So Got Schooled


in the tower, on the field

  • Memoir: ISBN 978-1-77171-247-7; 150 pages; $24.95
    Available for order from Ekstasis Editions.

Stephen Bett is a widely and internationally published Canadian poet with eighteen books in print. In his first book of (non-fiction) prose, So Got Schooled: in the tower, on the field, we find three memoirs, from the hilarious tell-all account of managing a senior men's soccer team where players more often than not seem to be smacking each other about in the kindergarten sandbox, to the last-ditch stand of a 'terribly' British-style boys' school in the far west Canadian 'colonies' of the early 1960s, to the feudalism of 1970s grad school under supervision of the brilliant, but also petulant, Robin Blaser, before the advent of student grievance rights.


"What a nightmare it must have been!... The Ph.D program and the profs responsible for it (at least in the initial decade)... was more like a cult. And of course cults work for the devotees... Unmarked papers, absence of consultation, little contact except gossip sessions, and no avenues of appeal whatsoever... Blaser: as I recall, '76-'78 was one of the most difficult periods in his life personally... I'm not sure how interested Blaser was in teaching, or how good he was at it, though admittedly the performance part could be spectacular. He was clearly not interested in or good at paperwork... I think he was primarily a poet (and intellectually has to be judged mainly as such), who happened into a teaching job the way many writers did at the time... Again, of course, it was a royal 'court' situation that worked well for the 'courtiers'-in-training, but not for people not in on the court 'code.'

--Stan Persky

"This essay has a great, warm, inviting voice, and a sly wit (of course). It's a surprisingly engaging story of the academic shadow... It has the feel of an oft-told story, and the almost mythic quality such stories carry. Very well organised in terms of the ordering, the inner titles; this works as an "argument," a "document," and a story--creative nonfiction... [Stephen Bett] clearly has the essayist's gift. This should convince us that poets make the best essayists.

--Michael Kenyon

"Millennial comic genius Lisa Kudrow started every sitcom routine with the word "so," and so when is so an adverb, conjunction, pronoun, adjective or interjection? "So," the trademark ennui marker, is the caveat in the title to Stephen Bett's memoir. So, he is warning us that every assertion in his coming of age, or aged, stories comes with a shrug. Irony is the provenance of medieval poets and the tweed curtain refugee, for whom not much has changed. We are still competitive species, man woman and child. We still don't understand the premises of our alleged faith.

"Bett's book is a polyglot trypych, three ways to avoid a post-colonial consciousness and have the elusive good time in the process. Competition, otherwise known as team sport, academic education, hugeliest irony of all in the confines of upper class gulags where little boys with erections beat one another for fun and academia again, is wrapped in the chador of higher learning, fun and games, with only the tiniest peekholes for the observation of truth and beauty.

"They say the truth sets us free and Bett pursues his truth in the stories of his ill-spent childhood and is led to political solutions, in his case poetry, the incantations of protest and absolution.

"This is a book of belonging, the longing, ways in which the desire for community is interrupted, sometimes aborted, by human behaviour, at once homily and comedy since humour is the leaven of grief.

"He begins with the beautiful game, first irony, as little boys and big men scrap over an inflated scrap of dead animal, possibly the planet And, of course, they cheat in small things as well as the big ones that might mean the end of life on earth as we know it. Too bad, there is no forever and ever Amen.

"From soccer, the nativity, the storyteller segues to private school, the crucifixion, where he was to abandon his cloak of shyness and become a confident gentleman. This process apparently involves beating, sexual abuse and other humiliations. Now that is how to nurture empathy. Gentle is the first irony because, as everyone knows, the discrete Anglican private school was/is the training ground for the bullies of Empire, leaders, they used to say in the days before the British decided to export with prejudice the almost free labour they cajoled out of former colonies, now the enshrined Commonwealth, where everyone, even the brown ones are, ostensibly haha, equal. After all, the Queen dances with black men and demonstrates that colour does not rub off.

"Right off the bat, er boot, he kicks off with his other head, the one that pops up to flag the discrepancies and provide running commentary on the commentary. These parenthetical remarks are the "buts" that rebut the "sos." And so, inside the arguments, there are mini-debates. Bett does not want to entirely disown the world he came from, the one that gave him white privilege, but he wants to make damn sure we know it is deranged. That is the voice the caning rod was designed to silence. But, in his case, it did not."

"Addressing the son of his one and only humane teacher with no parenthetical remarks, he argues, 'What on earth were they meant to be teaching us here in these tired and tiring, tedious, rooms? Quill and penmanship? Colonial clerical work? Court-reporter short-hand speed-wring? Write and erase. Copy and close? What an incredulous, astonishing dust-off of everyone's time and money. Mind numbing. Mind closing...'

"And so he closes, post resurrection, the reconstituted boy a grad student reclining like a seder Jew at the feet of his master, a seriously compromised scholar who does the miraculous Judeo-Christian inversion and betrays him in the garden of academe, learns his final lesson, thou shalt not trust. This is the experience of every grad student brought down by masters fearful for their own tenure in heaven or Olympus or wherever they are gods, or, in Bett's words, ' far the most brilliant mind I have ever encountered.'"

"They say the devil, AKA Steve Bannon et al, is also smart."

"Redemption comes in footnotes and afterwards. His is a happy life and the poet/memoirist Stephen Bett has outlived the publish or perish generation to have the famous last word."

- Linda Rogers, Pacific Rim Review of Books