Legends of Myself 121

Posted on October 26, 2019

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PART VII: The Cure, 1964-65

121. Vancouver, 1964-65. Interlude: Hastings and Britannia

And so, with the social worker gone and the door closed behind her, while the angels cake walk and jive on the head of a pin, and the jazz horns rooty-tootle in the heavens, let’s consider why the story of my childhood doesn’t end with my escape. All my Hollywood advisors say that it should.

But, you see, it isn’t really the sort of story that’s easily ended. Nor is all the evidence in yet. But I can promise a little happily-ever-after, if that’s a consolation. My father was a romantic. He could do happily-ever-after.

But before then, an interlude.

I hadn’t returned to the family I’d left behind. I couldn’t, of course. But I’d returned to the old partnership. I wasn’t capable of being dissatisfied with that.

Geographically, I’d moved a less-than-5-minute walk away from the Irish and his family, to a rooming house that stood over a store on Hastings Street. There was a little row of ramshackle sheds out back, individually padlocked, for storage, and a small porch outside our window where I could stash my bike. Our apartment was two rooms looking out over the sheds and the alley. My father painted the floor of the kitchen/living space, and, because he was incapable of being obvious, painted it in two tones, one tone being a path through the other.

I met two boys in that building, the nephews of the Chinese who ran the grocery store downstairs. One was my age, who I hung out with mostly, the other, his brother, about two years older, whose name was Moon, who I remember because, well, his name was Moon. Those boys disappeared from my life after I moved away, but I do remember, 9 years later on Christmas, I was passing by the store on the way to some forgotten connection. The store was open, and half the shelves were empty, not enough goods to fill them, and the Chinese was there alone. The boys would have been in their 20s by then, away somewhere, and, I guess, the holiday still meant nothing to the man in the store. But I couldn’t help thinking, passing by on that cold grey Christmas day, that it was one of the bleakest scenes I’d ever looked at.

But that had nothing to do with 1964.

britanniaThat fall I began Grade Nine at Britannia. I failed Latin in the first semester. I guess I had no skill for it. But that class is one of those classes, which, while looking bad on the report card, went on to be useful to me anyway. Many English words have Latin roots. Know the root, know the word. So even my failed Latin helped me out, meaning that the course had succeeded even though I had not. By January I had switched over to French, however, and though I wasn’t actually good at that, I wasn’t as bad as at Latin, either.

The French teacher had this little story about three cats, Un, Deux, Trois, and how they fell through the ice, and … Un, Deux, Trois cats sank (and, no no no, how will I ever get that story out of my head?)

There was a boy at Britannia whose nickname was “Cheeks.” One day somebody got the idea (since “Cheeks” was Belgian, and already spoke fluent French) of finding out the French for his nickname. For about half an hour that afternoon, he was known as “Les Joues.” But “Cheeks” was more convincing, and the nickname quickly reverted.

I remember 1964 as being the season of the dickey. I had one. I wore it. A turtleneck dickey that you tucked into your shirt collar to give the illusion that you were wearing an entire turtleneck sweater underneath. Nowadays, I’d probably opt for the sweater, but a dickey was just fine for someone perhaps not needing to commit to the entire garment.

One time I met a bully down around Clark Drive while on the way home from school, whom I met again in a classroom. He had a couple of other boys with him that first encounter, and they menaced and pushed me around a little, no bruises, no blood, but unpleasant regardless. Then, not much later, there he was again in the grade nine science lab, sharing a bench and a Bunsen burner with me. I admit that I didn’t like to see him there. Neither of us actually mentioned our previous encounter. He was himself looking tentative and out of place, which had nothing to do with me and entirely to do with being in a science lab. Then when he saw that his bench partner, me, actually knew what he was doing, he sort of sidled closer to get a better look, and our relationship changed. It never went back to bullying.

In English class, I remember that we studied Twelfth Night. It was a famous play to us, but Twelfth Night was a traditional night of role reversals in Shakespearean times, just as in Roman times, then called Saturnalia, it had been a night of social classes upside down. It was always role reversal time in Elizabethan theatre, of course, with boys taking the female roles, and we learned about that peculiarity in class. But Shakespeare’s Viola is a (boy actor pretending to be a) woman pretending to be male, a double-drag situation that every Elizabethan groundling smirked at, but I’m sure went over all of our heads.

In today’s modern classroom Viola’s ambiguity might be seen as an opportunity missed, but we were living in gender-naive times in the early 60s. Boys playing women was weird enough in itself for the likes of us. However, Twelfth Night was also the first Christmas musical comedy, and our teacher knew that meant singing if not dancing. While we were taking our turns in class reading parts, she attempted to get students to sing the musical interludes. “Just sing scales,” she said. That was asking too much of 14-year-olds not already belonging to musical comedy travelling troupes, of course, and nobody sang.

One time in English class (it must have been deep into fall by then) the teacher assigned us to write a descriptive paragraph, a 100 words or so. My submission had the rather ponderous title, “Rain, The Master.” I remember trying to capture the mood of Vancouver under rainfall. The teacher was impressed, gave me 19 out of 20 (losing a point for beginning too many sentences with the word “the”, and because no one ever gets a perfect score in the arts) and then read my paragraph out to the class. That was notable for being the first time I’d had my writing skills acknowledged by someone other than another kid. It was the first actual acknowledgement that I had writing skills.

H2OOf course, other victories were maybe not so well-deserved. I recall a teacher leading a game in class where students proposed riddles for the rest of the class to answer. Everybody else’s riddles were easily answered, I noticed. My riddle was, I’m dry when I’m solid, wet when I’m liquid and I have the chemical formula H2O. What am I? I can’t imagine any group of 14 year olds today being stumped by such an obvious question, but that class certainly was. Finally, a boy tentatively suggested, “Water?” By his manner, just guessing. It didn’t take much to be a grade nine know-it-all with my naive, unplugged-in generation. But I was just getting started anyways.

Knowing something does not always help, either. I remember a boy telling me about what had happened with his Indigenous home community, how it used to be somewhere else, then that was inconvenient, so they were moved out of the way, and that this had happened more than once. I brought up this testimony in Social Studies class and I was told that, no, nobody would ever have treated Indigenous communities that way, it couldn’t be true.

Obviously, the teacher’s position was absurd on the face of it, as if the entire history of the world since Columbus had slipped her mind. Maybe she didn’t know BC history, hadn’t heard of Joseph Trutch, or the various reserve commissions, or the McKenna-McBride Commission of 1912-16, but the notion that Indigenous people were dealt with fairly anywhere in respect of their lands takes a motivated act of denial.

In 1981, BC and Canada began to negotiate with communities about lands stolen from them by the McKenna-McBride Commission, lands stolen in exactly the kinds of circumstances I had mentioned in class, that my informant had told me about. And in 1984 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Guerin case that the federal government had a trust-like responsibility towards Indigenous people and their lands. Guerin led to the Specific Claims section of the Indian Affairs Department, a section put in place to directly deal with situations where the government had acted against their trust-like responsibility, against the interests of Indigenous people under their charge. The Specific Claims section continues to find work to do several decades later.

I was right and my teacher had been wrong. But that wasn’t the impression that other students in that class took away, I don’t think. She’d misled them. I hope that when the 80s rolled around and these matters re-entered the public discourse, she had the courtesy to blush.