What I remember most about school

The decimals and dates have faded, like the initials he inked into his desk top. But the wonderful dreams of a growing boy, those schoolyard scraps, the mystery of girls-these are still as clear as the recess bell

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 27 1958

What I remember most about school

The decimals and dates have faded, like the initials he inked into his desk top. But the wonderful dreams of a growing boy, those schoolyard scraps, the mystery of girls-these are still as clear as the recess bell

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 27 1958

What I remember most about school

The decimals and dates have faded, like the initials he inked into his desk top. But the wonderful dreams of a growing boy, those schoolyard scraps, the mystery of girls-these are still as clear as the recess bell

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

Now that the kids are off to school again, 1 notice questions being raised. Should we teach more science? Are we neglecting the gifted child? Is PI A doing a job? Sometimes all this makes me wonder it anybody remembers what school is all about. You'd think it was a place where you tried to learn something, instead of a place you tried to forget, keep out of as long as possible, make disappear with games, dreams and magic.

Not learning anything at school was a mark of manhood, like not being neat. The kid who stood thirty-first in my class, before standings were abolished on the ground that they made backward students feel incompetent and insecure, wore a beam of triumph on his face that made you feel like a sissy. He was a fat good-

natured kid who chuckled his way through predicate adjectives, the French explorers, decimals, compound and complex fractions and singing, which was taught once a month by a mysterious soft brown woman who smelled of moth balls. I've noticed that some people seem to occupy a particular few square feet of the world’s surface a lot more permanently and comfortably than other people, and this boy was one of them. He just sat there chuckling and flipping elastics, pins and spit balls, and waiting for the whole thing to blow over.

Standing first was something done only by a little girl in a clean white middie who looked at boys as if they'd got off a leash somewhere. Occasionally you were in love with her and if you happened to get a desk near hers you sat there stunned and grinning through entire eras of world history. In this condition you'd get vague impressions that England was made up of churchly old buildings that smelled a bit like the Royal Ontario Museum, and was occupied by rather admirable men who worked everything out by stabbing little dukes and cutting otf women’s heads; or that Canada was a green carpet miles wide with here and there men with hats on talking to bald Hurons.

Being in love didn’t last long, but then we didn’t spend long on a country. I remember we took the United States during two weeks when I had tonsilitis, and for years the entire nation appeared to me as twenty-one blank pages in my geography. When I came back without my tonsils, we'd somehow got onto Sir Wilfrid Laurier, with his high collars and parted hair and parliament, and I began wondering if summer holidays would ever come—a feeling about politics that, by and large, the years haven’t altered.

But at best school was just something that temporarily barred the way to the real world, which, for me, was located about where that curved line cut the tops off the provinces: a world of snowshoes, trap lines and birchbark drinking cups. This was where I lived mentally

for the biggest part of eight years and through every educational method devised by the Ontario Board of Education. It was a world filled with a sort of spiritual gas, like a Christian’s heaven, which left no room for pain, duty, past participles, shame, fear, or sifting ashes on Saturday morning.

Slit-eyed, peering out from my parka hood with beads of ice on my beard, the only living thing in a frozen land, 1 got the mails through. You could depend on Bob Allen. He knew the north country. He was indestructible, tightlipped, tough, entirely unlike my teacher, a fat. pale, intellectual man named Mr. Kew, who never stopped talking, in a voice that sounded as if he were crawling out of a light. He'd make incredible jokes, like “Greenland’s chief export is icebergs,” and turn his lips inside out and grin horribly. He was as far as you could get from being a trapper. I've noticed that the older 1 get the closer 1 come to catching up with Mr. Kew': in fact, this morning when 1 looked in the mirror, 1 think 1 passed him.

Somewhere, psychologically, between the real world and the world of the classroom with its smell of ink. chalk and wet wool mitts on hot radiators, was the schoolyard, a barren waste of baked clay with occasional islands of pigweed and plantain about the size of altar tops, where life, although undeniably real, somehow didn’t always work out the way it did for the characters in James Oliver Curwood.

For instance, there were the schoolyard fights, the salty taste of getting whacked on the nose and the dreadful cries of the spectators, who, for some incredible reason, were cheering for some strange boy with a dirty grey face and no lips to take another poke at that favorite and all 'round sterling character—you.

Fights were never connected with rage. They may have started with rage. But you soon were left with nothing to sustain you but the dread of not behaving like Hoot Gibson when you heard the distant cries of "Fight! Fight! Fight!” and the sounds of kids continued on page 48

What I remember most about school

Continued from page 23

“My ambition was to lick Art Sweeny, though I had nothing against him — in fact, I rather liked him”

running from all corners of the schoolyard to encircle you and your foe with a ring that I remember as about the size of the Plains of Abraham. When that happened there was nothing left to do but pull your head down into the collar of your overcoat and start swinging and praying that it woidd soon be over. If you got licked it was days before you could again see yourself bearded, indestructible, and tough.

As I remember it. 1 had an average number of wins and losses. But there was one boy I wanted to lick, a kid named Art Sweeny — a boy w'ith a bland smiling face, an air of calm reservoirs of power, and a distant look in his blue eyes as it searching for a worthy opponent. My life's ambition w'as to lick Art Sweeny, although I had nothing against him that I know of. and in fact rather liked him. It was something the same feeling as that of the mountain climber who, asked why he wanted to climb a mountain, said. “Because its there.”

But I never had a fight with Art. I met him recently on Yonge Street in Toronto. He had evidently stopped growing shortly after I knew him. because he w'as even shorter than I am—a dapper, friendly, wistful little bond salesman with a black pencil-line mustache and an appointment with a psychiatrist. Yet, after thirty-five years, during which I’ve forgotten everything from who came after Queen Elizabeth to which was Hochelaga and which was Stadaeona. when Sweeny spoke to me there on Yonge Street in the same quiet, breathy voice 1 remembered. I caught myself wondering whether I could lick him it I did exercises every day for a month

and got my stomach down and stopped smoking.

There were times, too. when you got into such trouble that you would have given anything to be anywhere where life was normal again, even sitting listen ing to one of Mr. Kew’s jokes about icebergs. Like when the teacher in charge of seeing that we stood perfectly still and silent before starting to march into school caught you shouldering the kid next to you, or knocking the books out of a girl’s arms ahead of you. He’d give his handbell a ring, grab the clapper. which strangled off the sound, and point with the wooden handle.

“That boy. Go to the principal’s office.”

There would be a petrified moment when you looked completely innocent and tried to tell yourself that he meant someone else.

“You. You there.”

You’d lower your head, look up at him and point at your chest. “Mé?’ you’d say. forming the word silently with your lips.

“Yes. you. You there. No.no.no.no.” He'd never give up once he'd started. “The second boy from the right. I hat boy with the round hat.”

My mother used to cut the peaks oil my brother’s caps when they got Y-shaped and I’d wear them like a sort of tweed beret. 1 could kid myself for just so long that I wasn't the one the teacher was pointing at. Then therc'd be the long lonely walk across the planks toward the office of the principal, who received these visits in complete silence, not even asking what you’d done. He d just open his desk drawer, take out a big ledger with the right place marked by a leather

strap, and neatly enter your name, by which time you’d be in such a trance that the strap wouldn’t hurt at all. You’d have the further consolation, when you got back to your class among friends, of being able to hold your hands against the cast-iron sides of your desk, making a great production of cooling the unbearable heat and grinning in a worldly way at the nearest girl.

In fact, school, as I remember it, was pretty much the way life has been ever since. There were triumphs, fears, defeats and humiliations; friends and enemies. And there were occasional disturbing feelings about the human race, like one time I remember when a fat homely girl in thick glasses came to school in a grotesque fur coat her mother had made for her, and within a few minutes every kid in the schoolyard was following her, jeering. The sight of her red, distraught face, as she looked for a place to hide, remained with me long after I’d forgotten the dates of every battle from Harcourt to Waterloo.

Not even a coffee break

You didn’t have to address sales meetings but you had oral composition. You’d get up, grin at your co-students, who wore various expectant expressions, the boys busy fixing catapults of elastic bands and bent pins, and go into your speech: “The moose. The moose lives in the far-off wastes of Canada. It is our biggest animal. At certain times hunters shoot the moose. This is called the moose season. Sometimes hunters shoot one another.” You'd keep at it with an idiotic grin until the teacher said that was just fine.

You didn't try to gel out of work with businessmen’s luncheons and coffee breaks. You put your nose down into your textbooks and smelled them, or drew birchbark canoes around the margins and put mustaches on everyone from Columbus to General Currie. You spent hour after hour carving tracks in the desk top with your pencils, naming them after streetcar lines and deepening them a bit every day until you could switch from one track to another without having to look at the desk. If you did it carefully and quietly, you could tap a pin with the edge of your ruler until it was about a quarter of an inch through the top of your desk, or you could hold your ruler tight on the desk with one hand and flip it with the other till it vibrated, making a sound similar to the one I hear after four martinis.

There were dark, brown, wet Monday mornings after a weekend of fun when you didn’t exactly have a hangover but just the thought of parsing a sentence made you keep yourself late playing with the water from the melting ice, chopping new channels to the gutter with your heel. But there were also bright, windswept mornings that made the school flag crackle, when all the wonderful things that were going to happen didn’t seem far away, and the boys all tried to sec who could climb and jump the highest, and the girls gathered to gossip over at the raised side of the schoolyard, silhouetted against the rooftops and chicken-wire netting and looking as if they were in another world.

You didn't look forward to the last payment on your car or read The Power of Positive Thinking in those days, but there was a better world just ahead all the same, where things would be different and everything easy. I'm still looking for it, and sometimes think I’m on the verge of finding it. I haven't yet, but, anyway. I'm glad I don’t have to go back to school. ★