Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

The teacher and the debt Print-ready version

by Warwick McFadyen
The Age (Australia)
December 15, 2002

Last week, Warwick McFadyen spoke to the biographer of Joni Mitchell about the possibility of the singer-songwriter never recording again. Here, he speaks to the former teacher from Australia who Mitchell credits with giving her a lifelong love of words.

One day in 1955, Arthur Kratzmann, an Australian teacher living in Canada, walked across the corridor from his classroom at the Queen Elizabeth School in Saskatoon to the grade six room. The pupils were having their art class. Kratzmann was struck by the work of a young girl, who was using watercolours. "I realised how beautifully she could paint," he says. He would teach her the following year as a grade seven student.

Her name was Roberta Joan Anderson. The world would come to know her as Joni Mitchell. The world also would come to know, through Ms Mitchell's disclosures, how important Mr Kratzmann, Queenslander and son of a sharecropper, was in planting the seed from which Ms Mitchell's talents flowered.

Arthur Kratzmann, 77, now lives in British Columbia, on Canada's west coast, and is retired. Speaking to The Sunday Age last week, he recalled with enthusiasm and fondness the year in which he taught Roberta Joan, a "slim, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, respectful, obedient, quiet, responsive" student.

"The only thing that I feel I taught well was English composition," he says. "I could get kids to be motivated to write. I've had a great respect for anybody who takes a pen in hand and puts it to paper. I see them as artists at work who put down words and phrases and sentences that nobody else ever has in the world. It's unique, and I treasure that, and kids rise to the challenge. Joni Mitchell was one of them. She didn't strike me as the most outstanding person I've ever had in that field, but she wrote well."

Although she wrote well, says Mr Kratzmann, at first the young teenager wrote in the manner of everybody else. It needed the hammer on the anvil to shape her creativity.

"She used to copy a lot of stuff," he says. "She'd see a painting of a landscape and she'd duplicate it, and, when we'd be writing poetry, she'd have a tendency to sort of, like, pick Wordsworth's Daffodils and write a poem about tulips but use the same rhyme scheme and style."

It may well have been a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but it was not true to self. "I took her aside one day - and at the time I was studying the philosopher Nietzsche, who used to tell people that they must get on with their own lives and do things in their own blood - and I turned the quotation on her and said, 'You have to learn to paint and to write in your own blood'.

"She picked up on that and started to write little things about her life and, of course, now you couldn't believe that Joni Mitchell was ever somebody who wasn't creative."

Mitchell never forgot her debt to Mr Kratzmann. On her first album, she makes dedication to Mr Kratzmann for teaching her a "love of words".

When her career was honoured in Canada last year as one of several "creative geniuses", Mr Kratzmann made the award and made a speech to her. It was the first time the pair had met since the classroom in Saskatoon in 1956.

The journey to centre stage with one of the legendary singer-songwriters of contemporary music began for Arthur Kratzmann in 1925 in Kingaroy, peanut capital of Australia. He was the son of a sharecropper (Australia's version of slavery, he says) and, because the family moved from farm to farm - mainly dairy, some corn and peanuts - he was always changing schools. Where the school did not have his grade, he would be moved up one, and "I was always fortunate enough to make it".

This rapid rise through the years meant that at age 17 he had completed not only schooling but enough training to go out teaching. He was assigned to one and two-room schools at whistlestop places such as Thallon and Warra, at a school appropriately enough called Haystack. In 1943, Mr Kratzmann turned 18 and enlisted in the air force. He was given the choice of getting his wings at home or in Canada. As a young, single bloke, he took the overseas option. He trained in Saskatchewan and Alberta, got his wings and, not only that, at age 19, he got a wife, Mary.

By the time he qualified as a pilot, the war in Europe was all but over. "By the time we got shipped back to Australia, things were just about over with the Japanese, so I got a wonderful trip and a wonderful wife out of the deal."

He went back to teaching in small Queensland towns. His wife followed him to Australia as a war bride and then, after three years, they returned to Canada.

Mr Kratzmann swapped small-town Queensland for small-town Alberta. In 1949, he and Mary moved to Viking, by name and by nature. The townspeople were all of Norwegian extraction.

He began studying for higher qualifications, first a bachelor's degree, then a masters and then a PhD. His career has seen him as a vice-principal (his position at Queen Elizabeth School in Saskatoon), a schools inspector, other education roles and then as dean of education at various education institutions. Canada, he says, "has been very, very kind to me"

He has been back to Australia more than a dozen times, principally to see family in Queensland. He is distantly related to the tennis player Mark Kratzmann.

He once visited Melbourne to see the Melbourne Cup, only to be caught in a transport strike that meant he and Mary had to watch the race from their St Kilda hotel room. What A Nuisance won.

If Mr Kratzmann witnessed that event from the sidelines, then the homage to Joni Mitchell last year placed him firmly in the centre of proceedings. After many and varied people paid tribute to her, an interview was held with her and she performed to the audience, Mr Kratzmann was due to present the award of "creative genius".

"She played new stuff and all this time I'm to follow her with a three-minute presentation. I don't know how many glasses of water I got because my mouth kept getting dry.

"Twice during the interview she mentioned my name (she didn't know he was there).

"Eventually I got there, and it was to be three minutes, but it ended up being about 20 because she kept interrupting to talk about Saskatoon and the things that happened in class and this fella Kratzmann. After the awards, we had about half-an-hour with her and her family. The real highlight of the night was when I was saying goodbye to her and she hugged me and said this is the highlight of her career, which is a pretty nice compliment."

Mr Kratzmann has kept a copy of the speech he made that night. He quotes from it:

"Well, Roberta Joan, Joni, for this retired educator whose path serendipitously crossed with yours 45 years ago, this is a night to surpass all others.

"My family and I, along with the ever-burgeoning multitude of admirers, have followed with great pride your remarkable adaptive, ingenious and so eminently successful career, and our home, alive always with your music, your poetry, your singing and your painting, has glowed with appreciative warmth in the knowledge of your continuous assertions that I somehow helped in a small way to release your latent talent. Thank you for all your most generous bylines. No teacher could ever ask more."

Mr Kratzmann says of the evening that "I really haven't come down yet". Perhaps that's what the gratitude of a student to a teacher is all about: it is the nature of the nurturing.

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Added to Library on December 21, 2002. ( 5,991)

Comments on The teacher and the debt

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.