In the opening paragraphs of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the status of “the Jewish high school” of Montreal is already threatened by a jump in gentile enrolment. And though Richler called it Fletcher’s Field High School, the institution itself is as real and rich in tradition as the odor emanating from the few remaining bagel bakeries and Jewish delicatessens in the St. Urbain Street neighborhood. Its true name is Baron Byng High School, the alma mater of actors William Shatner and Marilyn Lightstone, poets Irving Layton and A. M. Klein, former New Democratic Party leader David Lewis, cancer specialist Dr. Phil Gold and, of course, Richler himself.
Now, the smell of souvlaki and feta permeates the changing immigrant area and Greek is heard almost as often as English in Baron Byng’s corridors. Soon, the school may live only in the pages of Richler’s novels. Last month, the Protestant School Board of Greater
Montreal decided to close the historic school by this summer. Dwindling enrolment numbers and rising costs are the reason. But within days of the announcement, parents, teachers and students took up the cause of saving the school. Hundreds of alumni pledged to join the protest and last week 800 crowded into the school’s gymnasium to demonstrate their support. Said alumnus and Montreal City Councillor Sid Stevens: “As far as we’re concerned, money is not the key issue. We could find the money.” But the school board says it would save $164,000 a year by closing Baron Byng, where only 400 students use space designed for 700. “History lives in the hearts and minds of people, not inside concrete walls,” says board chairman, Joan Dougherty. “We’re in the business of running a school board, not preserving historic monuments.”
Such unsentimental determination only brings out the persevering Duddy Kravitz in the school’s defenders. Vows Stevens: “The board doesn’t know who it’s getting involved with. We’ll carry on our fight to the school board elections in June and if we have to we’ll go to the provincial government. We are not giving up.” But the last chapter appears to have been written on Baron Byng. Laments Richler: “Maybe if we had more pride as a people we would be less inclined to destroy things.”
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