Author Kenneth Oppel ’85 Named 2017 Distinguished Alumnus

Kenneth Oppel

It’s important for our community to reflect on our school’s history and honour the individuals who helped make us who we are today. At the same time, we must recognize those who contribute to our current school and student body, and those who will help shape our future.

Our annual Founders and Scholars Dinner is a highlight of the school year. It’s a day when we look forward and back. We honour the school vision set out 110 years ago and recognize the contributors and scholarship/bursary recipients who benefit from financial aid.

We celebrated this event last week with a wonderful reception and dinner in Brown Hall. The keynote speaker was author (and former scholarship recipient) Kenneth Oppel ’85, who was named this year’s winner of the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Here is an excerpt from Kenneth’s speech:

The last time I ate here was as a lowly Grade 8 day boy. I remember the feudal, dare I say Nietzschean, system of food distribution where a tray of lunch was delivered to the Grade 12s who sat at the head of the table. They proceeded to help themselves to huge Ubermensch portions until the tray was empty and someone would shout, “You kill it, you fill it!” and that person would go back to the kitchen for a refill. And so it went down the table to the Grade 8s. It took a long time to eat and it was fairly demeaning. After a few weeks I started just bringing a bag lunch and eating it on the front steps with other reviled and bitter underlings.

So I’m delighted to be here for your Founders Day celebration and enjoy my first meal here in 36 years. I am only a little bit disappointed that my meal didn’t come in a tray.
I’m particularly happy to be here on an occasion that recognizes both the recipients and donors of scholarships because it was a scholarship that enabled me to come to SMUS halfway through Grade 8.

I’d been fairly miserable at my previous school and I was very grateful for the refuge that SMUS offered me. It was an oasis of civility and a crazy number of English accents.

I was not perhaps ideal SMUS fare in that I was not a joiner, especially in the realm of athletics, but I was grateful that one of the options for after school games, was Board Games, which I eagerly took full advantage of. I did try other things, honestly I did. I was tallish so I tried basketball but couldn’t do a lay up – and one of my teammates insulted me, so I quit. On another tack, I was argumentative and tried debating but I wasn’t very good so I quit. My temperament was solitary and somewhat misanthropic, even ornery – in short I was destined to be a writer. As the famously misanthropic British writer Martin Amis said about himself as a teen, I was “trying to be a writer, sitting in a corner, quietly reeking.”

And to this day, and for always, I have a big place in my heart for those quiet outliers who might not have found their niche yet, who are just going about the often solitary business of pursuing their interests and passions. If there are any such students here, I salute you, and say, great things likely await you. At university and beyond you will find a niche of surprising width and welcome.

Here at SMUS I was very fortunate to have some outstanding teachers who went above and beyond to read my stories and poems and give me encouragement and feedback: namely Rev. Terence Davies, my Grade 10 English teacher, and Grenfell Featherstone who was to be my English teacher for most of my years at SMUS. Tellingly, I didn’t like him at first in Grade 9 because he was a very tough marker and naturally I thought I deserved better. But soon I was won over by his erudition and enthusiasm and his overall Beowulf demeanour. He looked like a freaking Viking. A classmate drew a cartoon of him in a horned helmet holding aloft a frothing tankard of ale and saying something too saucy to repeat here. He was one of those teachers who is an expert in his subject, but who also managed to impart to us that high school was just one part of our lives, and that there was a bigger world awaiting us. To someone like me, this was a heady elixir.

Various teachers – and not just English teachers – steered me towards opportunities to write and occasionally win prizes or publication – the annual Permanent Trust short story competition (now sadly defunct); my geography teacher Mr. Murdoch submitted one of my essays to a Commonwealth society essay competition; and Terrence Davies’ Grade 10 short story anthology which featured a short story of mine, a kind of Roald Dahl, John Cheever mash up called The Rocking Horse. Though the anthology was humbly Xeroxed and stapled together, I can’t convey the excitement it gave me to see my work in print, and that anthology is still a prized possession of mine.

Despite how atypical I was, the school helped me thrive. It was a combination of encouragement – and really, with an aspiring writer all you need to do is give them unconditional praise and keep them hydrated – and a dollop of benign neglect. Which means I wasn’t expected to play rugby. Such a terrifying game. Or take part in those mind-buckling maths competitions which were quite beyond me.

While here at SMUS, I also wrote what was to become my first published novel. I was a devotee of Roald Dahl, and I was also a devotee of the Atari Corporation – whose icon is now alas only seen in the Blade Runner movies – and as such I put a lot of quarters into video games, especially one called Asteroids. When I show kids a photograph of this game they think I’m showing them a picture of my refrigerator. It’s huge and the graphics are terrible, but it was this game that inspired me to write my first novel over two summer holidays when I was 14 and 15. It was done alone, for my own pleasure and ambition, and when I’d finished after the summer of Grade 11, I had a novel that eventually found a publisher. So my first book was published just as I was graduating from high school. And really, that gave me the confidence to think writing could be my career – as I’d wished since the age of 13.

Writing, as I’ve said, is a solitary business, but I feel grateful to the teachers I had here who saw something in me, some potential, and nudged me along in the right direction. Mostly, though, I’m thankful for the excellent overall education I received.

One day when I am quite wise and grand and dissipated and perhaps have gout, I hope to endow a scholarship. I’m not suggesting anyone here has gout; I just see gout as a very literary affliction somehow. But in the meantime, I am simply grateful to be honoured by my old school, and I thank you for including me in your evening.

Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you to all who continue to support the school.

Check out more photos from Founders and Scholars Dinner on the SMUS Photo Gallery.

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Kyle Slavin
Kyle Slavin is the school's storyteller. Through words and photos, he shares with the community all the amazing things that happen on campus.

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