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Elizabeth Hay at her home in Ottawa

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

In the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of men and women, educated in central Canada, went west to staff the schools opening across the Prairies. Their situations were tenuous, their pedagogical tools a strap and a piece of chalk, the challenges to their ingenuity substantial. They taught the children of immigrants alongside the children of storekeepers and bankers. Literacy and numeracy were their responsibility and legacy.

Throughout our choppy history of education, such schoolteachers stand as potent metaphors. From spinsters to failed lawyers or artists, those who took up teaching epitomized a distinct breed. Within Canada's fiction, they often serve to illustrate moral dilemmas; but under their white shirt fronts lurked wonderful passions.

In Elizabeth Hay's luminous new novel, Alone in the Classroom, teaching becomes greater than profession and the classroom more expansive than childhood's holding pen. Learning is a tightrope walk that codes lives. And it initiates an inescapable stigmata.

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Behind all that a child learns is how every child is taught. This is the kernel of Hay's novel, which braids together several different strands: the history of a family, the process of learning and memory, and the ambush of love.

Told from the perspective of an elusive writer-narrator who tiptoes into her family's history in order to learn about herself, Alone in the Classroom is an intricate personal quiz, a vocabulary test for arduous knowledge. Through the figure of a beloved schoolteacher aunt, the narrator sets out to discover the experiences that shaped her mother and father, at the same time seeking to resolve her own unexpected seduction.

The novel's interior journey is cast into relief by the most interesting character, the aunt, Connie Flood, who believes that "her role as a teacher was to lead children through an anxious passage into a mental clearing." In 1929, Connie encounters, while teaching in a Saskatchewan school, a grim principal, vain and self-important and determined to castigate. Antagonist to this gentleman sadist is a dyslexic boy whom Connie tutors. These two circle a series of grotesque events, culminating in the assault and death of the boy's sister.

Ten years later, they come together again in the town of Argyle, in the Ottawa valley. By then no longer teaching but working as a reporter for a newspaper, Connie Flood reconnects with old and fresh injustices. And as their tensions play out, Connie's fascination with them spills over to her writing niece, the narrator.

The narrator is as much in thrall to the past as children are in thrall to their classrooms and their teachers. Her fascination with the secrets of her parents' generation is honest, but, through Hay's skilled disclosure, borders on the delicate edge of prurience, a brilliantly managed stylistic tactic.

This writer-narrator tries to place herself within her family's story, but often misses obvious connections. A self-conscious and solitary figure, she savours archival information. While her curiosity feeds ours, we cannot help but pity her for her rather hard view of herself, her relentless evaluation of her inheritance.

Alone in the Classroom proceeds as if it were the very process of learning, through indirection and detour, retracing its steps and returning to the scenes of different crimes, a slow and compelling uncurling of discovery. As the narrator discovers, "a hidden symmetry is often at work as we stumble our way through life." That emotional geography is as seductive as all that we cannot know. And it unfolds a valuable lesson in how communities themselves act as voyeuristic schools.

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It is clear that patterns of learning set the eerie patterns of human life. So much, from personal enlightenment to history's conflagrations, is accidental knowledge. How does the past recreate us, and why do we spiral back to our parents' and grandparents' secrets, as if to resolve our own? "You touch a place and thousands of miles away another place quivers. You touch a person and down the line the ghosts of relatives move in the wind." If it is true that birthmarks are wounds incurred in a previous life, then no wonder scars are so readily refreshed.

Childhood's intensity is both beautiful and horrific. For all of us, at least one childhood classroom will haunt us forever. There all terror and bliss coruscates.

The smell of chalk, tall windows segregating inside from out, and rows of desks keeping prisoners squirming on their hard wooden seats. That atmosphere may have signalled a time when education meant repetition and dull memorization. The kindness or brutality of a teacher can still mark a life, and the classroom can torment or transform, as it does in this astonishing novel.

Alone in the Classroom is meant to be read slowly, or even better, read twice. The story that unfolds, replete with poetry and punishment, passionate entanglements and incestuous love, and is even richer and more rewarding the second time around.

Aritha van Herk has just been awarded the 2010-2011 Faculty of Arts Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Calgary Students' Union.

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