Choy based one of the characters in his award-winning book, The Jade Peony, on a real-life teacher, Miss Doyle, whose class he attended at Strathcona Public School, in Vancouver. Many years later, when Miss Doyle was approaching her 100th birthday, she heard about the book and asked to meet her erstwhile pupil. The two met again — and finally recognized each other as human beings.
“Miss Doyle was racist. She used to tell stories about races of people — it was never as good as being like her. Yet I say to you, you don’t have to have everything perfect. What you need is a sense of justice that you bring to the classroom, a sense of wanting to know more and do more than any one group can think of doing,” Choy said.
“From kindergarten I was taught the works of the superior beings above me — the literary canon. These included Shakespeare and all the Writers I worshipped. But it was a racist education because I was being colonized by a narrow aspect of the world — an appropriate world of those times. I don’t judge it negatively. I had a fine education. I judge it in the way that we can undo the injustices and social wrongs of the past by knowing better — by expanding our sense of education of every person in that classroom.
“My teachers taught me the British colonial aspect of the world — where white was right and comfortable and powerful. They also taught me that there was a sense of justice, a sense of belonging. I never encountered any overt racism. That might have been partly because the world was changing, and how it changes influences the classroom. Today, with so many changes going on in the classroom, I can’t imagine where you, as teachers, might be now in your heads and in your hearts. Both need to be open. 1 love that saying, “The mind is like a parachute. It does not work unless it opens!”
“As teachers, you know that years from now your students will look back on your curriculum and see things that should have been and things that weren’t right. Yet they will remember that you taught with a certain ability, with love and affection, and that’s what makes the difference.”
Choy told many stories of his personal life — of his family’s move from Vancouver to Belleville, of how his respect for omens led to a $100,000 lottery win that helped his father die in dignity, of how he was unexpectedly influenced by the work of Françoise Sagan and learned to love Jaguar cars. A creative writing course he took from author Carol Shields while he was on sabbatical in Vancouver changed his life. An exercise in which he had to use the colour pink was fully realized in the short story and later novel The Jade Peony.
“I grew up with storytelling and always wanted to tell stories myself. I noticed the teacher held the book in a way that suggested weight and dignity. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to be a writer.
“My own feelings were that I had nothing to say, so when I graduated from my writing course Ï did nothing for almost three decades. I didn’t write until I was 55. During that time, the consciousness of the world changed and I changed with it. I realized that our stories are important and they need to be told. And they need to he told truthfully.
“I have never forgotten all those English teachers who made sure my heart would be broken with the death of King Lear. My best advice to teachers is to be aware of who is sitting in your classroom. Understand they are just as aware of you, your curriculum and your teaching as I was of Miss Doyle.”
Wayson Choy was born in Vancouver in 1939. In 1962 he moved to Toronto and published The Sound of Waves, which received the Best American Short Stories Award. In 1967 he became a professor at Humber College and a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers, in 1977, The Jade Peony was published as a short story. Since then it has been included in more than 20 anthologies. Published as a novel in 1995, The Jade Peony was co-winner of Ontario's Trillium Book Award. Choy is currently working on a new book, Paper Shadows, about growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown.