Remembering Mr. Boden
This poem was written in 1996, shortly after my friend Isabel phoned me and told me Alan Boden, our junior high French and German teacher from our home town of Cranbrook, B.C. (Canada), had fallen through a roof he was fixing, and died. I was just on my way out the door to take my young daughter to the Calgary Stampede. On the C-Train to the Stampede Grounds, tears streaked my face, and all I could do was think of him, though I tried not to spoil my daughter's time. I decided he wouldn't want me to ignore her -- he'd always been very concerned for his own children -- so I threw myself into the day. We even got matching "Cat in the Hat" hats.
When we got back home, though, I immediately started writing this poem. I hadn't written much of anything for about four years, but this was a poem that needed to be written, writer's block be hanged.
When I was done, I read the poem to Isabel over the phone, and she didn't actually say she disliked it, but she made it clear it was not her vision of him at all. But then, she was never a Melancholy type, like I was, and I so identified with him, and it was such a relief to know there were adults who felt those same dark feelings I did, and it wasn't trivial to feel that way, or to feel crushed under the weight of existence.
Alan Boden was the first living person I could identify with that way: the first one was Solomon, in "Ecclesiastes," which I read because I related to it, not because I was religious, because I wasn't, not then. I wouldn't become a Christian for another two or three years, but even then, I didn't forget the dark times. Later, I read Pascal's statement about the vast spaces of infinity scaring him to death, and read for the first time about the "minor chord" of Biblical belief -- the reality of that existential angst in a world without God, and it made sense, because I had someone else besides just myself to relate to. Later, struggling with my faith again, or if not my faith, exactly, but struggling to reconcile it with the return of my melancholia, I gravitated towards Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his "O the mind, mind has mountains/cliffs of sheer no-man-fathomed/hold them cheap who never hung there..." or this "Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee/not untwist, slack they may be, these last strands of man in me,/or most weary, cry no more, I can, can something,/hope, wish day come, not choose not to be..."
When I first heard about Existentialism, I thought of Solomon and Alan Boden. Both of them expressed themselves more succinctly and clearly than any existentialist I have read. Alan Boden had that wry irony, that black humour, that I recognized in my cousin Donald, but in Mr. Boden was deeper, darker, and heavier...Donald never understood how I could take life so seriously, but I just sat there in German class, listening to Mr. Boden ramble on about life and feelings, and I didn't even need to reveal myself. It was like looking in a mirror, and discovering I wasn't a monster, after all.
And he was the first teacher who was fully human with us in all aspects, and said what he thought and felt, and didn't "play teacher" with us, and that meant infinitely more to me than the curriculum. Granted, we only covered half the grade nine German curriculum, and it did indeed take us another three years of German to catch up: we were where we should be only by grade twelve. But I know what was more valuable to me, and I wouldn't have changed a thing.
I babysat for he and his wife once; their boys spoke a mixture of English, French and German that I could sort-of understand. Their siamese cat was fenced off in the laundry room, being homicidal. They stayed out much later than they'd said, and after the boys were in bed, I lay down on the couch and fell asleep. This displeased them, and they never asked me again. Another friend, Kathryn, babysat for them regularly, and mentioned to me his passing comment when driving her home. She and Isabel and I discussed this seriously, shuddering with pleasure and a safe kind of fear, because we knew in our bones that never in a million years would he ever venture to lay a finger on anyone. It was admitting to the feelings that astounded and impressed us, the sheer bravery of it.
He was also the first of several excellent teachers I've known of the kind who hate being teachers and always want out. The very fact they hate it so much is really what makes them so extraordinarily good: it cuts out all the fussy nonsense, and really gets down to what matters. And, "sleep gentlies" aside, when Mr. Boden wanted you to understand something, he could make it get through the thickest of skulls. He also confessed he'd been poor in school as a boy, a rebel, a dropout, who only later went back and finished school and did his degree. Again, I've found that someone who has ever hated school or hated a particular subject, can often reach students the teachers who were "good students" can never hope to reach.
But for me, he was not primarily a teacher, in the normal sense. He was my first encounter with the animus, that primordial maleness that only years later would I read about in Jung. We all responded to him like that: the boys wanted his approval, or wanted to challenge him; the girls wanted his attention, and were frightened and thrilled to get it. He was shocking, and would say things no one else would dare. When another teacher, a fellow a little too fond of his own reflection in a mirror, and a boring braggart about his possessions, went on and on about some new vehicle he had just bought, Mr. Boden made an obscene suggestion about what he could do with the tailpipe, and made an enemy for life. He hated the car talk and the basement renovation talk, and was disgusted to be part of such a group of people. I'd never heard anyone in authority be that way. Years later, I found him again in Robert Pirsig's Phaedrus, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, about how he complained to a fellow college teacher that all his favorite students were always flunking, and the teacher laughed and said, "Don't you get it? The best students are always flunking," and I thought of Alan Boden, and knew what that meant.
But his influence on my thought went beyond that. It strengthened my natural revulsion of easy hypocrisy, and helped me see what was already a germ of an observation: how things tend to become their opposite. How teachers beget ignorance, and preachers turn people from God, and researchers impede discovery and the sharing of knowledge, just as museums withhold from people their own heritage, holding it hostage. So, when years later, a friend of mine was crushed because his girlfriend did not understand his grief at the death of his uncle, who had raised him, it was almost inevitable to me that her profession was that of a grief counsellor. These paradoxes and blackly ironic observations were first reinforced by Mr. Boden's attitude to many things, though I do not remember him ever discussing these particular topics. It was more a mood, an attitude, a general way of looking at things, which already squared with how I felt, but validated it, and allowed me to explore my observations without feeling ashamed of myself.
I was pleased, but not surprised to find that he, like myself, was drawn to the art and ideas of ManWoman, a Cranbrook artist who has been able to make a stir in Hollywood, so has always easily freaked out his native home-town residents. I was happy to be able to attend one of ManWoman's symbolic celebrations at Alan Boden's house. It was another validation of my own judgment in people.
Of course, there were the things that would only make you shake your head. Mr. Boden didn't make life easy for himself. It was really pointless of him to bait and snarl at the other teachers in the staff room, and make easy enemies. It was a luxury and indulgence that caused him much grief. And then there were the various schemes to get out of teaching by finding another trade; that's why the nature of his death seemed grimly fitting, that after all those years, he was still looking for a way out, and in a blackly ironic way, found it. I didn't find it funny in the least.
Even much of the black humour with which I have dealt with my own cancer, the first time when it was pretty likely I'd survive, and then recently, with my terminal diagnosis, and my understanding that without a sense of the absurd, one could really go mad. Even with God, even with faith, existence is difficult, and there is much that is bleak and stark, and no amount of saccharine starry-eyed platitudes really make a dent in the really tough times, though one sometimes is granted the grace of peace and joy in the eye of the hurricane. But I am reminded how, in the parable, Christ shows Himself to be "a hard man," which He definitely was, and did not suffer fools gladly. David said God looks down from the heavens and laughs. Sometimes it may be gleefully, but with the state of man, more often it must be a darker, grimmer, more ironic laugh.
What can I say? Alan Boden is one of the people who helped shape my view of reality. When he died, part of me was lost all over again. I just hope that people who read the poem see it for the affectionate tribute it is meant to be.
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