Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fifth Business

Fifth Business
By Robertson Davies

Fun fact: One of my high school English teachers had a nervous breakdown.

Actually Ms. Sturgess had two nervous breakdowns over the course of two years and she was my teacher both years.

Before you jump to conclusions, I was not the cause of these mental breakdowns. I was a pretty quiet high school student and I liked English class so I was hardly the sort of student that causes emotional and psychological duress among the faculty. I was more likely to be forgotten in a classroom than cause shenanigans. But suffer breakdowns she did, much to my academic disadvantage.

OK, I'm not trying to belittle Ms. Sturgess' psychological suffering. I am sure she suffered far more tragically during those few years (and beyond, perhaps, I have no idea) than I did. I have been blessed in the fact that I am (currently) mentally and emotionally stable. I have no real understanding of what sort of suffering is endured by those who experience a breakdown. I hope I never do. I didn't have bad feelings toward Ms. Sturgess, but she was my teacher for such a short time that I also didn't have particularly strong feelings for her either. As an adult I have looked back on her class and felt terrible for her. Whatever it may have been that caused such pain, I hope she overcame it. But at the time I was a kid and a breakdown seemed pretty unreal to me.

Back to the point. Regardless of Ms. Sturgess' mental health, I did suffer academically.

My high school English career started well enough. My grade 9 teacher was great. He had enough zeal to instill a love for reading and writing among a motley crew of slackers and burnouts. I don't envy teaching North american high school kids, especially the younger variety. It's really hard to make them care. I remember reading Twelfth Night and To Kill a Mockingbird, both stock standards of the Halton Board of Education at the time and both among my favorite books. By the time I started grade 10 I was really stoked about English, a testament to my grade 9 teacher. In grade 10 I was assigned Ms. Sturgess.

I don't remember much about the actual breakdown. She didn't break down dramatically in front of my class (or any class that I'm aware of) but she started to miss classes regularly by the third week of the semester. But week four or five (that's almost half the semester) we still had not been issued a novel. Eventually we were assigned a permanent temporary teacher whose name I have forgotten and no clear reason for Ms. Sturgess' absence was given. Rumors abounded, but the only clear reason was that she had had some sort of "episode." The sub was in a bit of a no-win situation taking over a class of students who had gotten used to the idea of not doing any real work in class. I'm sure she did her best, but I do not remember a single moment from that year's English class aside from Romeo and Juliet, which I hated at the time.

So I was really looking forward to grade 11 English and getting back on track with reading and writing. When September rolled around once again and I was assigned Ms. Sturgess, I was cautiously optimistic. Maybe a year's convalescence had helped and she was better prepared to deal with the rigors of teaching English. I was wrong. She never even showed up on the first day and we were assigned another permanent substitute for the semester. Try as they may, when a student knows a teacher is a substitute, it is never quite the same. The class was a dud from the get go.

I should have raised a stink but at the time I wasn't the sort of student that rocked the boat. I assumed you got the cards that were deal you and you made due. I suppose I could have transfered to another class with a more able teacher, but it just didn't occur to me.

So my stalled high school English career didn't really get off the ground until grade 12, which, I'm sorry to say, is a couple of years too late. My writing ability was in a sorry state (some might wonder whether it has ever truly recovered) and my depth of reading was pretty shallow. If it weren't for a series of extraordinary history teachers and one extremely excellent English teacher in my final year (Thank you Mr. Manzl and Mr. Switzer, wherever you two may be) I'm not entirely sure what would have become of me. That's not melodrama, that's the plain truth.

So what's this got to do with anything? Well, due to my two lost years of English, I'm probably the only student in the entire Halton School Board that didn't read Fifth Business. This Robertson Davies classic was used as an example of great Canadian literature and was virtually mandatory reading for high school kids in the 1990s. Not sure whether it remains part of the curriculum or not.

I'm actually glad I didn't get get around to reading this book until now. I don't think I would have liked this book in high school. Too slow, too thoughtful, too Canadian. I was all about the shock in high school. Give me All Quiet on the Western Front or Brave New World or something equally disturbing. A novel like Fifth Business would have seemed too plain, too close to home to enjoy.

Twenty years on, Fifth Business was a great book. I liked that my life is exactly half of Dunstan Ramsay's so that I could share in his reminiscence of his childhood, empathize in his musings on early middle age and read with interest his reflections on aging. It was a nice mix of remembrance and experience.

More importantly, I got the impression that this is not a great example of CanLit for young Canadians. It is much to conservative in nature for modern Canadian students (although there is something to be said about the conservative nature of Canadians, especially those of Robertson Davies generation). This book would have been out of touch in my day. It would seem positively archaic today. While I really did like this book as a stunning portrait of a Canada that ceases to be, I do hope that they have changed the curriculum and have found a new, better example of Canadian fiction for students to read.

As for Ms. Sturgess, I hope that she has recovered, found a modicum of happiness and has gone on to life to a ripe old age.


Erin said...

I enjoyed your roundabout way of getting to your post's topic! Robertson Davies was brought to my attention a few years ago by a bookstore coworker. I've since acquired several of his novels, including at least one full trilogy, but I've been hesitant to pick something by him up, possibly because I find him to be a bit intimidating. I plan to, though, and hopefully sooner rather than later!

Ryan said...

I think this is a perfect introduction to Davies work. Not intimidating at all.

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