Tom, his school, my time there, my time withhim; was one of the biggest formative influences in my life. The person I am, the person I am yet to be, exists in great part thanks to Tom and my education at ASE 1. And not just because he taught us On The Road by Jack Kerouac in Modern Western Civilizations. But partly. Because that book is near the top of my ‘most influential books’ list.
Now Tom is gone. He died yesterday after spending years incommunicado from all of us. I’m not too clear on the reasons, but I know its got a lot to do with his illness; the mental and emotional ramifications thereof. But that was just so like Tom. He made decisions based on his gut, he bucked tradition and convention and never let them trump his conscience and what was right for him. I remember him telling a story about how he was asked to stand up at a friend’s wedding. He believed that the marriage would be a great disservice to his friend and his paramour, and refused to be ‘the best man.’ He knew it could likely spell the end of the friendship; but the right thing was the right thing. For you, that might not be the right thing. For most, even. Or maybe it would be the right thing for most of us; we just lack courage to carry out such a conviction. Tom never lacked courage of his convictions; and he inspired me to want to be that kind of person.
Tom always wanted to learn and explore. I learned a lot from the many walking tours and excursions that he led as part of the curriculum. And he made them cross-curriculum so that even if you weren’t in his class you could attend. The excursions were on Wednesdays, when there were no classes. We explored Art Deco architecture in the downtown core, gothic graveyards, cabbagetown; in philosophy class we took excursions to Indian restaurants to celebrate Eastern Philosophy and Greek restaurants to celebrate Western Philosophy – but those were just for us, the OAC Philosophy students. To this day – quite literally, today – I love to explore new parts of my city, and look forward to more travel. Today my office closed at noon so, quite on a whim, I decided to check out a new area that I’m considering moving to. And it occurs to me – since I was thinking of him anyway – that I’m brave to move to a new area far away from everyone I know just because I love it, because I want to have the water in my backyard; and I think he would dig that.
At ASE the curriculum was taught in a framework of independent learning. Everyone there had completed at least up until the end of Grade 10 in a normal high school. (My friend ‘Zoe’ and I were refugees from one of the biggest schools in Scarborough, both of us felt like we were wasting away there so we went to the entrance interview at ASE 1 together. We knew from meeting Tom that we just had to be there. We couldn’t believe it when he admitted us both on the spot, and how enthusiastic he was to have us there.) Classes met once a week or sometimes twice. Class lectures, in Tom’s classes especially, were informative, thought provoking and usually had a great discussion component. We were encouraged to use critical thinking, a muscle that we all had but hadn’t stretched much in our previous high schools. And because of how independent we were, completing the work for a course or the independent study project, we experienced feelings of accomplishment that we’d not known before. “I did this.” I was an Ontario Scholar, won awards and participated in clubs; where in previous schools I’d skated by with just barely above average; I’d faded into the background except when I most wanted to. But at ASE I flourished, and even broke out of the social sciences wheelhouse and tried maths and science for which I am still thankful and proud.
There’s another thing about me that reminds me of him; some might not understand, or might even feel sorry for me because I’m still single and that I didn’t just settle down, get married and squeeze out a few babies like people seem to do. But I was never convinced that it was right for me. When I would dream about my wedding day, I woke up in a cold sweat, and sometimes with a scream. It was at ASE where I realized that I just didn’t want that regular kind of life. It’s right for lots of people. It’s wrong for lots of people who do it anyway. Tom helped me to realize that a girl from Scarborough who came from that regular kind of life didn’t have to repeat it. I could be my own person! And maybe I haven’t yet done everything I wanted to. Haven’t fulfilled my potential. But I know that doesn’t mean I won’t. I’m only now starting to feel like I’m coming into my own. Many of the things I care about today, the things I still want to accomplish; the decisions about the person I want to be, have their roots in my time at ASE and in the ways that Tom and the teachers there inspired me.
I haven’t seen Tom in more years than I can believe. So its a bit disconcerting to be grieving him as intensely as I am. But then I think of how much of me is linked to him and its not that strange, maybe. I know I’m not the only one. I can’t believe how many people have said that they were just thinking of him recently, and I myself was talking about him two weeks ago with another friend. He will be missed by many. When people talk about that one teacher who really believed in them and changed their life, I think about Tom. And I know I’m not the only one.