From the Blog Archive: Remembering Back to School

People are back to school this week. The trains and buses will be crowded, and the schoolyards near my house will once again echo with the yelling and screaming of kids—one of the most familiar and recognizable sounds I know.
For me, the term starts on Wednesday. I’m teaching a course in British fantasy, and I’m using Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in my first-year classes, something I’ve never done before. It should be interesting to see what my first years think of studying Harry Potter in their first-year writing class.
Here’s a piece I wrote two years ago at the beginning of the school year—“Remembering Back to School.” It’s memoir, and it carries that bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia I always feel at the start of term. Here’s something from Harry Potter to get you in the mood as well:

Whispers followed Harry from the moment he left his dormitory the next day. People lining up outside classrooms stood on tip¬toe to get a look at him, or doubled back to pass him in the corridors again, staring. Harry wished they wouldn’t, because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes.
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led some¬where different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where any¬thing was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.
The ghosts didn’t help, either. It was always a nasty shock when one of them glided suddenly through a door you were trying to open. Nearly Headless Nick was always happy to point new Gryffindors in the right direction, but Peeves the Poltergeist was worth two locked doors and a trick staircase if you met him when you were late for class. He would drop wastepaper baskets on your head, pull rugs from under your feet, pelt you with bits of chalk, or sneak up behind you, invisible, grab your nose, and screech, “GOT YOUR CONK!”
(Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 8, “The Potions Master”)

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

Remembering Back to School

The return to school in September is always an energetic time. At university, students are often overflowing with enthusiasm, which usually lasts until exams start in October. Then, things get hard.
I remember back to school for my kids. Through their elementary years, junior high, then finally high school, September was always about routine, about settling in, about finding a rhythm for a new year. And September was the New Year, not January.
While my fondest memories of back to school are those of my kids—the shopping for school supplies, the new clothes, the anticipation, the tears—my most poignant memory of back to school is my arrival on the UofA campus for the start of my undergrad degree in 1985.
As a blind student, I found the UofA campus an intimidating place. It was sprawling, confusing, and hard to navigate. I had some help from the people at Disabled Student Services, but I simply had to learn my way around. The bookstore was in the Students Union Building, and Disabled Students Services was in Athabasca Hall—both on the west side of campus
My classes took me from the Humanities building, through HUB Mall, to Dentistry, to the Old Arts building, to somewhere in the Engineering Wing. I got lost repeatedly as I found my way around.
I didn’t own a computer in those days—it was the 1980s and computers were just becoming a thing. I took braille notes in class using a slate and stylus. It usually threw off my professors the first time they heard the rapid punching of metal through thick paper. My god, that slate and stylus was loud. By the end of my undergrad degree, I had a four-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille notes. One of my prized possessions during my undergrad degree was a seventy-five volume braille dictionary that filled a six-foot-by-six-foot bookcase.
My first-year English class was an introduction to literature with Jim Nelson. I loved that class. We started with Chaucer, which blew my mind. I had the anthology on cassette tape—three dozen four-track cassettes that required a special tape player. I listened to the “Prologue” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” over and over again. Professor Nelson would walk into the class, write page numbers on the whiteboard, then lecture for forty-five minutes, leaving five minutes for questions. Those lectures were packed with information. He gave close readings of the texts, filling in historical background and pausing occasionally for anecdotes.
The first essay I wrote for Nelson’s class was an examination of three stories: “Araby” by James Joyce, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D. H. Lawrence, and “Road from Colonus” by E. M. Forster. I can’t remember what I wrote for that first English essay—I’m sure it was terrible. I do remember, however, reading the stories while the rain fell that September. I sat in the room I called a study—the second bedroom of the house where my wife and I lived. I had been a reader since I lost my sight in a car accident at the age of ten, but reading those stories was like finding literature again for the first time. I read them over and over. The dark streets and the narrator’s obsession with his friend’s sister in Joyce’s story haunted my imagination, while the darkness and strangeness of Lawrence disturbed my universe. I started university thinking I knew something about literature; I was finding out I knew much less than I thought. I had quit a job to go back to school, and I was feeling my world opening up and bottoming out at the same time. I loved university, but I always felt like an outsider. I had access to books, but only books on tape. I had it in my head that listening wasn’t the same as reading, and when I needed to use the library, I always needed help.
I got through that first year—god knows how. And near the end of the winter term, Professor Nelson ask me and a couple of other students to stay back. I was nervous—I was always nervous talking to my professors. These were the halls of learning, and I was just one more Jude the Obscure, a working-class, blind kid who didn’t belong.
Professor Nelson sat in a desk beside me, and he gave me a letter. It was a recommendation to the honours program in English. It was an important moment. Someone was telling me I had something valuable to contribute. I’ve realized since such letters are about recruitment as much as anything else, but I’ve been grateful to Professor Nelson ever since.
Universities are different places now. I have the good fortune to work for two of them, and I feel more at home now that most people work digitally. The move to an online world has enabled me to work more effectively as a teacher and a researcher. In spite of all of it, I’ve never lost that early sense of being something of an outsider—the blind guy who reads and teaches but who doesn’t use actual books. I get a whiff of this sense every time I walk into a library—a building full of books, that are to me so many bound volumes of smooth paper that always keep their secrets.

September: A New Year, A New Look

September, for me, as it is for many, has always been the beginning of the year. Resolutions that come with September have more weight than those made in January. And they make more sense, too. Better to change your life in the fall, rather than in January when it’s thirty below.
I took a break from blogging over the summer. I needed the time to read, to write, and to be with family. I visited my daughter in Scotland, went to Lethbridge for a family funeral, visited family on Vancouver Island, and spent time with my eldest daughter who was home for a month from Australia. But the school year has begun, and my days are much more constrained: teaching, preparing classes, and marking will be the major features on my landscape for the next eight months.
I’ll eventually share some of what I encountered over the summer, but in the meantime, enjoy the new website, OfOtherWorlds.ca. It will be a work in progress for a while. I needed the break from blogging over the summer, but building the new site kept me busy—among other things. Such projects have, for me, a steep learning curve, and I swore often and vociferously as I figured it out.
But summer is always the best time for trying and learning new things. Apart from learning something about website design, I learned some painful lessons about writing and submitting short fiction; I sat on Hadrian’s Wall; I tried haggis in Edinburgh and deep-fried pickles at Taste of Edmonton.
I read and read, not as much as I wanted, and not as much as you’d think. One of my favourite summer reads was The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I’m sure this series isn’t for everyone, but I was hooked before finishing the first book.
I hope you’ve had a summer that goes on feeding you as the days shorten into winter. For now, enjoy the fall. If you live in Edmonton, remember to get a look at the river valley, preferably from high up. The wash of muted colour with the river at its heart will remind you that that autumn, as brief as it can be in Edmonton, is a beautiful time of year.

The School Year, A Force of Nature


As an undergrad, I was a terrible student. I left things until the last minute, I wheedled extensions on assignments, and I had bad study habits. Maybe I was just a student.
For years, first as a kid going to public school, then at the university, and later as a parent and a teacher, September has always meant the beginning of the year. New Years has never been the beginning; it’s only halfway. The real start of the year has always been the fall.
September has become a threshold in my subconscious, characterized by anxiety, anticipation, nervous excitement, and nostalgia. It’s such a weird month. The school year is a force of nature, rising from the remains of summer to drag students and parents and teachers alike down the fall and through the winter. She inexorably plows through holidays, good days and bad, only lessening her grip with the end of exams in April, until, finally, worn out and fading, she explodes into fragments with the arrival of graduation and summer holidays.
Every August, my kids would shop for school supplies with their mom, while I found backpacks and tried figuring out lunches my kids wouldn’t hate. But before kids and teaching, I was a weird, half-terrified undergrad at university, in awe of both the campus and my professors. These were people who knew more than I could ever hope to understand, who evaluated me with an unnerving objectivity, and who I could barely bring myself to address.
In my third year, I took a children’s literature course during the spring term with Jon Stott. He was then around the age I am now—short, a little round, and full of a restless energy. The class met in the Humanities Building, and I sat at a table near the door—my preferred seat. Professor Stott would pace up and down the room, lecturing as he walked, never relying on notes, and only stopping to occasionally write on the board. Back in those days, I used a slate and stylus for note taking, and it struck me from almost the first day that he didn’t seem fazed to have a blind student in his class. I had become used to professors not quite knowing what to do with me. They were generally helpful and understanding, but I couldn’t help sensing their bemusement, as though they had discovered a talking, brightly exotic reptile in their classroom.
Professor Stott came up to me right away and asked what he could do to help, and to come and talk to him if there was a problem. That in itself was unusual.
I took children’s literature during spring session because I was short an English course, and by third year I was becoming irritatingly superior as a student. Fortunately for me, I remembered that a measure of humility wasn’t such a bad thing when it came to reading. I discovered books in that class I’d never heard of, and I read books I’d known of for years but thought myself too intellectual to bother with. Meeting gilly Hopkins was a revelation. Reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time was a surprise. Wasn’t it a girl’s book? And who the hell was Aslan?
I learned how to ask questions in that class, and I learned to be less ashamed of how much I didn’t know. I had read a smattering of children’s books, and I always loved what I read. But I had never thought about kid’s books as being important in the same way as adult books. Professor Stott showed me differently. He talked about Gilly, Anne, and Bilbo as though they were real people. He brought them out from the page and took them seriously. And then he forced us back to the books—to read and read again, and not just make stuff up when we talked about the books.
I was lucky that spring. Lucky to meet a professor who was not only a skilled teacher but a skilled reader. He had a passion I couldn’t ignore, and he opened up a world of books that I’ve been exploring ever since. And luckier still, that spring I was open to something new and open to being taught. I was able to say what I thought in that class, and I was taken seriously. The experience enabled me to take on kid’s books as something to love, to read, reread, and wrestle with, for myself, with my kids, and in the classroom.