I went back to school at forty-two
My husband was amused. My son was embarrassed. My classmates, young enough to he my children, resented me. But I made a childhood ambition come true— and learned things about myself I never knew
FLORENCE I. SMITH
One morning in the fall of 1949 I got on a Hill bus in North Toronto like any other middle-aged woman on her way downtown for a day’s shopping. I took a seat near the front and watched out the window for my son, who had left the house a little ahead of me to pick up some friends on his way to school. I knew he would be getting on at the next stop.
A few moments later I realized with a shock that he had got on with his friends, given me a glazed look, nodded and kept going to the back of the bus. When he got off at the University of Toronto, he raised his eyes, met mine, ducked his head and stepped out the door, as if I were vaguely familiar but my name had somehow escaped him.
“It happened to me”
This Is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . stories told by Its readers about some Interesting dramatic event In their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto.
For stories accepted Maclean's will pay the regular rates It offers for articles.
Anyone who knew us might have thought we'd had a quarrel. But we hadn't. Nor was there anything thoughtless or callous in his action. He was faced with a special
problem—going to school with his mother.
J wasn’t going downtown to shop. 1 was going to college, in which 1 had enrolled the year before, at the age of forty-two, with the background of an average mother and housewife. 1 was a full-time day student in a class of youngsters half my age. My son explained to me later that he had figured it out and had decided that it would be better for both of us if we got started on the right basis—just two people going to school—and he was right.
It was one incident of many that took place during the three years in which I mingled on an equal footing with college students young enough to be my children. I eventually got to know and understand the young people 1 went to school with, and to realize that their reaction to me was a normal one of youth. Many became my good friends. But it took three years.
In the meantime continued on page 32
MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE, JUNE 7, 1958
el went back to school at forty-two
v-j. Continued from page 26
“I sat alone amid the noise of the students, thoroughly scared at the plight I’d got into”
a lot of things happened that many times nearly sent me back to my kitchen and sewing basket. I was called a square, a scrub and a teacher’s pel. 1 was snubbed, psychoanalyzed, sketched in rear elevation and occasionally treated with the deference due to the aged and decrepit. But 1 wouldn't give up the experience for anything else in the world.
It had all started one night when my husband Gordon, an assistant actuary with an insurance company, presented me with a wooden sketch box, complete with a set of oil paints, l.ike most mothers of grown families, I was beginning to find myself with an unaccustomed amount of free time, and I had been thinking more and more of an ambition I had carried with me from high-school days: that of learning to paint. It had been shelved for the prior claim of raising a family and making a home. By the time my two boys, Lewis and Victor, were going to high school I had begun to talk about it again, and Gordon had decided to call my bluff.
"You've talked about painting long enough,” he said, handing me the sketch box. "Now do something about it.”
I did: after two winters of night classes with a typical adult amateur group and a summer course at the Banff School of Fine Arts I was convinced that I wasn't getting the hard fundamental training I needed. I mentioned this to Fred Haines, principal of the Ontario College of Art.
"Do you think an old married woman with two grown sons would ever be accepted as a student at the College of Art?” 1 asked him.
"Yes, 1 do,” he told me. "If you’re serious about it, you’ll make as good a student as anyone else.”
This time I made up my mind. I enrolled next term with the regular art class. I felt that I could organize my work and family responsibilities in a way that would leave my days free for school. Victor was now in his graduation year in Forestry at the University of Toronto. Lewis was taking first-year mechanical engineering, which at that time was held at the University of Toronto’s auxiliary school at Ajax, about thirty miles east of Toronto.
I was told that my night classes and experience at Banff entitled me to some credits, and I was enrolled in the second-year class. 1 was sent to one of the large bright classrooms on the second floor of the Grange, a building next to the Toronto Art Gallery in an old downtown area. I sat alone amid the smells of linseed oil and turpentine and the noise of the students out in the corridors, thoroughly scared and perched tentatively sidesaddle on a "donkey,” a kind of bench with one high end.
The art student straddles the donkey, resting his drawing board on the high end. I was to get used to sitting on a donkey in time, but right then it somehow symbolized for me the plight I’d got myself into. I’m a big woman. Although my friends have told me often enough that I don’t give the impression of being big, 1 can’t forget that five feet eight
inches. The donkey seemed made for blue jeans, and the build of youth. To a mother of matronly build and an expert at English smocking the prospect of straddling it before the blasé eyes of the boys and girls I'd seen in the corridors took my full quota of determination to become an artist.
I sat there, more or less, all day, waiting for my class to get organized, and afraid to ask what was happening. One time I got the nerve up to approach a group of students in the hall and ask where my class was supposed to be. A nice-looking young lad with a beard took his pipe from his mouth and said, “What class are you teaching?”
"I'm a student.”
He put his pipe back in his mouth. The rest of the group gave me cold looks. Nobody said a word. I began to blush. I blush from the roots of my hair to the soles of my feet. I muttered something and went back to my donkey.
Even the teachers I spoke to that day obviously hadn't made up their minds whether to treat me as a teen-ager or a taxpayer, and by the time I had spent the whole day sitting alone in the classroom I felt so detached from the human race that I left for home that afternoon wondering whether I’d come back.
What does music look like?
But the next day the class finally got together. There were about twenty-five students, although as the term went on there were rarely that many present at any one class. My first class was one in composition. I’ll never forget it. A record player was started and we all sat in a semicircle on the floor (an arrangement designed to make us feel free and easy) each with a big sheet of paper and some crayons. We were to try to express what the music made us feel. I didn't feel anything but nerves. Just sitting on the floor with a group of youngsters at nine-thirty on a weekday morning made me self-conscious enough. On top of that I couldn’t for the life of me get any idea of what to put on paper.
I was brought squarely up against something that was to cause me a great deal of difficulty — the fact that the imagination of a forty-two-year-old adult, unless it has been constantly exercised, is not as facile as that of youth. One lime, much later, in lithography class, where we were called upon to make original designs for transfer to lithographic stones, I got so desperate trying to pull something original out of my head, that I conjured something from the only background 1 knew. While the toadstools, goblins, harlequins and snowflakes were taking shape on the drawing boards around me, I did a design of a meat chopper, a carrot, a turnip, an onion— all the ingredients of a good stew.
But I was bound I was going to stay with it. 1 settled down to work, and to work hard. I rarely stopped. When the other students took time out from classes in still life or clay modeling or sketching for a coffee break or to gather in the
corridors for a cigarette and a discussion of everything from whether there was a God to the importance of sex, Pd stay in the empty classroom, struggling with my project. Pd decided there was a God long ago, and my ideas on sex were so middle class that, although no one knew it, the first time in life class when I’d seen a model drop her robe, everything inside me shrank. I just wanted to learn to make my pencil or brush do what I wanted it to do. I would still be trying when the class came traipsing back. They’d look at me in disgust.
“Why don’t you knock it off?” they’d say. “You’re not going to paint a masterpiece, you know.”
I was known as a scrub. I was also a square. I did what the teacher told me, took my work seriously and wanted to succeed. We had appreciation lectures once a week at the Art Gallery or the Royal Ontario Museum, and the more we delved into the history of art the more I realized that it was the part of my background that was missing, and the more eager I was to learn. One time we were given a project of doing a thesis on a particular artist and his era, which we were to have in by the end of the term. I chose the water-color school of England, and turned it in by the allotted time. I was the only one in the class to get it done.
When the teacher made the announcement, one of the girls near me leaned over and said, "What are you trying to do—get us all in wrong?”
There were murmurs of “Sissy!” and “Teacher’s pet!” followed by a chorus of giggles. There’s no teacher’s pet like an old teacher's pet. To make it worse, the teacher insisted on reading my essay aloud, I presume as a lesson in industry, scholarship and good citizenship, which gave me the kiss of death from the kids. While my essay was being read, they drummed on their desks, heaved sighs, twitched and fidgeted.
I even dressed like a square. The keynote of fashion in my school set was a
general Bohemian rebellion, which expressed itself in disreputable slacks, dangling hair, ragged smocks and a general look of lean disregard for creature comforts and conformity. I couldn’t break the habits of a thrifty housewife so easily. I came to school well fed, scrubbed, with my hair washed, shampooed and combed. After years of shopping for a family, it was second nature to me to see that I had all the things I needed. 1 carried a full supply of oil, turpentine, brushes, paper, erasers, paints, paint cloths and everything but an emergency sewing kit. I was disgustingly bourgeois, and the only thing the kids approved of was my stock of supplies. They always came to me when they were short of something. It was my one claim to popularity, and lasted until I had no more materials left to hand around the class.
Storm over a still life
Underlying all my troubles, of course, was my age. I didn't feel old. But the youngsters felt that I belonged to the enemy camp—the adult camp. I made it worse by becoming so self-conscious that I withdrew to myself, which, to them, just made me appear aloof and critical, and the relationship became more strained.
If I took a stand on anything, I wasn’t stating my case, I was being bossy. I got a lesson in this one morning when I was given the assignment of setting up a stilllife group. Our mornings were spent painting from still life, mostly in oils, but sometimes in water colors. We’d sit around in a semicircle, four or five students deep, working from a group set up at the front of the class. This time I arranged what I thought was a satisfactory group, using a ballet slipper, some drapery, a goose feather and a fan. I’d hardly got back to my chair when the murmurs started. There were snorts and gasps of exasperation. Indignant voices came from all sides of me.
“That isn't a composition. It’s a window display.”
“It’s purely mechanical.”
“There’s nothing there to paint.”
An enigmatic blonde, whom I’d named to myself The Mysterious One, just said, “I’m going to another room,” and left.
I started to defend my arrangement. I pointed out that it had line and tension and rhythm, that one mass balanced the other. The students made sounds that added up to, "Get her!"
I turned red and stopped talking. A few days later I looked in the school magazine and saw a cartoon showing the rear elevation of a hefty woman sitting on a donkey. It was unmistakably me, as young people saw me, humpty backed, broad beamed, bossy and hard at work. It was the last time I took a stand. From then on I kept to myself. I became so withdrawn that if we had been issued report cards, I’d have got a “D” for adjustment.
I was going to school five and a half days and three nights a week. I went from nine to four Monday to Friday. On Saturday morning we had a composition class, with a project each week that had to be done at home and presented to the teacher the following Saturday. Three nights a week we had life drawing. By my second year I was also doing life painting and studying techniques and anatomy. I was working harder and with greater concentration than at any time of my life.
I’d get on the bus with my drawing board so tired and so involved in a project that one time 1 rode right to North Toronto, sitting beside a woman I’d known well for twenty years, without realizing it. She was a good friend and left me to my thoughts. When she got off, she touched me on the arm and said. “Aren’t you even going to say good-by to me?”
A square sinner
On an average day I’d get up at sixthirty, get through my daily ablutions, go downstairs and make breakfast for my husband Gordon and my son Lewis, who was now in his second year at the University of Toronto. (Victor was graduated and off to the north country to follow the career he had chosen—forestry.) I would tidy up, pile the dishes, make the beds, take a quick run through the house and be on the school bus by eight-thirty. After that first morning of thinking it would be a piquant experience to go to school with my children, I saw to it that I never got on the same bus again with Lewis and his friends.
I ate lunch either at the college cafeteria or in a restaurant, sometimes in one of the small restaurants on Spadina Avenue. I’d leave the college at fourthirty, take the bus home, lie down for half an hour, and start to prepare dinner. I usually did the shopping Saturday afternoon from a list I’d made up at school on the side of my drawing board.
It was a busy life—so busy, in fact, that at least one neighbor decided it couldn’t be done, and began wondering just what I was doing during the day. Was I really going to the College of Art? For a while I was probably the only person in the city with a reputation at the same time of being a square and leading a life of sin.
Another pattern the conversation often took when I’d meet people I hadn’t seen for a long time, went:
“What are you doing now, Florence? I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“I’m going to school.”
‘To school?” They’d give me a puzzled smile.
“Yes, to school. I’m studying art.” “Well, isn’t that interesting.” Thcre’d be a long pause. Then they’d add, “How are Gordon and the boys?”
Their tone would imply, “When you get time to think of them between gallivanting around.”
But my reputation at school was improving. When I had come back for my second year I had been happily surprised to find that some of my fellow students actually seemed glad to see me. I think part of the reason was that they realized that I was going to go the course. A more
important reason was that we were beginning to understand one another. I was beginning to realize that if I hadn’t been so concerned about my own troubles of being middle-aged. I’d have had time to realize that they were as self-conscious about their own position of being young as I was of being old.
I think the final turning point came one day when we were at a museum class. We were in the Chinese section. One dour, grey-haired museum guard kept staring at me as if I had no right at my time of life to be playing Bohemian,
and that it was about time I settled down and raised a family. He got me so nervous that I became conscious of the crumbs from my art gum falling on the floor. I got up and went to the washroom and came back with a sheet of paper towel to catch the crumbs. It was all the guard needed. He came up to me and said, “Don’t you ever let me catch you taking museum towels again. This museum is run on a budget, you know.” There was complete silence as he stalked off. I sat there blushing and feeling like crawling behind one of the dis-
plays. But the change in my relationship with the students gave me a new assurance. Finally I pronounced aloud, “If that old goat ever talks to me like that again, I'll dump all my paint water in one of his Ming vases.”
There was a chorus of delighted approval. It did more to make me one of the class than any single incident to date. There was a different climate.
While my relationship with the students was improving, the daily schedule of classes in painting and drawing that I had put in since making my first self-
conscious efforts were beginning to show results. By the time I was nearing my third year I was beginning to break through my shell to self-expression. I was enjoying many stimulating talks with the teachers, and when I joined a group of students in the cafeteria my contributions to the conversation were now received objectively, with no special hidden meanings attached to them because of my age.
Besides the personal psychological changes that my art studies were beginning to effect in me, they were pushing back my horizons in terms of actual ex-
perience. I was meeting a great variety of people, coming in contact with an entirely different world than I had known. I went with my class to New York to study the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. and I had the unique experience, for a woman my age, of seeing New York as a student.
As we neared the end of the course my acceptance by the students was so general that I was being included on murmured plans about a Big Evening. It still seemed a long way off and I said. “Sure, I’ll be glad to come,” omitting to
say that I’d never been in a cocktail lounge in my life. When the big evening arrived and a group of us gathered. I listened to the orders being placed and when my turn came said, “Molson’s, please. Blue Label.”
Up until then I had a hazy idea that we'd all have a beer and go home. By the time I realized everybody was buying a round, I also realized that I just had two dollars in my purse, and had already had enough beer to last me for the next year. It was terribly embarrassing to me. But by that time nobody was taking any notice of my blushes and one of the students was sentimentally psychoanalyzing me. His conclusion was that I had joined the Ontario College of Art because I wanted to be a good mother—something I’ve been trying to figure out ever since.
One afternoon a week later I was getting dressed for the graduation exercises to be held in the art gallery. I had followed the recommendation that all the women wear dark skirt and light blouse, in spite of it being a most unbecoming outfit for me because of my contour and size. When I arrived at the gallery I found that there were garden-party dresses, black silk suits, hats, gloves and even one blazer. Only one other girl wore a white blouse and black skirt. 1 was a square to the end.
We sat in reserved seats at the front of the art-gallery auditorium. When my turn came to go up to receive my diploma, I heard in a daze Fred Haines say, “Congratulations. I hope you’ve enjoyed your years with us."
1 answered, “I have," and I meant it with all my heart.
I was handed a parchment diploma stating that I’d passed the requirements of the Ontario College of Art with firstclass honors, and was now entitled to be an associate of the department of drawing and painting.
That fall I began teaching an adult class in art at Lawrence Park Collegiate, two nights a week. I also arranged to take a group of personal friends on outdoor painting classes, at their request. I taught a night class for the Confederation Life Association Staff Crafts and Hobby Group. But more important I continued to paint myself, and still do. In fact, I even sell one once in a while.
The other day an old friend of mine stopped me on the street and during the conversation we got around to the fact that I painted. She made a remark that I have heard, in one form or another, many times.
“What an interesting hobby,” she said. “I imagine it is a wonderful way to help put in time.”
I checked myself. I’m getting used to this attitude toward art—an interesting toy, something to dabble at when you’re bored. What I wanted to tell her was that my art was one of the most important and basic things that happened to me in my life. I feel now that I couldn't live without it, and sometimes wonder how others can. It drew me out of my shyness, gave me a new courage with which to meet middle age.
It taught me too that creative people have great perception. The artist sees and knows life and people. Now when I see someone sketching with his back wedged into the corner of a building, and see passers-by looking at him with the expression, “Well, I guess we need all types, but I’m glad I'm normal,” I know that they are the ones who are missing life, not the artist.
It’s hard to explain why this is so. It took me three years to find out for myself. And it’s one of the reasons why I wouldn’t have missed going back to school at forty-two. ★