Never Neutral: A Teaching Life
By Ted Schmidt, publisher Tony Curcio, Toronto, 2013, 343 pp., $21.95, available from The Book Band
Reviewed By Chris Cato
Never Neutral is a must read for every teacher seeking to make a difference. Though written largely for Catholic educators, this passionate memoir challenges all teachers to be risktaking advocates of the common good. The author’s lifetime of pursuing justice both in the classroom and on the street comes to life in these pages.
The book shows the conflict that results when a Catholic teacher with a penchant for practising the social gospel runs into strong opposition from his own school system and church. Ted Schmidt’s boyhood experience in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood compelled him to pioneer Holocaust studies across Canada. Lessons learned in this process led him to actively teach peace in the classroom and on the street. He brought survivors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima to his classroom and invited senior students to march against nuclear testing and the U.S. assault on Iraq. Quoting from his two rabbinic heroes, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (whom he quotes no fewer than 18 times), Schmidt organized Catholic teachers and students to resist the seduction of the consumer life.
Schmidt makes no apology for criticizing the institutional Catholic Church for its failure to support El Salvador’s martyred Catholic bishop, Oscar Romero, and liberation theology in general. Nor does he shy away from his prophetic teaching role as moral agitator to a Catholic Church which he maintains has forgotten the progressive thrust of the reformist Second Vatican Council.
It is a shame Schmidt’s stormy battles with Catholic hierarchs took place before the installation of a more progressive pontiff than Pope Francis. Broadly ecumenical in his outlook, his deep respect for progressive clergy like Anglican bishop, Ted Scott, and United Church moderator, Lois Wilson, shines through. The author rues the loss of dialogue in his own church and is not shy about criticizing it for its centralization of ecclesiastical power and its inability to hear the cry of women and that of the earth.
Schmidt’s personal dealings with individual students like the late famous comedian, John Candy, adds both humour and compelling reasons why teachers need to get to know their students beyond the curriculum. While the book is quite amply filled with Schmidt’s “outrageous sense of humour” (according to former student, Anglican priest, Joe Asselin), it is balanced by “his rapacious appetite for life and community.”
Chapter after chapter incorporates Ted’s classroom stories with personal anecdotes and admiration for his lifetime heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Rabbi Reuben Slonim, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, priest activists Dan and Phil Berrigan, feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Dorothy Day to name but a few.
Schmidt’s reflections on his many years in coaching, and his rejection of SportsWorld constitute a chapter which provides today’s teacher coaches with great wisdom. A highly successful basketball and baseball coach, the author believed “the basketball court was an extension of the classroom. I believed when we met there it was an event of cosmic importance, another place of meeting. Maybe we could call the gym sacred ground, a potential temple of transcendence, a holy place where graced moments open the life of another person...” (p.117)
Born into a Catholic family in Toronto’s downtown core, Schmidt internalized his parents’ memories of war and depression, and felt deeply the currents of antisemitic racism with his Jewish teammates at Harbord playground (all contained in a previous book Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood). This future teacher turned all of these negatives into a vibrant life which had a deep impact on students in both public and Catholic schools. As he says in his preface, “I never had a career, I had a life in teaching.”
While not a lot is said about the plight of Canadian Native education, Schmidt does spend an entire chapter on his work as a groundbreaking Holocaust educator. Overall, there is abundant empathy for the inclusion of all students regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Here is a life-sized, modern Biblical prophet who teaches his students with actions as well as words. He quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu in this regard: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Maybe Toronto MP Andrew Cash sums up this book best: “The life and teaching of Ted Schmidt underscores the importance of what is increasingly becoming a forgotten notion: that above all else, teaching is a vocation. One good teacher can, in a young person’s life, be transformational. I was one of the many young students lucky enough to be on the receiving end of Schmidt’s teaching gift, his rigorous fidelity to social justice and his joyous, mischievous sense of humour. It’s all here in Never Neutral: A Teaching Life. Indeed, in a world defaced by war, greed, and narcissism, Ted Schmidt does what all great teachers through history have done—he calls us to be our better selves, reminds us of our collective duty to each other, and challenges us to confront the human structures at the root of poverty, social inequality, and economic injustice.”
Chris Cato is a former teacher and former chair of the Edmonton Catholic Archdiocesan Social Justice Committee.