OPINION

Wolfe was wrong— you can go home again

PAUL WELLS June 5 2006
OPINION

Wolfe was wrong— you can go home again

PAUL WELLS June 5 2006

Wolfe was wrong— you can go home again

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

I never did get much out of Thomas Wolfe’s writing, and it turns out the line everyone quotes was wrong. You can go home again. Sometimes when you do, you learn that just about everyone worked out fine.

Last week, I went home to Sarnia, at the southern tip of Lake Huron, for the 50th anniversary reunion of Northern Collegiate Institute and Vocational School. Not my class’s 50th anniversary. They don’t do reunions by class year at Northern, perhaps because things change so slowly in Sarnia that the whole school doesn’t need to surrender to nostalgia more often than every 25 years. I played in the band at the 25th reunion in 1981. Now here we were together again already. For two days, it felt like none of us had ever left.

We were an intergenerational jumble of sometimes grey and paunchy revellers, but the Class of 1984 came out in big numbers. There was Cindy, who had the locker next to me in Grade 9. A lot of your anxiety about high school goes away fast if the girl at the next locker looks like Cindy. There was Richard, the quiet guy from Little League who did the killer impression of our math teacher. (That teacher had a firmer grasp of polynomials than of English idiom: “Take out your pencils and write to your notebook.”) There was Peggy, whose house on Lakeshore had the best beachfront backyard in the whole Great Lakes. When Peggy had a beach party, you went.

There’s a rich vein of reunion catastrophism in popular culture. In Grosse Pointe Blank, John Cusack hopes nobody in his hometown will learn he grew up to be a hit man. In Celebrity, Kenneth Branagh hopes nobody will realize he grew up to star in a very bad Woody Allen movie. But in real life, at least the kids who bothered to come back to our reunion grew up happy and productive.

True, a few were worried about Paul, who played trumpet in the band but who grew up to become a pariah in the hated parliamentary press gallery. But the rest of them are fine.

Hélène manages a little concert hall north of Toronto. Michele worked in a bank for 20 years—started as a teller and worked up to a fancy title—but now she teaches yoga fulltime and she looks happier than ever. Bob, the cut-up from the trombone section of the band, was a trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for a while. Now he lives in Toronto. Bob voted for David Miller for mayor because Miller promised to keep the Island Airport from expanding. Bob has a waterfront condo and a yacht and he didn’t want airliners flying overhead all the time. I guess you’d put Bob near the blue end of Mayor Miller’s rainbow coalition.

Richard, the guy from Little League, teaches math to prisoners in Kingston, Ont. What’s that like? “It’s a growth industry,” Richard said, “and I don’t have to deal with their

A good school puts a spark in you, and my school’s just getting started. Go Vikings.

parents.” Chuck grew up to be a police sergeant in Kingston. He keeps Richard well stocked with students.

On Friday and Saturday night we sat around drinking beer and getting reacquainted. On Sunday there was a party on Peggy’s beach. (She’s the Toronto Star’s librarian now.) Daytime Saturday was for catching up with old teachers. Of the half-dozen I wanted to thank, three were at the school. Mike Holland ran the library. He kept that room tidy and quiet, taught us the basics of good research, gave us a haven where we could decide what we thought about things. I get angry now when I visit a school, somewhere in Canada, where the library isn’t always open.

Of all my school’s fine French teachers,

Albert Lozier worked the hardest to show us that French in Canada is a culture, not just a language. He brought poets and singers to perform, taught us the plays of Gratiën Gélinas. Meeting him again, I wanted to tell him how his lessons sent me to Montreal and Paris and into the pages of La Presse, but I was so nervous my French sounded like Scott Brison’s.

At Northern, two of the best teachers taught music. Scott Milligan was the constant, hottempered, competitive, a fine church organ-

ist. He toured the senior band often, and to our ears no band we met sounded better. But then we never competed head-on with the band from across town, at Central, which the school board closed in 1982. That municipal cataclysm sent refugees streaming north to our school: the stately Flemish band director, Willie Timmermans, and several of his students.

One of them, Pam, sat next to me in Milligan’s band and across from me in Willie’s brass quintet. Pretty soon she was my best friend. Today she’s a school principal in Barrie. Old allegiances die hard: I was a Milligan partisan, and for me the highlight of the weekend came when I dusted off a borrowed cornet to play Holst and Vaughan Williams under my old teacher’s baton. Pam was closer to Timmermans. He’s not well these days, so we didn’t see him on reunion weekend. I wanted to tell him that Pam grew up to continue his work as an educator, and that to this day when I hear Pachelbel’s Canon I remember how proud he looked when we played it. A good school puts a spark inside you that never goes away. After half a century, our school’s just getting started. Go Vikings. M