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R E M A R K A B L E T E ACH E R S 35 September 2015 | Professionally Speaking PHOTO: ANDREW QUERNER Bestselling author Yann Martel pays tribute to the teachers who helped prepare him for his literary journey leading up to Life of Pi. BY RUSSELL SMITH Y ann Martel is one of the most successful authors in the world. His 2001 novel, Life of Pi, has not only sold more than 12 million copies internationally, but it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, shortlisted for CBC's Canada Reads and won the Man Booker Prize. It's difficult to describe the ubiquity of the philosoph- ical fantasy adventure — you see it being read by ambulance drivers and corner-store owners, on the subway and at the accountant's. And yet Martel is famously modest; he lives a quiet life in Saskatoon and is quick to ascribe his success to his education rather than personal genius. Teachers, Martel says, have always inspired him. They've led him into the life of the mind and of literature, and he firmly believes their work is undervalued. "What I love about India," says the well-travelled writer, "is the principle of their guru system. The guru is a teacher, and you revere the teacher; it should be the same thing in the West — there is nothing more important." And, so it's not surprising that at one point Martel's protagonist in Life of Pi shares: "It was my luck to have a few good teachers in my youth, men and women who came into my dark head and lit a match." The bestselling Martel can still recall three of the brightest burning candles he experienced through- out his school days: Ron Saunders, for geography, Brian Harvey, OCT, for Latin, and Tom Lawson, for English. Martel encountered the first two in suburban Ottawa's Ridgemont High School, where he was enrolled from 1978–80. It's there that he realized that the teachers who sparked his most rewarding enquiries were those with a great interest in the physical world and its history. Geography teacher Ron Saunders left a profound impression with his use of real materials and vibrant examples taken from current events. Martel remembers learning about artesian wells from the 29-year Ridgemont veteran. "I loved geology," he says, "largely because Mr. Saunders used his hands, he said things clearly and he had diagrams." To this day Martel can name the three basic types of rocks — sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. And, a preoccupation with the natural world still informs his fiction — the flora and fauna of tropical islands are meticulously and properly named. The now-retired teacher — who remembers his former student as a quiet, inquisitive and respectful boy — attributes his hands-on approach to making these words stick. He made each type of rock available for in-class distribution, so that everyone could feel them. "When students handle materials, concepts are more easily learned." Another of Saunders' tricks was to look to current events to make his inanimate objects exciting. "If a volcano had just occurred, I wouldn't continue to follow the textbook; instead, I'd use that example from the news. I felt that if something was contemporary it would have greater impact." It's not surprising that geography would fascinate a teen who grew up speaking three languages, in various parts of the world — Martel's parents were Canadian diplomats. He was born in Spain and his Philosopher King The • • •

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