- Burnaby, 1961. Astronauts, Magic Pencils and Snowball Fights.
Although they dominate, not all the memories I have of Schou School are of the schoolyard. I remember our teacher bringing his old Edison phonograph into the classroom, and I got my first look at an Edison cylinder, a technology obsolete before my father was born. Even Edison had converted to the disc format by 1913. What music came out of that wind-up phonograph, I couldn’t say.
Our teacher also one day brought in a portable harpsichord, which he then sat down and proceeded to play, producing sounds which were actually quite musical, providing contradictions and contrasts to my impression of this otherwise bullying and soulless man.
More characteristically, our teacher brought the class downstairs one time to watch a film or video, prefacing it with a solemn little speech about how important it was, a historical moment to which, I dunno, all good boys should pay special attention. The historical moment, as it turned out, was a hazy video of Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard–I have half a memory of it, which may or may not be accurate, flickering on a television screen in a darkened room–popping off into space and returning double-quick a few minutes later, just as we were getting ready to miss him, in all 15 minutes from beginning to end.
And I, I guess because I was well aware of Yuri Gargarin circling the entire planet earlier that year, was completely unimpressed.
What wasn’t clear at the time was that Shepard had made his little sockeye leap outside the atmosphere in May. The manner of the teacher’s introduction made it seem more current. Shepard was the victim of a poorly-conceived, not very convincing attempt by the US space program to answer Gargarin and the Russians, who’d gone into space April 14th. The USA would have been better off waiting until they could get a person into full Earth orbit instead of coming in late with impressively less, but I guess somebody panicked and imagined a suborbital flight was enough to save face.
I don’t know Alan Shepard’s feeling on it, whether he was proud to be first of the original Mercury 7 to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, or whether he was secretly embarrassed to be part of such a mediocre, cold-war-driven response to early Soviet success in space. Whatever, he probably knew all of that was forgotten by 1971 when he hit a couple of golfballs on the moon, especially as he was the only one of the original seven to make it that far. And I’ve always kind of thought they let him go to the moon partly in recompense of that premature ejectment into space he was made part of in 1961.
I don’t remember any lessons actually learned in that classroom, but that doesn’t mean that nothing intellectual happened there. I remember a corner of the classroom devoted to reading material, and I came up with a book called The Magic Pencil, which had no magic in it at all. None. I was disgusted. I knew what a book called The Magic Pencil should be all about. I had read volume after volume of fairy tales and I knew what magic was. So I sat down and proceeded to write it. I don’t think I ever got to the point of what a magic pencil could do, and what I could do with it, but I filled three pages of lined paper with enough magical paraphernalia, incantations, cauldrons and smoke to bring the implement into being in the first place, and that was my start. Then I lost the whole project on my way home from school. A schoolmate found it and read it and reported back to me how much he liked it. He even told me that he was going to return it to me, and I eagerly awaited that return, but he never did.
That marked my first assay into writing. It was going to be a long time before I made the connection in my mind, but it was almost certainly the response of a kid for whom it was normal to write. My father had been writing a column for The Fisherman until our cabin had burned down earlier that year, conspicuously surrounding himself with crumpled yellow notepaper as he did so. So writing was a normal activity for me, something that people did like chop wood, fish or fry supper, so normal that it took a long time for me to realize why it was normal to me. I thought, you see, that I’d invented it myself.
The Magic Pencil was the intellectual highlight of the season at Schou School for me. But there were low points that I remember. Somehow the teacher had managed to instill an educational regime that favoured bullies like him. I remember some kid correcting my handwriting, searching as hard as he could to find ways to mark me down, and taking real pleasure in it. “Here, do you know what this letter is if I hide the letters on either side?” My handwriting has always been messy but legible. In that classroom, you could be marked down for it—and the sadistic pleasures were free for those with a taste for it.
I also remember sitting in detention, wanting to urinate very badly, but unable to bring myself to ask to be excused. Most children wouldn’t have any trouble asking, but I was raised in stranger’s homes, and I didn’t take for granted what was normal for other children. And in places where authoritarianism and bullying prevailed, I took even less for granted. I didn’t take for granted that I had a right to ask to pee. So I didn’t. I held my breathe, I broke out into a sweat, I held that back, and I said nothing.
Then the supervisor for detention saw me. “Is something wrong, Teddy?”
“Are you ill?”
“Are you sure you’re not ill?”
“I’m not ill.”
“You look really ill. I think you should go home.”
And I did go home. But I detoured down the hall to the bathroom first.
That was school. 18 inches of snowfall may have ended the marble season for me, but it did not interfere with my Schou School career as master of the playground. The west side of Schou School has a two-level field (it is still the same configuration today) with a rather steep incline joining them. I remember watching for a couple of days over lunch hour the Grade Sixers having a snowball fight with the Grades Four and Fives, the Grade Sixers, larger in size and fewer in number, holding the upper field with the Grades Four and Five trying to mount that steep incline and attack them. The Grade Sixes won every time, and easily. I decided to even things up. I joined the Grades Four and Five and led that charge up the hill, throwing snowballs furiously and taking every snowball tossed at me, and the Fours and Fives followed in my wake and backed me up. With my help we started to win every battle. That was more like it.
The strong pushing around the weak bothered me even then. I started charging up the hill with the underdog before I left grade school.
I guess I was somewhat of a hero for the Grades Four and Five. I hardly remember, and I didn’t stick around long to find out. When that season ended, I was no longer there, as was any effectiveness I had in any playground after that.
Christmas at the Sunset Auto Court was made possible that year with a Christmas hamper which contained a smoked turkey which tasted for all the world like ham, and presents for all of us. I don’t remember what my sisters got, but I received a bus that turned when you blew a whistle, or, as I soon discovered, when you duplicated the shriek of the whistle with your voice. The wheels only turned in one direction when you whistled, and it must have been entirely irritating for anyone else, but that didn’t stop that Christmas hamper from saving our Christmas, ham flavoured turkey and all.
And then we were gone. We left the Auto Court at the end of December because my father had listened to my complaints about Schou School. If his son was not doing well in a poor school, then we would move to a place where there was a better school. That was all.
And we did.