September 8, 2016
A few days ago on the first day of the new school year, I heard a phone-in radio show asking listeners to reflect on the importance of education, and to tell how their lives were influenced by teachers. Here’s my tribute to a teacher who, in a fleeting moment and with a simple and selfless gesture, played a huge role in my life and career direction.
My father is an accountant, my mother trained as a nurse. One sister became an accountant. Another sister trained as a nurse and married a doctor. Meanwhile, all of my high school friends were heading to university to train to become accountants, lawyers, engineers, nurses and physicians. I remember everyone being so enthusiastic about it all. I, the lone musician of the crowd, wasn’t feeling the enthusiasm. But maybe if I enrolled in a pile of science courses. I could be a doctor, I said.
After three semesters, I flunked out of university.
After my two-semester “break” from university, I returned, let go of the prospective medical career, and enrolled in the Faculty of Business to become an accountant. Dad and my sister seemed very happy and successful as accountants. If there was anything at school I didn’t understand, well, I had these great resources at home to get me through. This should be a breeze, I said.
After two semesters, I flunked out of business school.
This wasn’t as bad as flunking out of university, though. So, progress! I could at least stay on campus, take some easier courses to boost my GPA, and make my way back to the business school. So I did. The following fall, I was accepted back.
After one semester, I again flunked out of business school.
I’ll pause the story here for a quick backgrounder. The only kind of study I ever truly enjoyed, from age 8 until I was flailing about in university, was piano. I loved going to my piano teacher’s house every week, I couldn’t wait to grab hold of whatever music he assigned, practise my fingers to the bone, memorize the music and show off my work to him. I also couldn’t wait for my grandparents to come to Sunday dinner, and for my grandfather to get half sauced on post-dinner Drambuie and ask me to play. I’d play him all the oldies from his younger years, and this would go on for a good hour before he’d nod off and snore. In retrospect, it was probably the Drambuie. But I preferred to think that my music relaxed him into his Sunday snooze. Whether for my grandparents, or the local Kiwanis Music competition, or for school concerts, I loved playing piano and worked incredibly hard at it.
When I flunked out of business school (the first time), I quit piano lessons, thinking that would clear more time to study. Gone were the weekly lessons, the challenge, the passion, the competition, the performances, learning something new all of the time. Gone was the thing I loved doing the most, so that I could carve out more time to study something that interested me about as much as it would interest my cat.
Now, back to the story.
When I flunked out of business school (the second time), my musical sacrifice was for naught. That’s when the wind completely left my sails. That’s when I felt left behind the spray of my friends who were coasting smoothly towards their careers and were more distantly out of my reach. The phrase “at the end of my rope” can seem cliché, but I swear I felt it physically. I felt it in my gut and could almost feel it in my hands. The desperation to do something – anything – to somehow keep up with my successful friends and family. I had no other option but to grovel. I never felt like a quitter or a failure. I never skipped a class in business school. But something was terribly wrong. This isn’t who I am. I’m better than this.
And Professor Shu-Lon Wong knew it. Flunking business school back then meant scoring an average grade of under 65%. I missed by one per cent. I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday (nearly three decades ago), driving numbly to the school on a cold, damp, windy late-afternoon when my grades were released. I climbed the one flight of stairs to the second floor offices and felt like it was the CN Tower, searching for any professor who might cut me some slack, who might listen to me. It must have been late in the day because I remember it was dusk outside, the fall semester had just ended, it was nearing Christmas, and no other professor was in. Except for Professor Wong.
He intimidated me on the one hand with his vast intellect on all things accounting. But I was more taken by his accent, soft-spoken, fluently English with this cool mix of Chinese and British in his speech, and by his calm, gentle, professional demeanour. Hong Kong born, UK educated, somehow made his way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and on this dreary day was dealing with the likes of me. He had his scarf on, I remember that. Getting ready to leave for the day, maybe for a few weeks. But he gave me his time, only about five minutes, maybe less. But he was incredibly kind and patient. And he gave me the percentage point I needed to stay in school. Just gave it to me. Why? I should have left the building floating on air, but instead I felt terribly guilty about asking for, and getting, something I didn’t deserve or earn. But my guilt quickly turned to determination to invest in that one per cent and make it last a lifetime.
Two years later, I graduated and then spent about seven years working in the accounting field. Armed with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and several years of working with some pretty wild personalities and managing some profoundly difficult work environments, I then had the courage to take my academic, professional and social experiences and apply them to a life as a musician.
No academic strife would follow. I thrived in the Bachelor of Music program. Bachelor and Master degrees in music have been followed by a nearly-completed PhD in Sociology that details careers in music. Seemingly disparate degrees have proven to flow naturally, one into the other, as a stream of consciousness and work experience that I would never have thought possible were it not for one sympathetic professor who breathed just enough air back into my sails to end my drift and nudge me forward. And it was Professor Wong who crossed my mind when many years later I was teaching some courses at the School of Music. There was one student who had been in the program for several years, his graduation held back by a single course he had flunked – the course I was now teaching as the newcomer instructor. He was relentless. He just kept registering for this one course, over and over. I remember the previous course instructor speaking to me of him, saying things like, “He shouldn’t be here. He’ll drive you nuts. He keeps coming back, but just doesn’t try.” As the semester went on, his grades in my course were indeed suffering, but he was there every day. So I spoke with him, simply wanting to know from him where the trouble was. He left me with no doubt about wanting - really wanting - to be a musician, a music educator especially. His passion was palpable, and there was only this one course credit keeping him from realizing his career potential. His other course grades were fine. He wasn’t hauling in scholarships, but nor did he struggle in the other work. Just in this course I was teaching. I spent tutoring time with him outside of class. He barely… and I mean barely… passed my course. But he did it. To my dismay, I remember not one, but two professors of the school telling me later, “That should not have happened.” I couldn’t tell if I was being blamed for going too easy on him, or if he was deemed unworthy of a music degree for some reason.
Those comments turned out to be utterly unwarranted. Just as I was about to start teaching the first class of the next semester, the newly-minted Bachelor of Music walked into the classroom, grasped my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, “Thank you.” He turned and walked out of the room. That was the last I saw of him until a few years later, I was adjudicating a music festival out of town - coincidentally the town where he now works as a teacher. He was in the audience to watch his own students perform for me. Afterward, he came up to me, introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. And he thanked me again for our work together.
In a simple good deed as a compassionate educator, Shu-Lon Wong perhaps unwittingly taught me to see past the grade. I’ll never know for sure, but I want to believe that he wouldn’t have done this favour for just anyone. I want to believe that he saw in me not just a distressed student, or not some bumbling kid who didn’t try hard enough, but someone who was maybe out of his element, someone who worked hard, someone who just needed a very small but meaningful nudge that just might make all of the difference. I don’t know what he recognized in me. But I wonder where I’d be today if not for his kind act. And I wonder if long ago he had a teacher who similarly gave him a break when he needed it most, and then passed it on to me. All I know for sure is that how I felt in his office some thirty years ago is something I now instinctively recognize in young people I meet today who are adrift. And the compassion he showed me, that one percentage point which probably meant nothing to his career, meant everything to mine, and by extension maybe to a student or two of mine along the way. And then in turn, maybe one of my students happens to do something to help even just one of their own students along the way. And so on.