The jarring clang of the bell summons students to class in this three-room rural collegiate. The door to the Grade 12 room opens and in walks this robust, arresting figure, as erect and imposing as a sergeant major. He flashes the red chemistry tome, and with a flourish deposits it on his desk with a thud. A quick survey through those dark-rimmed eyes, and a volley of commands: “To the board, please! Mary! John! Ron! June! And … Katie! The rest of you in your seats; here’s your problem!”
Meanwhile, the man does his usual beat along each aisle, though clearly targets his attention on the folks at the board. We all recognize the decoys, one or two whose homework is done without question. The “beat” is punctuated with the odd vintage Brown jibe: “Ron, anything more interesting than chemistry last night?” “Sorry, Mary, to think that something as mundane as chemistry should compromise your social life.”
Clear in purpose, this amazing person, in five minutes or less, surveys with precision the 25 to 30 students, and notes gaps in knowledge to be cleared up tout suite. Then on to new material, not once cracking open the tome. “The guy has it down, cold!” And he moves through the lesson with utter clarity and “schwunk,” generous with witty quips, not necessarily shrinking from acerbic, even caustic gibes. Always the parting words, “Now class, for tomorrow … ,” our pens poised for the parting shot, the dreaded homework assignment. And he’s off to his next event.
That scenario encapsulates my recollection of Peter Brown, the “presence,” guide, mentor, teacher, principal and “lord of everything else” to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. While he enjoyed mixed reviews, few would have questioned his command of chemistry. But who would have guessed that beneath that less than tender exterior loomed a capacity for thoughtful reflection evoked by Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning. He held forth on the masters with aplomb, even recited passages with obvious appreciation. And he had the remarkable ability to dance around allusions that could easily have raised eyebrows given the prevailing less than subtle conservative community code. Again, no reference to the textbook. The man is in control!
Peter Brown was a professional par excellence. While he never suffered fools gladly, I believe that his capacity for compromise was often underrated. For example, as zealous as he was about a grand showing in the provincial finals, he clearly compromised by admitting many older students, mostly from the Bible School, to classes after April, most of them far short of normal admission requirements. Years later, I heard him speak proudly about some of these “late bloomers” as highly productive professionals, “honourable” contributors to society.
A final word about this man’s language facility. He was articulate, even colourful at times, and demonstrated fluency typical of a native speaker of the language. For one who had grown up among plattdeutsch people, that was a remarkable accomplishment. I shall always regard the Brown language model as a gift that keeps on giving. My febrile mind conjures up a shadowy, yellowing personal passport to my lifelong educational career; on it among other notables, an emboldened signature of Peter Brown.
Carl Braun, WCI Student, 1947-48
Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology,
University of Calgary
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