History Was Always My Favourite Subject

Mar 12, 2015 by

03.12.2015 - History Was Always My Favourite Subject

 
          A week ago, I drove to my high school to visit Gino Supremo, my Grade 10 History teacher/favourite teacher of all time. Since graduating high school, I’ve been sure to make visits; and the year before I started The Happiness Experiment, I volunteered in his classroom once a week. I haven’t seen him since then, because the 9-to-5 I landed the next year offered little leeway in terms of flex hours and working from home. So, when I quit, I knew I was going to make a point of visiting him sometime after coming home from Europe and before getting a new job, while my days are free.

          When I visit him, I always drop in by surprise, so he wasn’t in his classroom when I arrived last Thursday afternoon. Because he was on caf duty that period, the class was empty. I placed the box of cannoli I got him on his desk, and walked around the classroom, reading the articles on display and blowing my own mind at the realization that it’s been 10 years since he taught me in the classroom down and across the hall. As I slowly toured time through the stories on his wall, a couple students walked in.

          “What class do you guys have next?” I asked them.

          “World History,” one of the girls answered.

          “Oh, I’m not in this class,” the other said. “I’m just her friend.”

          I smiled, thinking back to Grade 11, when I used to visit Gino Supremo’s class daily to see both Olivia – who was lucky enough to have him twice, once for Grade 10 History and once for Grade 11 English – and the friend who talked me onto a Rome-bound plane last summer. I went as far as to sit in on Grade 11 English with them, even though I had already taken it the previous semester. The year Gino Supremo taught English to my fellow Italians was 2006, a World Cup year. The three of us worked tirelessly to reinstate his faith in Azzurri. Italy had last won a World Cup when he was a kid and before we were born. Because the team had disappointed him since, he was stubbornly certain of their continuous demise on the world field.

          “Are you one of Mr. P’s old students?” the girl taking his World History class asked me.

          “Yes,” I replied with an obvious note of nostalgia.

          The two girls and I talked travel as other students walked in and joined the conversation. I considered the few minutes I had with them before the start of their class my fleeting chance to open their minds to post-secondary options other than college and university, i.e. world exploration.

          As the class quickly filled, I pulled up a seat beside Mr. P’s desk.

          “Are you our substitute teacher?” an incoming student asked.

          “No,” I laughed.

          “She’s one of his old students!” someone explained before I could.

          “You should sit with us to see if he notices you!” another student suggested.

          “Yeah!” a few others chimed in.

          Loving the kids’ enthusiasm, I joined the second row of the classroom.

          “What’s your name?” one asked.

          “Um . . .” was my initial response.

          “Um?” someone snickered.

          “I have two names,” I said with a laugh. “It’s Maria, but Mr. P knows me as Theresa, because that’s what I went by in high school, so . . . Theresa. For your purposes, let’s go with Theresa.”

          “Is Theresa your middle name?” the girl beside me asked.

          “Yes,” I smiled.

          “I go by my middle name!” she excitedly responded.

          “Oh good, you get me!” I said, thrilled that I didn’t have to explain any further.

          It was then that Mr. P walked in.

          “Beautiful people,” he began in typical Gino Supremo style as he entered the room with a little dance, “we are on the verge of that wonderful thing known as the week-end!”

          I could feel myself beaming when whatever he was going to say next was lost as he caught my eye. When I heard his flattered sigh accompanied by this smile that he makes when he’s touched (any of his former students would know exactly what I’m talking about), I had to hold back tears.

          I rushed to the front of the class to hug him. “Hi Mr. P!” I squealed as I mentally lectured myself not to cry in front of his students.

          “Tree,” he smiled. “How are you?”

          “Good!” I said before crossing my arms and scolding, “You know, Mr. P, I see you have a Toronto Maple Leafs flag in here, but I don’t see an Italian flag.”

          “Wait right there!” he told me with his finger pointed in my direction as he ran out of the classroom.

          Less than two minutes later, he returned from his office with an Italian flag held high in his hand.

          I laughed at the sight of it.

          “Does this look familiar?” he proudly grinned at me as he laid the flag out on the desk before his students. “In 2006,” he told his class, “three kids hounded me every – single – day. And every single day, I told them, cynical loser that I was, ‘Guys, please, I’ve been disappointed over and over,’” he said before mouthing the words “shut the fuck up” at teenage me and friends. “Lo and behold,” he continued, “I walk into my classroom one day to find this flag laid out exactly like this on my desk.” (Olivia and my Italy buddy had gotten it for him.)

          Well, if I thought I was going to cry when I saw him . . .

          “And that year, 2006,” he repeated to his students, “as per Theresa et al., Italy finally won the World Cup again, making this my lucky flag.”

          Don’t cry in front of this man’s class, I told myself. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry . . .

          “We told you!” I laughed. “Oh, by the way, Mr. P, I’m sitting in on World History today.”

          “Please!” he said, beckoning to the chair I had already pulled up for myself.

          The class was discussing Marat, a highly influential journalist during the French Revolution who promoted violent measures in pursuit of “happiness.” More interesting than Marat, though, was the way Mr. P interacted with his students. I’ve participated in and observed the dynamic many times before, but his respect for young people never fails to impress me. His classes have always had a conversational tone, because Mr. P sees and presents himself on level with his students. In his classroom, students are not pupils expected to listen to instruction. They are people to talk to, people with insightful things to say. I still clearly remember something he once told my Grade 10 History class circa 2005: “You can be completely wrong about the facts, but if you provide solid arguments to support what you’re saying, you’ll be right.” He taught my fellow classmates and I that whether something is right or wrong, persuasive or not, is subject to the reasoning behind it. This cultivated the culture of open communication that characterizes his classroom. We, his students, did not have to be objectively correct for our words to be valid. We could argue against the whole textbook and still be right, as long as we backed up our points. In fact, we were encouraged to argue against the textbook. We were taught to think for ourselves.

          The conversation progressed from Marat to the role that the lower class played in the revolution. “If you walk out of this course learning anything,” he told his students, “let it be this: the poor die disproportionately in war. Those monarchs loved to argue and send the poor to fight their battles for them. They even had the poor pay for it all: taxes! Perfect!” he sarcastically remarked.

          “Mr. P, I have a comment,” I said as I raised my hand.

          “Please! Go ahead!” he urged.

          “I’d like to think that wouldn’t go down so easily today. We’re much more educated now. We have the internet, and –”

          “We have the internet?” he interrupted.

          “Let me finish,” I laughed. I continued with my point that drafting the poor – or what would presently be the middle class – wouldn’t be as effective today, given that the current generation of young people is characterized by progressive thought, partly because the internet has exposed us to vast information and broad perspectives.

          Mr. P’s “Solid point, Miss Bellissimo” made me smile. It sounded exactly as it did 10 years ago. “I thank God that people today have no tolerance for blood,” he said, “but it still concerns me what some would be willing to do for American citizenship.”

          Also a solid point.

          Mr. P looked up at the clock. “I think we’ve had enough for today,” he said to his students about halfway through the period, leaving them to work/socialize as he and I chatted.

          “How old are Remi and Angelica now?” I asked, preparing myself for Angelica to be almost 10.

          “Seven and nine,” he answered glowingly.

          My self-preparation did nothing. I was still taken aback. “Nine?” I repeated. “Mr. P, when you taught me, you didn’t even have kids. You were announcing to our class that Franca was pregnant. How old were you then, 30?”

          “Almost,” he smiled.

          “Oh my God, you were 29?” I laughed. “I used to look at you like you were so much older than me, and now I’m five years away from 30!”

          “I was double your age,” he pointed out, always the teacher. “But you know, Tree, numbers don’t bother me. What bothers me is that things I enjoy are getting harder on the body, and these,” he bitterly pointed at his glasses. “I made fun of all my siblings for having to wear glasses. ‘Ahahaha, you four-eyed little freaks!’ I used to laugh at them, because I was the oldest with the best eyesight until two years ago, when I couldn’t see anymore!”

          “I like your glasses!” I told him. “Glasses are in. Mine are guy bait.”

          “You shouldn’t have any problems with that,” he laughed. (I heart him!)

          “The problem is I wanted one that didn’t want me, Mr. P,” I said before telling him the whole story – the whole story, including the totally-inappropriate-for-a-classroom-environment bits.

          He laughed at all the right parts before emphasizing, “You’re a smart girl, Tree.”

          I smirked at the connotation behind that statement.

          “Stay away,” he advised. “There are a lot of beautiful people in this world.”

          We went on to discuss hookup culture and it’s impact on marriage for the rest of the period. Before leaving, I gave him the link to The Happiness Experiment. Since I was foolishly considering going back to school the last time I saw him, I also informed him that I ended up declining my offers to prioritize getting happy instead.

          “You dodged a bullet,” he said. “You didn’t seem very happy the last time I saw you.”

          “I wasn’t,” I confirmed. “Oh, by the way, I should warn you that my blog is very open. You can read whatever you want, but just FYI, for your sake.”

          “I’ll check it out,” he promised, “but I have a hard time seeing my students in a different light.”

          Oh, he’s not even ready, I thought in amusement as I momentarily recalled my 15-year-old self with the unnecessarily high average who stressed way too much about school.

          “I wish you happiness, Tree,” he said as he hugged me goodbye.

          “You too, Mr. P.”

          To Gino Supremo, thank you for everything from your life lessons disguised as History classes when I was 15 to your straightforward dating advice now that I’m 25, and for all of our conversations in between. You’ve taught me more than you know.

Happiness Tip: Go back to high school.

 
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