stillpoint

musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

school dazed...


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.


Suddenly 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.

My parents, 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

The 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 that way.

The teacher, 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 at school.


Recreation of my vividly remembered first drawing.

Being 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 all.

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.

Back in 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.

"What'cha got there?" He grabbed my arm and fished out the biscuit. "Hiding a cookie, eh?"

I almost spoke. Almost told him it wasn't a cookie…

"Mine 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 school.

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!) 

In later 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!

Everything 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 shell.)

Surprise 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.)

Mr. Gibson 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.)



Permalink: school dazed...


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

   

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2 Comments:

At 4:02 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

This was a great trip down memory lane except mine was a little bit different from yours. As you may have guessed from what you know of me, "shy" was not exactly in my vocabulary. In later years, at boarding school, I learned every technique in the book for spiking a temperature. I am sure they knew all of them too!!! I won't reveal. Your Mr. Gibson sounds like he was decades ahead of his time. I think he taught you what real schooling is all about. Thanks for the trip.

 
At 8:55 am, Blogger Joanne Guidoccio said...

Hi Cheryl, I love reading "Back to school" stories. I guess it's the teacher in me that still has some melancholy for the classroom. From ages 6 to 53, I had many first days. While I loved learning and teaching, I still had the butterflies in my stomach on that first Tuesday after Labour Day. :)

 

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