Disturbing the Universe

Ms. Daniels and I, shortly before my high school graduation

I’ve recently learnt that my high school English teacher, Linda Daniels, passed away in March of last year.

I will remember her overwhelming passion, strength, kindfulness, and wisdom. Ms. Daniels taught me to have a good laugh and be daring, to not give up and not think much about what others think of me. She furthered my love for reading and fully accepted my strange obsession with squirrels (I was just re-reading some old emails and she would frequently greet me with Hello, little squirrel!).

My homage to Ms. Daniels, Disturbing the Universe, that I am including below, got published in Showing the Story: Creative Nonfiction by New Writers, as a result of my semester-long fight with an expressive writing course at university.

Even though I regret deeply that I did not keep in touch in the past few years and did not have a chance to say goodbye, I am at peace, since I did share this story with Ms. Daniels and know that she knew how grateful I was to her.

I am now working through the last piece of homework that Ms. Daniels’ obituary mentions – I am halfway through Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I’ve listened to the Last Train Home by Pat Metheny, the lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a piece of writing I revisit regularly, and I will, of course, continue to disturb the universe, one day at a time.

Wherever you are, Ms. Daniels – I miss you and I am forever grateful to have had you in my life.

Disturbing the Universe

Put your full name and two things unique about you on the attendance sheet I’m sending around the room,” chirps Ms. Daniels at the beginning of our first grade twelve English class. “That way I can memorize your names faster. Chop-chop!”

“Nikita Pchelin. I am from Russia and I like squirrels,” I scribble on a sheet of lined paper.

After ten years of Russian school, I doodle during Ms. Lammers math class. Other students struggle with quadratic equations and use calculators to multiply two-digit numbers. My math teacher in Russia christened my Casio calculator “a devil machine,” confiscated it on the first day of grade nine, and returned it to me two years later, before I moved to Canada.

After I disassemble and reunite the parts of dusty old training PCs faster than any of my classmates, I sleep through Mr. Juzkiw’s computer engineering class. I have routinely replaced computer hard drives, wiped clean Windows 95 and Windows 2000 Server partitions, installed Linux and FreeBSD, and polished scratches from CRT monitors since 1997, when my dad got my brother and me our first Pentium II.

After I show off my knowledge of organic and inorganic chemistry, I grow bored of Mr. Doyle’s chemisty class and ignore the fill-in-theblank, hand-in assignments. I can recite Mendeleev’s Periodic Table by heart through the efforts of my brother, a biology and chemistry teacher by training, who spent hours tutoring me.

I stay wide awake in Ms. Daniels’ English class. After twelve years of studying English, hundreds of Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use exercises and several successful mock Cambridge tests, I still scribble notes on a sheet of paper, and revere the blue and white Collins dictionary which comes to the rescue each time an unfamiliar word stares at me from the pages of Death of a Salesman.

What would you like your mark to be, Nikita?” Ms. Daniels smiled at me at the beginning of the school year.

“Mmmm…Wha…What? You are asking me? I…I don’t know, Ms. Daniels. I got seventy-five percent last year and I want to do better for my university application, and….” I ramble.

“You are not answering my question, kiddo.” She frowns. “It’s okay, we can come back to this later.”

Ms. Daniels teaches English at Philip Pocock Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga. She is four-foot-seven, witty, and loved by everyone in the class, including the most prominent rebels.

Around mid-May, we scrutinize T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” We discover deep symbolism and metaphors in every word; Ms. Daniels yelps “utter rubbish!” several times in reaction to another outrageous guess.

The classroom fills with chatter while we wait for our last class on this particular poem to start.

Ms. Daniels enters the room, dragging a high stool behind her. Beaming at us mischievously, she places the stool in the centre of the classroom and puts a bag full of ripe peaches on it. I glance over at my friend, Pavlo, who sits two seats to my left.

Pavlo, from Ukraine, went through a similar educational bootcamp to the one I experienced. The grimace on his face indicates a mixture of surprise and disapproval. I nod. I fidget in my chair. My immediate neighbours, Sandrina and Sean, follow Ms. Daniels with their eyes, eyebrows raised.

With perfect calm, Ms. Daniels grabs a book from her table and starts reading the poem. She reads slowly, with rhythm, stressing individual words and whole phrases. Entranced by her voice, hearing the poem for the hundredth time, I move my chin in time and silently recite along with her.

“Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?” Her voice booms.

She stops and stares, in turn, at each one of her students.
By the time it is my turn, my eyes flicker. Blinking uncontrollably, I try to stare back. Is that a question that I missed? I glance at my notes, then at Pavlo, then at my notes again and by the time I look back up, Ms. Daniels stares at someone else. The room remains silent. People throw expectant glances at the teacher and puzzled looks at each other.

Ms. Daniels leaps to her feet. She paces around the room and jumps into a monologue about the Universe (Oh God, I think, not another pre-commencement speech) and how we are to disturb it (Here we go, I don’t even know what that means) and how there are peaches waiting to be eaten on every peach tree.

I stare at Pavlo, who has given up listening and doodles a Ukrainian coat of arms. Ms. Daniels goes on and on about peaches and our future, about paths that might await us, about hesitation that makes people miss great opportunities.

“I know you will disturb the Universe big time one day. As for now, who dares to disturb the Universe in this classroom? Who dares to eat the peach?” She concludes as abruptly as she began. It takes five long minutes before Jessica stands up, walks to the stool, picks up a peach from the pile and bites into it.

“Good job, Jessica!” Ms. Daniels applauds. “How does it feel?”

“I was not sure what I was supposed to do, but then I decided to go for it. Oh, and the peaches are delicious.” replies Jessica.

“You see, guys and gals,” Ms. Daniels addresses the class. “Even though you all wear the same blue and white uniform, some of you know how to grab the moment by the tail better than others. Don’t worry, you still have some time to learn. Now come on, come everyone, grab a peach.”

Enjoying my peach moments later, I rock in my chair and look out the window. Outside, the wind rustles the leaves on the silver maple trees.

“Well, well, well, Little Squirrel…there you are!” Ms. Daniels greets me a few years after high school graduation. She tells me about the books she has recently read, school politics, and her new students.

“You know I still punk them every year when we cover Orwell’s 1984. I pick one big tough guy and make him empty his pockets and knapsack in front of the whole class. I then explain to him that he did not have to do that, because he does have some basic rights, even in an English classroom.” She giggles.

I tell her about my successes and failures and about transferring from engineering to computer science and about interning at my dream company, IBM, and about my graduation that has been deferred because of the internship. She listens, nods and beams at me.

“No worries, Nikita, I know you will disturb the Universe one day.”

I leave with a dozen book recommendations ranging from Orwell’s 1984 (“Oh, you must reread it. It’s great!”) to Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman (“Not everyone likes her, but she is part of contemporary Canadian literature!”). I feel calm, happy and inspired.

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