy wire-rim spectacles. His clickers were worn flat from clenching a pipe in his jaws from which he could draw a whiff of smoke after almost impossibly long intervals. Such was his serenity as he arrived at our country school after his morning commute out of Toronto; by day's end he was usually reduced to a steady chain of rag-end cigarettes for which he'd step out of the boy's entrance during suitably generic assignments, generic cuz at the century-old Whitevale school we had grades 1 to 8 but only two rooms. Mr Cawthorne was both school principal and senior room teacher.

    The job was challenging enough: in the junior room of three grades there were tots barely lose of their mothers' apron strings while in the senior room slouched "greasers" with decks of smokes rolled in their sleeves and the new thing, Beatle boots. The senior girls had to wear skirts but they were allowed to wear jeans underneath. And of course beehive hairdoos and missile-tit bras. Even years later in high school, girls weren't allowed to wear slacks; we always assumed it was because they had better heating than in Whitevale school.

    Our educations were necessarily generic: with five grades in one room, the same Bible reading for all and two arithmetic exercises (addition for grades four, five and six, and multiplication for grades 7 and 8) each morning, we tended to all come out with the same level of 3-R skills, split an infinitive at the drop of a hat or get the strap for saying "ain't", which happened daily. Didn't matter. To settle inevitable afternoon restlessness, Mr Cawthorne would resort to his endless supply of Old Chums and Punch magazines from which he'd read for an hour or so to the whole attentive, quiet classroom and from which there'd be frequent digressions while he illustrated this or that on the black board---his Parkinson's tremor made his hand almost illegible. Still didn't matter. He was a storyteller extraordinaire, saved the war stories for Armistice Day. What he taught us was the invaluable ability to be interested. Last I saw him he was very old but embarking on one of his projects, which required him to learn ancient Greek. I've wondered what he'd think of the present, with the internet, DNA mapping and all. I suspect it wouldn't have bothered him a whit that his theory of ancient giants would thusly be debunked. It did't matter so long's you keep learning and stay interested in whatever you find in life.

    One other thing about that kind of society, the kind with eight grades in two rooms, is that people tended to fall in love and marry close (sometimes to cousins) and early. Something to do with proximity. The fourteen year-old beauty who asked me, the grade three kid, for a twist to Elvis Presley at the only school dance I recall at Whitevale school eventually bore me a son many years later. I have so much to be thankful for. And I thank you, Norm, for reminding me.

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  5. BTW, Norm, do you remember that Goon show, "Who turned that light on?" I'm still laughing. Thanks again.

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  6. I sincerely hope you and the studious young lady who was so well-prepared have a tremendous time with all who gather in White Rock to honour Mr. Gumley. These are the priceless moments that are irreplaceable.

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  7. Good piece, Norm. Mine was a history teacher named Cliff Greer. He was a WW 2 vet also and brought history alive. Probably a contemporary of your fellow.

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