Friday, November 8, 2019

#22 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (Knight Errant #d)


Let’s now return to a brief narrative of events that tend to sketch the outlines of an  albeit unaware, and also somewhat hard-headed knight errant.

And here, on reflection, is an example of a moment in which what I would now term scrupulosity seemed to arm the KE-columnist in a review of the situation concerning the Economic Development Committee in a small town in northern Ontario. Of course, the Chair of that committee was, and likely still is, a member of the city council. Facilitating any and all inquiries from prospective industrial and/or commercial principals in their research into the potential of locating a new venture in the city, the chair would be the first to learn about such inquiries.

As it turned out, the Chair at that time was also a local realtor. There was no evidence that he had used his chairmanship to foster and enhance his own business interests by following up on inquiries without declaring a conflict of interest, or without deferring to another realtor. Nevertheless, it appeared to me as I surveyed the ethos of the local municipal government that this person had a potential, and certainly a perceived conflict of interest. I wrote about that perception in a weekly column, which upon his reading the piece, apparently impelled the councillor/ECD Chair to pay an angry and vengeful visit to his lawyer. Desiring to sue the writer, he was, so I was informed, cautioned by the lawyer that there was no evidence in the piece of libel, slander, or defamation. I had specifically written about the total lack of evidence of any wrongdoing yet I cautioned that “not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” Needless to say, the councillor/EDCChair never again agreed to be interviewed by this columnist.

Also, in another incident that only the universe could unfold, that same man, who also operated a local motel, got a measure of revenge at my expense, while watching a live TV interview with a different candidate for local council on the night of a municipal election. There had been a ‘melodrama’ of quite superficial conflict between the candidate and one of his opponents for a seat on city council. The opponent, a local campaigner for a separated new province of Northern Ontario, had been a thorn in the shoe of several not only for the substance of his agenda, but also for the manner by which he pursued it. The incumbent alderman, my interview subject, had taken to some off-colour language to criticize the Northern Ontario cheerleader. As a long-term, highly respected civic leader, in addition to his considerable reputation as a cross-examiner in criminal trials, my subject warned me not to ask about the “language” issue, prior to appearing on live TV, in the middle of election night. My own rebel, not one given to tack around such a head-wind-warning, asked directly, on camera, if the incumbent alderman-criminal lawyer’s low standing in the evening’s polls could be attributed, at least in part to his use of off-colour language. And without skipping a breath, he retorted, “I told Mr. “D” it was too G-D bad, and I say the same thing to you here and now!” My response, “You have already had too much time on air; back to our host!”Of course, my blood was “heated” and as I walked past the cafeteria where the candidates had gathered, I heard a raucous laugh coming from the alderman/EDC Chair, who thoroughly appreciated the put-down. Years later, while sitting in a local restaurant, I saw that same alderman/hotelier who had long-since moved to Florida, enter, note my presence and deliberately walk by in silence. I smiled at the memory.

Another chapter, on reflection, that illustrates a rather detached, deliberate and somewhat sad career turning point emerged after an invitation to leave the secondary school system and join the local community college. The first invitation came in the summer of 1983; the second in the summer of 1984. The first, I turned down. The second prompted a family meeting on the beach on Parry Island where we then had a modest cottage, constructed as a class project by “shop” students from the school in which I taught. Strongly urging my rejection of the second offer, our fourteen-year-old daughter protested, “But you’re a teacher and I do not think you should go!” All her life to that point, she had known her father only as a teacher. Envisioning such a career change would naturally have been somewhat unsettling to her. Others, were more restrained when I uttered words to this effect: “I know that I can teach, I do not know whether I can do the job in public relations at the college. And, of course, I would like to find out, by accepting this challenge.”

What was not referenced in that “beach” conversation were deep and lasting perceptions and observations and quite sad reflections on having to waken students in a grade twelve English class, immediately after they had been sleeping in another class. Whether or not my “judgement” of that other teacher, summed in the rhetorical question, “How could students be sleeping in his class?” was warranted or not, I felt strongly that it was my job to teach Literature and not to have to wake students up from their previous class. Sounds highly judgemental? You bet! Sounds arrogant? probably! Sounds impertinent and impulsive? I’m not sure. Was I getting tired of the faculty fatigue that seemed to be smoking the corridors of the school and concerned that I could also be overtaken by that dynamic? Quite possibly. I had witnessed other teachers who had held on far beyond their prime,  and bored hundreds of students in both the public and private school systems.

Teaching is a highly demanding, challenging and occasionally demeaning profession. It is also a very honourable calling. Working with adolescents, themselves facing the turbulence of their own biology, the mixed messages of many of their parents and seasonal employers, questions about post-secondary career and program choices, and even at that time (‘70’s-80’s), without all of the current temptations of weed, alcohol, economic disparity, helicopter parenting, and sky-high expectations on the part of parents and grandparents, is filled with variety, stimulation, high hopes, and occasional deep thoughts. Chalk-filled fingernails, dust covered jackets or sweaters, the prospect of some 180 young minds and bodies processing into and out of one’s classroom and their respective moods, and questions of how the questions and outline of today’s lessons might “go over” are just a few of the memories and reflections of those decades. Setting a primary goal of “helping kids learn to like and appreciate Literature” (and all of the implications of that simple goal: reading, writing, conversing, listening, critiquing, without losing sight of the “vision”), served as a lighthouse beacon in often ambiguous times when my own motivation was either flagging or distracted.

Of course, my own English instructors had modelled their own enthusiasm for Literature, an enthusiasm that easily flowed into my imagination. Having written about them elsewhere, I will merely mention their names here, Ken Fulford, Bill Hughey, John Wichello Graham, and Joan Laird (O.C.E) and Clyde Armstrong (Ministry Inspector)…and writers like Northrop Frye, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Arthur Miller, William Golding. To be able to walk on their respective shoulders, while making a living, is an honour and a privilege for which I remain humbly grateful. The capacity to discern the “wheat from the chaff”   in the tsunami of bullshit to which our contemporary culture is being subjected, mostly from political “leaders” and “talking heads” is a muscle we all need to exercise. My own teaching, while I was also as much a student as a teacher, has served more than I ever would have imagined to energize daily life for decades, in the mid sixties when I began.

So…having accepted a post as a staff  (not a line), worker in an organization chart of some 500 employees and 2500 students, I quickly learned that “staff” served the line functions, positions held by those responsible for executive decisions within the organization. As Information Officer/Assistant to the President, I was thrust into a political maelstrom of competing personal and career agendas and ambitions. Who “liked” or “hated” whom was as much an integral component of the ether of the place as any decision about salaries, appointments, curricular proposals, organizational changes and long-term funding. In the mid-eighties, smoking was beginning to be viewed in such public places as politically  (if not yet a health crisis), undesireable. “Project SMOKE-less” was a program including faculty, staff, students and administration, without imposing strict, enforceable rules and regulations. The president, likely as a test case, asked if I would “head” it up. Debates with student government reps., interviews with the college television operation, and facilitating meetings that monitored the program were among the duties of the committee.
In this highly politically charged atmosphere, I though it might be a reasonable notion to “introduce” faculty and staff to each other, from a perspective that might knit a little appreciation and respect between and among the people. The newsletter, then defunk, was revived, offering plenty of opportunities to shed light, for example, on accountants who had studied in art school, following high school, to the surprise of many who thought they already knew that person as a “bean-counter”. Hiring a local realist artist as artist in residence was another of the more happy memories of the three years’ stint I enjoyed there.

However, having taken a leave of absence from the public school board, and having accepted employment at the local community college where the assistant registrar was also the Chair of that same school board, I learned one morning that the “Chair” had been bad-mouthing me in public following a board meeting at city hall. The news came from a colleague who taught at the college, who, allegedly, was not supportive of the slam she had heard. “She called you, Jesus Atkins!” was the direct quote from my source. Our “information” office was charged with collaborating with both the Registrar’s office, responsible for direct recruiting, and the Media office, responsible for designing and printing all publications, for which our office was responsible for the content and proof-reading. So we had already had some tense moments with suggestions of new classroom posters for high school recruiting initiatives, themed covers for calendars/posters, and also the purchase of a trade centre booth. The charge from the Chair/Ass’t Registrar, although unattached to any specific behaviour, comment or incident, had naturally inflamed my person, and provoked a vehement and contentious argument between my secretary and me. Her position was to “leave it alone” given the political repercussions that confrontation would produce. My view was, “This has to be nipped in the bud!” and after a few days of back and forth, I stormed out of the office, like a radioactive bull in heat. Bursting into the office of the Chair, I exploded, “Don’t you ever again refer to me, in that or any other tone, in a public place!”  And, immediately I departed her office, never to hear about the incident again.

The scenario that conflated to result in my leaving the college had several influences. Organizational changes which the president had recommended had created a couple of new hiring opportunities, among them Director of Marketing and Dean of Students. Looking into the medium future, the president had already served from the college’s inception in 1977 and would be seeking a legitimate and highly merited retirement in the near future, and naturally his replacement would want a new assistant.

Additionally, the president, telling me he preferred me to remain in his office, had decided that he did not intend to appoint me to either of the other two positions, that he would be seeking outside applicants. It was this last information that prompted my retort: “It is important that not all new executive appointments come from outside; the college needs to signal to current employees that they merit serious consideration.” As in previous situations, sensing my own anger and intuitive determination to leave combined with a healthy level of disappointment that I would not be offered one of the new posts, I knew then I had to submit a letter of resignation. It was written and submitted at six a.m. the next morning in March, using a termination date of June 30. When I was called into the president’s office to discuss the letter, he volunteered to amend the termination date to August 30, providing two additional months of salary that I expected.

Throughout those three years, I had made it a point to inform the president if ever there were a situation in which I had ruffled feathers that might face him unexpectedly if he happened to enter the same space later. Alternatively, I had refrained from promoting and advertising moments in which others had expressed appreciation and/or support for some gesture or advocacy that I had been able to extend. Only after I resigned did I learn that others, unknown to me, and certainly unprompted by me, proffered sincere and authentic support for my service to the president. I did not have an opportunity to express gratitude for their welcome support. Nevertheless, I did then, and continue today to feel very humbly grateful for their appreciation.

……To be continued

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