Friday, January 06, 2006

Mr Eaton's Poem

It's weird how luck or fate work sometimes. In this case, someone from my distant past in another country popped up in a Half-Price Books store in Redmond, WA a year or so ago.

I had a really great English teacher in high school, by the name of Mr. Eaton. (He didn't have a first name then, all teachers were simple Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so). I had Mr. Eaton from my first day in standard 6 (grade 8), and if I remember correctly, I had him all the way through Matric (grade 12). If I remember right, he was the head of the English department, and taught the "advanced" higher-grade English class for most grades. (A bit of shameless bragging there...)

Mr. Eaton was a real character - the sort of teacher that Molesworth would have vilified and drawn rather unflattering pictures of. (The irony is that Mr. Eaton introduced me to Molesworth!) Mr. Eaton would probably have come out as a micture of him and him. In real life he was an imposing 6 1/2 foot-plus tall man, with a beak-like nose and fierce eyes. He could look at the most cocky, troublesome kid and they'd instantly shut up and behave. (At least, in the 8th grade that was true... By the 10th grade he would resort to more vocal measures, and could strip the paint off a wall at 50 paces.) He would add to his severe countenance by shaving his head with a numer-1 or number-2 clipper once a year, so he looked like an escaped criminal or mental patient for a few weeks of each year. I think I heard that he lost a bet at some point, and the head-shaving were the terms he kept to from then on...

All this makes him sound like a terrible demon that you lived in fear of. While it's true he was intimidating and demanded respect and the best behaviour, he really loved English and the literature we studied. He was one of the few teachers in my school that was so passionate about their subject that you became infected by their passion. He was excited by the poems we studied. His booming bass made anything he read aloud come alive. He was also quirky and had wide-ranging tastes: as reward for good behaviour he would read us excerpts from the Molesworth books, or read short-stories outside our normal setwork. (He read us The Ruum by Arthur Porges, and I still remember it vividly.)

All told, he was one of the best teachers I've ever had. Thanks to him I enjoy Shakespeare. (OK, Maybe Will has something to do with that too...)

Anyway, that was then. How does the story come back to Redmond, WA in 2004?
Well, I was browsing the used poetry books in Half-Price Books when I stumbled upon a Penguin collection of South African poetry. The book was old, published in 1968, and such a rare find that I bought it without much thought. Leafing through the book later, I noticed a poem by an Anthony Eaton. "Hmm.... I wonder if that's the same Anthony Eaton that taught me?", I thought. (Yes, I had finally discovered his first name after a few years at school!)
Sure enough, the brief biography at the back of the book described him as having studied at U.C.T. and working as an educator in Cape Town.

It was amazing to think that of the many people it could have landed up with, this book somehow made its way to me, and rekindled all these memories!


Margie Kopke said...

I wish You had quoted his poem.Here is something I wrote today and then decided to google Tony Eaton and found your blog
My favourite teacher was without a doubt Mr Eaton. He was my English teacher in std 9 and at 16, I idolized him. He had been at Westerford for a few years already and taught the older pupils so we had not had him yet..... but we were the bright class of our year and so were lucky enough to have him as our English teacher although for only one year. I think he was not all that happy at Westerford perhaps something to do with the Westerford ideology or politics, I guess. Yet sadly for us he left and went to teach at his old all Boys School.
I remember how he strode into the room, a tall dark young man with a long rather beaked nose and clever penetrating dark eyes. A shock of black hair was pushed away from his forehead periodically with his long expressive hands. We were silent……in awe……and ready to obey his every command. He spoke with a beautiful voice that could fascinate and beguile. His command of the English language was of course so much better than any of our other teachers that we were probably initially confused. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, well Mr Eaton was proof that the word is greater than the cane.The cane was still widely used in SA schools at that time as a disciplinary measure. Well Mr Eaton could annihilate you with just one word, if he so chose. He could diminish your world with one sarcastic remark! Such was his ability with the English language and such was his quick intelligence. And so there was never need for any other discipline in his classes.
For me he was a magician for he could shake off the dust and transform the indecipherable worlds hidden in stuffy old books. He could call up the dead ……William Shakespeare , Jane Austen, Donne, Keats, Masefield, Byron, Elliot and on and on …. the myriad of dead poets in our set Poetry Old and New and all the characters in Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice were made manifest in front of our amazed adolescent eyes! He translated dry literature into gold which cascaded down the bannisters of afternoon sunlight slanting in through the classroom window into our very souls. And we (the girls of 9C that is) gazed up into his dark eyes and felt ourselves mesmerized by his intelligence….. falling, falling ……… and developing a great love of literature and a eternal gratitude and respect for a teacher who could change our worlds.
And yet I wonder ……Mr Eaton was in fact no more than a boy himself then, probably terrified of some of the girls..... with our innocent yet adoring faces turned up towards him. We'd do anything for him! Maybe that's why he left.

Mark said...

Hi Margie,

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful essay on Mr. Eaton and posting it here! My blog has been dormant for a long time, but your comment motivated me to dust off my login and approve the comment so others could enjoy your writing.

The poem was called "The dove apologises to his god for being killed by a cat" if I remember correctly.

You may also like this book (I haven't seen it, but it apparently contains some works by Anthony Eaton):

Some more web searching uncovered this page, which includes a video of Anthony's son, Tom Eaton, reading the very same poem!

The video links in the above page were not working for me, but I found this on YouTube: