My week, the first full week of a new year, started with an email that had me smiling and in tears at the same time.
The story actually starts more than 40 years ago, when I was a junior and senior high school student in Bowness, a Calgary suburb. I was part of an advanced class that had a number of perks, not least that we always had the very best of teachers (admittedly, there were a few duds, but that’s part of what makes public education a genuine reflection of life in a community).
One of the many excellent teachers that made an indelible impression on my memory was Jim Campbell. Now, Jim was not among those with whom I had a close personal connection. He was not like one, a counsellor whom I would later visit at his new school after he transferred from Bowness (he later would become the provincial NDP leader and an MLA — I was a Progressive Conservative and we agreed on nothing, except the fact that we liked each other). Or like another teaching couple, whose home I would visit with friends after we graduated (coincidentally, the male half of the duo would go onto become an NDP MLA, too).
No, my connection to Jim Campbell was relegated to the classroom, and to witnessing his interactions with other students and teachers. Jim was a no-nonsense teacher of the sort that could maintain tight control in his classroom without really being thought of as a disciplinarian.
A couple of classroom memories returned as I was reminded of him before Christmas. In one of our Grade 10 social studies classes we were required to do a project and present it to the class. One of my friends arrived with a long-play record and launched into a quite literate discussion of the Doors song, The End. For those unfamiliar, The End is a somewhat apocalyptic tale that uses violence and incest as metaphors for the decline of civilization (my interpretation). Aptly, it later would be used by Francis Ford Coppola in the final scene of the brilliant Apocalypse Now. Despite its theme and graphic language, Campbell didn’t bat an eye. He treated the student’s presentation as though he had chosen a work by James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy.
Another incident has never been far from my memory’s surface during my long career as a writer. I submitted an essay in which I consistently misspelled “separate”, replacing the first “a” with an “e”. Instead of checking the spelling in a dictionary, I had somehow convinced myself that “separate” and “desperate” would use the same spelling rule. My teacher knew me to be a good speller and took great glee in reading the essay, emphasizing each wrong spelling by enouncing “sep-PER-rate”.
A few months ago, a friend in Calgary, another Bowness High School alumnus, emailed to tell me that Campbell had written a trilogy, a three-book memoir about growing up in the small town of Oyen, Alta. He had pushed through to complete the books because he had terminal cancer, and wanted to live to see their publication. For Christmas, Patti gave me a boxed set of To Oyen, With Love.
I started reading the first book almost immediately, and floods of memories came back — not only of my own childhood in suburban Calgary and summers in Fernie, but of my very good fortune to have had teachers like Jim Campbell as early influences. I sat down last week and wrote him a letter, not knowing whether he was well enough to read it, or even if he was still alive. I hoped that he would receive it in time to hear affirmation not only of what a fine teacher he was, but also that he was a role model of the highest order.
“What an incredible letter that you have sent,” came the unexpected reply on Monday. “We really appreciate your kind words and taking the time to send them.
“We printed a copy of your email and shared it with Jim. He was deeply touched by your words and had quite the smile on his face once we’d finished reading it to him.
“He is slipping away from us bit by bit — we could not have asked for a nicer tribute to read to him to remind him of the impact he had as a teacher and the fact that that impact reached even further than just the students he taught. How delightful to read your sentiments about your sons and how proud you are of who they have become. Sounds like you are a pretty amazing guy yourself!
“We can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write your thoughts and send them along. What a lovely gift for Jim to take with him.”
The message was signed by Jim’s wife and his daughter. I will be forever grateful for their kind words. And I will never forget the impact that this good man had on my life.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.