Legends of Myself 21

Posted on July 19, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 20

Mission, 1956-57, Pt. 3

Education: The Rosetta incident.  I remember vividly my first moment in a classroom, pausing at the backcorner entrance to the room and looking at the blackboard.  The word “baby” was written up there.  It pleased me.  I think I repeated it to myself.


My father—who of course couldn’t be around then and so had to hear about my first day of school four decades late—speculated that maybe it was Old Pop who had begun to teach me to read.  Or it could have been the nursery school that had babysitted me in Vancouver earlier that year.  I might also have begun reading on my own.  My literacy had not progressed very far, anyway.

Beginning school was accordingly epochal.  I had no kindergarten or other lead-up to grade one, so my formal education began in that little rural schoolhouse somewhere outside of Mission.

My relationship with education would not always run easy in the years that followed, but it began with bounce and authority.  And education’s importance to me right from the beginning is documented in memory, ever notorious for favouring the sentimental favourites:  I can picture my classroom from 1956-1957 much more clearly than I can either my home or my bed.

The school was a mile away from the farm where I lived.  Every morning I walked to that school by myself, my painted lunchbox in one hand.  I’m not sure why I had no other companion from home.  Not all the kids there were too young for school.  But perhaps vagaries of the Indian Act and the Indian Department, from which I was exempt, meant that the natural children of that household were obliged or expected to attend school elsewhere.

My first school consisted of one large classroom plus appurtenances, and a single teacher who taught all three grades.  The grade one pupils sat in the rows of desks closest to the entrance, the grade twos in the middle rows, and the grade threes in the distant faraway rows on the other side of the room where grade ones seldom ventured.  The room itself was wider than it was deep, with one long wall dominated by blackboards and the other dominated by windows.  The desks of course all faced the blackboards.

Whereas my memory can’t see outside the windows of that classroom, I remember clearly the blackboard wall.  Running along three walls and above the blackboards was the alphabet presented in small and capital letters and in script.

Sitting at my desk, following it around the room with a long turn of the head, maybe the ABC Song in my head, I found that alphabetic display fascinating, a code-key, a Rosetta, a way to learn things that my Dick and Jane reader was not ready to teach me.  It was this alphabet-display which allowed me to finesse that most loathed, sour-graped and coveted of all schoolroom positions, that of the teacher’s pet.

Whatever the judgment of Dick and Jane, you see, I had decided on my own that I was ready for higher learning.  One day when everybody was outside on the playground mastering recess or maybe lunch, I was inside copying notes and alphabet forms from that display into my notebook.

And that’s where my teacher caught me.

You can polish up no shinier apple for a dedicated teacher than a dedicated student, and I can still hear the chirp and cheer in my teacher’s voice in that moment when she discovered what I was doing, all by myself in her classroom.  And from that time on I could do no wrong.

Score one for Teddy.  Credit an assist to the alphabet display.

Lots of things can contribute to successful education for children.  Dick and Jane were silly, trivial, Eurocentric and irrelevant, but those iconic school readers sorta, kinda, almost served to teach you to read.  One of their failures—outside of existing exclusively in whitebread world which has no actual parallel anywhere—was that they ignored the notion of story at all.

Dick and Jane were the original show about nothing, without laugh track, imagination or laughs.

I do remember a story however from that classroom, “The North Wind and the Sun” by Aesop.  The version of the story I have now—although the illustrations are certainly the same as I remember—is probably too difficult for learning readers, but it might have been presented to us back in my first classroom in simplified form or in read-along.  It remains one of my favourite stories.

But curriculum aside, a dedicated teacher can add jump and jazz to anybody’s education.  And taming a teacher can work just as well.  Which is what being a teacher’s pet is all about.  It coloured my first year of school and my first classroom so brightly that, unable to compete, memory practically ceases outside the cloakroom door.

A cure for earaches.  I must have walked literally hundreds of miles that year in Mission, one mile at a time, to and from school, but I really only remember doing it specifically once.  It was a day with cold spring weather.  The weather brought a cold wind which persisted in blowing in my ear all the way to school.  I remember how I couldn’t seem to escape that wind, twist my head as I might, and before I got to school my ear had already begun to ache.  By evening, I had a full fledged ear ache.

I remember being home, upstairs, lying in a bunk that wasn’t usually my bed.  Downstairs, there was some sort of get-together going on.  A staircase rose out of the floor on the other side of the room from where my bunk was.  The room was dim, but you could see light shining up that staircase from below, and hear talking and motion in the house below.  I myself was alone and lonely and feeling sorry for myself, sobbing and tossing in my bunk, the pain in my ear making it impossible for me to sleep or rest.

Then I saw a shadow climbing up the stairs.  I couldn’t really make out who it was.  Until.  Suddenly.  I could hardly believe it.  My father was there lying beside me on the bed.  Where did he come from?  How did he get there?  He was talking to me, and his arms were around me, and I could smell his smell, and suddenly, strangely, everything was changed.  With him holding me, talking to me, my lonely little soul was soothed and warmed and the pain drained out of my ear like water spilled from a cup.

Yes, now I was home, really home again at last.  My Daddy had come back.

Continued at Legends of Myself 22

Posted in: autobiography