Here is the second of the final letters from #legacy. Last week we posted Judith’s letter to her grandson. This week, we have Donna’s. The version in the piece was edited for length, so I have posted the original letter (without edits) here.
It has been forty years since our brief “conversation” but obviously I have not forgotten it. As my first English Department Head you certainly kept a low profile. Before the time to which I now refer, I don’t think I had shared more than a sentence or two with you over the two years I spent at that school. It was in my final days there that you chose to impart these words to “innocent, impressionable” me. I think your “words of wisdom” were actually words of rationalization or maybe they just stemmed from some remote sense of responsibility that you owed me a nod as the head of my department. You recommended that I follow your example and like you, “never be the lamb at anyone’s slaughter”. Having seen you come and go right on the bell, never involving yourself with anything more than mandatory contact with your students, somehow I was not surprised at your “advice”.
Anyway, I think I just nodded and beat a hasty retreat, knowing that your words were not of much value to me. For you see, you were neither the only nor the first English master to influence me, my character and my philosophy.
Ten years before you I had had a much more powerful conversation with a teacher who, like you, had a stern demeanour and frightened most of his students into a cowering silence. His name was Haydn and he was my grade ten English teacher. I went through hell that year. In October I broke my femur badly and was in hospital until mid-December. One of the nurses was Mr. Haydn’s wife. One day she brought me a copy of The Merchant of Venice so I could try to keep up with the class. My very first experience with the bard, it was all Greek to me. However, when I returned to school in January and Mr. Haydn tried to question my fear-frozen class, I was often the only one to offer a tentative answer.
I was relegated to using a cane because of my bad leg, and it was extremely difficult to manage my binder and books with just one arm. Much to my chagrin, one day Haydn kept me back after class at the end of the day to chat about my interest in English literature. He carried my books for me to my locker and kept talking while I struggled to get into my coat and make it to my bus before it left without me. I was embarrassed but mostly relieved to have caught my bus. Being a country girl, missing the bus would mean my parents would have had to drive all the way to town to pick me up. Bad enough that they had to drive to my bus stop a mile from my home because of my leg.
Then, in March I lost my precious little brother to drowning. He had wandered out onto the thin spring ice when he was supposed to have gone to the barn to be with Dad. When I returned to school, Haydn kept me back for a few words again. He asked me if anyone had spoken to me about being exempted from the Final exams. As I had missed the Christmas exams, I automatically assumed I would have to write all the finals. He told me that he would see to it that I would not have to write English. He said I had endured a very rough year and there was no point in my not being exempt in his subject. I was overwhelmed by his thoughtfulness and the sympathetic generosity behind his gruff exterior.
That weekend was the beginning of our Easter vacation. Mr. Haydn was driving to Ottawa with his seven-year-old son that week while his wife stayed back for her job. Their car was hit by a train and Haydn was killed instantly. Miraculously the boy survived. No one ever knew what Haydn had told me. But writing that exam didn’t matter. The legacy of Haydn’s compassion and kindness had been passed along to me. I have carried it with me always.
And so, Wilcox, you see why I was not impressed by your lamb to the slaughter advice. I had already learned that, if the slaughter is worthwhile, I am quite willing to be the lamb.
Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I feel like live theatre requires all my attention. Putting my phone down, so I can take it all in. #HatchTO
— Salvatore Antonio (@Salvatonio) April 13, 2014