I just wanted to graduate and get on with it. . . but it changed the direction of my life
The decision to take the course was as random as drawing a name out of a hat.
I had one remaining class I needed to take to graduate, and as I was working full-time on Parliament Hill for an MP, toiling to solve constituents’ problems with pensions and unemployment insurance, it had to be a night class. With few options to choose from for my history major, I reluctantly registered for History 460, a Wednesday night seminar on Confederation.
I had been a good but lazy student in high school. University was a rude awakening — there were people in my classes considerably smarter than me and anyone I had ever met or so it seemed. Aided by a propensity for partying and illegal substances, I remained a solid B and C student. Now I just wanted that diploma and to get on with my life.
Professor Browne was a slight, bespectacled man with a hint of a British accent, a character straight out of central casting for a 50s movie about Oxford. He was of indeterminate age and always wore the same tweed jacket with patched elbows over a crisp white shirt with a stiff collar. Skinny tie. He referred to us formally as Mr. Lamothe, Mr. Kent, Miss Sorensen — I was Miss Switocz. And he was demanding. Two major papers were required, as were weekly assignments called gobbets.
Professor Browne said the gobbet exercise “was the digestion of a tasty morsel.” In reality, it was a structured commentary on a short text from a document related to the enactment of the British North America Act of 1867. For example, we had to write a text on something John A. Macdonald wrote in his correspondence, explaining what he meant and providing the historical and political context. We were expected to consult multiple primary sources (this was a history course, after all) and piece together what was intended by the passage we were “digesting.” Our analytical skills were challenged every week, as was our ability to express ourselves in the written word.
Each student had a different passage for their weekly gobbet to present to the class, and the written work was submitted to Professor Browne. It was returned to us the following week full of red markings. Every grammar failure was corrected, many sentences were improved, and our sloppy thinking was challenged, making us all feel inadequate and insecure.
The damn gobbets took over my life that term, and I considered packing it in multiple times, but I needed the course to graduate.
Browne loved discussing the British North America Act and was a well-regarded scholar of Canadian constitutional history. But he relished discussing grammar and language even more and was a self-proclaimed prescriptive grammarian whose bible was Fowler’s Modern English Usage. He referred to it maniacally as the final authority on all things written in the English language.
Particularly passionate about the correct use of the semicolon, Professor Browne maintained the Supreme Court had misinterpreted the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments because they incorrectly understood the use of this important punctuation mark in the constitution. The fate of a nation, according to him, was altered because of a semicolon.
Week after week, we were subjected to the latest developments with Professor Browne’s contribution to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. He was writing a short bio of some obscure lieutenant governor, and each word, phrase and adjective was obsessed over and tested on us — was this way better or that way — until they flowed to Professor Browne’s satisfaction.
It wasn’t long into the semester before we were invited to his apartment for a glass of wine at the 10 p.m. end of the class. He lived in Centretown, and twenty minutes later we were comfortably ensconced in his book-filled and darkish living room, temporarily transported to that Oxford movie set.
We were shocked to see the second bottle of red wine opened, then another and another. Five wine glasses were lined up at our places, and we discussed our wine preferences — requiring more analytical skills. A large piece of brie appeared, the discussion became more animated, and before I knew it, several hours had passed. I left the others behind around three because I had to be at work in a few short hours. I walked home through the quiet and deserted streets and rolled into bed.
This continued week after week, with maybe the only difference being that stilton replaced the brie. We were penniless students and thrilled to be plied with free red wine and cheese.
With no indication of close relationships, we thought Professor Browne lived a lonely existence filled only by his beloved students. That he was the quirkiest person I had ever met was confirmed the week he let down his careful guard.
First, he brought out a box of identical wire-framed spectacles. Several with lenses had clearly been well-worn, and there were just as many brand new ones without lenses; it was his signature model, and he wanted enough to last his lifetime. Next came the detachable collars; he wore white shirts to which he affixed crisp white detachable collars. He demonstrated. So British, we thought. Then he showed us ten identical tweed jackets with patched elbows; some were worn, some new. In a moment of complete vulnerability, he displayed items from his childhood, including a small tin bowl he used to pour water over himself when he bathed. Miss Sorenson, the other female in the class, and I exchanged glances — way too much personal information.
I never worked harder as the weeks passed. I sweated over every gobbet, sneaking in time during my office duties, and agonized over the final essay, completely stressed because I had spelled the word input as ‘imput’— an embarrassing mistake I made numerous times in the essay. I couldn’t even say it was a typo.
I came to look forward to the class, the late nights drinking wine, and the camaraderie I developed with my fellow students. I continued to be awestruck that anyone was so passionate about language and words.
When the marks came out at the end of the term, I was elated to receive my first A. I had measured up to Professor Browne’s expectations. It gave me enough confidence to apply to grad school and convince the department that although I had been a lacklustre student, I was really an A student, and they should take a chance on me.
Six years later, Professor Browne was gone. He was found dead in his apartment after he had failed to show up for a class. He was fifty-three. The autopsy revealed he had died of a heart attack, but we had our suspicions, fueled by his confession he had joined the newly formed secret Hemlock Society, an organization advocating assisted suicide. He explained, “no one would ever suspect.”
With no relatives, his furnishings and books were auctioned. By this point, I had started another job with long hours and travel, and I couldn’t attend. Miss Sorensen and Mr. Kent, who married each other, bought all the wine glasses. Hundred of glasses.
In the years following his death, whenever we met, the group exchanged Professor Browne stories and our firm conviction that we must have been his favourite class.
I learned to love language and the written word and appreciate the intense satisfaction derived from digging deep to produce your best. And I developed a considerable fondness for the semicolon, thinking of him each time I placed it in a sentence, hoping the way I used it lived up to his expectation.
Wow, you made it this far! Happy Sunday.
I am pleased to share some news this week. Every week I will be posting an instalment of LETTERS FROM SECOND PENINSULA. The letter is from Barbara Goldbloom Hughes, who is undergoing a year of cancer treatments. I guarantee a heartfelt read full of wisdom and maybe laughs. Barbie is a gracious and generous woman with a wry sense of humour. I hope you will follow along as she shares a bit of her life on Second Peninsula (which is a magical part of the world near Lunenberg, Nova Scotia).
Here is a link to this week’s letter.
Thanks for being here.