I had someone say those exact words to me the other day in such a matter of fact way that I literally stopped what I was doing and stared at them inquisitively to see if it was a case of misread sarcasm.

It wasn’t.

My skin crawled. I considered unleashing a verbal barrage (something I’m well known for) but then I assessed my potential victim – sitting there – completely unaware that what he said had so deeply affected me and I thought:

He just doesn’t get it.

I decided to be gracious. “Some might look at it that way, but I think there are others that genuinely care to shape lives”

“Maybe,” he replied.

I nodded. Yeah, MAYBE.

I thought of Jacques-André Larrivée.

I was 25 when I first met him, a journalism student desperately in need of a story to submit as an audio documentary to CBC during awards season. He was my husband’s quirky, retirement-aged-yet-never-married, high school French teacher. That month he was set to host his own funeral with hundreds of current and former students in attendance. It was journalism gold (if not slightly morbid and weird) and EVERYONE was eating it up.

“It’s so Monsieur,” his students would say, as if that explained everything. Even parents endorsed him like he was a celebrity. To them, he was part Gandhi, part Robin Williams – Dead Poets Society.

I was decidedly unimpressed.

Sure, I’d had teachers that inspired me throughout school, but I’d never experienced anything like the cult-like adoration for “JAL”.

Even my husband (years removed from high school) still spoke to him regularly and routinely went to functions with the group of students he had gone on class trips with to Quebec and France almost 10 years before.

“So he just took you to Quebec.. and you worked in soup kitchens and did plays in old folks homes?” I asked, incredulously. “For what?”

The more skeptical my questions got, the angrier he got with me. But I just wasn’t buying it… this selfless, French speaking Mother Theresa act. It was all just too good to be true.

And then one afternoon I walked into Communications 10 (a French Immersion elective) to meet him and gather audio…

I was mesmerized. There, surrounded by the hundreds of fake frogs they’d gifted him (an inside joke about Frenchies) EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT was engaged in a heated discussion about the “pensée du jour” (thought of the day). I’d never seen teenagers so invested – speaking openly and listening with an intensity that defied the number one law of high school: act indifferently, always.

When my grade 12 “normal” French failed me (almost immediately), I whispered to a young girl, asking what they were discussing. She paused and asked his permission, in French, if she could speak to me in English. He nodded.

“We’re discussing accidentally finding your purpose in life.”

There was no doubt JAL was in charge of the class, but it was less of a dictatorship and more of a mutual understanding. When he spoke, they listened. And when they spoke, he listened. Not like a teacher going through the motions, waiting to respond and correct, but like a man who thought of them as truly worthy of his time and consideration. He challenged them. Forced them to think. Forced them to be better people.

For the first time in my life, I wished I (really) spoke French. I wanted so badly to be 15 again and be in that class.

And I finally understood:

He wasn’t a babysitter. Hell, he wasn’t even JUST a teacher. He was giving his kids a PHD in life, cleverly disguised as a French class, along with his lifelong friendship.

The funeral went off without a hitch and the documentary won a CBC award that year. And as much as I’d love to tell you it was my amazing first year editing skills that won it (they were terrible), it had little to do with me and everything to do with him. Despite my limitations, he still shone.

(You can listen to it here)

And I wish, more than anything I could tell you his life had a happy ending in the hollywood sense, one that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside: that he retired, found the love of his life, and lived happily ever after. But, much like his life, the ending of his story goes SO much deeper than that.

Less than a year after his retirement, I came with my husband and hundreds of other students, some from around the globe, to mourn the passing of a man that had dedicated his life to “babysitting” and had accidentally found his purpose: creating critical thinkers and humanitarians.

They say that a teacher changes the world one life at a time but he changed thousands in a single generation. And he lives on through the Oxford scholars he inspired, the world-renowned journalists, the entrepreneurs, the dozens upon dozens of teachers (far too many to ignore his influence), the artists, the musicians, the medical professionals, and so many others who attribute their successes to him.

They still write on his FB page regularly… thanking him, sharing their accomplishments with him, missing him as they travel the world and raise children they hope to inspire, like he inspired them.

And when we travelled across the country this summer to Quebec, where he’s buried, a mutual friend and former student asked us to honour him by bringing “crappy beer” and drinking it at his grave, something they’d always joked about doing.

We did, and with tears in our eyes, we found he was still teaching.

On his tombstone reads his favourite quote:

Qui es-tu pour penser que tu peux changer le monde?
Qui es-tu pour penser que tu peux changer?
Qui es-tu pour penser?
Qui es-tu?
Qui?

or

Who are you to think that you can change the world?
Who are you to think that you can change?
Who are you to think?
Who are you?
Who?

And as the early summer sun peaked through the clouds that stormy day, I couldn’t help but smile. He’d love the irony of it.

Like so many other teachers, he was definitely in it for the lazy summers off, drinking at the beach.

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– For JAL

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