Yann Martel speaking to our students
Yann Martel’s favourite teachers
I remember finding out, after reading Life of Pi, that’s its author Yann Martel was Canadian. Like most Canadians, I’m always proud when I realize that one of our own has achieved great success on the world stage. And Life of Pi was a great success – exponentially so when it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2012.
Last year, a journalist phoned the high school where I work as a teacher and librarian. He had been interviewing Yann Martel about his favourite teachers, and two of them had retired from our school. Did we know how to get in touch with them?
What?! I thought at the time. Yann Martel was a student at our school? An old yearbook proved it to be true! For a few years in the late ’70s, he had walked our corridors. We were able to get the contact information for the two retired teachers, and the journalist expressed his gratitude. I asked him if he would be willing to give me the contact information for Martel’s publicist. “We would love to have him visit our school the next time he’s in town,” I explained. “We are pretty proud to know that he was a student here.”
The journalist gave me the publicist’s contact information, and I spent some time creating an e-mail message to send to her. The book Life of Pi suggested to me that its author loved multi-cultural diversity. Asian, European, and North American influences weave together in the novel with the faiths of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and even animism to produce a rich, abundant whole of many dimensions. And I knew what our school had been in the late ’70s. It had been like my own, neighbouring high school at the same time: white middle-class. In the years since, our hallways and classrooms have been enriched by the presence of students from over 60 nations from around the world. More faiths, more languages, more cultures than found even in Life of Pi. I thought that Martel would appreciate that fact, and I wrote of it in the e-mail message that I sent off to his publicist at the end of March 2015. It was a long shot, and as the weeks went by without response, I accepted that it wasn’t going to go anywhere.
Fast forward to mid-June of 2015, and my incredulous delight at seeing in my e-mail inbox the name of Yann Martel. He apologized for the delay. Explained that he and his wife had just welcomed their fourth child into the family. That things had been especially busy as he was finishing up his next book. And that he would be happy to visit our school “one of these years.” I was thrilled! What a friendly, humble, considerate person! A few more back-and-forth messages confirmed his interest in the school – “Glad to hear it’s more diverse than it used to be,” he said – and his genuine intention of visiting at some point.
Book tour for The High Mountains of Portugal
Fast forward again to this past week – with me at home recovering from a muscle spasm in my neck (more on that later). I had heard of Martel’s new book, The High Mountains of Portugal, and of the fact that our city would be included in his tour to launch the novel. “He’s going to be speaking downtown this Friday evening,” came the e-mail from a fellow fan. “Hope to see you there!” I had no idea for how long he would be in Ottawa. Without knowing whether or not he would still be here next week when I was back at work, I decided to send him an e-mail. Would he be able to visit the school while he was in town? Even just for a few minutes? “I’m sure your time is not your own at this point, but I wanted to extend the invitation.”
I was to find out later that his visit to our city would last less than 24 hours. At home Friday morning, around 11:00 – just before going to a physio appointment for my neck – I checked my e-mail. Lucky I did! There was a message from someone I didn’t know. “Yann passed on your email to me. I am the publicist looking after his schedule in Ottawa. I just called the school but I was not able to reach you. I hope you receive this email. Yann does have some time but it is later in the day at 3:00pm. If that timing works I would be happy to bring him to the school for a short visit.” Today! I thought. In a matter of hours! It didn’t matter that his visit would be short. It didn’t matter that we wouldn’t really be prepared for it. I phoned the school, e-mailed staff with the news, and dashed off to my physio appointment.
Welcome back, Yann Martel!
It felt good to be back at work a little earlier than the doctor had ordered. There was a buzz of excitement in the library as students and staff moved tables aside and lined up rows of chairs for the arrival of our special guest. Soon, the English classes that had been invited to attend the event came through the library doors. Students were impressed at the thought of seeing the man behind the movie Life of Pi. For the teachers, it was something more. For one in particular, the prospect of meeting Yann Martel was beyond exciting; it was overwhelming. By 2:50, all chairs were filled, and we just had to wait. “We’re on our way!” the publicist had texted me.
“I’m going to talk,” I said to another teacher. “If I run out of things to say, will you take over?” He said he would, and I introduced our speaker to the students – before his arrival. I told them about his books and the blockbuster movie. I told them that he had attended our school, and about how this visit had come to be. When I did indeed run out of things to say, my colleague took over. “We’re always happy to host visiting authors,” he stated, “but I want you to understand that the person we are going to hear from today . . . is a rock star.” I was keeping a constant look-out, and then, there he was! Yann Martel had arrived.
A visit of just over ten minutes goes by too quickly. Most students needed to catch buses right after the bell rang at 3:10, but those who could stay lingered until he had to leave at 3:45 – to say thanks, shake hands, and take selfies with our guest. He had spoken of his time in high school, of his early efforts in writing, of the perspectives offered in Life of Pi. And our students got to see someone who had been in the same classrooms that they enter every day, and who had gone on to incredible success in the pursuit of what he loved. Hundreds of people bought tickets to see Martel Friday night. But our students had the honour of knowing that he considered it worthwhile to speak with them at no charge. And although he had a jam-packed visit of less than 24 hours to our city – Yann Martel had chosen to give one of those hours to the students of his old high school.
This post has nothing to do with our journey out of debt, but sometimes, something so cool happens that you have to share it : ) Have you read Life of Pi? Have you ever met someone who is a “rock star” to you? Your comments are welcome.