Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Keith Wiltshire

Keith Wiltshire, a wonderful English teacher to me and my RJC classmates, died yesterday morning, January 3. Grace, his daughter, wrote, "He was at home and Pauline and I were with him which is what he would have wanted. He had lived for two years after his stroke and we are very grateful to all our wonderful NHS staff and all the carers who looked after him." Keith had enjoyed being read to in the last year or so. A few days before he died, Grace read to him three of his favorite Matthew Arnold poems, "Growing Old," "Dover Beach," and "The Last Word." If you'd like to write to the family, send me a private message.

I will always remember Keith for being an inspiring teacher and human being. His literary and moral passions were both tremendous, and, together with my history teacher Rodney Cole, he was my entire education at junior college. Confronted by our intellectual lethargy and moral turpitude, he would strive to provoke us into thinking and acting. I still remember how he would constantly inveigh against the uselessness of mathematics as a subject of study, an opinion I was secretly pleased to endorse, until a classmate (was it Malini?) stood up to him in defense of math, and then he broke into a smile and said, "Finally, someone contradicted me!" He did not want our agreement, but our growth, in having the courage of our convictions.

Years after he was let go by the Ministry Of Education for criticizing Singapore's educational system, he wrote to his students regularly from his home in Bristol. I visited him once with two classmates, and we had a salad from the vegetables grown in his garden, and a walking tour of the city, accompanied by his commentary. He switched from Labor to the Green Party and marched in protests on behalf of the environment. To thank him for his letters, and much else besides, I wrote a poem for him. Among its many infelicities is an omission of the girls in that junior-college class: I couldn't fit them into the meter. But the poem may give a sense of what I owe to this best of representatives of Great Britain.

The Far Ships 
for Keith Wiltshire, my teacher 

Your yearly letters make me smile.
Hammered on an old processor,
they slash with slanted lines of bile
the madness of all car-owners,

the British stock of nuclear shells,
how Singapore Immigration stopped
you at the airport, bade farewell
to future visits, and then dropped

you on the next flight home, without
giving a reason. Youth protection?
Your letters sound so free of doubts,
the years a seamless flight connection.

You are as constant as your letters.
With equal passion, you taught us boys
Shakespeare: how not to heed our betters
as Hamlet heeds the ghostly voice,

and why, in Pride and Prejudice,
prejudice is the mate of pride.
You read us Larkin’s poem “Next Please”
and the far ships came alongside

and then sailed on, leaving no goods,
giving no reason. Wide awake,
we saw from where we sat or stood
waters that neither breed nor break.

Do you remember those good years
as good? I do, with thankfulness,
for though your letters do not bear
good news of the wide world, they bless.

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