By Barbara Grinder
Born in southern Alberta, near Waterton Lakes National Park, Fred Stenson is the author of 14 books. His novels include Lightning (2003) and The Trade (2000), both winners of Alberta’s Grant MacEwan Author’s Award. The Trade was also nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize. Stenson is a regular columnist for Alberta Views magazine and a former president of the Writers Guild of Alberta. His most recent work is Waterton: Brush and Pen (2006), which features paintings by Alberta artist Brent Laycock.
Stenson had little hesitation in coming up with the name of his favourite teacher, Mike Kilcommons, who taught Grade 9 English and social studies at St Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. “I was enamoured of all things Irish because of a beloved hired man we’d had on the farm when I was small, so I was predisposed to like Mr Kilcommons,” Stenson said.
“Born and raised somewhere in the Galway area, Mr Kilcommons went to university in Dublin and worked in that city before emigrating to Canada. I think he may have taught on several remote Aboriginal reserves before arriving in Pincher Creek. His classes seemed formless because he refused to exercise discipline, saying he’d rather wait and teach when we were prepared to listen. We were all totally unused to freedom at home or at school, so we ran wildly amok for months, until we realized the departmental exams were coming up and we would fail. So we finally begged him to teach us, which he effectively did.”
Stenson said that Kilcommons used a question-and-answer method of teaching, in which the relationship of the discussion to the course materials became evident only after the lessons were over. “He required that we have opinions and speak them, heady stuff for students who had been taught since Grade 1 to sit quietly and give rote answers.”
Kilcommons was charismatic, quick-witted and humorous and had a gift for subtle physical comedy and a passion for conversation, Stenson recalled. “He treated us like adults and made us realize that we were a terrible distance from being so. He made us want to be smart.”
On a more personal level, Stenson said that Kilcommons became his favourite teacher because he was the first one who encouraged his writing. “He not only told me that I wrote well, he said that if I wanted to make my living that way, I probably could. One time, when I wrote something I felt was very funny, he tore it apart. It taught me that there were standards and that I couldn’t meet those standards casually. In other words,” Stenson added, “in his own chaotic, oddball fashion, Mike did what a teacher should. He prepared me for my future life.”
As is more easily the case in a rural school district, Stenson was able to continue his friendship with his teacher well after Grade 9. Kilcommons and his family became neighbours of the Stensons, and the budding writer found out that his favourite teacher knew and admired a lot of the literature he was discovering. Perhaps more important, Kilcommons became a role model throughout Stenson’s teens.
“Mike was a new kind of authority figure and model of manhood as I grew older. He made me realize that you could express dignity while not demanding it or enforcing it by threats; that you could be strong, brave and wise and have a real inner quiet that wasn’t bothered by a room full of shouting adolescents.”