102. Burnaby, 1961: Courtyard and Schoolyard
The Sunset Auto Court was laid out like half a squared-off target, with the offices at the bull’s-eye, a driveway around that, and the apartments making up the outer layer. Behind and parallel to the street was the alley, technically not accessible anywhere from the Auto Court—unless the need to escape from little girls named Marilyn made back windows seem like doors.
Looking from that hill, the BC Hydro Building, then the B.C. Electric, remains the most imposing structure on the skyline. Then as now, on the next hill over, on the Vancouver side, we could see Skeena Terrace, a low-cost housing development where later my father would live and work, then, I guess, freshly built, and which looked like luxury and posh from where we stood.
The other families at the Auto Court supplied our playmates, the neighbourhood supplied our playground. Little bits and tastes and incidents persist in memory and are all that really remain of that little community.
A family had stopped off there, while waiting to emigrate to Australia. I remember a father who dreamed aloud. Who needed to leave Canada where dreams could not come true. Whose dreams got tangled in my own mind with kangaroos, marsupials and absurd platypuses. Whose $5000 family stake was notorious—and stolen one day. Gone. I remember going to look at where they lived at the south end of the U, where another dream did not come true.
At Hallowe’en one of the kids went out in blackface, and had to stay home from school a day or two afterwards, because, as he explained, his face had swollen up in reaction to the shoe polish he’d used as makeup. The trick part of trick-or-treat was still alive in boy culture then, alas, and I remember the group I was traveling with harassing a poor German woman who had no candy, and probably had no idea why all the children were coming to her door. A little cruelty from the past such as we never can undo.
I must have boasted about our journey to Vancouver, somehow somewhere, and about hitchhiking, because I got a complaint about it. A kid claimed I’d misled him. What had happened, he’d gone out on Boundary Road as an experiment, and stuck out his thumb. A man had stopped, climbed out of his car and given him a licking. The kid blamed it on me. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the man in the car didn’t like to see a kid hitchhiking. Or, more likely, maybe the kid didn’t get the gesture right, or the man didn’t see the gesture right. Thumbs served then as middle fingers do now, you see. During the sixties and seventies—the golden age of the hitchhiker—the rudeness migrated from thumb to middle finger just to address that kind of ambiguity, or so I’ve always suspected.
But I had no explanation for the kid at the time.
Kitty-corner from the Auto Court there was and is a building where a number of kids decided one day to play hide and seek. The building perches on the crest of an incline, with the roof getting higher and higher from ground level the further back you go. I was ‘it’ in the game, positioned near the front and side of the building, and I spotted a kid, a little younger than me, maybe 8 or 9, and I told him so. But he refused to acknowledge the call, kept on moving and attempted to dodge behind a pillar at the edge of the wall. But he moved too quickly, carried past the pillar and over the edge of the wall. His fall was 12 or 15 feet and dislocated his shoulder. I remember a gathered crowd, parents standing around, the boy on a stretcher and an ambulance taking him away, and me standing off to the side, thinking, “If he’d just listened when I told him….”
I notice that the roof of that building is today protected by wire fences and is no longer accessible from the street.
I don’t know how long that has been.
My sisters attended Moscrop School which was an indeterminate distance away achieved by walking or bus, I didn’t know which. I went my own way to Schou School, named after a street which no longer defines it. Schou Street as it then was passed in front of the school door, but that stretch is now called Canada Way, with a mere fragment of the original street still preserved at the point where Canada Way joins Boundary Road. Schou School, though remaining as school property and used for school board business, has since been decommissioned as a school. But the building still stands much as it did when I attended there.
In 1961 Schou School was in the charge of an ex-military man who served as both principal and 6th grade instructor, meaning that he was my teacher. I suspect that he was slippered into that job as part of the great post-war preferential hiring project for ex-veterans. I don’t know how he stood as an administrator, but as a school teacher he was vile. Someone of his character had no business in a classroom. Only my teacher in Hazelton—who, remember, divided our grade four class on racial criteria—was worse than my teacher in grade six, and the latter I took more personally. His teaching methods prevented me from doing well.
There were two main barriers. One was in the form of worksheets that he handed out with blanks that students were supposed to fill in based on their own research. I had no research materials available to me, as you might expect. The school textbooks only partly helped. The school library had nothing, and I didn’t know of any other libraries in the neighbourhood. I still wouldn’t know where one was. So I always scored poorly on the worksheets. Too many of the blanks were still blank when I handed them back.
The other barrier was speed. I can think quickly, but I almost always think twice. While most others, when pressed, are content to give their first answer, I still have to double-check. I don’t know why that is, but it is. I’m not even sure it’s a bad quality for a scholar. But it tends to slow me down in certain circumstances. When speed becomes the game, as it did in my Schou School classroom, I inevitably do worse.
Now difficulties in the classroom were something unusual for me. I think also there was an attack on my ego, an A on my sister Marylou’s report card, in French, unmatched by anything in my report card. So something happened in Schou School which had never happened before, and which never repeated itself. It would have been perfectly ordinary in anyone else’s life, I’m sure, but it anomalous in mind. What happened was that my focus shifted from the classroom to the playground for the first time. I never mastered baseball or softball or anything so monumental, mind you. In fact, I can still picture a corner of that school ground where the captains were choosing players for their teams with me, as usual, chosen last. But I did become a minor adept at marbles.
We played the classic games, of course. A circle drawn in the dirt, the player shooting from outside the circle, collecting as his booty (it was inevitably his booty) anything he could knock out of the circle with his own marble. No fudging.
I never got particularly good at that. But then someone brought a board with notches on it, and set it up in the area just at the foot of the school steps. The idea was that you shot from a line and achieved the number of marbles written over the slots, with the reward based on the theoretical difficulty of getting your marble through a particular slot.
His was the first of a virtual midway of notched boards that appeared. The area below and around the front steps of the school transformed into a proving ground of marble shooters and marble entrepreneurs. Over the days and weeks of fall, every contour of the ground gradually became familiar territory, and I eventually became an accurate shot. At first occasionally needing replenishment from a little store along Schue Street, eventually my little leather bag of marbles fattened every day from skill alone. Crystals, cat’s eyes, aggies, steelies, pee wees, cobs, king cobs. Sometimes, when it rained, I retreated to the game’s room instead and began to establish domination in checkers, but mostly, until snow ended the season, I fleeced the suckers with the notched boards and fattened my leather bag.