During my adolescence, it wasn’t too difficult to maintain my anonymity (or, as I preferred to think of it: exclusivity) in a suburban high school with an enrollment of over three thousand students, which isolated academic, commercial and technical programs in separate sprawling wings. It was the heyday for such educational innovations as one way halls and up and down staircases, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to be in the care of a system that thought it was a good idea to require me to take a left turn out of my English classroom and force march me down a packed corridor past a ‘down’ staircase, further along to an ‘uppie’, back across the second story hallway to another ‘downie’ to reach my Math class, just next door on the right. The only time I went to the Guidance department with a timetable conflict, I was told, point blank, by a very harried secretary (or, as they are now called, Office Administrator),
“You can’t possibly expect us to care about one student (that would be me, I guess) in the midst of 3000!” I never returned, which was probably just as well, when you consider all the self-esteem slaughtering that usually went on in those places.
In ‘Secondary School’, as it was called, I never distinguished myself, either academically, extra-curricularly or, especially, socially. I simply tried to fly under the radar and escape with my life.
Right away, my misguided predilection for literature and the arts landed me in an inferior stream of classes, since it was predetermined by those who have crystal balls, that such bluestockings weren’t destined for the right kind of greatness so why waste the good teachers on them? Nein, it was the ‘German’ students who were considered the cream of the future crop-to-be. Kind of ironic, given the post-war time period, but I guess it was thought that anyone who could master its delightful utterings had the makings of…..well, I can imagine what, but don’t really want to say. So the kids who chose German were in 10A, 11A, 12A….you get the idea, with the other geniuses, where they could be carefully groomed to capture the most scholarships when they eventually graduated.
The dabblers in music and art fell somewhat lower in the alpha pecking order for all eternity. In peripheral classrooms and crumbling portables, we were sent off to fool around under the scant supervision of semi-retired Board retainers and incompetent eccentrics to our hearts’ content. This is where I learned to smoke in the girls’ bathroom (but not inhale) skip class and head to the local plaza for coke (-a-cola….it was the 50’s) with the bad kids.
There was still a lot of learning going on. We were required to sample the usual menu of subjects like English (Comp and Lit), History, Geography (remember that?), French (Comp and Lit) Sciences, Phys Ed and Latin (yup! No kidding.) Oh, yes, and Math. How could I forget Math? We learned a lot….nine subjects every day, every year till we were full. Without the technological advantages of today, we were forced, like prehistoric hard-drives, to memorize and regurgitate vast amounts of useful information which we were assured would come in handy ‘one day’.
(I hate to show off, but did you know, for example, that a wrestler by the name of Maurice “The Angel” Tillet suffered from a disease known as Acromegaly? You might want to text that on your keypad for future reference. You never know when it might come up. If you forget, you can always Google it. There are 818,000 sites where you can admire pictures of the symptoms, which I can tell you, aren’t pretty. My twenty pound Biology text, which I had to shlep back and forth to school in my aching arms, each day, only had one tiny photo, but it obviously made the desired impression).
The only clubs I joined were the Film club (all meetings were held in a dark screening room) and the Philosophy club. Both of these very selective organizations (the same twenty students were in both of them) were led by our beloved English teacher, a man, who it was later discovered, had more than a passing interest in some of the prettier girls in the group. None of them was I, however, so there are no juicy stories of seduction during the sinking of the Battleship Potemkin on this Blog. That is someone else’s story. However, to his credit, he did take us on a very enlightening field trip in our senior year. We went downtown to the campus at the University of Toronto to sit in on a Philosophy lecture given by one of the more famous professors on staff, a Dr. Marcus Long.
As I sat there, attending to his every wise word, I realized that if I could survive High School, my suffering would soon be over and I would, once again, find myself among worthy minds.
In the meantime, I channeled my creativity and love of drama (plays, not tantrums) into painting backdrops of the Emerald City, watching my friends chew up my scenery as they pranced around onstage as an esteemed members of the Lollipop Guild. There was a lot of talent at that school, it turned out. A future distinguished theatre critic and dramaturge, a personal favorite of the staff director, both of whom shall remain nameless, won the part of the Cowardly Lion, much to the disappointment of another student, a soon to be big-shot Emmy-Award-Winning TV Comedy Writer and Blog-friend, who has never gotten over it. High school scars us all.
I went to one basketball game, something lame called a ‘Pep Rally’, and one sock hop for fifteen minutes. To me, high school in Toronto was a total disappointment, both socially and academically. It bore no resemblance to what I had seen in movies or read about in Archie and Veronica, not to mention what my friend Geraldine was enjoying in her all-American teens on Long Island, New York, where I visited her one Christmas holiday and realized what I was missing. She took me to a high school basketball game where the pompom girls and cheerleaders rivaled anything seen today on the Superbowl. The game was good too. Just like in the movies. Not like our school’s useless attempt to provide diversion at the Grey Cup game that year, when the field was completely socked in by dense fog and no one could see the ball let alone the singers and dancers.
Socially, things couldn’t be worse. Since my frugal parents would not indulge me in the fashion requirements for popularity - finely pleated reversible plaid skits and matching twin sets or even the imported (from Buffalo) white wool socks called ‘Adlers’, I was definitely not going to stand out as one of the girls with a future. My dates were few and so far between that I can count them and recount them on the fingers of one hand. My personal favorite was from a ‘lovely boy’ who made it clear, after I accepted, that he only asked me to a Segovia concert because I seemed to be the only girl in class who might appreciate it. Instead of being flattered, I, of course, totally missed the point and felt quite insulted that he hadn’t simply found me too stunning to resist! I refused to hold his hand, even though the seats were very expensive and afforded a clear view of the old maestro’s picking, and thereby lost my chance to become the wife of a future Doctor of some kind of medical research contributing to the cure of cancer. (I am not being sarcastic!)
Before I leave this close encounter with past lives, I must tell you a funny story. Back in the days before computers and databanks, student records were kept on this stuff they call ‘paper’ and they were separated into folders called OSR’s, one per kid, which followed you all your school life. Where they went after you left school is anybody’s guess, but there must be some stockpile of carbon-copied report cards, health charts and mug shots holding up some building foundation, somewhere. Well, it seems that one day a group of senior boys got it into their heads that it would be fun to create a mythical student and surreptitiously get his name on their class rolls. Once done, they could easily take turns responding ‘present’ during attendance checks and hand in assignments with his name on them. They even went so far as to create an OSR for him in the Guidance Department. They agreed that this new classmate would be known as Anthony Stunning. Anthony became quite a source of amusement as his identity crept out to the rest of the student body. No one gave him up. The staff became quite confused and flustered. No one could get to the bottom of it. It drove them crazy.
Finally, the Principal was called in to address the senior assembly. With all the dignity and ferocity a man five feet tall could muster, he wagged his fist at the suspects and shouted,
“This Stunning business has got to stop!”
High school wasn’t so bad after that.