Remembering teacher Rob Mathers
By Bruce Barrett
For most of my adult life, this weekend represented two things simultaneously. An end, and a beginning. The end of something past, and the beginning of something new. The end of summer, and the beginning of a new school year. For whatever reason I was never able to sleep the night before the first day of school. Anxious energy? Excitement? Who knows. All I know is it was always the same.
Since I retired, the insomnia of the night before school has generally disappeared. So, it’s interesting that I am wide awake as midnight approaches on the first day of school for the 2023-2024 school year.
The morning will bring every kind of emotion for parents – and their kids. Apprehension will be everywhere. Everybody wants to fit in. Everybody wants to belong. Even the adults.
Young teachers, nervous to make a strong first impression on their students. More seasoned teachers relying on whatever routine they’ve adopted and refined over the years to jump back into teacher-mode. School administrators, trusting in the process they follow. A process to establish positive culture. To provide safe learning spaces and establish expectations.
It’s all about to unfold. I remember it, but I’m no longer part of it.
Neither is my colleague, Rob Mathers. On Saturday I listened to the eulogies at his celebration of life. He was just 68 and, on the eve of another school year, I lay here awake thinking about opportunity and impact. In education, you want these words to be thick in the air in every classroom, in every school. The opportunity to connect, to inspire, to learn alongside, and to transfer knowledge that when done effectively has lasting emotional, personal, and academic impact. Rob Mathers taught at the intersection of opportunity and impact, and you could feel it the moment you walked into his classroom.
It’s a wonderful thing for students, parents, and colleagues, to think fondly of a teacher. Great teachers, after all, are revered in the school and broader community, but it would be a disservice to call Rob Mathers “a natural” as a teacher. Somehow, being a natural minimizes the thinking, planning, and intentionality at play each day in his classroom. The effort required to reach his students leveraging opportunity, and resulting in impact.
Rob retired as the Head of Mathematics at I.E. Weldon Secondary School in 2008, where he spent 24 of his 31-year teaching career. He was fiercely devoted to his students, his craft, and his school, wielding a beautiful combination of knowledge and curiosity, truth and integrity, and kindness and humour.
On Saturday, I listened to one of his daughters eulogize her father. There were pictures flashing up on the wall behind her as she spoke. A hand-crafted canoe he made beside her represented his love of natural spaces, and the places that inspired his gift as an artist. The canoe was seasoned with the bumps and bangs of a well-used friend. It was cloaked with flowers, and a simple, but elegant pine urn on the bow seat.
As the eulogy came to an end, the daughter asked the those present to sing an old Canadian folk song with her. One that her dad had taught her when she was young. Many people knew the popular song and sang along. I just tuned my ears to the daughter’s voice and, instead, listened to her sing her father goodbye. It was beautiful.
Celebrations of life are a wonderful thing. Yes, they are immensely difficult for the family, but they also lift people up, give everyone a chance to reminisce and reacquaint, and help us all validate a life well-lived, however short.
Premature passing is a struggle that we all deal with in different ways. In Rob’s case it was cancer that took him away. How do we reconcile this inherent unfairness of life when good people have terrible things happen to them?
Why is it that so many terrible things happen to otherwise good people?
As a university student I was fascinated with natural history, biochemistry and genetics. I was brought up in a faith-based home but could never reconcile the disconnect in my mind. I recall a highly decorated Harvard professor of paleontology, Stephen Jay Gould, giving a talk. Gould was a prolific writer and researcher, who was also an agnostic. His contention was that life is wonderful just as it is. Despite all its facets and permutations there was beauty. Our want, as humans, to rationalize awful events and outcomes in terms of morality causes problems we just can’t reconcile. Gould argued for an alternative. Life is neither moral or immoral – it is simply amoral. Perhaps Gould had wrestled with the unfairness question in deeper ways than we could have imagined. In 2002 he succumbed to cancer. He was just 60.
Rob Mathers was kind, and fun-loving. He was a gifted artist, and a teacher of enormous impact. As his grandchildren grow up, Rob’s wife, daughters, and others, will take joy in the fact that some of his wonderful traits will resurface in the next generation. His mannerisms, quirky humour, and myriad of talents will live again.
For the rest of us that will have to be enough. It’s what will help me fall asleep and know that another school year has begun.
The end of one thing, and the beginning of something new.
I will think of my friend and colleague, Rob Mathers, and be thankful for the impact he had on me with the knowledge that his reach that extended to his students was what mattered most.