“That’s my chair you’re in,” he said to me.
I was alone in a room with forty chairs surrounding several large tables stretched out end-to-end to serve all purposes in the men’s staff room of West Vancouver Secondary School. I had been a student and a teacher at the school at the end of the previous academic year but now I was a fresh Education graduate starting my first year of teaching where I had attended for grades seven to thirteen.
I turned to look at him. He was standing right behind me in that room that was so large and empty except for us. “Are the chairs assigned?” I asked.
“No, but we have our regular places.”
I remembered something that my sponsor teacher, Miss Barr, had said many times during my practicum the year before: “The tone you set in your first class sets the tone for the year.” So this man, I decided, was setting a tone. I put my utensils down, slid the chair back a little so it was easy for me to stand up, stood and I turned to face him. “Hello,” I said. “I’m Chris.”
“This is the staff room. It’s not a lounge for student teachers. Miss Barr should have made that clear to you.”
“Oh she did, Sir. That’s why I never came in here when I was a student teacher,” I told him. Then I sat back down in my chair and resumed eating. And I waited.
He cleared his throat. “You’re still in my seat.”
I didn’t turn around. “I assume that if you can teach high school you have the capacity to adapt for one day. There are plenty of empty chairs.”
I ate as quickly as I could without looking like I was hurrying as this man whom I had never met stood behind me without moving. I felt very uncomfortable. As I finished up, I wondered if Miss Barr knew her advice would be as valuable in the staff room as it was in the classroom.
I went back to the cafeteria to return my tray and bought an ice cream bar for dessert. I went to my homeroom to eat it but some homeroom students were there so I went to sit in the bleachers in the gymnasium. There were a lot of students there as well so I went outside where the only other people out in the drizzle of the day were senior students walking to the smoke hole where I’d been a regular until four years before.
After lunch, I had two more classes in which to set my tone.
At home alone and away from the school it was too easy to think I had made a mistake when I decided to become a teacher. Here at school with students like Helen, Danny, Gwynyth and Ricky in front of me, I couldn’t imagine quitting. But as I sat outside in the drizzle I was thinking about how to get out of my contract.
At the end of the day, I met John—rather, I re-met John because he, like me, was a first year teacher who had also been a student at WVSS. We had been in the same grade together but had never spoken but at the end of that first week I went home with him to his house to debrief about our new careers.
John took stress leave the following two weeks. I persevered, reaping the benefits of the tone set in first classes for that year and the year after that until my contract expired and I was free.
John stayed at our school until he retired. I worked in the arts. I had innumerable employers and was often self-employed or living off government grants. I stopped working for others in my late fifties and expect my last job—tweaking my screenplay if and when it goes into production—next year.
John is still one of my very closest friends; he is the outstanding legacy of my experience as a high school teacher. Syad Hosein, whose chair I was in, passed away a long time ago but in the 1990s, I moved into a townhome on the East Side of Vancouver where Syad’s thoroughly delightful, handsome and extremely talented son was my neighbour.