On a scale
of one to ten, where ten meant "favourite thing ever" and one meant
"bane of my existence", school consistently ranked a lowly one or two
in my books. Sometimes it managed to slide right on down into negative numbers.
Mine was a passionate aversion. So intense that, even now, decades after leaving
the hallowed halls forever, I'm still haunted by the icy fingers of anxiety at
this time of year.
I'm five years old again, horrified by the fading summer, by the looming menace
of the great unknown, by… The First Day
of School. The situation required a firm stand. "No school for
me," I told Mom and Dad. "I don't want
to." It may have been more like foot stamping than firm standing.
bless them, tried gentle encouragement and even a bit of bribery. They said I'd
make lots of new friends. ("Don't want new friends. I'm shy."). They
hinted at wonderful new toys and games to play. ("I like my toys.") They promised I'd love
my teacher. (I won't! She's mean!) They offered new shoes and a pretty new
outfit. (Tempting, but… "I won't
go and you can't make me!")
I can only
imagine how exasperated they must have been when, after weeks of cajoling, they
finally resorted to, "Enough! You
have to go to school. It's the law."
I consulted the neighbour kids,
Linda and Billy. Older than me and wise in the ways of school and the law, they
filled my head with whispered tales of truant officers and reform school – a dismal
place with bars on the windows and stale bread with tepid water for dinner.
And so, on
a fateful September Tuesday, I marched (not so) bravely up the street, wearing
my crisp white blouse, swishy plaid skirt, and shiny new shoes. Mom pep-talked
me all the way to school, holding tight to my hand in case I might bolt for home. I
didn't want to cry, but by the time we reached the school yard, my face was wet
with tears and each breath came in a tight sob.
Life as I knew it was over.
|Norway Public School, circa 1955 | Public Domain photo|
courtesy Toronto Public Library Archives
hallways at Norway Public School smelled of paste and paint, of ink and floor
wax (and sometimes, I soon discovered, of wet wool, old shoes, and sweaty boys).
My first-day strategy was to look forlorn and say absolutely nothing. Between that
and the floods of tears I couldn't seem to control, I figured they'd soon realize
I didn't belong at school and send me home forever. It didn't quite work out
whose name remains a blank spot in my memory, tactfully ignored my streaming tears
and sniffles, distracting me with a brand new box of crayons and a big sheet of
construction paper. I didn't want to like her. I tried really, really hard not
to like her. But when she admired my first drawing, I had to admit that perhaps
she wasn't so mean after all. And when she pinned my drawing to the wall beside
her desk, I might even have thought she was nice. But I still didn't want to be
|Recreation of my vividly remembered first drawing.|
painfully shy, not to mention being the girl who cried, invariably meant I
was last to be chosen for games of Red Rover or baseball. This wasn't entirely
a bad thing – Red Rover scared me and baseball was downright dangerous on the
cinder-covered schoolyard. I was happiest when I could avoid being chosen at
One of the
big grade two boys liked to follow us younger kids around, 'accidentally' bump
into us, and then steal our recess snacks. I had the scabby knees and cinder scars
to prove it. My eventual revenge, though unintentional, was sweet.
those days, I had a great little dog named Cookie. Every morning I'd tuck a Spratt's
Oval dog biscuit into my jacket pocket as a special after school treat for her.
One day bully-boy caught me checking it out and ran across the playground to
confront me. I shoved the little biscuit back into my pocket.
got there?" He grabbed my arm and fished out the biscuit. "Hiding a cookie, eh?"
spoke. Almost told him it wasn't a cookie…
now," he said, and popped it into his mouth, crunching it up as he
strutted away. And then he stopped, doubled over, and vomited on his shoes.
I guess that can happen when you're expecting sweet ginger but get charcoal and liver instead. The bully never bothered me again. But I still didn't
want to be at school.
Eventually I managed to get my tears under control (mostly) and by grade one I even
worked up a smile in time for the class photo. But I still didn't want to be at
I was one of those kids who managed to catch every bug that made the rounds. For me, the best parts of the school year were those quiet days at home where Mom would install me on the living room sofa with
colouring books, ginger ale, and green Jell-O to help me feel better. I liked it so much that I always stayed sick for a few days longer than was
strictly necessary. If there was no bug making the rounds at school,
I'd invent one. I even devised a way to make the thermometer read a few degrees
higher than the truth when pulled from beneath my tongue. (My method remains a
secret to this day, lest I corrupt a new generation of slackers!)
years, I spent those lovely sick days lost in library books – Swallows and Amazons, Anne of Green Gables, and more. Somehow,
despite many absences, I managed not only to pass every grade but to do so
with report cards full of As and Bs. Of course, the teacher comment line always
included some variation of, "Cheryl needs to work on her social
skills." Followed by, "She has a vivid imagination." Tsk. Of
course I had a vivid imagination. I spent most of my happy time hanging out there!
changed in grade seven. I was packed off to a new school and a new class for
bright, alternative learners – an experimental class that might, it was hoped,
bring me out of my shell. (It didn't seem to matter that I quite liked my
number one: my new teacher was a man! I was terrified of Mr. Gibson for the
first five minutes and, like everyone else in the class, a little bit in love
with him ever after. And the surprises just kept coming.
Mr. Gibson took us to
visit his mother who demonstrated weaving on a gigantic loom in her attic. He
introduced us to musical theatre with a trip to see The Mikado and follow-up singalongs of Gilbert and Sullivan patter.
He brought fresh oysters and raw turnip to class and lined us all up for taste
tests. (I liked the turnip but managed to stay at the end of the line until …
uh-oh, no more oysters, oh well.)
didn't believe in exams. When we took tests, text books were always left open
around the room and we were free to look things up. We rarely did. He
encouraged us to experiment with science, art, and literature; to work in teams
and form new friendships. I met a kindred spirit in that class – Kate, who remains my best friend after all these years. Most important of all, Mr. Gibson
taught us to think for ourselves and then to be brave enough to say what we
thought. We would've done just about anything for him.
Unfortunately, most of
the parents – my own included – thought Mr. Gibson was doing everything wrong,
turning their sweet, bidable children into outspoken little monsters. His
great experiment lasted only one year, but I was a part of it. And for the first and
only time in my life, I wanted to be at school. Mr. Gibson, if you're still out
there… thanks for the very best of times.
So, reader, are you a
school lover or loather? Let me know in the comments. (But if you think you
know how I spoofed the thermometer, best keep it to yourself. We wouldn't want
to start an epidemic.)
Postscript: I've just discovered that a young friend of mine had his first day of Junior Kindergarten yesterday at – you guessed it – Norway Public School! Today's Norway is a very different place from the old school I knew. The creepily Gothic building is gone and so are the dreadful cinders in the yard. Also gone are the first-day jitters and tears. My young friend looked forward to school all summer and, judging by the photos shared by his proud parents, he couldn't be happier there. And you know, after writing it all down I'm feeling a little better about the whole school experience myself. (But I still don't want to be there.)
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stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington
Labels: anxiety, bullies, Cheryl Cooke Harrington, Cookie the Dog, first day of school, history, memoir, memories, reading, school, teachers, Toronto, writing