BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
In the early 1980s, an educator named Jimmy Britton heralded the arrival of the “Age of the classroom teacher.” Miss Sharon Keller, who died last week at 58, began teaching chemistry at E.L. Crossley Secondary School just after Britton declared this age to have arrived, and she, likely more than anyone Britton could have envisioned, represented its most accomplished practitioner.
For the tens of thousands of students who attended Crossley during her time there, Miss Keller was as fundamental to the school’s character as its Gaugul mural.
Word began to spread last Thursday night among current and former students: Miss Keller had died. The next morning, teachers at the school confirmed that the rumours were true.
Miss Keller’s death was as shocking to the E.L. Crossley community as it was saddening, and we are told that Miss Keller, who had been off work recovering from shoulder surgery, was in the school shortly before she died.
It is said critically of some teachers that they retreat to their rooms and shut the door; it may be said approvingly that Miss Keller took to hers and kept the door wide open.
To Miss Keller, teaching was more religion than occupation, and the classroom was her temple. She was always there, often before seven in the morning and for several hours after the last bell. Her room was always open to those looking for extra help in calculating moles of magnesium or in re-trying an unsuccessful experiment.
When in her room Miss Keller did far more than merely teach the curriculum. She was the driving force behind the school’s eco-club, breakfast program, and very nearly all of its green initiatives. She was a grant-writing machine, and the money that she acquired for the school—put towards trees, outdoor classrooms, and a picnic area, among others—is staggering.
My sister, who is now a student at Crossley, was invited with a friend to organize an environmental workshop for elementary students in Mississauga. Even though she was away recovering from her surgery, and even though she was unable to drive during rehab, Miss Keller found her way to Mississauga in October, paid for her own hotel for two nights, and helped her students as she could.
Miss Keller had been entitled to retire for a couple of years, but chose to stay on at least until the end of this school year. She had retirement plans—she once told me that she planned to go to Antarctica—but she also told my sister that once retired she’d be able to devote “even more time to grant proposals.”
To know Miss Keller was to know that everything she did, every moment-by-moment interaction she had, sprang from inner conviction.
Chemistry is a difficult subject, and Miss Keller had no interest in permitting students to leave her classes with undeserved passing grades. For this reason she was treated with suspicion by students unaccustomed to such conviction.
At a time when teachers are pressured to inflate marks, offer limitless chances, and seek some vacuous idea of “student success,” Miss Keller was a classroom teacher who still believed in classroom standards. We were all the better for it.
And yet she knew that chemistry was not everyone’s calling. When I was in Grade 12, her class’s final exam was the morning after Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address following his re-election. By this time, my performance in Miss Keller’s class had made it obvious that any scholastic ability of mine lay in social—not hard—sciences.
Instead of studying, I chose to spend the night before watching Obama and the subsequent dissections of his words. Several days later when I went in to view my mark, I saw, unsurprisingly, that I had not scored well.
After I had explained the likely cause of my under-achievement, she shook her head sadly, but smiled. “You’ll always be best at what you love,” she said.
Though invariably professional, Miss Keller was far from humourless. Her sense of humour was one made all the better by the way in which she could catch you off guard, sliding in a dry remark amid her seriousness and then grinning mischievously.
In class once she overheard students discussing necrophilia and told them to return their focus to the subject at hand. Several minutes later, she again heard reference to necrophilia.
“That again?” she sighed. “I thought that was a dead conversation.” Most of the class caught the accidental joke before she did, but when she realized what she had said, she laughed as hard as any of us.
Another time, she recounted a rumour she had heard about the stores of a chemistry department at a shuttered Welland high school.
“I heard that they took all of their sodium and potassium and rolled it into a ball,” she said, referring to the soft metals that react violently when put in water.
“Then they threw it in the canal.”
She cackled at the thought, both horrified at the prospect and clearly delighting in envisioning it.
Even before I knew her, I had heard whispers that she had a phobia of bananas. When I eventually had the nerve to ask her if it were true, she laughed.
“I’m not afraid of them,” she said. “I just don’t like the smell, and I definitely don’t like to eat them. There’s so much potassium in bananas!”
Miss Keller was for me a mentor, role model, and constant reminder of how a classroom teacher can do things that others can’t, but she never did quite become a friend.
Since my departure from high school—and university—some former instructors have slid effortlessly from being Mr. so-and-so to acquiring a first name, but this was not Miss Keller’s style.
One former student of Keller’s, now in his forties and a teacher at E.L. Crossley, where he taught alongside her for many years, once said: “She’ll always be Miss Keller to me. Not Sharon.”
Miss Keller was fiercely private. Reportedly, her last will requested that no public memorial be held—not even at the school—and the memorial that will be held for her, in Sudbury, is said to be invite-only. (My sister and her friends will be organizing a shoreline clean-up in Miss Keller’s honour in the spring.)
In all the classes that I had with her, and in all the lunch-breaks that I spent in her room, she would occasionally make reference to her childhood in Northern Ontario, or to trips that she had made or planned to make with friends.
Often, though, efforts at inquiring into what she did when not at school were met with gentle but firm re-orientations that unfailingly returned the conversation to its original track. And so it was the way she wanted it. So I am left with the hope—belief, maybe—that Miss Sharon Keller lived a personal life as deep and as meaningful as she did professionally, because there is no one I have met who deserved more to be wholly happy.
But while I have this hope and with it a foggy image of her unwinding on a Friday evening or lazing about on a Sunday morning, I will be happy to keep her in my mind just as I knew her: visible through her classroom’s open door, sitting on a stool behind her desk, her solar-powered dancing flower waving just front of her hand as she corrected, in red pen, the work of her students, whom I think she loved, and who I know loved her back.