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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Remembering Obie, Perfect Paula and the rest

By Elliot Leven, May 1, 2014

My spouse Jason is a Grade 8 teacher and the more stories he tells me about his own teaching experiences, the more I remember my own teachers from Talmud Torah and Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate (JWC). I graduated from JWC in 1979.

The late Sheldon “Obie” Oberman taught me Grade 10 and 11 English and Grade 10-12 Drama. He also taught Journalism during his years at JWC. Of course he taught us Julius Caesar, Macbeth and other standard literary classics. He treated us like adults and was not afraid to tell us that many literary critics considered daggers and swords to be phallic symbols. Obie was also known as a talented author of children’s books.

I did not fully appreciate until after I had graduated just how avant garde Obie’s teaching had been.  For example in Grade 12 our drama group staged a creative production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Brecht was a brilliant, unorthodox playwright and the Chalk Circle was a very unconventional drama. When I mentioned to my university Drama professor that my high school had staged Brecht’s Chalk Circle, he was astonished: he could not believe that a Winnipeg high school would tackle such a play.

Obie taught us that, to appreciate literature, one had to know Greek mythology. So he began every year’s English course with a Greek mythology refresher. He was right. We had a better appreciation of every novel, play and story we studied because we knew our mythology.  Obie also had a delightful sense of humour, and his students always appreciated it.

Before I had Obie as a teacher, I learned Grade 9 English from the late “Perfect” Paula Marks. In addition to being a stickler for good grammar and syntax, Paula had a delightful ongoing “shtick”. She referred to herself as “perfect” and used this shtick in her teaching. For example, she would have us conjugate the sentence “Mrs. Marks is perfect.”  We quickly identified “perfect” as an adjective. I will never forget the sentence “Police police police ball.”  Mrs. Marks trained us to identify “police” as a noun, a verb and an adjective.

In Grade 12, I learned French from the late Madame Mona Apter. In hindsight, I was lucky to have encountered Madame Apter late in her career.  She always maintained a stern facade, but beneath it lay a dry and even self-deprecating sense of humour.  I sensed that she became mellower as the years went on. For example, a student once asked her if a certain JWC Purim tradition had been before her time. Without missing a beat she replied, “nothing was before my time.”

During my last years of high school, the late Bernie Melman was my vice principal and Grade 11 Physics teacher.  Bernie may be remembered by some as the judge on the then-popular TV quiz show Reach for The Top. Bernie was a large man who was always on a diet. He often joked about his weight. He often ate pineapple and cottage cheese for lunch. So, on his birthday, we surprised him with a cake shaped like a pineapple. After he opened the cake and thanked us, we presented him with a knife and a stack of small paper plates. We assumed he would cut the cake for us all. With a straight face he deadpanned, “but I only need one plate.”

Finally, no reminiscences about the school would be complete without mentioning the late Max Butler. Although technically a custodian, everyone joked that Mr. Butler really ran the school. His coarse and irreverent wit, and his notorious dislike of rabbis, were legend. He will be remembered with great warmth.

Sadly, Obie, Paula, Mona, Bernie and Max all went too soon. Their former students will always remember them fondly. I’m not sure we ever told them how much we enjoyed being their students – I wish we had told them explicitly. 

We will remember all of our former teachers and our years at JWC with a smile on our faces and nostalgia in our hearts.





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