The term ‘gentleman’ in today’s anti-social media world may seem quaint, even antiquated. With blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and even just email, it’s far too easy to lose civility—just a click away to vent your spleen. The concept of the gentleman or gentlewoman in today’s world has given way to a noisy free-for-all of fame-grubbing wannabes to whom gentleness is antithetical. It’s all push and shove for attention and forget the niceties. Not a world for sensitive people. And perhaps, sadly, not a world for the likes of New Denver author and teacher John Norris, who left us during this past year.
But at least Norris, author of favourites like John’s Gardens, Wo Lee Stories, and Old Silverton, among others, has left us an eloquent and wide-ranging legacy on just what it means to cultivate an elegant, gentle soul. With the recent release of his autobiography Learning / Teaching we now get a much more personal insight into his character.
As Cole Harris explains in the Foreword to the book, “in the spring of 2009 after a long battle with prostate cancer, John Norris was given only a few days to live. His friends were urged to pay their last visits. But John himself was not ready to die. He had not written the memoir about himself that he wanted to be his last statement. And so he held off death for almost two years, and in that time wrote most of the account that follows.”
Far from merely an exercise in ego gratification, Norris wanted to share his experience of growing up during a time when his homosexuality was severely repressed. With the current resurgence of fundamentalist values—particularly in the US—it’s a much-needed survey of a life spent struggling to come to grips with an innate nature at odds with societal mores. In many respects things have improved greatly since the 1930s when Norris was reaching maturity and even heterosexual activity was spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. And despite its historical prevalence, homosexuality was still seen as an ‘evil’ to be ‘cured,’ often brutally.
“We can be amused at the repression of sex by omission or euphemism but its repression by the inculcation of shame is another matter,” he writes. That shame can “grow in some people to become a hatred of the flesh strong enough to turn them into …suicides, sadists and mass killers…”
Indeed that sense of shame created a schism and a self-loathing in his personality that took nearly until middle age for Norris to resolve. Always a deeply thoughtful person, his intellectual interests brought to his attention the wisdom of Socrates and the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This, combined with the ancient Greek Stoic philosophy—with its emphasis on forging an individual morality—helped Norris resolve his inner crisis. If nothing else, the public school system’s emphasis on classical learning and the liberal arts during his formative years give us an idea how intellectually and ethically impoverished our culture has since become.
“Society cannot be changed by theories of politics and religion but by basic education directed toward making stoicism a way of life in pursuit of the good,” he concludes. “We cannot ever ‘save’ the world but we can make it a more pleasant place by sane education.”
Naturally being a teacher entrusted to the care of boys as well as girls presented a challenge for Norris, one he met well-equipped with this classical approach to morality. “Awareness gave me charge of the situation: I could continue teaching teenagers and control my desire or I could completely avoid teaching that age group,” he writes. “Seen in the context of my whole history it provided me with an overwhelming sense of empowerment regarding my ability to deal with whatever life could bring me.”
That he was successful in holding to a strict sense of not crossing the line with students is testified to by his great popularity as a teacher. The last section of the book deals with his stint as a teacher at the New Denver school for ‘delinquent’ boys, at a time in the ’70s when a more liberal approach to education was being pioneered. Norris’s mentor at that school made it clear that the punitive approach simply was not effective in helping boys already deeply scarred by abusive social and family situations. This resonated well with his own convictions. Indeed, after strapping a boy just once early in his teaching career and seeing the trauma it induced, Norris had resolved “never to compromise a student’s physical integrity again.” Instead he challenged them to rise to their potential and gave them the intellectual nurturing to develop it.
There is much to learn from this humble, brilliant man, now so sorely missed. His sense of the Earth as a sacred place, his determination to persist in self-examination in order to develop and improve his character, his love of gardening, fine music, art and poetry… Anyone with a teacher like this in their lives can count themselves very, very lucky.
Learning / Teaching is available for $15 from Hawkeye Press of New Denver, Box 53 V0G 1S0. Please add $3 for Canadian postage or $5 for US postage.