Theresa Kishkan

Kishkan’s writing surprises, again and again, both in her very personal essays where the reader walks with her in awe through what she recently described to me in an e-mail as “the compost of daily life” and in her novels, lucent pentimenti of lost places, lost times.

Revenge is a dish best served cold
(A piece deleted from Kishkan’s soon-to-be-published book)

My forthcoming book,Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, (Goose Lane Editions, October, 2011), contains a series of connected essays about trees and memory. One essay, “Platanus orientalis: Raven Libretto”, meditates on my love of countertenors and the beautiful plane trees of Europe; it also chronicles my attempts to learn to sing in my fifties, long past the age when any sensible person should try something new. In an early draft of the essay, I spent too much time exacting revenge on the man who taught choir in my high school. I’m glad I wrote what I did but it wasn’t difficult for my editor to convince me that it was a little unseemly to dwell for so long on the mean-spirited actions of a man who was by now almost certainly dead. I cut nearly that whole section, except for one phrase which still makes me laugh. See if you can guess what I’ve kept!

In high school I’d sung in a choir. I loved singing. I wasn’t particularly good at it but there was the moment, particularly when our choir performed a madrigal, when I could hear the voices braiding elegantly together and knew I was part of this effort; the moment when the puzzling notation made sense in a way that mathematical equations seldom did.
The problem with our choir was its master. Other members may not have agreed with me. For instance, the tenor Richard Margison sang in this choir. He had an easy repartee with the master, as did a few of the girls, the ones who tried hard and laughed at all the master’s jokes (which were often at the expense of the less talented singers). So let’s say that my problem was the master, a short man with a brush cut combed straight up to add an inch or two of height, mouth pursed like the anus of a cat. He was married to a big cordial woman and had two large children. And I had attitude, I suppose – I was 16, after all –, and was easily distracted. I remember in those years that my older brother drove his old Rambler to school and I usually got a ride with him. The alternative was the school bus, which picked up kids in our area very early and then wound out around the entire Saanich peninsula before arriving at the school more than an hour later. But by driving, we could leave 15 minutes before the bell and still arrive with time to spare. One morning my brother’s car wouldn’t start and so we rushed out to the highway to hitch a ride (it was far too late to catch the bus). Our mother was fearful but my brother assured her he would take care of me. We stood on the side of the Pat Bay highway with our school books and gym bags, thumbs out hopefully. Almost immediately, the choir master drove by us, smirking his trademark nasty smile as he did so. Later that day – we did finally get a ride, from the senior Social Studies teacher, an affable man who also coached track and field – I was singled out for forgetting the little bib we wore for choir performances and which we had been asked to bring that day as part of a dress rehearsal for an upcoming concert. I shouldn’t have forgotten it but the wearing of the bib seemed inconsequential to me. There was something awfully silly about singing in a bib. The master told me to go home to get mine.
“I can’t. I have no transportation and I live too far away.”
He insisted I go. I wouldn’t. He looked at me with those cold eyes, that pursed mouth, and said, “You can hitchhike, can’t you?” (Just in case there’d been any uncertainty about whether he’d seen us as we stood on the side of the highway.)
I refused, and in retrospect, I realize I’d called his bluff because even in those days, a teacher could hardly force a female student to hitchhike home for a forgotten choir bib. But he was angry, perhaps even angrier for having to back down in front of the choir. I never got a higher mark than a C in that class and I know now that I learned an important lesson about power and the need for some short men to dominate. Given his knowledge of music and his ability to develop true skills in his students, I wish our relationship had been different.

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