I do not think I would be the first person to clearly identify a teacher in high school that had a profound impact on them – a coach, a guidance counsellor – someone who picked them off the ground and set them on a new path or someone who encouraged them and gave them confidence to pursue an interest. Such was the case of Suzi Beber. But, in my case, Suzi was the most amazing teacher that I never had. And, for someone that had a profound impact on many people, it is sometimes surprising that she has always preferred to stay in the shadows; to be in the back of the stage rather than the spotlight. It is perhaps ironic then that it was this preference to support people behind the scenes that has thrust her into the centre of the stage and to be the consummate bridge builder and connector.
Teachers play a special role in our lives and in our society. This influence can also be a double-edged sword as many people I know have equal parts negative experiences.
Suzi has shown me, and in fact the world, that adversity and negative experiences can be overcome. A successful educator and the youngest Vice Principal across the region in which she lived, a tragic surgical error in what was to be a routine operation, left her with a traumatic brain injury unable to work with months of physical therapy in front of her to learn to use her body all over again. The teacher had become the student.
And then Suzi met Blues, a therapy dog that would change her life and lead her to her new calling; that of founder of the Smiling Blue Skies Pet Cancer Fund (www.smilingblueskies.com) and The Smiling Blue Skies Fund for Innovative Cancer Research. Suzi credits Blues with saving her life (and of course her partner Tommy who deserves more than this one sentence in this story) and helping her to chart a new course, a course that now has her helping others overcome adversity.
But this story is not about her struggle – although it has been immense and not to be minimized. The story is about what she has done to overcome and how she has taken advantage of her fate, to inspire, lead and influence others who need support.
“Be aware of wonder”, Suzi told me when she spoke on the phone with me from her home in Victoria, BC. With that statement I was taken back to Grade 9 when I first met this crazy, enthusiastic teacher who took me under her wing, believed in me and my differences and interests, and always, unequivocally, without hesitation, supported me. That unequivocal support would help me move beyond the negative judgement of others. Suzi tells it this way, “I was influenced because of things that I didn’t like, and I was determined to change the way teachers taught. My own negative experiences growing up guided me to understand that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As an educator you need to look beyond what other say they can do. What kids need is for someone to say, “YOU CAN” and I believe you can do that. I let people be creative in their own way instead of directing them. This can make a difference in someone’s life”.
When she got sick and understood that her physical life would be very different from the one she had been leading, it took a toll. She recounted to me that people did not know how to respond to her. She was now using a walker and daily routines became more challenging, “When your life is taken away from you by the mistake of someone else, you (need to learn) to be in the driver’s seat – not the doctors – you must find the drive within yourself. You may not be able to control your direction, but you cannot worry about the judgement of others.”
And yet, one should not forget that sometimes judgement comes in positive forms. In the last few years, Suzi has been awarded the Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Governor General of Canada and an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Guelph for her community building work. In choosing the positive path; in choosing to do things differently on her own terms, Suzi has reminded us all that she has always charted her own course. As a teacher she worked with the most vulnerable and under valued in the schools when kids were told they would not be successful. She worked with gifted students to help them achieve and aspire to greatness. And then, when life took a turn and she met a dog named Blues who helped her and then unfortunately died due to cancer, she took that circumstance and made another difference – this time for dogs and the owners who love them.
The hour-long catch-up could have stretched on for many more and certainly, this story is much shorter than Suzi’s journey deserves but recalling and writing this reminded me of the privilege it is to have Suzi still in my life. This article is in some small way, a way to honour her for everything that she has accomplished. As we were wrapping up, another twist in our conversation - she wanted to thank me. “Me?” I said. “Thank you for letting me work with you,” she said. “You made me feel part of what you cared about. I hope that as my students become parents, they will remember what it means to support and to take a genuine interest in who their kids are.”
Be aware of wonder she told me yet she herself embodies the definition itself. As the dictionary tells us, it means “the quality of exciting amazed admiration.” Well said.
The Influence is a series of articles about people that have made a difference in the careers and/or personal lives of people. It is a personal account of life’s lessons from which we can all learn. None of the people interviewed or participating have been paid for or are paying for this article. I am grateful for their support, honesty and advice over the years.