My grade 5 year, 1990/91, I was a chubby, geeky, awkward girl. I didn't have many friends. I wasn't athletic, or popular, or into dolls or cars or make-up or mud. The nerds had rejected me, as I wasn't big on maths, and I thought the A/V club was preferable only to death. I liked books and poems and paintings and music. I spent a lot of time alone. When grade 5 started, I was nervous. I'd already been labelled a "teacher's pet", liked much more by my liberal, hippyish art and language teachers than by my fellow students, and though the label didn't do me many favours, I at least had those teachers to stop my school experience from being completely miserable. But now, standing at the front of the classroom was this old, conservative looking, presumably Christian woman, who I was sure, by those very characteristics, would hate me. I had no idea just how wrong I was.
"Oh, my little poet-to-be, do you think you could pry yourself away long enough to do this equation?" She smiled and winked at me, obviously trying to meet me halfway between enforced curriculum, and my own passions. I'd do the equation, often incorrectly, and she'd calmly walk me through it, undoubtedly knowing it would never sink in. I'd nod in feigned understanding, and go back to my seat to finish whatever it was I'd been writing.
"Robyn, wait," Mrs. Pashuk would say, stopping me on my way out the door. "Hand it over."
I'd pull that day's story or poem out of my binder and give it to her. Her response to it would depend entirely on whether it was about that day's lesson or not. If it was, she would keep it and grade me on it. If it wasn't, I'd get a half-assed lecture on how, even if it was boring, I needed to pay attention in class, as I was a bright kid, and one day, the amount of knowledge I possessed would matter. I think she knew she was fighting a losing battle - that it was highly unlikely I was ever going to pay attention to things that bored me - but that she felt it important to at least try holding my feet to the ground.
Never, however, not even once, did she attempt discouraging my writing. Even when she knew I was ignoring the lesson, even when she knew I wasn't doing what I'd been assigned, even when I would spend the entire day alternating between staring out the window and jotting down lines, never did she tell me not to write. Instead, she'd tailor the lesson to me - she'd challenge me to write a poem or short story about what we were going to learn that day, ensuring that I'd actually pay attention, as I'd want to write a good piece. She'd try relating math to language, as hard as that must have been for her, so that I'd have at least a cursory understanding. She'd play me songs that discussed history (I'll never forget us first laughing at, and then really digging into, Bony M's "Rasputin"), she told me about scientists who were also poets to pique my interest, and she introduced me to painters who were relevant to the lessons we were being taught.
At Halloween, she would make homemade popcorn balls; at Christmas, realizing that our school was highly multicultural, rather than decorating the room in standard Christmas adornments, she'd ask us to research our own culture's winter celebrations, and bring something in to add to the room. Before summer break, she played us songs from Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" - that was, in fact, the only time I saw her as a vulnerable person. A few students mocked her for playing something as ancient and outdated as Elvis was to 90s children, and she actually broke down in tears. All she'd wanted was to share her love of music, and give us something fun and summery to listen to in our last few days before break, and her being laughed at for it apparently hit her hard. I remember being angrier than I'd ever been that day - this woman had showed the same love for the cruel, seemingly heartless bullies as she had for the sweetest and kindest of kids, and here they all were, teaming up to laugh at the silly old lady with her silly old Elvis records. It was that day - despite the fact that it was only a few days before we left her class forever - that the relationship between Mrs. Pashuk, myself, and a couple of other classmates, changed permanently. It was that day that previous alliances were severed, and geeks, bullies, preps, and jocks, joined together, in opposition to those that had formerly been our peers. Some of us were horrified by how some others had treated her that day, and what clique we belonged to had absolutely no bearing on the side we took. It was a day of growing up, and a day of learning to stand our ground. Some of us, who had previously remained silent to damn near everything, loudly proclaimed our distaste for their behaviour. Some of us, who had previously clung tight to our clique, boldly took the side of "the enemy", in solidarity with a woman who had made a sincere attempt to connect with each and every one of us. Some of us grew a little that day, and Mrs. Pashuk, from that point on, fostered in us a belief in ourselves. Not just because we had stuck up for her, but because we had defied our social expectations, and stood up for what we thought was right. And, in her typically fair and bold manner, also (later) defended those who had mocked her, reminding us that they had every right to not like what others liked.
I can't say that, without Mrs. Pashuk, I wouldn't have become a writer. I can't say with any certainty that I wouldn't have published a book or written for websites or started my own business. But I can say with absolute certainty that I would have had to work far harder to learn the necessary lessons, that I would have had to overcome much more doubt, and that I would have had far less confidence. I can say with absolute certainty that the way Mrs. Pashuk approached me forever changed my own approach to learning, to writing, and to communicating. I can say with absolute certainty that her influence made me a stronger, smarter, bolder person. That, after leaving her classroom, I felt more equipped to face the real world, even if I had no idea at that point what it actually was. That her belief that everyone could succeed, that everyone had a passion worthy of following, that her seemingly genuine love for everyone, completely altered the way I viewed my peers, and life itself. That she was the first person, outside of my own family, that sincerely cared whether or not I succeeded.
We love you, Mrs. Bevery Jean Pashuk. May you forever know the good you did in countless lives. May your legacy live on well beyond the 81 years you were given. May you Rest In Peace.