Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Goodbye Mr P
Vic Prooth was my Shakespeare teacher when I was in junior college. Those first lessons, we didn't know what to make of the English expatriate teacher striding in the front of the classroom roaring like King Lear, which he was teaching us.
I was soon to find out that Mr P's bark was worse than his bite. And that he did more than just teach in the classroom. He also taught in the canteen, sitting down with students who needed extra hours after class to wrestle with the intricacies of Elizabethan English. And he didn't just teach the set A level texts either. He spent time reading to us from other literature greats. I never understood the Milton, but I loved the sound of it. I told him that, years later, when I was grappling with Milton in university. He said then he had done his job. It would be like children picking up on nursery rhymes -- it's all sound, cadence and rhythm before the meaning. And if I had picked that up, then there's hope that I would understand Milton.
Mr P made me cry. Lots of times. Once in class, when he enacted Laurence Olivier's version of Lear carrying the body of Cordelia -- how one could say "never" five times over and make it sound different each time while increasingly driving it home that Cordelia had well and truly snuffed it. Once outside of class during those extra-curricular readings he held in the canteen, it was the last scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. When I asked to borrow his copy of the play so that I could read the whole thing, he had his entire copy photostated so that I could have my own copy to keep, copyright laws be damned. Another time, he lent me a copy of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince -- I read it on the bus home from school, and wept all the way home.
Mr P taught me more than English Literature. He had a subscription ticket to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and he used to talk quite a bit about the concerts he attended. I had a passing interest because of a classical music background from piano lessons since young. But the piano lessons only made the subject dreary. It wasn't until Mr P started playing music and making me cassettes from his records, and later on CDs, that I realised this classical stuff wasn't just Associated Board set exam pieces and scales. That this Mozart stuff was really nice and not at all boring.
Over the years after I left school, he became a friend. But he has stayed as a teacher too. His last lesson to me was during the elections in Singapore earlier this year. He was interested in the country's political scene and if things had changed since he left Singapore. I had written that I would probably spoil my vote because I didn't want to vote for the ruling party but there was no credible opposition in my ward. He said that he had spoilt his vote for years, and always with a quote from Romeo and Juliet: "A pox on both your houses." And so that was what I wrote too. It seemed more refined than scrawling all over the ballot paper. And that was the last email exchange I had with him. He was a teacher to the very last.
It had occurred to me that I should end this with a quote from Shakespeare. It would be fitting somehow. But the only one that I can think of is Hamlet's "good night sweet prince, may flights of angels send thee to thy rest". But I don't think Mr P would have much truck with cherubim and seraphim.
I don't know where atheists go when they die. And Mr P used to positively revel in being a heathen. I'm sure that where ever he is, there'll be good music. And lots of good books.
Farewell, Vic. You will be missed.