Behind Very Closed Doors: a private boys' school in the public '60s

(Or: Bully me into conformity? Sorry, no. A survivor's tale.)

Hey, Tim, your very kind email checked in, out of the blue, yesterday (a somewhat bruised blue, at our age!) and has got me thinking all day today about our school days (almost 50 years ago!), and the fact I've never put my thoughts on paper. One of my writer friends suggests I'm a closet essayist (not his adjective); truth is I'm simply lazy. Always was. A lethargic kid. As I said, in my email response to you, I was pretty insufferably shy and sensitive as a kid (genetic, absolutely, and from my mum), and survived the days in the classroom by daydreaming. About what, I can't remember. Certainly about girls, though, once I was fifteen or so, and also starting to write poetry "with serious intent" (alongside a great kid, Randy M, from Ottawa, during study hall sessions); I was writing odes to Winston Churchill, for god's sake; imagine that; talk about what kind of archaic "culture" I grew up in in Oak Bay, "behind the tweed curtain," as that quaint upper-crust "Victorian" municipality was commonly known. My dad started his married working life with a bookstore right there on "the" Avenue: "Bett's Bookshop"--went bust within three years, and dad went to work as a mid-level Administrator for the provincial government, while my mother supplied the inherited family wealth, such as it was, reduced to a near genteel poverty by then. My grandfather paid the private school bills, of course.

No, my firm belief has always been that the majority of our teachers were either beyond or only verging just this side of simply atrocious. No other word. I don't say that with the slightest bitterness--I know why that was likely so (which I'll get to in a moment); it was just the way it was, and due to that fact has never left me feeling I was educationally fleeced! My life--my values, core beliefs, moral compass, and all that grand stuff--came from my home, not from our British-style boys' only boarding school. Excuse the blithering and digression as I go back even further into my earlier school life, in the '50s.

1950s Elementary School, and Only One Pervert in Sight:

I remember in "public" elementary school our generation of kids was taught by middle-aged widows who'd lost husbands in WWII and who'd come back into the classroom (unprepared and out of sheer economic necessity) to "battle-axe" and "school marm" their way through their work day, having perhaps last taught very briefly after finishing high school and their two year "teacher training," so-called. How could they have been anything other than scrambling, hopeless, begrudging and utterly inept? They did me no lasting harm (the more subtly inclined, more emotionally perceptive ones, liked shy little me well enough; the rest couldn't understand me, so did what came naturally: bullied and belittled me in front of the other kids--well, a little bit anyway (I'm probably exaggerating), and the other kids clearly hated them for it, so it had little effect on me, a reasonably popular kid all my kid-hood; plus I could, and did, always tell my mum everything that bothered me, and she saw to it that I could cope; and as I said in my last email to you, my parents, although more "Edwardian" than even remotely "modern" (!) were truly supporting, if sternly stodgy, loving people who respected me and who always "had my back," as we say nowadays. (We have to use such expressions--I'm writing less than a week after the sick horrors of Newtown CT, for god's sake, and I'm unarmed!) One sharp memory: the grade five male teacher at Willows Elementary School (where my very English, spinsterly, ultra uptight godmother taught grade one for a full career) was a boy molester. He molested my closest friend (in the closed cloakroom after school; I told my parents; they told me he should tell his; he didn't, too scared of his bullying dad's reaction--"reactivity," as we now say) and tried also to molest my other "best" friend, who fortunately ran away in time. (I had gone from the "top" class in grade four to the "middle" class in grade five, luckily for me as it turns out, never thus having this grade five male teacher in my, no longer "top," but now "middle" level classroom--"middle-class" me!--a "me" already lethargic and simply confusing to most adults, except for my parents, who knew my shyness was surely genetic, although they might not have used that term.) Turns out, decades later, during my frequent "adult" talks with my mum, that the school Principal knew full well about the pervert teacher (Hairy Harmston we called him, hairy arms, real name Harry Harmston, as I recall--some names you just can't make up!) and was "protecting" him, burying any school whisperings, for twenty, or whatever, years, until the sick bastard's retirement. This "insider" story, by the way, heard by mum, at the time, from my "Aunt" godmother--in other words, straight from the school staff room. Interesting, huh? No further comment needed. This was indeed the fifties, under the drab, grey, polyester carpet, so to speak. Parents in that distant era were far too intimidated by the "experts"--school staff, nowadays, in our anti-education monoculture being derided as "the elites" if you can believe that! Too intimidated were our parents even to set foot in the schools, let alone find out what was going on there; not that the vast majority of it wasn't perfectly okay, as I believe. It was just typical hum-drum Canadian public school, the kids were well behaved middle-class boys and girls, and no-one had an assault gun, unlike our neighbours to the south nowadays who poke their 2nd Amendment fingers around nothing but, it seems.

Putting on the Ritz, and the Itchy School Uniform:

So, then, at age twelve, off I was, in itchy grey flannel pants (oops, trousers), white shirt, navy blue crested blazer, and school tie, to a "terribly British" private (and boarding) school, where my uncle and two cousins just ahead of me had gone ("Brown Hall" named after my uncle's best school friend, the oil baron--the school dining hall, that is, with a "Master" at the head of each table of twenty boys, and at the head table, on a raised dais, the "Head" himself, senior Masters, and school Prefects; no, this was not Trinity College, Cambridge, where my cousin is currently House Master, but an insignificant, yet pretentious enough boys' school on the western edge of North America--"we are a coastal people," said poet Jack Spicer; "there is nothing but ocean beyond us"). For comparison's sake, my dad had had a far far worse time as a child--virtually orphaned and sent from Yorkshire down to boarding school in Pinner, just north of London, at age seven. (Seven!) His father dead, his mother in a sanatorium for TB. Dad came to Canada, alone, at only sixteen, as British boys did at that time, to work on prairie farms. He left five older siblings in England, where many of my family remain today--they'd all been scattered off to separate schools and grew up seeing only glimpses of each other for two or three weeks in the summers on the Suffolk coast in the village of Walberswick with their three maiden aunts. (Who could make up such a Dickensian anecdote?) Grades seven to twelve, 1960 - 1966, at "the school." Tim, you and I were lifers. I don't recall many of our classmates there that long. Okay, now to my impressions of the teaching we endured.

Two Flavours of British Masters--Bull Dogged or Moth Balled:

The teachers were either/or. Two groups. Those wet-behind-the-ears early-twenty-something Oxbridge cricket and rugby players hired each summer by our dapper, fatuous Head Master and paid a pittance plus dodgy room and board (and even so, kicked out of their rooms in the summers so the Head could rent them out!). And the truly old fart wheezing geezers who'd been there, collecting dust (reminds me of Roethke's poem "Dolor") for eons--perhaps they'd been birthed under the desks, or in the attics! (More about the goings on in attics later!) Two groups. Two flavours of the day. Some choice! The rumpled, slightly moth-ball smelly old Brits, untrained, and far too eccentric--some of them quite "mad," balmy, I think, even bonkers--ever to have been hired in, let alone survived in, the public system; and the young Brits without any training or experience, fresh off the boat in a foreign country--oops, in a "former colony" (and righty-ho and jolly good, long may it be so, but it wasn't, was it! Trudeau's Canadian multi-culture came soon after us, and the "colony" died its whitebread death, amen). The "public" high school teachers, on the other hand, were far better goods. Not good, by today's standards, but definitely better. (All my weekend friends throughout my school years were Oak Bay High students, and, more importantly, of course, my ex-wife of 29 years was an Oak Bay grad, a UBC PhD, and lifelong Biology prof. So I have a strong basis of comparison. We did compare schoolroom notes, obviously, and frequently, the two of us, along with our fellow teacher colleagues, all of us being lifelong teachers ourselves.) Many of the young Brits at our school, if they were any good at all as teachers (some were, most weren't--how could they be, utterly untrained as they were), were "using" the school, as briefly as they possibly could, in order to get into the "public" high school system, where the pay was enormously better and the conditions at least "modern," as opposed to decidedly "Spartan." (Remember our locker "room" fully outdoors, under a shed roof that came inclining down from the outside wall of the gym? No other walls, open to the elements on three sides. We showered indoors--"don't drop the soap bar, boys"-- after rugby and went outside in towels to our lockers to change in the dark late afternoons of fall and winter. Yup, Spartan, for sure. And made us tough, right? Well I'm still playing competitive soccer nearing my 65th birthday, so I guess something worked alright.) And don't forget, you and I were in private school at a time when virtually no parents believed in them. How things have changed in the last, what, twenty to thirty years? Hell, look at our old school now. I have considerable suspicion about our "old school" nowadays, SMUS--taking in only bright kids, via entrance exams, age five or six, prepping (pumping?) them through twelve years of mindless memorizing academic test-hurdle jumping, scoring high-ranking grades in various subjects in competition with likewise "advantaged," high-end schools across North America (no level playing field here; down boy!), feeding those "test" results stats right smack back into the glitzy advertising "packaging," and there you go, a license to recruit more kids, at $45,000 - $65,000 a pop per year, slight discounts on siblings of course (and the odd scholarship, ahem, working class kid to ease the old conscience a wee tad), and thereby to maintain breathlessly long waiting lists. It's a "game" any school with unashamedly bloated funds and luxurious facilities comparable to many ivy-league private schools in, say, New England, where one of my cousins went to school (Exeter), could play. My ex and I never believed in that kind of strictly "exclusive" consumption, and never really too much lost faith with the public system where our own kids excelled (although largely left in the back of the classroom to "help" the slower kids--but no matter, didn't hurt) and were, by and large, taught by gifted, or at least truly dedicated teachers. The next generation of teachers that would be, our generation, Tim, children of the sixties, who took over--for better, and sometimes for worse--the liberalised "education" system of North America where "feel good" education reigns alongside some few brave efforts to encourage actual "thought". This next generation were light years from their predecessors, from our own school teachers, in terms of training and familiarity with just the rudimentary basics of contemporary child psychology. And our kids' teachers had even gone to school for professional education degrees!

Caning, and the Bully-Boy Brits:

So you and I went to a school where incompetent teaching, and conformist mind-shaping, and where abuse and bullying--all were norms (more on specific "teachers" in a moment). And so too, now, right off the 'bat', to the over-riding, much-used notion of "giving some stick," as the teachers referred to the whip-rod bamboo cane. The welt-producing "caning" on the butt that was a weekly staple (I can't believe I'm writing that word, "caning," in the second decade of the 21st century!--corporeal punishment having been outlawed by the Barrett government just a few years after you and I had graduated). Bad enough that these canes were virtually attached, ever-ready, to the arms of the Brit bull-dog, drill-sergeant teachers, many of whom seemed noticeably to thrill (un petite frisson!) to the thought of their being licensed to beat little boys' bums with hard whipping wood--aroused to little else it seemed. And yet bad enough, as I say, cane-armed teachers, but worse still, handing out (bribing? brainwashing? yes, indoctrinating!) to seventeen-year-old grade twelve "Prefects" their own so-called "caning Privileges" (capital "P" privileges), with which to beat the younger boys' bums. Because these elder teenage Prefect boys weren't 'strapping' (hah!) 6'2, 210 pound Oxbridge twenty-something teachers, they (the Prefects) were permitted to run the full length of their Prefects' "hall" wielding the cane and working up a head of steam (in every sense) before striking. As a side note to my best, coming-of-age, caning memory, the Head Master told me, in my eleventh grade, that I was indeed setting an annual (sixty year) school record for caning--an achievement I've been proud of, and boasting about, all my armchair leftie life! Why me? I was shy, hardly ever spoke, was certainly not a ring-leading rabble-rouser. Well--I was in a shell, clearly unreachable with these unsophisticated "methods," and that clearly pissed off a few teachers, I think! They couldn't reach me, I broke silly little "rules" constantly--in my dreamlike fog--and was caned most weeks throughout grade eleven. But, Tim, you're absolutely bang-on: I've never been bitter. I have been nothing but resilient, through this, through later doctoral research difficulties, through a couple bouts of depression and divorce. Two by two, two by two! I am the "lands on his two feet every time, guy" to my friends. Sensitive kids develop light footwork, I guess. Remember the movie IF? Lindsay Anderson's, starring Malcolm McDowell, whose 'angry young man' climactic fantasy, in the film, was to perch on the school turrets and machine-gun down the Head Master, Chaplain, and all and sundry, in tweeds, in gowns, and in military wear. Seeing that movie, at about twenty, made me realise I had not had it badly at all, really, and had not been "damaged" in any way one might reasonably notice. And as I say, I had sensible, solid parents who "protected" and "nourished" me in all the right ways. And I had your own father, Mr. C, my House Master, without doubt, the most decent adult-figure in my school life, and I still believe a man with more integrity than any other person I've met since! Most people want to be fashionable. Your dad was proudly un-fashionable; perhaps I should say a-fashionable. And by god, even the "cool" bleach-blond A-murican surfer-boy students, who really ran the school, and from whom the school was essentially financed (being 30 percent of the kids overall, but from the wealthiest of the families--son of Boeing's VP sitting at the desk behind me; a Lieutenant Governor's son beside me)--these kids respected your dad, even though I doubt they could articulate why, he being the antithesis to their full-on west coast Americano-style upper-crust nouveau wealth and material status. There were those kids who (very uncritically, mindlessly, in my opinion) "bought into" the school; a few who rebelled, and were thrown out (literally to reform schools); and me ("the strong silent type" Mr. K once told my parents), who survived on daydreams.

From Pitts to Ruggah "Prick":

I think Philby ("Pitts"--shirt wet under the arms) was a good teacher, as was, of course, Dirk (who came from England to teach at age 23, and shortly went on to do his PhD in California and become Chair of History at SFU and then head of university programming, for the better part of his career, at the government's large, well funded Open Learning Agency, where he twice hired me when I need moon-lighting work to embellish my salary). Burgess ("Lips") was a caring teacher. You mention one of the English teachers, Blunt--I agree with your assement; he was a very bright young guy (a British beatnik, essentially, I now realise, like the Liverpool and Newcastle poets of that time, whom I later discovered) and who, along with Maclean (the sublimely lazy, wry, and askance, French teacher), left for the public system as fast as they could get there. (Amusing interlude: I still chuckle at the memory of this brief classroom conversation--only at an "all boys," eh? Chris W, always shamelessly kissing up to the teachers, was interrupted by Blunt one day in class: "W....?"... Pause. "Yes, sir?" ..."W...., for god's sake just shut-up and go fuck yourself!" And the rest of us grade twelve's pumping the air with our fists and hissing "y-e-sss.") Our school, for the young Brit summerly recruits, was a ticket into Canada, and no more than that. (My ex was taught by Maclean at Oak Bay High a year or so after I'd graduated.) Blunt did inspire me, for a moment or so, out of my dream-tedium with Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy-- borstal boys to be sure. But Mr. M and Mr. B (Mutt and Jeff we called them, short and tall, an odd couple) clearly despised the school (a wannabe borstal itself?); they made that oh so very clear to us, impressionable students, "cutting" their Masterly school duties themselves, and joking to us about it. And Dirk, as we go on to another teacher, also has a lot of time for Cairncross; and I do remember his (Cairncross's) American history course in grade ten was probably one of the two courses I took that actually grounded me momentarily out of my daydreams. The other being Anthony's "History 91." Class size five or six, by the way. And note that stat, truly! In fact, never more than a dozen in a class. Teachers today would kill for such small class sizes (the engine room for individualised "learning outcomes," as the current jargon acknowledges; 'small' class size equals 'big' learning possibilities). On the other hand, our school, and these very small classes--what extraordinary, outrageous misuse of a gilt-wrapped opportunity! What a shameful, and expensive--in every conceivable sense--waste of everyone's time. And the rest of the teachers, apart from the very few I mention above--dreadful. Simply a disgrace to the teaching profession itself, as it exists, at least nowadays.

Remember, Tim, virtually all our classes consisted of our teachers' spending the full class hour writing on the three or so chalk boards per classroom while we mindlessly "copied" down their scribblings--otherwise a caning on the spot; yes, on the spotted spot! Copied into our silly little notebooks! Class ended, and the boards were wiped clear, our notebooks closed, never to be required again. What on earth were they meant to be teaching us here in these tired and tiring, tedious, rooms? Quill and penmanship? Colonial clerical work? Court-reporter short-hand speed- writing? Or maybe, hoping that one of us would grow up to invent the "photo-copier"? Write and erase. Copy and close. What an incredulous, astonishing dust-off of everyone's time and money. Mind numbing. Mind closing, in fact. Steel shut door. Worse than "education" by matchbook cover--it was just chalk dust time filling. No excuse at learning anything whatsoever.

Next teacher, my all-time worst, Mr. K-K (ruggah cum English "teacher"; no student-supplied nick-names for these true macho, drill-sergeant types; they simply fostered, and fed on, outright fear; a nick-name would merely invite unbridled vengeance, cruel mental and physical punishment). Mr. K-K was undoubtedly the most idle-boned teacher I've ever encountered in my life (and don't forget, I lived in the academic world--nothing but teachers and students!--from very young adulthood to retirement at 62; I sat on two college English departmental Hiring and Firing Committees and evaluated over two dozen English instructors in their classrooms). K-K, mid-twenties at the time, I'd guess, and fresh off the boat with his Oxbridge B.A., slouched in his chair (we weren't to slouch! "the stick, the stick"! B-A, indeed), feet up on his manly "Master's" desk, reading the newspapers (never saw him hold an actual book--English teacher!). He was too lazy even to spend the class hour scribbling on the board for us, as his colleagues at least managed to do. So he sat through our "English" classes while we read silently at our desks, never to actually discuss what we were reading (were they short stories? I have a vague recollection of a Hemingway "chestnut"). And when K-K's slouching was disturbed by the slightest student whisper we ducked as he hurled, with his hefty cricketer's and rugby player's arm, a wood-backed chalk eraser, aiming slightly over his terrified culprit's head, hitting the back wall in a very short room with enough force to put a cloud of chalk dust over the full back row. Impressive accuracy of the throw. But concussions narrowly avoided. The man should have been jailed! And my other strong memory of K-K, when I was lackadaisically (yet rather purposefully nonetheless) notching up my caning record, in grade eleven--he very pride-fully, oozing and exuding truly sadistic relish, ushered me up to the attic in Harvey House (yes, where the little kids lived!) to cane me, spilling, as he stomped alongside me on the old wooden staircase, streams of what I later learned would surely have been testosterone, and spitting out at me by way of introduction to his soon to be slaked thrills for the day, "Bett, I've wanted terribly badly to cane you for five years; I detest you; and now I finally have an excuse to do just that!" I'd "cut" one of the regular Friday afternoon's "let's play at WWII British soldiering" (something young K-K had missed out on, growing up during, rather than before, the war--oh boy-um!). Each Friday afternoon, we dressed up in full regimental Scots' jackets (more unforgivably nasty itchiness on my dreamy skin), kilts, sporrans, spit-polished boots, putties, the whole lot--more caning if these overgrown Brit boy-teachers (and the old geezers too, suddenly come to life with their parade ground officers' marching drill sticks crooked under their arms) couldn't see their snarling, muggy-thuggy faces in our mirror-like spit-polished boot tops. We'd execute tight marching drills around the quadrangle and out to the ruggah fields marching with our shouldered rifles: "Brigade, Halt! Shoul-der Arms!" "Pre-sent Arms!", etc. (Canada? The 1960s? JFK in Camelot to the south of us? Civil rights marches, et al? It should be emphasised this was not in the least a military school, but an Anglican boys' boarding school--marching about being the Masters' excuse for a bit of curriculum toy solidier 'make-believe' on Friday afternoons.) But before I leave Mr. K-K altogether here, a couple of rather sardonically humorous memories of daily school life. As all our "Masters" strode down the rows between our desks, their Oxbridge gowns chalk-filled, spraying lung-testing dust (cough), carrying their proverbial canes at the ever-ready in the chance of bending a boy over his desk and gently, delicately, lifting up his jacket tails above his trousered bottom with the end of the stick (my god, did this really happen? yes, indeedy, stick-boys, it truly did, and more often than not, and as you say in your email to me, Tim, "we lived in fear" much of the time with these louts breathing down our backs in the classrooms and on the sports' fields)--and so as our Masters marched down our seated rows, they slapped, or more like, slammed, our returned, and barely "marked-up" homework onto our ancient, much carved wooden desktops (oh, the history of generations of idle boys!), with full blimey-Brit insults and sarcasm for each of us, which rather amused me actually (I think it momentarily lifted my fog, to listen to some "real" language for once instead of the 'hip-hipping' old chappies Brit bafflegab we were usually drilled with): "The usual tripe I expect from you, Smith 3"; "utter balderdash again from you, Gareth-Musters 2"; "more droll left-overs, Petley-James?"; "Dedic, you truly are a dolt!"; and "oh dear me, Bett, you could do better, you vile, lazy little sod!" But, one of my favourites, and we'll finish here with the keenly caning Mr. K-K's favoured, and oft-repeated expression to any of the boys: "You there, Boy, you are as useless as an extra prick at a nun's wedding!!" Ah, boys' own school. For boys only, including our Masters (just bigger, slightly older boys, really), fresh off the boat in these outer west coast colonies--the ruggah boys, barely trained but with canes in hand. Spare the rod; spoil the child. Excuse me? "Spoil"--more like as in rot out, drive out, the child. Get him out of himself, get him over himself, and into the world of properly "schooled" and "entitled" men, and into the exclusive world of the "Old Boys."

The Aroma of Poor Codfish:

"Codfish"--or, just plain "Fish," another of the French teachers (an Englishman, of course). I was second worst in French class (I was actually in the top three of my classes until grade eleven, at which time mother always said I'd become a disappointment for a few years--out from under her skirts, is my way of putting it), and caned by the Head after the French Eleven exam because the worst student in class was caught cheating from "my" test papers, the sorely daft idiot! The Head threatened to throw us both out of the school, but this lad's dad was owner of the major local brewery and heavily endowed the school, so, well, you know, whatever, c'est la vie, eh? Anyway, Codfish, on one occasion, gave me the worst caning ever, in the sense of potential damage. Not the usual damage; I frequently ended up (pun unintended) with red welts across my butt and couldn't sit for a couple of days--that is until I "patented" and "sold" to my school buddies my much R and D'd "Cane Welt Reduction System" (perhaps I was daydreaming, after all, of a businesslike career in "private" enterprise; Dick Cheney and Halliberton, here I come). My patented "system" consisted of stuffing precisely one and a half Playboy magazines down the back of my pants. The exact thickness required. One and a half issues of a quality skin mag. Less, and it wouldn't prevent the welting sores; more, and you'd get caught and re-caned, with the full-count "six of the best," delivered, if need be, by a bigger, stronger ruggah-playing teacher, who could be a "subbed in" cane man, if needed. Anyway, back to Codfish, a pathetically wimpy, scrawny, threadbare little man (Dirk's told me his truly sad story--how he desperately needed work and hadn't the foggiest idea about teaching, but it paid his rent). "The Fish" gave me three badly mis-aimed strokes, and, starting from the first, I politely groaned, "oh, sir, please, sir [I had the dutiful lingo well in hand], that was across the small of my back, not my bottom, sir" to which he answered, "nonsense, Boy" and overlaid the first with two more equally mismanaged strokes. He really could have broken my back; he surely would have if he'd had the brute strength of the 6'2" ruggah-boys. I thought of them (the bully-boy teachers), by the way, as pederasts (I didn't know the term at my age then, but knew about various boys' only forms of excitement, of course; and then didn't these self-same Brit teachers grow up themselves with "the stick" on boys' bums being referred to as "fagging"? Okay, just asking.)

To be fair, I don't think any of the teachers were actually indulging in "that" way--you'd have to ask the Boarders about any late-night rites and rituals--although you do mention, Tim, that one old dodderer in your email to me, the doddering old Mr. S (rhymes with "feeble"--how fortuitously apt!). I remember his main classroom rule was that no student ought ever approach him at his platform-raised Master's desk without first properly raising an arm and asking "may I come to your desk, sir, with my question, sir, in tow, sir?" One day I approached his desk in silent dread and trepidation, too shy to announce myself (grade seven or eight), and he quickly slipped his hand out of his opened fly and verbally harangued me for forgetting his desk "rule"! I usually got the full "six of the best" of course--Mr. K-K, by the way ('way'), as I now recollect, forced me to shake his hand after our secret little caning up in the attic, and parrot off a "sir, thank-you, sir"! Again--unbelievably, the 1960s: civil rights marches, anti-war marches, American draft dodgers all over Canada. Unbelievable, isn't it! This was POSH school, not reform school! For the upper-classers. So why did they treat us like jailed dogs? Oh yes, of course, we were being "shaped" for our futures as corporate leaders! We young pups. First our tails were beaten, then re-set to wag on queue! And I gather this now stooped and elderly gent (can we finally be done with K-K?) is currently revered at the school. I do, however, notice he quite rapidly, like all the most lazy-boys of the teaching profession, worked his way behind an Administrative desk, where he has since remained to this day, ramrod straight (no slouching now) in his Old Boys' tie, requisite grey trousers and navy blazer--forging forthwith into the 21st Century. Oh my Centurion. Goodness. And good gracious. Good grassy-ass, as we used to say. Wouldn't cop a gig anywhere near a school nowadays. Probably run a pub. A publican. Ex-pat Brit. Rifle stock and goat-kid head nailed to the wall above the bar. Raging on in an empty afternoon bar about the current generation of liberal pansies (closet commies, surely) ruining his "once and only" long-gone world of the Empire.

One more very quick tale about a Master, before going on to the students. Guy, yet another early-twenties Brit, was actually a pretty decent teacher, and certainly engaged with his subject. He went on to graduate school after a short stint at "the school" and found himself Chair of my ex's college department. Unfortunately, this man had a wicked temper and was notorious, on all three of his college's campuses, for loud-mouthed bullying, and infamous for public arguing and for denigrating women colleagues. Another Brit bully-boy, after all, and, I guess loaded with insecurities out in the unprotected (that is to say, 'inclusive') "public" world. My ex, an inveterate, accomplished, and extremely patient schemer, spent a full two years executing her step by step plan to have this man removed from his bully pulpit Chair. Success was eventually achieved by her 'encouraging' the college Administration to bring in a specialised, and considerably expensive, team of counselling psychologists whose expertise lay in dealing with dysfunctional workplace groups. Long story short, she found herself, at the end of this process, as the new department Chair.

Choir Boys, or Indentured Labour?

And a quick note about the much used student "detentions" at the school, the main form of student "control" (oh, Orwellian), just edging out canings. A few hours of detention would be accumulated weekly per student, for minor (non-caning) infractions. On Friday, your number of "hours" for that week would be tallied and posted. (Mine were cumbersome for me, to put it that way, and I must admit that the majority of students were relatively rarely given detentions, or indeed beatings.) On Fridays the student had a choice: if the number of hours was only two or three, he would do janitorial work on the school grounds on Saturdays. If the number of detention hours exceeded a significant number (these types of "rules" were made up on the fly) one could have one's detention "beaten off" (excuse pun) in the Head Master's office. Friday afternoon, 4:00 p.m. sharp. Sometimes a short waiting line, sometimes not so. (This was my frequent option in my 'difficult' eleventh grade. Six of the best delivered by the well-practised Head.) But one of the greatest ironies of school life that I can truly attest to: in all the school's advertising bumph and pamphlets, to this day, much is made of the fact that the labour of building the new school Chapel (erected during my time), or I should say the untrained labour, the dog or grunt work, was done by the school's devoted students themselves. (Labour of Godly love?) This is not quite true, however. I myself served countless hours of "detention," on Saturdays, doing lifting and carrying on the Chapel construction site. All the student labour was done, in actual fact, as punishment, by students on detention. Devout choirs boys, us? More like, indentured labour! (Skipping morning Chapel was, of course, a serious caneable offence too. Such were the mysteries of an Anglican school.)

From Spit-Wads to Straight-Jackets; from Pink Belly to Black-Balling:

Not that we students never had fun--when Masters' backs were turned in the classrooms, the Wimp Masters' backs, that is (not the ruggah boys--those bully-boys would have simply assaulted us if we'd tried any antics in their classrooms; as it is, they continually knuckled us hard on the crowns of our heads, scuffed the backs of our heads--hard enough to see stars!--punched and shoved us, but only when the cane wasn't close enough to their hands). In the Wimp Master classrooms, though, great fun and frolicking: soaking wet spit-wads went flying, by the dozens, criss-crossing through the air when "Master" was facing the blackboard, smacking into walls and boards, sticking and slowly oozing downwards in a wet trail. Condoms were blown up almost to breaking-point large, like balloons, and released to fly zigzag chaotically around the high ceilinged "Study Hall" (pardon me: I should say "Prep Hall," where we were supposed to be "swotting up" for our "fortnightlies," ahem, ahem). And my personal favourite incident--deceiving the poor, kindly, but exceedingly wimpy Chaplain (Latin "Master"). "Chaplain" had a habit of confiscating any paper airplanes, or whatever, we would diligently fold to throw; he'd snatch them from our desks, or grapple them down in mid-flight and always crumple them up between his hands. Well you can imagine his surprise when I had patiently hollowed out a ball of plasticine, filled it with indelible black India Ink, carefully re-rounded it, and not so surreptitiously began rolling it carefully around on my desk. He lit upon me, grabbed the ball and scrunched it in his hands--surprise! Indelible black ink all over his hands and his collared churchman's shirt. And then there was also the good fun when Kevin C pretended to fall from his desk into an epileptic fit, and then go dead limp. We shrieked at Codfish, "sir, he's dead; he's actually dead!" Oh my god, rasped The Fish quite beside himself; quickly boys, someone for the Nurse! Or another Codfish trick--as we'd row by row, one by one, slip out the back ground floor window, scurry around and back inside the building and knock at the classroom door: "Sorry, sir, late for class, couldn't be helped, sorry sir." But weren't you already here, Boy? "No sir, we all look pretty much alike in our uniforms, sir."

And just to level such stories out, in and around all our riotous fun, I did, often, find myself feeling sorry for the boarding students, three quarters of the student body. Two quick recollections to capture the often pretty awful taste these boys had to swallow in the school. Two incidents from my first year at the school, age twelve, before I became more numb to such experiences, and, of course, more day-dreamy. The only time I myself witnessed the use of a "straight-jacket" (there was one locked away in every classroom) was, I think, in grade seven, again, the earliest grade. A very small--in fact, physically puny--American boy, in the evident throes of home-sickness (we all knew of this kid's miserable unhappiness), became heated with his tears and actually dared yell defiance at the class Master--something I'd never seen done, of course, and never did see again (outright defiance--it clearly could never pay) in my six years at the school. A couple of the larger boys were secunded into immediate action, holding the young boy down while the teacher put him in a straight-jacket, where he remained at the back of the classroom until the end of the hour when he was delivered to the Head's office (presumably for further punishment). And another day, around the same time period, same young grade, I discovered, early morning, before class, a rather chubby (twelve-year-old?) boy from my own class--from Portland, Oregon--sobbing quietly in the bathroom. We were alone, so I ventured to try to help him, or at least see if I could console him (had I been caught doing so I would have incurred considerable student wrath, and I was certainly no hero--one never dared stand up for an unhappy boy!). I asked him what was wrong, and he recited a quick tale I've never forgotten. During the night, in the dorms (eight metal beds lined up in a row--wet washcloths, by the way, usually left on the windowsills at night, due to the simple lack of racks, or other such extravagances, and frozen solid in the wintry mornings), this boy had had a bout of homesickness. For his pains he was jumped on by several others in his dorm room, told he was a "fat baby" and, of course, therefore a "queer." He was "pink-bellied" ( a group--a pack, really--pins a boy down while a couple of others repeatedly slap his belly until it turns bright red, usually taking a good few minutes). After which he was "black-balled" (again, pinned down, his pants pulled down, and black shoe polish smeared on his testicles--quite the lasting sting). Both boyish hilarities, of course, I suffered at least once--most of us did, eventually, at least those of us who were the shortest in class (oh the lack of growth pains until age 19!). This poor kid proceeded to tell me how much he hated the school, but that he couldn't go home; his parents were socialites (a term I didn't appreciate at the time of course) and too busy hosting evening business guests to have him around bothering them--bothering their busy, business-like adult lives. I nearly wept myself for this poor, wretched kid. But I had a home with parents to go to every night, and my few incidents of "lord of the flies" cruelty were pretty easy to endure. I always knew, though, that I was one who would certainly have suffered greatly from home-sickness. I was, for that reason, never sent to the local Anglican church camp, even for a week or two, in the summers. My parents knew that wouldn't be my kind of thing. (I raised my own kids with, I hope, the same sensitivity.) In recalling this poor young boy, I really haven't the faintest idea if any of the boys was actually gay ("queer" was the derisive term used then), and couldn't have cared less; I've never suffered from the Freudian insecurities of homophobia, thankfully. And similarly, I do recall the older boys taunting a "Jew-Boy"--to my knowledge the only Jewish kid in the school, if even in fact he was Jewish at all; boys will be nasty boys, after all, and make things up. (I'd grown up at home with an abhorrence of Nazi's and holocausts, of homophobes and anti-Semites. And of misogynists, too, for that matter--at least in the sense that true men are always gentlemen to the ladyfolk; at least my family had gotten that far! Thus, my world view as a true child of the sixties was emerging, despite my schooling. Rather, in spite of!)

A-muricanos and Duh Boys:

But back to the main story, of daily student life. As for the actual 'types" of students, in all this private school "private" fright and menace, some, as I say, "bought in" to the terribly anachronistic "days and ways" (Virgil, as I recall), the harsh treatment, the incessant canings (which today's teachers would assuredly call "abuse" and perversion); some rebelled; and some, a few, like me, just kept their mouths shut and lived for (dreamed of!) the weekends when I could hang out with my Oak Bay High public-school-cool friends (and girls). Yes, I was an ultra shy, quiet person until well into my 30s. (Then my dad's out-going genes kicked in.) A few adult males along the way recognised "something" remotely intelligent or stubbornly moral (my parents' work, I assure you, not mine) and "god-fathered" me. Your dad, Tim, was perhaps the first, and certainly, the most lasting model of integrity and basic empathy. Many is the time I could actually sense him at my defence. Kind, encouraging asides, for my ears only. (Bogartian: stick with it kid, you'll be ok.) The ignorant abuser-type teachers were almost grotesquely too limited--in spirit, in imagination--to deal with any "shy" kid and "take his measure," as someone like your dad would have put it. Anyway, as I say, back to the students. And to inter-student bullying? Well, not much for me, personally, although I saw a lot (and by god I loathed bullies--obviously still do!), some of it daily for specific odd-ball, nerdy kids. Mark D ("Commander S.....") ring a bell? A super-geeky kid (likely autistic?) obsessively enamoured of naval history. Well, his bell was certainly rung, pretty much daily, if not quite hourly. Endlessly harassed, his possessions taken and tossed about just out of his reach, gob-smacked into metal and sharp wire lockers, and on and on. Lots of that. Loads of it. Daily. I survived by keeping to myself, secretly very envious of the "cool" A-mericanōs, as opposed to the mostly geeky, dweeby "duh" boys--the "day" students. After graduation (is that really possible? did we actually graduate? I still dream, occasionally, to this day, that I didn't 'really' graduate and that I now have to re-enrol in the school, at my present, adult age--my school education having been a figment, a lie!) Ok, slight, lingering issues for me? Anyway, after graduation, I grew my hair long and proceeded to experiment, as they say, with a 'several few' illicit chemicals (making up for lost time), until I settled, for a brief while, age 21, on "speed"--amphetamines, my "drug of choice" (perhaps to escape my schooldays' lethargy?). That, by the way, is why I've never been a beer-guzzle-boy; no alcohol high could possibly measure up (there's that phrase again, updated a bit!) to speeding. Good God, private school drove me to drugs! I was never a high risk taker, though, not surprisingly, given all I've said about myself here so far. Ecstasy is just today's updated MDA--best high I've ever had; even the weeds at the shabby Christie Pits district in Toronto looked stunningly beautiful to me--but that's really playing Russian roulette with brain embolism. Okay, I was stupid in my Toronto days, but not for very long. A couple of years.

I did have one student bullying spot of bother (oh vernacular, my English genes!) in grade twelve. By then I was hanging out with the way cooler grade eleven kids, along with the cool Oak Bay kids. I was still fairly short, remember? You'd started to grow. I was one of the shorter kids in class and looked about thirteen when I was in grade twelve. (I was asked for ID in a liquor store at age 26, much to my ex's smirking amusement.) So I partied with these few grade elevens--drinking every weekend at Oak Bay High kids' houses (parents out of town), and chasing around with girls, my true obsession. (And becoming, at sixteen, a bone fide "feminist" supporter, truly--truly!--nauseated by the way my guy teen friends talked about girls' bodies. I've always said the feminist movement is the only significant movement in our lifetime, in our particular culture. Sensitive boy, was I.) But I was the proverbial shortish kid with a big mouth by then, and my inadvertent comment about Dan Y, at a party, to a girl I didn't realise was actually his girlfriend (oh dozy, I was), came back to bite me. The hour before my grade twelve government "History 91" final, graduating, exam, Dan Y, and two of his buddies (each a full head taller than me and each close to twice my weight) informed me they would be waiting outside to beat the living crap out of me right after the exam. (No point in beating out the dead crap, presumably--oh my "mouth" still!) And there was no point in escape either. I was met at the exam door, escorted back behind the school (by those outdoor lockers I mentioned, facing the gravel back lane). Two of them pinned my arms from behind while Dan Y pummelled his fists all over my chest and gut. (No worries--today it would be a knife or a two-by-four, or perhaps an assault rifle, south of the line). In the midst of the blows-- quite survivable they were too--an older, Oak Bay friend, coming to pick me up after school (a guy who was Oak Bay's toughest "gang" guy, and acknowledged leader of a group of thirty or so beer-chuggers I hung out with, "the filthy few"), drove up in his rusted Beetle, pulled his bulky frame slowly out the car door, and advised Dan and the boys that he, Jack, and his bigger, and his many, many more, boys, would do these three far worse, and would be using knives and chains. End of beating. Crap intact. End of bullying. My short-lived victimhood, oh boy. That's my one memorable personal bullying experience. It amounted to virtually nil, made no impression on me, and was forgotten by the next day as I drank with Jack and our ("the filthy few"--ahh, the childishness of teen argot) friends. Yes, resilient, as you say, without shadow of a doubt. And I suffer far worse injury, to this day, on the competitive soccer field, twice a week--if it's lower body, it's been broken at least once, sprained, or torn apart--bone, muscle, tendon, you name it. Repeatedly, for years. Love the game. They'll carry me off the field. (Oh boy-o, rah rah. Manly, macho, sport. Love the game, truly do.)

Other kids, I remember, were simply extremely bitter--there's no other word. Never to return to any Old Boys events, even for a perverse reminder of what made them miserably unhappy. (John F, Brian W; the list would be long, and then more long). Dirk still tells me that Paul E (no, not Canada's famous younger lawyer brother, Mitchell E, one of the guys who very dutifully "bought in") was probably the brightest kid he ever encountered in his teaching career. I remember Paul like smoke drifting silently in the air; don't think we ever passed more than a sentence between us; no-one messed with him, or spoke with him. He wasn't big, but, man-o-man, was he "dark"--talk about capital "B" brooding. In another world, and with semi-decent teachers, he'd have been encouraged to read writers like Camus, to mention one of simply thousands (if our teachers had been even remotely attentive), and he'd have thrived. This school's incompetent, unimaginative, blindingly dull teachers (except for a 23-year-old Dirk--yes, 23, what could he do for a kid like Paul who was only half a dozen years younger!) were totally out of their depth with such a kid, a boy in full possession of a real mind, an actual brain. As you know, Paul left school, travelled, I believe, to 'go stoner' in Morocco, and was dead by age 21. That school failed him miserably, and we lost the only first-rate thinker (a free-thinker), of our generation, whom that school "might" have produced, with a life in front of him, a life the average neo-con conforming graduate wouldn't be equipped to think of, let alone imagine.

And speaking of Old Boys' events (the school's money grabs, really), I do, once in a very long while, attend an event, purely out of curiosity. I remember one wine and cheese (the Head Master holds these in various cities around the world where illustrious former students now work, at their 'stocks' and 'trades'--Toronto, New York, London, Tokyo, etc.) at a Vancouver law office (one of the partners being an Old Boy). I went straight from my late afternoon college teaching, in blue jeans and leather jacket. The legal offices took up a couple of floors of high-roller downtown real estate. The marble floor in the foyer off the elevator cost more than my entire house. Men circled in little groups, three-piece pin-stripe suits. Exchanging business cards. (Need a judge? A city planning boss? Here's an Old Boy.) I joined a group a few years older than me (none there from my period at the school). Joining in at mid-conversation, these men complaining about their "bitches"--exs' and alimony I gradually grasped. One turned to the improperly dressed me. And what do you do?... I teach college...Oh dear, that's unfortunate--where?...Langara College... Oh my god, how awful for you, I'm so very sorry... Why?... Well, it's full of Asians!! (A motivational story for my students for the next few semesters. The "Howe Street Boys" still control this city, kids. And racism is alive and well. Up to your generation to fix things. Consciousness raising. Good "teaching moment"!)

A Lone Escape Artist:

Of course I've never maintained school friendships. How could I have? Why? And with whom? (I don't own a three-piece.) I turned sharp left immediately after school (and am a lifelong, although occasionally lapsing, NDPer; I barely know a soul from a lifetime of teaching, my writer friends, and so on, who isn't somewhere on the left), and the rest of the school guys seemed to turn, or rather to remain, as taught, on the "born-to-be-advantaged-and-screw- everyone-else-the-filthy-n'er do well-scum" right-wing where we were all "taught" (led? positioned?) or "shaped" as today's dog-trainers call it, "shaping" for the desired (in our case conformist, elitist) behaviour. A level playing field in education? Not here, please! More like the Canuck Raj, really. So, literally, apart from schoolboy memories, there's absolutely nothing I'd have in common. Not that that's ever bugged me in the slightest. And you were always a good guy, too. And decent. Impossible not to be, of course, with a father like yours. I respected you, and a very small handful of others. Infinitesimally small, to be honest.

So, yes, again: resilient. And thus I escaped to a bigger life in a larger world (to Toronto and university) un-armed and more or less unharmed. Escaped into a "counter culture" student world. And thence into a postmodern, avant garde poetics world, and other assorted "tics" and academies--from which I have recently "retired," in name only, and from my college teacher's desk, only, and am back, exclusively, to my home "study" room desk, preparing my fifteenth book for publication. I've been blessed with long friendships--fellow college teachers and fellow writers, mainly (and my fabulous soccer buddies, of course). The socio-political stereotypes are, I think, still largely true. We live in a society clearly more divided than ever. Left and right, whether of the moderate or fanatical stripe. And I detest the sheer arrogance of fanatics, from neo-con ideologues, to ranting armchair Stalinists, and, worst of all, the 'woe-fully' (snigger) noneducated fundamentalists, who always "know better" than everyone else. The only education cliché that's true, for me, is that old saw: the more you learn the less you really "know." I've spent my decades of adulthood in academia, and moving ever so slowly but steadily to the right. I'm now a right-wing "democratic socialist" (hah!), a very moderate, benign NDPer. I started "adult" life as a drug-experimenting, communal-house living, Sartre reading, Dylan listening, "counter-culture" revolution-"lite"-type (the only Canuck version available!). If I'd been an A-muricano, in my early twenties, I'd probably have been a Weatherman, and dead. No, just kidding. Too sensible (and sensitive) for those stripes and types of cruelties--welt-inducing! I might have "sat-in," now and then, as an SDS'er at a university President's door. But I never was a "joiner" of any stripe or type. The only "occupied" room I have ever stood in was in my role as my college's faculty union secretary, standing in Premier Harcourt's constituency office in October '92, while our faculty were on strike, asking the VCC student protesters crowded on the floor in front of me to please forgive us Langarans for wanting our (third campus) independence from Vancouver Community College--and from subsidising their other two campuses by running ours financially into the ground as the most overcrowded college campus in the province's "18 college system." (The kids kindly dispersed--I had convinced them, I guess, that their argument was with the government, not with our faculty who had our own students' interests, not our salaries, in mind.) We won that three-week strike; I had my 15 minutes of fame in front of media mics. And we got the CTV camera crew into the college basements, where the highly regarded "Studio 58" acting school was housed, to get the rats (of the furry variety) who felt at home in the dying building, smiling and on camera on queue. Strike won, our campus' physical plant doubled in size with new buildings, and not a penny added to our salaries. All we had wanted, and fought for, for many months' negotiating and then striking, in fact. I very much doubt that kind of 'bleeding heart' liberal (no real interest in much money for ourselves, thank you; our lifelong learning is far greater nourishment, as long as we can live in reasonable comfort)--I doubt that liberal sentiment would play well with my long ago school classmates. Didn't most of them become stock brokers, or something?


I should mention, somewhere (why not here?), if only to round things off, why I was sent to this school in the first place, known as it was, in those Spartan days, to be largely about sports (ruggah and cricket) and certainly not for any academic qualities--none existed. (Maybe it really was a reform school after all? Kidding! My extraordinarily and fundamentally Un-Canadian "Canadian" education.) My mother's reason for sending me there (mum was the boss in our deeply ancient English family) was purely and simply to keep me away from the public school late afternoon hang-outs (strip-malls), where I'd undoubtedly pick up both smoking habits and girls (I thoroughly managed both anyway). We played sports from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. daily, keeping me well off the streets. I will say though--despite Dirk's recent joking to me, that, in the early grades, in "junior school" that is, I was the only boy to return to showers from the daily, muddy rugby fields without a spot of dirt on his kit--that I did enjoy, in "senior school," my rather whimsical, if brief, reputation as the spin-bowler on the school's First Eleven cricket team. Road trips to the other British-style "independent" boys' boarding schools for games, with tea and pound cake for all the chaps in the cricket pavilion, mid-match: St George's, Shawnigan Lake, Brentwood--a tidy little quartet of many hectared, sylvan-fielded, quadrangle-enclosed, heavily gated, snottily "exclusive" British boys' "independent" schools. (We were in training, after all, to take our "Old Boys" places at "the heads of industry"--rah rah, the Canadian Raj.) In rugby, by grade twelve ("sixth form," surely!), I'd even overcome my fear of 'death by boot to face' and grew to enjoy my position as scrum-half, throwing my body laterally, hurling the ball out to the line, landing face down in the mud where the larger, scrum lads threw themselves, stomping on my kidneys. I got filthy dirty, and, occasionally, enjoyed seeing cute, local high-school girls on the sidelines. The prettiest one, by far, and the A-muricano's primary fantasy, a blonde of course, was a couple of years later my girl-friend, until I left for Toronto. Yes, I had grown up somewhat, and I felt I had somehow "won" after all, in some quiet way of mine--exactly what I'd won wasn't clear to me then. Only later did I realise that what I had "won" was myself.