York Mills Collegiate has lost one of its favourite teachers, but the school community won’t forget him.
The soon to be named Peter Polley Wing at York Mills will pay homage to the teacher of 40 years who served faithfully as head of the English department and as branch president for the teachers union.
Polley, who passed away in January after a short battle with pancreatic cancer at age 63, was the school’s longest-serving teacher, having worked there long enough to teach children of former students.
“He loved the school. I think his whole career was here,” said Meredith Szewchuk, a teacher in the English department who worked with Polley. “He was really a fixture in the school.”
After his untimely passing, the school decided to honour Polley by renaming the wing of the school where his classroom was located. According to staff, it’s a way to pay tribute to a much-loved man whose presence was almost synonymous with the school.
Szewchuk said Polley was known for compassionate nature and ability to see ‘the big picture,’ in dealing with colleagues, students and the administration.
She also recalled his lighter side, as Polley would often liven up staff meetings with poems and skits he had written.
“He was a real mentor,” she said. “He was really supportive and caring.”
As one of the longest serving branch presidents in the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, he was also a fierce advocate for public education, Szewchuk said.
She noted in the last few years he had become active in policing the so-called credit mills — credit-granting institutions that dole out easy grades for a per-course fee.
“He wanted to maintain the integrity of the public system,” Szewchuk said.
Though he could have taken many other paths, Polley chose teaching early on.
Reached by phone, his older brother Bill recalled his determination to become a high school teacher, despite having received a scholarship offer from Oxford University after graduating summa cum laude from York University. Bill said he tried to convince his brother to get a PhD and teach at the university level, thinking high school students wouldn’t share his passion for the subject. But Polley was adamant.
“He had such a passion for teaching that he would get swept up in it,” Bill said. He said his brother had a unique ability to interest those students who wouldn’t have wanted to be in his class otherwise and to excite those already predisposed to the subject.
“He had a great sense of humour, was very quiet and soft spoken, but had tremendous knowledge and what you saw was what you got … he wore this lumberjack coat and there were no pretensions about him.”
Bill said his brother’s visitation served as proof of his impact, with students from as many as three decades back turning out to say goodbye.
“The thing that struck me was that all these young kids had taken the time to come out and pay their respects,” Bill said.
He noted the school had even closed early the day of the funeral so that everyone who wanted to attend could do so.
“He touched a lot of people.”
Bill said in the last few years his brother had even received an award from Harvard University after a former student won an essay competition in which she had written about Polley as the person who had most influenced her.
York Mills Collegiate is planning to rename the wing at a tribute ceremony open to the public February 12 in Titan Hall. The school said a new scholarship, the Peter Polley Memorial Scholarship, was also being established as an academic award earmarked for a student continuing on with studies in English, film or media at the university or college level.
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