Marty Chan’s Favourite Teacher

Jacqueline Louie
Release Date: August 28, 2009

Writer Marty Chan's favourite teacher is Frank Nigro, his Grade 11 English teacher at George H Primeau School, in Morinville, Alberta.

"He was the one who didn't yell at me. He was the one who inspired me to become a writer," says the Edmonton-based author, whose focus is young adult fiction and theatre. "Before he became my teacher, I always had these kooky and crazy ideas but never had the courage write them down."

When Mr Nigro gave his class an imagination-based essay assignment, Chan realized there was value to his ideas. He fondly remembers when Nigro asked students to write about what their dream bedroom would look like if they won a million dollars. 

"I was a lazy teenager and my idea of a dream bedroom was to have a bed I'd never have to get out of and could do the things I wanted to do," says Chan. "I put in an elevator—the top level was where I slept. Then I pushed a button and the bed would lower to a library that had all the books I wanted to read. The next level had a video game station. The level below that had a big-screen TV and all the videos I ever wanted to watch. The final level had a built-in kitchen and bathroom."

Mr Nigro singled out Chan's essay in class a few days later. "He said that I had a great imagination and I should write more of my story ideas down," the author recalls. "It was in that moment I realized I should stop brainstorming and daydreaming about these crazy ideas, and start writing them down. That pretty well started me on the road to becoming a writer."

He had never even seriously considered writing before. "Of course, with my parents being very traditional, there was no way they would encourage me to pursue something like writing," the author says ruefully. "They wanted me to become an engineer."

Theirs was the only Chinese-Canadian family in Morinville at the time. Chan didn't have a lot of friends as a boy, and until age 15 was an only child. "Growing up without friends, I relied on my own imagination," the author says. "I'd come up with scenarios and create minidramas and little stories in my head.

"One of the things I really appreciated about Mr Nigro was his gentle way of approaching students. He would tell you what you needed to know or what was wrong with your writing in a way that didn't take your confidence away. I think I've adopted that style in my own approach when I'm working with beginning writers, especially students.

"Writing is an intensely personal experience. Any time you commit your idea to paper, you are basically putting yourself out for the public to see and to criticize. Mr Nigro was able to speak to students in a way that not only allowed them to feel good about what they had created, but also pushed them to do better.

"It's amazing how the smallest things a teacher can do will have the biggest impact on students, and they'll never know what kind of impact they'll have—that what they say or do on a single day can open up a world of possibilities for a student."

Marty Chan has been visiting schools across Alberta and Canada for the past six years to give readings and conduct writing workshops. The 44-year-old author, who launched his first children's book in 2004, has written three chapter novels and one picture book. Before he began writing children's literature, he worked primarily in theatre and television. Currently, Chan is writing the fourth book in his young adult mystery series; The Mystery of the Cyber Bully is scheduled to be released in fall 2010. His play The Bone House was staged in Edinburgh in 2008, and will open in Edmonton in October 2009.