Mister Death

Norman Edward Pycock

I didn’t know Pycock. I’d seen him around the school and a few times he was helping out in the library so I assumed he was a librarian of some kind. One afternoon he came through the classroom door and explained that he was subbing for our English teacher, sick from an overdose, no doubt. We’d been taking poetry that term.

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass

He turned his back to us, went to the blackboard, picked up a stick of chalk and wrote. (Listen to your memory of the sound of chalk, clicking and scraping on the slate.) He turned to face the class — and changed my life. He’d written

Buffalo Bill’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
   and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

You know — you’ve been taught about poetry — about rhymes schemes and meter, iambic pentameter, and all that. But look at this, he said. As he talked I read the lines and fires started in my toes and spread up through my groin, my belly, chest and finally my brain setting off a bomb of amazed excitement. My whole body shuddered, my eyes bugged out. It was as though I’d been sitting there in the back of that dark room for nine years, nauseated — half-asleep, and somebody opened a door and let in a blaze of sunlight.

I had no idea such poetry existed or was even possible. I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing. A world had opened up and I rushed in, leaving behind, or so I thought, the dark rooms forever. It affected everything I thought or did from that day on.

That was about 1959. I would have been fourteen. I never forgot that moment, that poem, or Mr Pycock. Thirty-odd years later I started to think about Pycock’s life — what it might have been and what it might have become. Was he now a retired school teacher, old, miserable, and alone — looking back on a wasted life? Was he staring into empty space seeing the thousands of sleepwalkers, ingrates, numbskulls, growing up wasting their own lives? I decided I had to let him know that he touched at least one student, that he saved at least one life. And knowing that might save him, too.

It was a wild, hopeless shot in the dark but I wrote the Montreal school board. I asked if they had a record of this man and would they know if he was still alive. To my utter astonishment the reply that came a few weeks later included Norman Pycock’s current address.

For about two years I tried to write Pycock a letter. I couldn’t even start to begin. I thought and thought and I simply couldn’t get a handle on it. It had to be a good letter. It had to be a great letter, sincere and convincing and infinitely grateful. For two years I couldn’t get past “Dear Mr. Pycock”. Then one day in 1994 my friend, the Toronto poet and publisher Victor Coleman was in town. We spent an evening of food, beer, and conversation together. I told him what first lit the flame of poetry under my ass and how I’d been trying to write this letter for two years, unable to get one word down. He said, “Type out the Buffalo Bill poem, put it up on your monitor and just look at it. It’ll come to you.”

Perfect! I did exactly that and soon my letter wrote itself. I told Pycock pretty much exactly what I told you, how he illuminated the dark room I’d been sitting in the back of for nine years — opened my eyes and mind and heart and changed my life. I said that I had no idea what his life of teaching that endless stream of children might have been like but that I wanted him to know that he reached at least one of them. The last line said nothing but “Thank you.”

Some time later — three weeks or a month — the mail came. One small envelope was addressed by hand and in the upper left corner was the name Jean Pycock. I called to Barbara, reading in the living room. I needed her there when I opened the envelope. My hands trembled. Why did it say Jean Pycock? It could only mean one thing.

The letter said that Norman Pycock had just died. I can’t remember if it was a month, or two months, or two weeks, but he had just died. The letter went on to thank me for my words and to say how much they meant to her and her family. I don’t cry often, but I stood there weeping like a fool. “God! Why did I wait? Why did I wait so long to write that letter?” I was falling apart. Barbara said, “The timing was perfect. He knew — but now is when they need to know.”

David had gone to same high school. Did he remember Pycock? I emailed my story. He wrote back that he certainly did remember him. Pycock had been his homeroom teacher one year. The class had loved him. He’d invite students home and play classical music, took them to see Shakespeare — he’d shone his light on many lives. Who knows? David became an artist and one of the best photographers I know. Maybe that was Pycock’s influence.

Some time later I heard from Pycock’s daughter. I put her and David in contact.

I loathed school — that’s well known. But I got educated. School was just like the world so I was well prepared. But it’s interesting, don’t you think, that the only two “lessons” worth learning were taught by substitute teachers. Out of a decade in hell, one moment in grade seven and one in grade nine.

The poem’s by e. e. cummings


Ken, from Oceanside, CA wrote:

I so much enjoyed reading your article on Norman Pycock. He was my home room teacher ( Room 103) at West Hill in 1953/54. Strange, but I was thinking about him a few months back. I live in Oceanside, Ca. ( near San Diego) and read the Montreal Gazette online every day and scan the obits.. Sadly enough, many of my former teachers from West Hill have crossed the finish line in the past few years namely, HR Goodwin (math) CP Batt (science) Sheila MacFarlane ( math) Earl Corey (Latin) and a few others as well as quite a few of my friends and classmates from the school. After reading about the passing of Earl Corey, I decided to do a Google search on Pycock, and lo and behold, your site came up…Somewhere in one of my many photo albums I have a black and white picture of NEP and our ninth grade class. I will send it along when I stumble upon it.I was unaware that NEP had a daughter. Best regards.


6 Responses to “Mister Death”

  1. Jeff

    Wow! I just googled my old hs teacher’s name Norman Pycock and I’m at your site. It was 1950 at Montreal High. Mr Pycock was my home teacher. Half way through grade 8 I was in a car accident and in a coma for a week. Flunked that year and was in Pycock’s class for my second try at Gr. 8. Flunked that also! My parents moved me to Westhill High and guess who was my teacher again. Yes Norman Pycock. The next year he wrote me a nice letter of recommendation when I applied for a job at Dominion Bank. Years later, I took my 6 year old son to visit my old High school and guess who was standing in the office as we opassed by. Yes NEP!
    I was dissapointed in that he truly did not remember me.
    Other teachers I remember from MHS were Grace Fletcher and Mr Balaban and a biology teacher who suffered from shell shock from his experiences in WWII.
    The only teacher from Westhill HS that I remember is the music teacher Miss Shields. Hope some of this brings memories to readers.
    Jeff B.

  2. Lionel Walfish

    Norman Pycock literally saved my life, when he taught at the High School of Montreal, on University Street in 1951.
    It was a very tough school.In those days, if you did not have a high school in the neighborhood that you lived in, you were sent to Montreal High. I was a tiny kid, and all of 12 years old. I had come from the gentle jurisdiction of Snowdon, and had attended Iona Avenue Pulbic School. Getting beaten up in the Montreal Highschool corridors was a common event.
    (By the way, does anyone remember a Mr. Leroy who was a Latin and French teacher ..in the early 50’s. His favorite instrument was ‘the strap’.

    Norman Pycock always defended me. He got the bigger guys off me, although he was small of stature, himself.
    His reading of The Hasty Heart by John Patrick, has stayed with me all my life.

    Norman Pycock: A teacher who made a difference.

  3. Rena Mae Pycock

    To Ken from Oceanside, Ca.: NEP had 4 daughters. I was the first, born in 1944, Toronto. I first met him in 1980. He arrived at my home in Langley, British Columbia, along with my cousin. That was the start of getting to know the other side of my genetics. It has been quite the ride !!


    OMG – I am so overwhelmed by your story of Mr Pycock. I think he did teach me too but honestly I can’t remember. High school was not my best time unfortunately.
    But thank you for that wonderful story and your words.
    Gena Kirkman grad class 1964

  5. Peter Svatek

    Can’t believe I found all this talk about Mr. Pycock. He was my English teacher in Grade 8 at West Hill. 1960. My memories of him are not as clear. I remember what he looked like. That he was short. And we called him NormiePy. Wish I had had as transformative an e e cummings experience. All I remember is lower case.

  6. Martin

    Wonderful to find some memories of Mr. Pycock, my teacher at West Hill High in the ‘60s. One day I found an old McClures magazine (1904) in our old cabin in the Laurentians, left behind by previous owners. I was curious about it and showed it first to the librarian. She said immediately: “Oh, you know who’d love to see this? Mr. Pycock.” So, before class I asked if he would like to examine it. I’ve never forgotten his great enthusiasm. “May I borrow this?” he asked excitedly. “Of course,” I said, eager to win his favour (I wasn’t the strongest student). Next class he handed it back and, instead of commenting on the fine short story it contained by Sarah Orne Jewett, said, “Thank you. The ads were the best part—hilarious!” Well, fast-forwarding to the present, of course I’m an older man, now, and as it happens, a relative left me his book collection containing ~10,000 items, including some very rare gems. From Mr. Pycock I learned to respect these books…to be inspired and excited by them, to love them and to share them.

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