Sunday, February 14, 2010

a high school story

We were a motley crew of fifteen-year-old high school students.   We did not study the arts, languages, literature, philosophy.  No, we signed up for a lower level of education.  A co-ed group of approximately 25 students in the newly-offered Business & Commerce programme at the local high school.  It was the third year of the programme and those of us in it knew we couldn't or wouldn't go to university.  So the Business & Commerce Course seemed to offer skills that would allow us to set up our own business, or more likely, work as bookkeepers, typists, personal assistants, or manage our finances once we became famous rock stars.  Some did not have the grades to enter the liberal arts programme - some did not have the inclination to do the amount of work such a programme required - and some, like myself, had their own reasons for seeking a 'lower-level' education.

Raised as a Jehovah's Witness, I was encouraged (as were all Witness children) to forego the lures and luxuries of 'the world' and devote myself to full-time service as a preacher of 'the good news of God's kingdom soon to establish itself on Earth'.  Lucky me.  We were encouraged to complete our high school years, acquiring only enough basic skills to earn a living while we spent most of our time going from door-to-door (without any remuneration), and give up any thoughts of higher education.

Who was I to think I knew better than God or the congregation elders?  So even though I loved learning and it came easily to me, I found myself studying typing, penmanship, and bookkeeping.  Worse than that, I pretended that this choice was my choice - something I wanted - when, in fact, I did not.  I longed to be in the liberal arts programme and to go on to university.  I had a good mind and I knew it was going to waste.  To save face, to avoid pain I had to pretend this limited education, this future was exactly what I wanted.

It did not matter what programme you were in at this school, every morning you had to stand to attention for the singing of the national anthem and the reciting of the Lord's prayer.  Of course, as a J.W. I could not do either.  So after seeking the agreement of each year's home room teacher, I was allowed to wait outside the classroom and enter late, after the anthem and prayer.  It was humiliating, but less so than being the only one to remain seated during these formalities.

Impromtu school assemblies, to be held in the auditorium, were often announced over the P.A. system and always sent me into a quiet panic.  Assemblies always began with a singing of 'God Save the Queen' and ended with 'O Canada', while everyone stood at attention.  Jehovah's Witnesses were to give their loyalty only to 'God's Kingdom' - not to any earthly one - and could not participate.  So I tried to sneak off to the bathroom and arrive at the auditorium late and stand in the back where I would not seem to be disrespecting God, Queen, country or anyone present, by refusing to stand or sing.  I would now love to have known my blood pressure during those situations.  It was probably off the charts for a teenager.

There was one teacher I particularly disliked during this time period.  The dreaded  Mr. Zobel.  He was an immaculately dressed man, had a brush cut, and an arrogance that seemed to emanate from every pore.  He did not make small talk in class and I don't recall ever seeing him smile.  I did see him occasionnally drive into the teacher's parking lot in his MG convertible, with a yellow scarf wrapped jauntily around his neck.  

It was difficult to integrate the rigid, no-nonsense  version of Mr. Zobel in the classroom, with the free, 'debonair' version of him in his cool car.  He had the slightest German accent and, sitting daydreaming in his class, I often imagined him marching up and down the aisles between our desks with the uniform, shiny riding boots and crop of a member of the Gestapo - ready to ship us away for any offense. 

Mr. Zobel had unrelenting expectations of me that made me anxious.  No not that kind.  Mr. Zobel was always proper and appropriate.  Academically, Mr. Zobel was never satisfied.  If I achieved an 87/100 on a bookkeeping test, he would scribble beside it "Not Good Enough!!!"  When not participating in his class 'interrogations', he would insist.  I was determined to hide any facility I had with learning.  Mr. Zobel continued to try to pull me out of hiding and I resented him for that.  

During this same period I had problems at home.  My father walked away from the family never to be heard of again.  Being abandonned made me feel different again in another way, and I did not want anyone to know about it.  I wanted to close down, hide and mourn privately.  I did not want to attract any more attention, anywhere - even in Mr. Zobel's classroom.  

If Mr. Zobel pushed open the door of my hiding place to 'extract my potential', my fear was everything would come gushing out.  He did not understand that I needed to supress everything, even any potential,  to avoid further pain, exposure, loss and humiliation.  He kept pushing to open the door.  I kept pushing back to keep it closed.  His insistence seemed insensitive and cruel, and his persistence further entrenched me in a defensive stance.

I felt I stood out enough because of all my Jehovah's Witness quirks, and my impoverished, fatherless home situation.  I did not want to draw attention to myself with the right answers or good marks.  I tried to keep a lid on and Mr. Zobel was determined to remove that lid.  I only allowed myself to excel at the end of term exams where the marks would be revealed on the report card and not read out by Mr. Zobel from the front of the class. 

One day near the end of the year, Mr. Zobel informed me that I had earned the highest marks in the Business & Commerce programme for that year and that there was both a certificate and a monetary award for this achievement.  Awards for all levels would be handed out at the graduation ceremony in the school auditorium.  He informed me that he would give me the certificate and the cheque at the ceremony. 

 Great (NOT)!  All I could think of was how I would be sitting on the stage awaiting my award and everyone would stand to sing O Canada and I would humiliate the institution and myself by remaining seated and mute.  My mother gave her permission to not attend the ceremony.  Jehovah's Witnesses often opt out of such situations when they can.

The morning of the awards ceremony while sitting talking with my mother the telephone rang.  My mother said, "It's Mr. Zobel."   WHAT??  I did not want to talk to Mr. Zobel.

Me:  ....H....H...Hello.....
Mr. Zobel:  Hello Bonnie.  Just want to remind you that you need to be here for the award presentation no later than 1:00 this afternoon.
Me:  I thought you knew that I will not be attending Mr. Zobel.
Mr. Zobel:  Are you ill?
Me:  No.
Mr. Zobel:  Then you must come.
Me:  I'm sorry, I won't be there.
Mr. Zobel:  For what reason?
Me:  aaah....I.........I.......don't want to be on stage and have to remain seated during the national anthems with the whole student body staring at me.  They don't understand why ... they'll think I'm an idiot.......
Mr. Zobel:...........silence...................................I insist that you get yourself ready and get down here.
Me:  But..............
Mr. Zobel:  You do not have to sit on stage during the singing of the anthems.  I will escort you to your seat on stage after the singing of the national anthem and I will escort you off stage before they sing 'God Save The Queen'.  I'll expect you in my classroom at 1:00.
Me:  But............
Mr. Zobel:   (click).

I went to the award ceremony.  Mr. Zobel smiled when he saw me arrive.  He was kind and gentle and infused me with some of his confidence.  He made me feel as if doing this extra work of getting me on and off the stage with as little fanfare and humiliation as possible, was something he did every day. He offered me his arm and we walked to our seats on stage AFTER the playing of the anthem.   He smiled again when he presented me the award and the cheque.  Taking a quick peek at the audience, I saw the motley crew standing and applauding.  I had not expected that.  At the end of all the presentations, but before the next anthem, Mr. Zobel stood, motionned for me to join him in leaving the stage.  He made it all so easy.  So many little humiliations averted.  So many long-held assumptions blown apart in one afternoon.

Upon returning to the classroom to gather my things and head home, I thanked Mr. Zobel for his help that day - and promptly began to cry.  He asked what was the matter and the 'doors' opened and I told him about some of my struggles.  He listened quietly, and acknowledged I had been dealing with a lot.  He offered no advice.   He made no criticisms of my mother or our religion.   He gave what I most needed - a non-judgmental, compassionate ear and the assurance that I was handling things well and that he had every confidence things would eventually be resolved.

As I walked home clutching my award and cheque, I had many thoughts.  I realized that Mr. Zobel had never been a Gestapo-like enforcer, he had been a supportive, if demanding, advocate.  He recognized my potential and predicament and was trying to facilitate my development as both a student and a young adult.  The tears in my eyes were now tears of gratitude - not for any award or cheque - but for being seen, valued, understood, appreciated and accommodated.  I finally realized how easy it was to get caught in  misperceptions, to make sweeping assumptions, to shut out caring people.  I saw what a cloistered, confined and thus limiting life I led, and finally became aware that there were life lessons to be learned outside of family and religion if I was open to receive them.   This had been an encounter with a true gentleman, a remarkable educator - and I had been forever changed.

Upon graduating a year later, I sent him a note to let him know that I understood what he had been trying to do and how much I had learned from him - on so many levels. 

Mr. Zobel, all these years later - I remember you still - and in many ways due to you, I eventually did kick open the 'doors' and obtain a university education.


  1. As a teacher myself, I cannot find words that would convey to you how deeply I am moved by this tribute to your teacher, Bonnie.

    Thank you for writing it.

  2. bonnie, as a teacher, i'd like to echo dan's words and add my thanks to you for publicly remembering your teacher so generously and openly!! steven

  3. This is a gracious recount of a period in your life that was in flux and wonderfully touched by a very good teacher. BTW, I have to tell you that I owned that very same car in red!

  4. what a beautiful tribute...darlene callahan was the name of the teacher that changed my life...

  5. Bonnie, it was an experience to real this article and for that, Thank you, please though don’t forget our heavenly father Jehovah never gives up on us, and he truly does want us to fulfil our potential. This system is temporary imagine your skills with no end in sight. Please do not forget your real father Jehovah, he wants you to be part of that future, and he really does have your best interests at heart.
    Take Care

    Raymond (UK)

  6. Bonnie, whenever you write about you early life under the sway of your childhood religion, I'm reminded of my own strggles under Catholicism in the sixties, but somehow I suspect yours was worse, and fart more onerous. As well the nuns endorsed our education, an education of sorts, a reasonably broad education wth lots of deletions and ommisiions, but an education neverheless.

    Yours is such a heart wrenching account of a cleer and observant child who could see past the religious mumbo-jumbo and yet would not betray her parents by challenging the religion to which, they, or at least her mother, adhered.

    Thanks again for sharing this, Bonnie.

    One day you might put all the pieces together to form a memoir of your life as a JW. It's an extraordinary life and you write it beautifully.

  7. What a wonderful story Bonnie. I am sure Mr. Zobel would be thrilled to know that he impacted your life in this way.

  8. It's heart warming to see what a lovely insightful person you became, Bonnie.

  9. Wonderful story Bonnie. Everyone should have such a teacher in thier life. I did, and I'll be eternally grateful to Mr. Petzel.

  10. Oh Bonnie, you have written a heartfelt story that pulled me right in! I put good teachers on a pedestal right up there with....other good teachers! How wonderful that he saw something more under your surface and didn't shy away from helping you to see it too. Insisting that you be at the awards ceremony - well, I almost have no words for how important that was. For once you were rightly celebrated for your accomplishments, even if you couldn't fully appreciate that until later.

    I imagine Mr Zogel's pleasure at knowing you were 'on your way' was worth more to him than any paycheque. How wonderful that you could and did acknowledge his help.

    Lovely, lovely story. Thank you.

  11. I hated having to recite the prayer in school every morning and most often did not. Even though it was a personal choice for me (not one expected of me by my religion), still I was a bit embarrassed and tried to hide that I was not, in fact, reciting the prayer. I can't even imagine how bad it was for you. How wonderful for you to have had that experience with your teacher. I have nothing comparable from my school years.

  12. HI Bonnie-

    Oh my - such a wonderful story. I am so happy for you that Mr Zobel was part of your life - I am applauding him and you too. His belief in you freed you. Amen.

    Love to you

  13. Bonnie, it occurred to me that we're often so overcome by a sense of "doom" these days, when it seems that all our small efforts have so little sway against all the ways our world is struggling right now. But then we tell each other our stories like this and it all becomes much more apparent, that these small blessings - the simple act of someone paying attention, expecting the best of us, recognizing our pain and still supporting us, really the simple work of being a caring human - make all the difference in the world.

    Thank you for sharing this story. I'm glad you followed your heart's path, and that Mr. Zobel was there to help you along.

  14. What a wonderful story, Bonnie! I'm so glad you had such a wonderful teacher, and that you were able to pursue your academic dreams.

  15. What a strong post Bonnie. It is hard to be different when one is young. I thought I had it hard sometimes at school because my last name was so foreign and unpronounceable to the rest of the French named kids, but it was nothing like what you had to go through. You were lucky to have such a great teacher – I wish he could read your post now – he would be so pleased.

  16. Beautiful story, Bonnie.

    Every teacher wonders sometimes whether or not we're making a difference - it's always good to read stories like yours to remind us that changing just one life is enough to make it all worthwhile.


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