35 years later, a student writes: ‘It’s because of you that I became a teacher’

‘You grew to represent a bright, reassuring light,’ Claudette Bouman writes of Wendy Donawa, her English teacher at Barbados Community College

Claudette Bouman
Wendy Donawa (Photograph by Taylor Roades)

Wendy Donawa (Photograph by Taylor Roades)

I’m holding your poetry book Thin Air of the Knowable in my hands, and a flood of thoughts washes through my mind. I say of the title, “intriguing,” and my daughter adds, “poetic.” This debut poetry collection stirs my memories and imagination.

Let’s go back to 1974, when I had finished high school and headed off to Barbados Community College, primarily because many of my friends did. Little did I know that I was about to cross paths with you, a remarkable Canadian. A tender slip of a woman, you embraced an air of quiet, principled fervour. You would become one of my A-level English teachers in what you now nostalgically call your “golden age of teaching.”

At first a familiar stranger, you grew to represent a bright, reassuring light and, dare I say it, a role model: you observed at one point that I reminded you “of myself at your age.” I was smitten. How could you, this white, bookish Canadian woman, so privileged even in your transplanted life in Barbados, relate to a Black, anxiety-ridden teenager from an impoverished household, whose mother worked at times as a field labourer, domestic and janitor? Neither of my parents had had more than the equivalent of a sixth-grade education. Even so, you believed I had the makings of a good teacher.

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I discovered that you had a rich and finely textured personality. You introduced the term “wordsmith” to my vocabulary, in connection with C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian activist and author who had given a perfect convocation speech at your university graduation ceremony. In a country of complacent religious dogma, you engaged students with your reflections about plausibility, God and science. You loved literature, art, beauty, classical and contemporary music, people, new experiences, lively discussion and more. You could surprise people with the passion of your conviction, such as when you jumped into the fray to stop an angry domestic dispute in a nearby backyard. You held up an acute, irrepressible sense of justice, both personal and political.

Even as a student, I came to know you well enough, staying briefly at your airy Christ Church home and visiting your cottage in St. Joseph parish. After three years at university, and armed with a B.A. in English and three years of teaching experience, I reconnected with you at the same college where we’d first met, this time as a colleague. After that shared but short-lived teaching experience, we parted ways. You went off to work as a curator at the Barbados Museum, and I eventually headed off to Canada for graduate studies in education.

Fast-forward 35 years. Fate conspired to bring us together again, through the 2017 publication of Thin Air of the Knowable. Learning of your recent return to Canada and being a permanent resident here myself, I reached out from Dartmouth in Nova Scotia, where I’d taught high school English for almost 19 years, to Victoria, where you live. (Could we have landed any farther apart in this vast country?)

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In reaction to the surprising reconnection, my husband saw the question that you posed: “Is literature still a part of your life?” He said, “She sees you and knows who you are.” You remarked, “You may be sometimes mad that your teachers know you better than your parents.” Spot on, you nailed it! In writing to each other, we share so much of the inner landscape of ourselves, creating an immeasurable and sometimes vulnerable humanity. That is the kind of thing teachers unearthed back then, and still do today.

As for your poetry volume, you engage in a reclamation project, recounting a life as a poet through juxtaposition of the personal with the political, the ordinary with the extraordinary, darkness with light, and death or loss with joy. Thin Air of the Knowable contains a terrible beauty, the aesthetic of a multi-sided gem with wonder on display whichever way you turn. Wonder is also the word that comes to mind when I think of our long history and the fact that we’ve reconnected in your home country.

Thank you for believing in me. It’s because of you that I became a teacher decades ago. Your impact also lives on in my love of literature, poetry and words. We haven’t met up in person for more than 35 years, but it will be fantastic when we do, I hope someday soon.

This article appears in print in the October 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Wendy.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.