Going to High School at the height of the baby boom

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. " -- L.P. Hartley, in The Go-Between (1953)

Moderator: Mark Llew

Going to High School at the height of the baby boom

Postby Mark Llew » Fri Mar 12, 2021 7:56 am

In September 1959, I entered Grade 9. At the time, the school had only about 450 pupils. Since then, I've seen what larger city schools are like, where the student population runs to 1,500 or 2,000. There's a BIG difference, at all levels. As a student, you feel like a cog in a machine. In contrast, in Georgetown, Mr Lambert knew all the students by name (I'll never forget walking by the office about 2 weeks after I'd started Grade 9. Mr Lambert was standing outside the office door, watching the students go by. As I passed him, he said to me, "How are you finding the change from public school, Mr Llewellyn? Are you making out all right?" I was flabbergasted to have been recognized, let alone acknowledged. Every time I tell this anecdote, someone else says "Yeah, that happened to me, too!"). In city schools, the teachers feel like cogs in a machine too -- in G'town, every teacher's voice was heard. Not only that... Mr Lambert taught as well as acted as principal. In large city schools, high-school principals are solely administrators (I wonder if some of them aren't even teachers).

In any event, first day of high school was interesting, to say the least. The gym was only one gym wide, instead of the two that existed later. Where the gym extension was to be built and where the tech wing is now was a playing field. That's where we all mustered at 9:00 a.m. A car with a large public-address speaker mounted on its roof was parked at the East end of the playing field. One by one, the grades were announced, each with its home-room number followed first by a recitation of the names of all the students in that particular class, ending with the class's home-room teacher. Eventually they got to Grade 9A, Room 13 (! ! !), and then all the names, in alphabetical order. Of course, I was in the middle. And at the end, he announced our home-room teacher... Miss Knocker. A loud raucous cheer arose from all the boys in the playing field. I couldn't understand what the furor was about. Little did I know!

Miss Knocker was a buxom (I learned that word pretty quickly), red-headed South African woman in her late 20s. Not only was she our home-room teacher, we had her for English as well.

Let me say at this point that I was to see many things that simply would not be tolerated today. And funnily enough, we seemed not to be the worse for it. It all seemed at times funny, at times quaint, at times a little startling (at least the first time)... but at all times, just the way things were done, no big deal.

Miss Knocker, for example, would sometimes take the 'studs' in the class down a peg. She would stroll up and down the aisle, and then stop behind one of these lads, stroke his neck and then ask him to read from the text we were studying. In those days, you stood up to give an answer or if you were otherwise addressed by the teacher. So you can imagine how awkward that was for the lad in question. We thought it was funny, of course (even the young lad, red-eared as he was by now!) Or... in what was probably an attempt to cure maidenly modesty, she would wait until we got to a part ion the Shakespeare that we were studying that was somewhat risqué or full of naughty plays on words... then call upon one of the maidenly girls in the class to read it. Since we often liked the girl in question, the boys were careful not to let their amusement show (but we were secretly glad that some of the maidenly-ness had been dislodged).

Another thing was discipline. Female teachers relied on a caustic tongue, followed quite quickly, if necessary, by dispatching the offender to the office. Some male teachers, however, seemed to have no trouble whatsoever, keeping order (Mr. Legge and Mr. Maclaren). Others, though, resorted to physical discipline, which involved grabbing the boy (it was always a boy) by the front of his shirt and slamming him against the door or the blackboard, while shouting at him at the top of his lungs. I'll never forget the day Miss Luke, our French teacher, lost her temper with a large football-player type who was sitting next to me. She grabbed him by his shirt front and swung him from side to side. At least, that was the idea. In actuality, since she was only about 4 foot 6 inches in height, and he was about 6 feet tall, she ended up swinging HERself from side to side! The problem the poor guy had was not to laugh, which would have for sure led to an office visit and deep shit from Mr L.

The grades were identified by letter of the alphabet. But we quickly learned the military phonetic alphabet, since that style was favoured by Mr Lambert. When I joined the Naval Reserve after high school, I found out that what we had been learning was the World War 2 version of the phonetic alphabet, which somehow endeared old JL to me even more. Thus it was 9-Able, 9-Baker, 9-Charlie, 9-Dog, 9-Easy, 9-Fox and 9-George. I think there was later even a 9-Harry. (Nowadays it would be Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel)

At that time, high school was 5 years, of course, and culminated in the dreaded Grade 13 Departmental Exams, which were set by and marked by by the province. In those pre-SAT days, these marks were crucial to getting into University. But up until our year, few people actually WENT to university (I think out of the year ahead of us there were only four). But by the time our year came on the scene, the Ontario government had recognized that there was a need to have a greater percent go on to higher education, and quite a larger percent of our Grade 13s actually did go on to university. Nevertheless, by the time we hit Grade 13, our year had dwindled to TWO classes (13-Able and 13-Baker), both of which were noticeably smaller than the equivalent grade 9 class sizes had been. We were a fairly well-knit group, especially since there had been a lot of re-shuffling of the students between the various classes. My friend Dieter, for example, had been in Grade 9D, but was later in Grade 11A. An odd feature of the system was that you could get a high-school diploma called Junior Matriculation at the end of Grade 12. After Grade 13, you received your Senior Matriculation. In those days, you could go to Teachers' College with either Matric diploma, the difference being that you needed two years to complete Teachers' College with Junior Matric, but only one year with Senior Matric. So, many who planned to be teachers left high school after Grade 12. It was also routine for kids who were not academically inclined to quit school as soon as they turned 16. And who could blame them? At that time, there were not a lot of options in the school system for those kids. But now, a lot of effort has gone into making sure that school serves ALL types of ability, not just 'university-stream academic' ability, and I would be surprised to find out that the school-leaving numbers are anywhere near as high as they were in the days when I went to high school.

We were a school of fun-loving pranksters, mostly harmless. Mostly. it was nothing for Mr Beer to turn around from writing on the blackboard to see every gas fixture in his science classroom ablaze with a 2-foot flame. In the meantime, in the adjacent chemistry classroom, we often would hear a low rumble, followed by the lids of our sinks flying off -- in the science room next door, someone had run the gas line into THEIR sink and then lit it. Dangerous of course, but no one seemed to care. We just learned to hold the lid down as soon as we heard that tell-tale rumble.

I remember one time thinking of a funny thing to say in class. But as I thought of it, a little voice in my head said, "If you say that, you'll get a laugh, but the shit will hit the fan!" However, that voice was immediately followed by another voice that said, "Yeah, but if you don't say it you'll hate yourself when you're 65!" So I said it, of course, and got a big laugh, and the shit DID hit the fan. And when I got to 65, I couldn't even remember what the funny thing had been!

A red-letter day came when we discovered how to break into the school. There was no theft, and no vandalism -- what we were after was the thrill of doing something forbidden. So we got to see what the inside of the girl's washroom looked like (a boring let-down!) and the inside of the teachers' lounge. Prowling around had been fun, but the thrill soon wore off and we forgot about it... until it came time for the great cartoon caper a year or two later.

This has been a long reminiscence -- I hope it will inspire some others to write of their memories.
Mark Llew
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Joined: Fri Apr 29, 2005 11:46 am
Location: Toronto

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