Peter Lucic was thrilled to watch his former student win Canada’s richest award for fiction last week.
But when Ian Williams thanked Lucic from the stage of the Giller Prize gala at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel on Monday night, the 73-year-old retired teacher, who was watching from home, was overwhelmed.
“Literally, I had tears streaming down my face,” said Lucic in an interview from his Burlington home on Saturday. “That was kind of the icing on the cake. Unexpected, but so great. And great for educators everywhere, I think.”
Hearing his name in Williams’ acceptance speech prompted Lucic to join Twitter and contact his former star pupil. The pair haven’t seen each other since the early 1990s when the budding writer was a student at Brampton’s Sir John A. Macdonald Sr. Public School. Now, after two-and-a-half decades, the two finally have plans to meet up over the upcoming holidays.
“I’m expecting him to pay for the coffee,” joked Lucic.
The Giller, which Williams won for his first novel, Reproduction, comes with a $100,000 prize.
Lucic taught Williams in an enhanced class from Grade 6 to 8. He remembers Williams as a quiet kid, who came out of his shell as his confidence in his ability to write poetry grew.
The “pod”-style class consisted of so many kids that Lucic would read novels to them through a microphone in order to be heard, but even in a crowded environment it was easy for teachers to spot that Williams was special.
“It didn’t take long for us to identify his talents and his abilities. He was good at pretty much everything he took his mind to,” Lucic said.
Williams, who is now based in Vancouver, beat out five other shortlisted writers for the prestigious award.
His Brampton-set Reproduction tells the story of Felicia, a student from a Caribbean island, and Edgar, a wealthy older man, who form an unlikely relationship after their mothers share a hospital room.
When his name was called on Monday evening at the gala, he wasn’t planning to thank his old teacher.
It just kind of happened.
“In the moment my whole past was activated in a way that I didn’t expect,” said Williams over the phone from Vancouver.
He was “just trying to make sense” of how he got there and “all the important people” in his life flashed through his mind.
“But I also just think it’s important to express appreciation to the people who don’t ordinarily hear it,” Williams said.
“Often the people who make the most significant impact on our lives are those people who do their work so competently that they become practically invisible to us.”
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In his emotional speech, after thanking no less a literary icon than Margaret Atwood, who was in the audience, Williams expressed his appreciation for the “good public school teachers” who “pushed poetry on us,” mentioning Lucic by name.
When Lucic reached out to him on Twitter to say thanks, Williams retweeted the message to his own followers and described his former teacher as “the guy that read to us from a microphone and taught us computers and let us write poetry all day!
“I am so indebted to you, Mr. Lucic, for turning my love to lit.”
Williams hopes his moment to “make the invisible, visible” can encourage others to reflect on who those people are in their own lives and reach out to them.
“I think no matter how bad your life is right now, at some point there’s at least one person who believed in you,” he said.
“It’s important just to take a moment and pause and just reflect on, OK that person illuminated something about me that no one else has.”
In his interview with the Star, Lucic echoed his former student, saying he wished more people reconnected with teachers who had made a difference.
Educators always hope they help contribute to students’ long-term success, Lucic said, but barring a shout-out from an award ceremony stage, they often can’t be sure they’ve had a positive influence.
“We sometimes read about certain fame or accomplishment, but it’s nice to hear back directly,” he said.
“If they can find a way to do that, it’s really (appreciated).”
Although they haven’t seen each other since he left school, Williams often thought of the “teddy-bear-like” teacher over the years.
“We had this gentle man as our teacher that year and it became a model of what a man could be,” he recalls.
“You didn’t have to just be playing baseball at lunch, you could just read.”
It was “unbelievable” to see his teacher’s tweet, Williams said.
Now he’s looking forward to reconnecting over the holidays when he’s back in the GTA, and feeling like that little boy in the classroom again.
“I can’t call him Peter, he’ll always be Mr. Lucic to me.”