Mr. White is an English teacher and head of the literacy curriculum.

Mr. White is a english teacher and head of the curriculum,

Mr. White is an english teacher and head of the literacy curriculum. Photo: Deifilia To.

Q: How long have you taught in Garneau? 

A: I’m starting my fourth year, so I’ve completed 3 years.

Q: What courses do you teach?

A: This year I’m teaching grade 9 academic English and the Ontario Literacy Course, which is a grade 12 course. It’s usually for students who were not successful in writing the Ontario Literacy Test when they were in grade 10 or 11. We run this course every year.

I’ve taught other subjects since I’ve been here as well. I’ve taught a Grade 12 course called Writers’ Craft. We teach kids all about writing, but it’s more for those who are passionate about writing and want to be writers. So we look at technical writing, journalism, short story writing, magazine writing, and we did something that was called altered text. Kids take a novel – usually a trashy one that the library’s throwing out. By designing and covering up the words, they use the words that are on the page. They then end up creating a whole new novel that becomes graphic. I’ve also taught a Grade 10 Literacy Course and I’ve also taught Grade 9 applied English.

Q: In your opinion what makes a great teacher?

A: One who really cares about the kids. You have to really like kids. All kids. Even the ones that talk out in class; even the ones that behave badly. You still have to recognize that they’re kids. Also, I think good teachers don’t forget that they were once that age and they, too, were kids. So, good teachers don’t forget that and they have heart, and they never give up on a student. As a parent has to love their child unconditionally, a good teacher is dedicated to a child unconditionally.

Q: What do you usually try to get your students to take away from your class?

A: I like them to take away their homework and not leave it on their desk. And not leave any garbage on the desk! [Laughs] I like them to take away something that we thought about. With Writers’ Craft and I think our Grade 9 academic class, we’re talking about some interesting issues and there’s lots to learn and take away. Hopefully, with the literacy classes, they’ve taken away something that’s improved their ability to read and write and enjoy learning. I also see my job mostly to teach kids how to think for themselves.

Q: What quirks characterizes your teaching style?

A: Quirks? [laughs] I think the students will tell you about my quirk. I have a lot of stories to tell, and we’ll be talking about a topic and I’ll go off topic because it reminds me of a good story. However, I think that there’s something to be learned from a good story. Some kids get a big laugh out of it because they go, “there he goes again, he’s going off topic.” However, so often I’ve had kids come back years later and say how much they enjoyed the class. For instance recently I ran into a student of mine who’s now at George Brown and he’s decided to be a electrician. I said, “Oh, what made you decide to go into that?” and he said, “Well Mr. White it was a story you told in class about a woman you met who went to university and got her Honours B.A. and couldn’t get a job, so she went back to high school and studied electronics and went on to become an electrician and was making more money than you. So, I went to become an electrician and I owe you thanks for that.”

Q: You were in the film business for 25 years. How did that begin?

A: I didn’t start off in the film business. I was in sciences at the University of Western Ontario and I thought I would be a doctor; but then I saw blood. We dissected these small animals and I couldn’t do it so I dropped out. Then I thought I would be an actor and I acted in children’s theater with a comedic actor named John Candy. We taught acting classes together. Later on he joined Second City and I got in the movie business. I worked in film production when the Canadian film industry was just starting out. One of the feature films that I was working on was the first film that Dan Aykroyd starred in. He was just starting Saturday Night Live. I eventually got into film editing and I got my big break when I got hired to work on The Terry Fox Story. This starred Robert Duvall, and was the first movie HBO ever made. Then they decided to get into movie production and, believe it or not, the first movie was a Canadian story and it was a huge hit in the United States and all around the world. The man I worked for asked me to work for him full time. His name was Robert Cooper and he had a show in CBC in the 1970s called The Ombudsman.

Q: What was your task there?

A: I was the head of post production and I would look at the contracts and the budgets. I would also supervise, fly to Los Angeles, Paramount, Universal Studios, and HBO.

I eventually left because I wanted to make my own films. I started making short movies, writing them, directing them, and I left acting because I was more of a “hacktor” than an “actor”. Emphasis on “Hack”. I started to enjoy working behind the camera. I learned how to read screenplays and contracts.

I became the production manager on a documentary about rapists.We went into jails and interviewed these rapist and we looked at what their childhood was like, what their families were like, how they got caught and whether they could be stopped. We also interviewed doctors and psychiatrists as to whether they could be stopped. The documentary won a big award in Canada and the United States for the best documentary of the year.

I also became a film editor for an American actress turned director, Lee Grant. The film was called The Willmar 8.

After that, I wanted to make my own films. Captive heart: The James Mink Story was my 14 minutes of fame.

Mr. White with Louis Gossett Jr. on the set of Captive Heart: The James Mink story in 1995

Mr. White with Louis Gossett Jr. on the set of Captive Heart. Photo courtesy of Mr. White.

Q: What lessons from the industry could you take away and apply to teaching?

A:  I think the big thing was how to tell a story. I also learned a lot about psychology. When you work as a screenwriter, you’re always asking what would your characters do and how do you know what they would do. We had to study the Hero’s journey and really understand that.

Q: When did you start teaching? What did you teach?

A: I started teaching English at Northern Secondary School. They asked me to develop a course that was a combination of screenwriting and film production with videography. I was very naive about teaching. I thought I would walk into a classroom and all the kids would respect me, like me, and think I was wonderful. I had to learn how to handle kids who don’t want to learn. They had their own agenda. I didn’t know everything and they taught me a lot. I learned as much about life and myself from my students as I think they learned from me.

Q: Can people watch your films? How can they get access to them?

A: The James Mink Story was released all over the world, and it was released on Global Television in Canada. However they never released it on DVD or on video in Canada. The first year I taught here at Marc Garneau some of my students found my movie on YouTube. It’s since disappeared due to copyright issues.

Q: What made you switch from being in screenwriting to teaching?

A: Well that’s a question I get asked often. Screenwriting is cool as long as you’re making money and they like your ideas. The problem is that studios can only make 12 movies a year, and they no longer make movies for television. It can take 6 months to write a screenplay, and it may never sell or get made. It can also be frustrating.

It’s also a lonely existence when you’re sitting by yourself everyday. I was getting older and wanted a different lifestyle. I went back to University and got an honours degree in my 40s in film studies, and then I applied to U of T’s teachers college. I enjoy it. I don’t regret making the change.

Q: What is your least favourite letter in the alphabet?

A: I’ve never thought of that. It’s usually X because X means wrong and I hate being wrong.

Q: What’s your favourite movie?

A: There’s a lot of them. There’s a movie that I’ve probably seen about 10 times – Some Like it Hot. It’s a fun, witty caper movie. I also loved Lawrence of Arabia. It was a great movie when I was younger.

Q: What was your favourite childhood novel?       

Mr. White around age 19-20

Mr. White in his youth. Photo courtesy of Mr. White.

A: The Hardy Boys mystery series. I always liked stories with heroes who were interested in the greater good; who were good people but flawed.

Q: On a scale of 1-10 how involved would you say you are?

A: I’m very involved. On a scale of 1-10, I’m a 12. I think Ms. Goldenberg can attest to some of the things I’ve tried to do. All the character trait posters that you see in the classrooms, changing the parent teacher appointments to an online system, the after school literacy program…

Q: How nerdy on a scale of 1-10 would you say you are?

A: On a scale of 1-10, no I’m Mr. Cool. No not Mr. Cool. Mistah Cool. M-I-S-T-A-H. I got no nerd. Although I feel nerdy at times, I always try to think I’m cool. I go on nerves. Nervous energy.

Q: If you could ask your future self a question what would it be?

A: *Long pause* Why, why, why, why?

Q: What was the last song you listened to?

A: “Last Time” by the Rolling Stones.

Q: You’re playing hide and seek inside the school, where would you hide?

A: I would hide in the English book room. While I’m waiting to be found, I would explore all the books that I haven’t had the chance to read.

Q: Any advice you would give to your students?

A: Two things: One, the purpose of high school is to teach you how to think. Secondly, school isn’t everything, and the classroom can’t teach you everything. You have to experience it by yourself. It’s the journey that’s important. Feel free to change your destination as many times as you want. It’s what makes life an adventure.