On TV and in the movies, there is a cliche that insists that all children hate school. It’s interesting that in a time when everyone is so concerned about the welfare of children, protecting them from harmful influences of every variety real and imagined, that no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea to perpetuate. A button many people have pushed, at times on these very same TV shows and movies is this idea that the young should stay in school without adequate reasoning why this should be, other than for the benefit of good jobs and income later on. School should be looked upon, in my view, not as a means to an end, a sort of dues-paying period for kids, but as an end in and of itself. Personally, I think the reason I loved school as a child and then on into adulthood is because I knew that I was not in it alone. It was a time when I first was introduced to the simple idea that other people of my age were in the same boat as I was, and that I could revel in that and enjoy it. It was my first taste of truly sharing an environment and a set of circumstances with others. This has value beyond the marketplace, an ineffable treasure which remains with me, even to this day.
My wife and I met in grade 4 in Ms Portage’s class. She was the new kid, having moved with her family from Montreal to Oakville. What attracts me to her now is much the same as what attracted me then; smarts. She is one smart cookie. Recently we talked about school, most importantly our years at Sunningdale Public School, a red-bricked elementary school built in 1960 with a marvelous expanse of playing field which featured two baseball diamonds, a tennis court, and two soccer fields, not to mention being smashed right up against Oakdale Park, where a succession of monkey bars and slides came and went during our years there, as well as two venerable boulders, beside two park benches under a bower of trees, upon which we would also climb. On the northern-most part of the field, just at the bottom of the incline where we would go into class, were the remains of bike racks, now serving as a set of parallel bars, from where many of us used to hang and twirl as recess wound down into classtime. In terms of what our expectations of school were, my wife’s penchant was for extra work – she actually asked for homework! With me, I loved the stories, which Ms Portage was particularly good at delivering just because she was able to perform them, not just read them. A particular favourite, and one which stands out in my memory, is her reading of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which featured a cast of oversized insects, a couple of cruel maiden aunts, and the titular fruit. Ms. Portage would do the voices! We kids would sit in wonder, being drawn into the story of a kid about our same age, who triumphed over adversity, and who grew up on his great adventure while surrounded by friends. I think it really was this last bit which resonated so well with us; we were growing up, with varying amounts of adversity at times, while surrounded by friends of our own.
Most of the people I went to school with at that time I had known since the age of five and had shared classes and teachers, and experiences which seemed to last decades in accordance with how children experience the passage of time. Sunningdale Public School was a little world. We had shared the seasons, dressing up for Hallowe’en and wearing our costumes to school, decorating the classroom with highlights of green and red for Christmas, sending each other little cards made of construction paper for Valentine’s Day. In the winter, we formed orderly queues and enjoyed the natural snow-slides which the school grounds afforded, built as they were on a series of inclines as one got closer to the building when approaching from the rear field. There were school plays on the little stage in the gym (which seemed so enormous back then, sitting on the smooth floor and looking upward…) and assemblys of every kind, movies shown in the same gym, Christmas Caroling, the Queen’s Silver Jubliee when we all got coins in little plastic sleeves, class-awards for sports, and stories we’d written read (in my case) to the whole school. History, of the greater world and our own, was pushing us along as we grew, as we played on the sunwashed fields during “Play-Day” and during the two fifteen minutes of recess which seemed an adequate time for us to have an adventure of our own making, or to spend time with a teacher outside of the classroom before the school bell rang and it was time for us to return to our desks. When one has so many shared experiences, it is easy to recall such a time as that of our first sense of community, that this little world of school was our world, our time.
One of the things which I often think of is a time when a group of us sat under the trees on the park benches near the two boulders in Oakdale Park in 1981, discussing our future. It was the future we were talking about, the big Year Two-Thousand, and we thought about how funny, and wonderful it would be to meet up again (just like the song by Pulp) on that magical year and in that same place, to see how different things would be, how things would have changed. I think we hoped that we would all still be friends, that we would still know each other and get along the way we always had. But, I think the main reason it came up was because we knew that things would never be the same again, when Junior School loomed, and High School would soon follow. Of course at that time, we couldn’t put it into words, at least not in terms of a living reality. It was the time of fantasy, when our futures were more malleable. That was the point; we were in our age of innocence. Such things as the passage of time and of change seemed to be no further beyond the thought of grade 7 at a new school. But, I think we knew we would have to say goodbye, not all at once for many of us, but in increments.
Of course, things changed as they do, as we now expect them to do as a matter of course as adults. Junior School introduced a new influx of kids from other feeder schools in the area, adding a new infusion to our gene pool. The play of the past became more like intrigue – who is going out with who? Who likes who? Hormones made their presences known, and those we barely noticed in years gone by, were suddenly objects of our hidden, and not so hiddden, affection. We became teenagers, always aware of ourselves and always worried about what others thought of us. By the time High School rolled around and by the end of grade 9, I had moved away to attend another school and many of the kids I’d known at Sunningdale became faces I’d only see occasionally when on my travels during weekends, and during part-time jobs.
When I look back on my time at Sunningdale, I remember it as a time when I was growing with a community, when we shared experiences and formed friendships in a way that served us well for the time we spent there. It was a time when we gained a sense of perspective about the future and the nature of our lives, that the future was coming, that we would be different people before the end, and that it was all OK because we knew that we were enjoying something unique and something which would never pass our way again. While growing up, while experiencing new things and meeting new people, keeping my mind open to the possibilities of the future, I would often take a walk back to my old school grounds, the vast expanse of playing field now a little less expansive due to the presence of portables and a new parking lot, and revisit the time. I would stand under the old tree in the middle of the school ground, thinking of the time a bunch of us, in the second grade no less, put on a play we’d made up about a young prince meeting the ghost of his dead father under that very tree, and wondering why the teaching staff were so enthused about it. We thought we were just making up a story, unaware that we were performing our version of Hamlet. I remember my years there as something which grounds me to this day and reminds me of what school can inspire in a child, beyond the theories of education. In me, and in many of us, it inspired us to express ourselves, to share our ideas with each other and to play with wild abandon.