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Unlikely Guidance

Raised partially by the system, I believed, for too long, that I needed to struggle. That who I was wouldn’t matter if I did not show my scars. It was hard to appreciate what one English teacher, who wouldn’t show an ounce of interest in my broken personal life, was offering me.

So what if I was a runaway? I could still read, write, and get out of bed. My mentor at the time, Amy, had recently helped me transfer to Subway Academy One, a Danforth alternative school that was small, full of misfits just like me, and run by a close-knit group of teachers who seemed immune to my general sense of depression that had failed me in regular school.

In my first year, I probably missed more days than I attended. In my second year, I avoided academic-level courses like the plague. In my third year, I was clever enough to enroll in Literature and Film courses with John Laufer. In those three years, I began to appreciate the patience of teachers who so easily believed in their student, even when their student wouldn’t believe in herself.

Some facts about John Laufer are that, at some point, he was up to two double-espressos in the morning, his unusually structured undergraduate education operated entirely in the Socratic Method, and he would get crazy eyes whenever his mind wandered, making him seem to grasp at reality, every time.

He was incredibly engaging. When I told our only connection, Mr. Sean Newton, that I was writing a piece on the school’s alternative approach to teaching, he quite understood. In our phone call, I explained, “John Laufer’s kind of perfect for it, eccentric—”

“No, I totally get it—John’s—yeah…”

He knows John.

Back then, John wasn’t the mushy type. He was able to make you feel like you’d emerged from under a rock, for talking without knowing what you were saying. It was the silence that he wouldn’t fill, aided by those glazed-over eyes and the emptiness of your dumb question, that taught you that your contributions had to be informed—intentional—or you would just look stupid. He would try his best at connecting the dead end of your contribution to a recalibrated asking—a new question for further thought.

And the topics! He would connect his lessons to world events. He’d hand us freshly printed articles about perspectives that were new to us distracted, apathetic youth. He’d have us acknowledge the state of the world with him, all the while connecting it, easily or not, to our lesson of the day.

Sometimes the articles were in direct reference to what we were learning, like when he shared reviews of the movies that we were studying that year (among which were La La Land (2016) and Moonlight (2016)), and it would give us contemporary, real-world perspectives to consider while preparing essays and reflections of our own nascent understanding.

Other times, they seemed less directly related to the course. He cared very deeply about how people were represented (and not represented) in art. He resisted the urge to feed us his opinion, always leaving it up to our brains, the work of sifting through the nonsense to find the meaning in everything. To this day, I still don’t know if he was upset about some of the controversial discourses he brought into class or not.

Even as a great mentor, he was too much, sometimes. Like when I received a call to my cellphone. It woke me up. “Are you coming to do your exam?” Or when I walked out of that exam, frustrated with myself, and he said that not doing the exam was not an option—my impressionable, institutionalized brain believing this lie to make or break my survival. Or when I dragged that exam over to my safe place, the top-floor staircase, with its floor-to-ceiling parking lot view, tasked with completing it there, instead of quitting.

I succeeded, eventually. I earned a couple of awards in my last year at that school. Amy was there to celebrate our graduation ceremony, and she got to meet John and shake hands with him. I will never forget what I experienced when I went in for a handshake with him. “Ah—it’s okay, come on,” he said, before I received a hug from who remains to this day, my favourite teacher ever. In that short time, I knew what it felt like for those who were lucky enough to have a true parent—a source of guidance, unconditional belief, and a prime example of caffeine addiction, from which to learn—and have that person say thanks. Thanks for trying your best. That’s all I wanted.

One Comment

  • William Munro

    I appreciate how personal this article is. Julie describes John in such a way that makes it easy to paint a picture of him in my own head, and she really captures the experience of a life path so different from my own. Having a source of guidance and encouragement like John feels so essential to success

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