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Dear Mr. G,
I saw you this past weekend walking in Kensington Market. You didn't see me: I was sitting in a coffee shop as I watched you and your wife walk by. She was hanging on your arm like it was the only thing between her and the cold weather. You were both hunched against the wind.
It's been a decade since you taught me, and almost as long since I saw you last. We both left high school at the same time: I graduated, you retired. Both of our lives changed that year.
I just wanted to tell you that you taught me everything I know.
You taught me about Canadian history and coached me through being editor-in-chief of the yearbook.
You took our class on a tour of Toronto to show us all the old houses we took for granted. You showed us where there used to be chickens, stable houses, servants' quarters in the streets we walked through blindly every day.
You showed us where we lived – for the first time, even though we were already 16.
You taught me lessons no one else could: about immigration, the working-class struggle, and how this city – this country – was built on the spilled blood of many migrant workers.
You taught me that the city was formed – and continues to grow – on the labours of those very people whose survival it threatens, the poor and the foreign.
And you taught me that history is written from many perspectives, and not to believe everything I read or see.
For every recorded history there are countless unrecorded, unread, unnoticed truths, you said.
Dear Mr. G, you also made me who I am. I was your protégé. You made it possible for me to succeed and excel.
I was to be a great success: I won every award and got a full scholarship to university. I was involved in everything.
You made sure I didn't make excuses for myself and insisted I continually challenge my boundaries.
I wanted to be like you, to inspire young minds, to start something like Doors Open Toronto in my spare time
and win a Governor-General's Award like you did. You were my mentor.
You were a teacher with passion for your students – each day wasn't just another work day. It was a chance to change the life of some young, impressionable, often lost, student.
At graduation, you gave me my first Moleskin day planner and my first fountain pen, the single most professional, grown-up thing I had ever owned. I guess you knew then what I didn't know – that I was supposed to be a writer. I saw in your eyes all the hope you had for me and all the belief you had in me.
At the time, I didn't recognize the importance of that final meeting. I felt a mixture of hope, belief and fear, and I think I also saw a bit of fear in your eyes – that life would get in my way, that I would forget my dreams in lieu of a more comfortable – a less challenging – path. That I, like so many before me, would give up on my potential and let my passion be defeated.
Neither of us knew how much the world would change and how much more difficult it would become for young people to find independence.
When I saw you through the coffee-shop window I really wanted to run out and tug your sleeve gleefully. "Mr. G, it's me! It's Karolina. How are you? You changed my life."
But I didn't. I resisted the urge because of humiliation, because of failure. What would I say when you asked me what I was doing? You would hope I had been published, was maybe working on a master's degree or something awesome with a string of accolades behind my name, like in the old days.
But my answer would have been: "Well, Mr. G, I struggled through university and it turns out things got pretty tough. I made a lot of mistakes. I lost my scholarship and I drank away the most important two years of my personal education. Now I am a waitress. Waitress-writer-wannabe, a big walking cliché."
Would you be sad? Would you be disappointed? I couldn't do it. The shame washed over me.
But then I thought about what you actually taught me. The lesson is not to sit down and give up because life handed you a couple of lemons. You'd tell me to buzz off and get it together. You would not stand for self-pity, and you would make me get up and try again.
It turns out that when I saw you on Saturday, you did the same thing you always have – you inspired me. To be better, to be grateful, to always keep trying and to do what I am good at. You made me realize I had given up.
Without even knowing it, you reminded me that I'd stopped following my dreams. So, after a few tears, that evening I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
Dear Mr. G: Thank you for being in my life 10 years ago and two days ago. You may never know how much you did for me, but I know how many lives you've changed. The world needs more teachers like you.
The next time I see you I am going to run out and say "Hi." I'm going to tell you about the book I am writing, and perhaps by then will be in the process of publishing.