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First Person

It takes only one

I was a smart aleck. I hated school. I was a terrible student. But one teacher saw something in me, Gillian Best writes

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Back to school is in the air as children return after the holiday break, and though it's been well more than 20 years since I last darkened the door of my high school, I was recently reminded that sometimes those bastions of boredom can change your life for the better.

Or at least, sometimes a teacher can.

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I was not a good student. I wasn't even a mediocre student most of the time – in fact, as I recall, most of the time I did my best to avoid school. This may have been reflected in my shockingly low grades. I just didn't care for high school and found most of it tedious and boring. The pointlessness of it all seemed impossible to ignore.

Add to that the fact that I was a smart aleck and you've got the recipe for a rather patchy career. Case in point: I remember sauntering into my final-year English class, late, as usual, and being asked to answer a question the teacher had written on the board. I read it aloud and turned to him to say, "I'll answer it once you get your grammar right."

I didn't wait to be sent out of the room.

But there was one class in particular that managed to hold my interest: creative writing. Initially, I'd been suspicious of signing up for it because the first year my guidance counsellor suggested (read: insisted) I enroll, it was taught by a woman who was also my swim coach. I was certain it would end up being a total disaster, but much to my surprise, it wasn't. I tried my hardest to push the envelope as far as I could. I remember quite clearly the frisson of excitement that shot through me when she said we could write – in our journals that would be read but not graded – whatever we liked, and that we wouldn't be judged or called out on them. Much to my disbelief (and efforts at self-incrimination), this proved to be true.

So, in my final year of high school, I signed up for creative writing again, this time more willingly. It would prove to be a rather influential year. I don't think I was a particularly good writer then, but it came easily to me and that was enough to catch my fancy. My teacher, Sue McEwan, also made me feel quite a bit different than I usually did in class – she made me feel special.

Most of my pals were straight-A students, they got to go to special enrichment days at the local university, were invited to write advanced mathematics contests, and were generally praised for being good at school. I spent a lot of time getting failing grades and watching as the adults who surrounded me wrung their hands while saying, "But you're so bright!"

This one particular creative-writing teacher worked pretty hard to show me that I was good at this writing lark: Instead of my usually clever pals being asked to help the strugglers and stragglers, it was me who was asked. My teacher saw something different in me, I guess, and she worked hard to get me to see that, too. Every now and again, I'm reminded of standing in her classroom after school, on a warm sunny day as she showed me a poem called Ellie: An Inventory of Being. My teacher simply said: This reminds me of you.

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Later, she told me that one day, I'd be a writer. This was at odds with my chosen professions of pro surfer or pro beach bum. But she seemed convinced.

Fast forward 20-odd years, and I'm in the bookshop of my hometown, where I used to spend a lot of time wandering up and down the aisles, looking at the spines and wondering if maybe I might just have it in me. Or, rather, that maybe being a writer might be a more feasible career choice than pro surfer (given that I couldn't, and still can't, surf).

In the bookshop, I'm sitting next to my former creative-writing teacher, who is about to introduce me because I'm about to launch The Last Wave, my first book. It's a strange thing to ask someone to introduce you, someone who knew you way back when you were still an unformed thing, and who hasn't known you much at all in the intervening years. My teacher gave me one heck of an introduction – it was like hearing my own eulogy.

There are a lot of things I'll never forget about that night – there's always something extra special about a triumphant return to your hometown. But one of the things that really stood out was my teacher's lack of surprise: I knew this day would come, is what she told me. She could've just said I told you so, but she is kind and not that sort of person.

That night, I was reminded how special a good teacher can be. How they can push you in the direction you need to go, how they can see beyond all your teenage awkwardness and understand exactly how you might fulfill your potential – something I didn't fully understand until that night in the bookshop.

I hope that everyone who's going back to school manages to have at least one teacher like my creative-writing teacher: someone who knows that you're more than your grades, who can see that with a little encouragement and a lot of hard work you could really make something of yourself. I hope each one of them finds a teacher who can change their life.

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Originally from Waterloo, Ont., Gillian Best lives in Bristol, Britain.

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