“I hear you are skilled at calligraphy. Could you make me a sign for above the classroom door?”
“What would you like me to write?”
“Specifically, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’.”
This famous quote originated with the 1814 English translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, by the Reverend H.F. Cary. It is the supposed inscription at the entrance to Hell.
And so, I was introduced to Mr. Peter Wilson, soon to be my favourite teacher in twelve years of public education.
It was September 1978, sometime in the first or second week of the first semester of Grade 10. I was attending Cowichan Senior Secondary a year early. Due to a spike in high school enrolment for a few years, any Junior Secondary student entering Grade 10 in the small city and nearby rural neighbourhoods of Duncan in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, living west of the Island Highway, Highway 1, the Trans-Canada, were re-directed to “Cow High”. Students living east of the highway continued another year at Quamichan Junior Secondary.
My best and favourite subjects were English, History, Western Civilization, Journalism, Band, and Art. I took Western Civilization 10, 11, and 12.
Mr. Wilson was a humourous and eccentric, yet strict, demanding teacher who knew his profession and subject well. He played music cassettes of classical music and opera at elevated volumes on his ghetto blaster. He was from the north of England, somewhere in West Yorkshire or Lancashire, I believe. He had served in the British Army, stationed somewhere in the north of Germany in the 1950s, I believe, driving lorries. He played on the Army soccer (football) team and toured many churches, cathedrals, museums, town, villages, and historic sites of Germany and other Western European countries.
I remember an incident sometime near the end of the school year, my Grade 10. He directed the unit’s speakers out the second storey window of his west wing classroom, at the dusty, gravel parking lot of muscle cars, their stereos cranking out Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rush, and the likes of my generation. Music I enjoyed too, although classical and opera have always been my preferences since childhood.
Maybe surprisingly, Mr. Wilson won that round, and others too. He used a good portable stereo sound system brought from home. He was well-respected by most students, and likely by his peers, too.
From the first day we watched hours of documentary videos, working our way through the complete BBC television series of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and the companion book Civilisation: A Personal View. Our class had many lively discussions of these and a vast field of related subject matter. We wrote furiously, churning out essays and the occasional lengthy assignment. I remember researching and completing thirty typed pages on Johann Sebastian Bach. Alas, none of my work has survived.
The sign, about 6 x 20 inches on white card stock, neatly scribed in black ink and calligraphy nib, sat above the north door of the classroom for many years, still reported to be there by my youngest sister and others in the early 1990s when he retired to go into the video rental trade, opening a video store up near Duncan Elementary on Government Street. He rented the usual Hollywood fare but had a niche market in foreign movies. He always asked after me when my mother rented something there.
I graduated in June 1981 and beat a path for Continental Europe, fleeing “Drunken Duncan, armpit of the Island”, not attending my graduation ceremony nor the prom. I think of Duncan kindlier these days.
To this day I am still reminded quite frequently how deeply he influenced my life choices and my tastes and attitudes toward civilizations and cultures, particularily Europe.