My Best Teacher;Interview;Anne Michaels;Features amp; Arts

10th December 1999 at 00:00
I went to Vaughan Road Collegiate in Toronto, a down-to-earth high school with students from many backgrounds - Italian, Estonian, Jewish, black. It was a social and ethnic soup.

At 15, I joined the English literature class of Gordon Cameron, whom I have to thank for King Lear, Measure for Measure, Thomas Hardy and James Joyce. He was an extremely vivacious man, portly and not that tall, with a beard and reddish hair. His passion for language was remarkable and he was the first teacher I encountered who took such great pleasure in reading aloud.

He had such vivacity that learning was a pleasure. I remember him reading wonderfully from King Lear, paying such close attention to the language. It was the same when he read from Tess of the D'Urbervilles or another Hardy novel. Once you've heard someone reading those descriptions of the natural world with such love, you never forget it.

He was eager for us to stretch ourselves. As far as possible, he treated us as peers and colleagues discussing a wonderful work - no matter how limited our critical faculties or knowledge of the literature of any given period might have been.

There was never any rigidity of interpretation, no pressure for us to swallow his version of the text. Among the teachers I'd had up to that point, it was rare not to be dictated to.

Whatever our age, we bring all that we are to the classroom, but somehow with Mr Cameron everything personal could be left behind. It didn't matter whether you lived in a big house or a drab apartment, whether you were an only child or had 16 brothers. We were all on common ground.

It didn't take much to spur me on in English literature classes. I had been a huge reader from early childhood, and I was already writing poetry and prose. Mr Cameron and I never talked about my creative writing, but to have someone like him, who would push me to my limits out of love for the literature, was fantastic.

He lent me books, and I remember one evening hauling home his copy of The Riverside Shakespeare, which felt like it weighed 50lbs. He said: "Keep it as long as you need to, I've got other Shakespeare editions at home." I went through it reverently; to be entrusted with this big, heavy volume was wonderful.

We were working towards school exams from set texts, but you could also do a large, voluntary essay, choosing whatever books you wanted. This was my first large academic paper. I wrote about Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and A Horse's Mouth, by Joyce Carey, and I was completely inspired by Mr Cameron's receptivity to my ideas. He was generally well liked, and he certainly had a special relationship with me and a handful of other students.

He was in his 50s, and I think he was married, but I knew little about his life. He really valued his privacy and gave everything he could in class. I guess that made the classroom a special place.

I enjoyed the same intellectual freedom that comes from focusing solely on the writer and the writing when I was a literature major at the University of Toronto. I was in a group of eight, on the rhetoric course run by Professor Michael Dixon. We were a sharp and interested bunch and we loved that class.

He led a relentless pursuit of the text. We'd look at how a writer ordered every word and image - the real nuts and bolts. We read Kafka, Shakespeare, Brecht, all kinds of people, and I learned more about writing with him than with anyone else.

Professor Dixon didn't dwell on literary theory or schools of thought or agendas. As with Mr Cameron, you had to prove everything through the words on the page. "If you think this is so, prove it," they would both say; they were very egalitarian. We were sleuthing into the writer's brain, and that is fantastic training for anyone who wants to write.

We had two classes a week for two years, but I don't think we even knew Professor Dixon's first name until after the course finished. I haven't been in touch with either of them since I was a student.

Where Mr Cameron could be very effusive in his reading, Professor Dixon was quiet and restrained, but very intense. I think he, too, was very shy. Both men's ability to communicate came through what they loved - the literature. There was such enthusiasm there - how could one not be enthusiastic in return?

Anne Michaels, 40, poet and novelist, lives in Toronto, where she has composed music for theatre and taught creative writing at the university. In 1997, she won many awards, including the Orange Prize, for her first novel, "Fugitive Pieces", which became an international best-seller. Her latest collection of poems, "Skin Divers" (Bloomsbury, pound;9:99), was published in October. She was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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