Saturday, January 30, 2010

Teacher's Pet

Irony: "Incongruity between what actually happens and what might be expected to happen, especially when this disparity seems absurd or laughable".
(my less-than-reliable Microsoft Word dictionary)

When I was a teenager, if anyone had told me that I would wind up spending most of my life teaching in a high school, I’d have killed myself right then and there. I hated high school with such a fury; I swore it would be the last doorstep I would ever darken once I had the opportunity to escape. This vow narrowed my professional opportunities by half, for in those days, yes, way back then, a smart girl had but three choices open to her: teaching or social work. I wasn’t too crazy about either of those and I didn’t like my chances for the third (yes, I can count), to go to university and earn an MRS, as it was commonly called. After all, how could a person who had gone on only three dates, all of them disasters, ever hope to entice anyone into a long term commitment? I didn’t even have much of a chest, hope or otherwise.

But more of that later.

I enjoyed my primary years of education immensely.

Much of this was due to my excellent teachers (up to Grade Seven, I never met one I didn’t love or who didn’t reciprocate my affection and admiration. After that....well, let's save that for another time).

I began in Kindergarten with two little old ladies, Miss Wilson and Miss O’Brien, who, like many women of their generation, were left single by the decimation of the male population in WW11. Now that I think of it, they probably weren’t so old. They just seemed so to me. They were probably in their 30’s…. half my present age, mere babies, or perhaps even ‘babes’ for all I know. Back then, everyone was so tall and ancient, from my diminutive perspective.

Kindergarten was truly ‘awesome’, in the original sense of the word. Not a day went by that I wasn’t amazed by something wonderful. Imagine pressing your little hand on a platter of soggy asbestos and creating a lasting impression of your very existence at such a formative stage. (It may even be the original source of my hacking ‘asthma’, come to think of it). Unfortunately, this precious memento vanished from the family archives, along with many other charming artifacts. Perhaps, it’s just as well, considering the medium.

Most of those early years are a blur of scabby knees and swinging as high as possible, without incurring a concussion, on the overhead bars. A few incidents persist in the memory, refusing to vanish. As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in Grade One, I asked my teacher how to spell the word ‘out’, one of those words we Canadians are often teased about mispronouncing by those who haven’t got a clue. “Oh You Tea, spells Out Goes She”….was the strange and puzzling reply, chanted with a lilt and a backward glance which demanded instant comprehension, but actually left me in a complete fog. I had no idea what she meant.

It left damaging scars on my psyche, for I remember that humiliation to this day. Obviously, in time, I figured it out but it was one of those first, of many occasions to come, especially in Math and Latin class, when something fairly simple to everyone else, seemed completely incomprehensible to me.

My mother was called in for an emergency meeting that year to be told, with some concern, that I was reading at a Grade 4 level and that there might be something wrong with me. Those certainly were enlightened times! Since I had been reading practically since birth, this was no surprise to her, but she was pleased, nevertheless. However, I presented a problem in a system, which, in those days, was designed to accommodate only one kind of student. And I just didn’t fit the cubbyhole.

The strongest memory I have of Grade Two is that I got lost trying to find the facilities in my new school and this occasioned a major disaster, not for me personally, but for a fellow classmate. Living in the rapidly expanding post-war suburbs, new schools were popping up on every corner and rather than cross Bathurst St. to my old school, a block away, it was declared necessary by those powers that decide such things, that I attend a brand new school much further away, but on the other side of that busy thoroughfare. Since the north end of Toronto seemed to stop at Lawrence Avenue, back then, this may have been an overly cautious move, but I have to admit that we did have a spaniel that chose an inauspicious moment to run across that intersection and throw himself, suicidally, in the path of the only oncoming car for miles and miles around. So I now ventured south a few blocks, instead of west, across the street, just to be on the ‘safe side’, so to speak.

Well, anyways, back in those days there were no ‘welcoming tours’ for new students at the beginning of the year, hence my confusion when faced with so many hallway alternatives in my quest for the girl’s bathroom. When I finally did find it, it was so sparkly and impressive that, I must admit, I got a little distracted and took longer than usual playing with the magic fountain sink and admiring myself in the mirror. Suddenly, a contingent of female classmates burst in, displaying that special brand of hysterics demonstrated by budding drama queens, and began berating me for taking so long. It turned out that another pupil, unable to contain herself until my tardy return, had wet her pants in despair. Things were pretty rigid, back then. Only one person could answer any calls to nature at a time. Their chastisements failed to have the desired effect. Quite the opposite. Up till then, I had had no idea that life could not proceed in its natural course without my presence. This single event made me feel pretty important from that point on. I may have even taken on ‘airs’.

In Grade Three, there was the beautiful Miss Blaine, who let us dangle from her hands as she supervised the playground during recess. She was young and still enthusiastic and above all, kind. It was even worth forfeiting your turn at double-dutch just to fasten onto the mitten of the girl whose turn it was to hold this woman’s hand. (If you doubt the power of an attractive teacher over the little girls in her charge, it’s time for you to read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. Or, you can rent the film version, with Maggie Smith, which is even better, but I didn’t tell you this since, as a former teacher of English lit, I’m not allowed to encourage such intellectual laziness.)

Mr. Sutherland followed for Grades Four and Five. He was tall (as was every adult), sandy-haired and very attractive, compared to all the other male teachers, which isn't saying much, but you took what you could from these life experiences.
It was a ‘split grade’, and I was in the lower half, which meant I could listen in to the more advanced lessons after I tossed off my seatwork, an activity that he encouraged. What do I remember about those classes? Nothing academic, of course. However, he frequently addressed some of the older girls in class with contempt because they were following the fashion of the day and smearing on a pale lipstick, which he referred to as ‘pink vomit’. It was sensational, let me tell you, to hear this kind of language in a classroom. Unfortunately, it was also influential to hear an attractive man express disdain for appearance at the expense of intelligence and it reinforced the early psychological warpings of my own father, who frequently praised high marks above those more culturally acceptable feminine virtues of the day, beauty and compassion. My adorable, friendly and big-hearted sister never had a chance, nor did our mother, who, come to think of it, was, in her day, prized for those very same virtues. These men and their ilk, bachelors or misogynists, one and all, invited me to join them on their elevated plain to look down on the rest of my gender as superficial man-hunters, full of frivolity and silliness. Little did they realize they were sowing the seeds of the Feminist movement!

On the other hand, to add conflict and self-doubt, important ingredients in character formation, there was Miss Fedder, a gorgeous, raven-haired temptress who taught Gr. Two, and occasionally visited the little girl’s bathroom to touch up her scarlet lipstick. She was definitely a little less chalk-dusty than the rest of her colleagues, an aberration in a profession that valued plainness, above all else, in its practioners. We little girls would look up in awe at her ministrations and primpings, eager to learn how to emulate that pressing and pursing of a pair of newly anointed lips. Such glamour!

Then, in Grades Six and Seven, along came Mr. Anthony. What can you say about a very neat man, who wore pastel shirts under tastefully colour-coordinated ties, who waved his hands around in the air like he was about to take off and who ‘lived with his mother’?

Back in the 1950’s you couldn’t say much.

He was certainly different. He was also brilliant, inspirational and, god forbid, creative. Once a week for Art class was just not enough for him. He quickly picked up on my passion for all things decorative, and encouraged me at every opportunity. Our classroom looked like it had been attacked by Sarah Richardson, Debby Travis and Oprah’s Nate, a la meme fois! (He also introduced us to what was then innocuously referred to as 'Oral French').
He was way ahead of his time, since this was not on the Ontario curriculum, so he was tempting fate in many ways).

When he discovered my flare, Mr. Anthony immediately exempted me from normal classroom activities; I was destined for ‘enrichment’. Lest you think this meant I got carte blanche on all the treats that were given out, don’t get too excited. For example, I didn’t get to sing the French solo at the Christmas concert. My voice was on pitch but my beauty was not as well developed, shall we say, as the golden-haired Lynnette, who got to wear a diaphanous white shift and arabesque provocatively in front of the whole choir at the annual assembly, creating the illusion of a damsel pining for her lover by the “A la Claire Fontaine” with an amazing effectiveness in one so young, now that I think of it.

But I’m not bitter.

Let’s just say, that years later, I truly felt for that little girl who did the voice behind the lip-synching cutie at the Beijing Olympics.

Thus, I was destined to develop my special talents for more ‘behind the scenes’ efforts. For example, I was assigned the task of illustrating the poem, “The Lady of Shallot” on the massive side blackboard, in colored chalk, while Mr. Anthony taught it to the rest of the class. I felt like a mini-Michelangelo, or would have, had I yet known of his existence. Several times that year, I was to be found in the school corridor, perched on a ladder, arranging an ostentatious Christian seasonal display on the huge bulletin board outside the Principal’s office. These were the days well before ‘multiculturalism’, when all colonial children were instructed in the ways of the motherland and the Anglican church…. diversity be damned!
And it was little me who was allowed to stay after school and wash the paint trays and bang the chalk dust out of the brushes. Such perks!

Gender equity was not yet part of the culture in Grade Seven. There was great social upheaval when I unexpectedly won the class election for Junior Red Cross President, so I willingly conceded the position to the second place contestant, Stanley, a pre-pubescent boy with flair for impersonating Elvis. My gender and outstanding penmanship unquestionably marked me as a natural for the more appropriate job of Secretary. (Or so it was explained to me by my beloved Mr. A., who knew, only too well, about hiding your light under a socially acceptable barrel). As a great consolation, I was allowed assume the role more traditionally assigned to females, of 'the woman behind the man', to do all the work of the President, anyways, organizing the weekly Friday afternoon class meetings, in order to free him up to perfect his impression of “The Pelvis” for his weekly performance. (Elvis was not yet anointed, “The King”, to keep things in their historical perspective here).

Order in the Great Chain was momentarily restored.

These privileges only served to further inflate my sense of self-importance and contributed to my comfort level in the classroom. I felt like the whole place existed just for my edification.

There was nowhere to go, but down.

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