School and Education Way Back When

School and Education Way Back When the Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

How would you describe attitudes toward children and education at the time you started your first school?
Ho! ho! This is a dangerous question to ask someone who comes from a family where becoming teachers is a highly contagious disease! Well, I will try to restrain myself and answer in a reasonable fashion…

I wonder how many people remember their first day of school? I clearly remember my first day of grade one (as we did not have kindergarten back when the dinosaurs ruled the earth…). School in British Columbia always starts on the day after Labour Day in September, and my little brother kindly put in an appearance on September 2, which meant my mom was in the hospital on my first day of school. Despite having a mom and a dad who were both school teachers (secondary), my impression of school was that I was going to learn to read and write and do arithmetic; I was basically unaware of any other possibilities, if I thought about it much at all.

My dad taught at the high school across the street from the elementary school, so we walked to school together. All the mothers and grade one children were required to line up outside the school until the bell rang and then were escorted in by the teachers; however, since dad had to get to work (and the high school opened earlier than the elementary school), we sailed past the lineup, up the steps, and into the school, not without drawing some rather indignant looks from the waiting crowd. He found a teacher, and asked directions to the grade one classroom, where he quickly explained the situation to the teacher, Mrs. Reid. She was very gracious, and let me choose whichever desk I wanted. She also encouraged me to go to the toy corner and choose a toy to play with. I immediately picked out a little “dinky car” and was soon happily sitting at my desk running it back and forth, and quietly making appropriate sounds. After all, I lived in a neighborhood with about 9 boys and 1 girl (me) and had grown up playing cars.

After a few minutes the bell rang, and the teacher went out to greet the students and their mothers. Before long, they all came trooping into class in their neat line, but as soon as they were inside, certain students rushed to claim desks, others rushed to claim toys, while a few hung back shyly hanging onto their moms’ hands. Apparently I had, without intending to, claimed a prime piece of classroom realty when I chose my desk, and before I knew it, there was a young lady standing, hands on hips, glaring at me. “You have the desk I wanted. You wouldn’t have gotten it if your dad didn’t bring you in early. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have a mom?” I was speechless! Then she continued, “And what are you doing playing with a car? Don’t you know real girls play with dolls?” Then she flounced off and found another desk.

So, surprise, surprise, my first unexpected lesson at school was that there was a social hierarchy, a pecking order, and those determined to be at the top claimed their positions immediately. Later in the day, another very shy, nervous little student, too afraid to raise her hand and ask the teacher to be excused, had an unfortunate accident. Needless to say, the newly self-appointed queen of the class had some rather pointed, and none too kind, things to hiss under her breath to the students she had already chosen as her royal court, which resulted in the requisite giggles, and a speech from the teacher about being kind.

Clearly, I was not to be part of the privileged social class, and every day was the subject of various verbal digs, as well as not being allowed to play with or go to birthday parties of said queen’s courtiers. In the winter it was very cold one day, and my mom insisted I wear pants under my skirt to walk to school. Entering the courtyard, there was the queen holding court under the big tree, and as I walked by, she loudly commented, “You can tell Norma is poor! When she wears leotards they are those ugly brown ones, and now she has to wear pants. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing pants under my skirt! And I’d never wear cheap leotards! Did you notice she even wears the same skirt two days in a row sometimes? Thank goodness I have enough dresses to never have to wear the same thing twice in a week – or even in a month!” Another time I wore green and red, which resulted in a loud exclamation of “Red and green should never be seen!” In fact, I could probably write a book of similar stories, but you get the idea.

Welcome to what is still touted as one of the most important aspects of public school: socialization! To tell the truth, I remember little else about grade one. I do remember that each day we were given a little piece of paper which we folded in half, and wrote a letter of the alphabet on the front, and a suitable matching picture (“a” = apple) inside. I remember that I was extremely pleased with myself when I learned to spell the word “please,” which for some reason I had struggled with. And I remember being in the “turtles” reading group until Christmas, while the class queen had quickly moved on to the “rabbits” and then the “eagles.” It turned out that I caught on to reading and writing very quickly, but only did it at home. After the teacher had a chat with my mom, she took me aside, had me read to her privately, and immediately graduated me to the “eagles,” much to the disgust of my nemesis! It wasn’t long before I passed her in pretty well all the academic areas, and earned her wrath for the entire 12 years of school!

But of course that really isn’t what the question about “attitudes toward children and education at the time you started your first school” is really about. Or – perhaps it is? Truthfully, school for me, other than my low position on the social pecking order, was generally enjoyable and simple, as the emphasis was on academics, which came quite easily for me. We did not have a gymnasium until I was in grade six, and our “physical education” was comprised of skipping, swinging, playing softball, and so on at recess and lunch time, which we took part in vigorously but without being marked or being on any kind of formal “teams” other than those dictated by our social position; and there were also occasional sessions of games like “7 UP” on Friday afternoons in the classroom. “Art” was mostly drawing to illustrate stories. In fact, elementary school really was about reading, writing, and arithmetic, for the most part.

It took a long time for me to realize that there were some other rather peculiar things happening, at least at we would consider them today. For one thing, there was a “special” class in our school, which was composed of a number of students who were mostly in their teens, and who, to a small child not used to seeing people with disabilities in such a focused group, seemed big, strange looking, and kind of frightening. They certainly kept (or perhaps were kept) away from the rest of us, but we would see them passing by in the halls. Furthermore, by the end of grade one, every student had been labeled as academically successful or (and yes, this was an accepted term) “slow learners.” This was unfortunate for me, because when I entered grade two, almost all my best friends had been put in another class – and there was an unspoken “rule” that one played with one’s “own kind,” so to speak.

Another important aspect of school was good behavior; when the bell rang we all lined up in neat rows, and solemnly followed the teacher into the classroom. We did not dare to speak out loud (or even whisper), until we had raised our arm, and been given permission by the teacher to speak. In the same way, we did not leave our seats without permission. We learned to stand at attention to sing the national anthem. We did not run in the hallways. Speaking back to the teacher was an unforgivable offense, and along with a long list of similar offenses, resulted in a trip to the office to have the principal administer the strap.

Our principal, Mr. Hopper (commonly known as “Mr. Grasshopper,” though of course never in the hearing of adults), was a former British headmaster, and had no use for school activities which were not academic. I quickly discovered that though I was not part of the social hierarchy, I did have a strong advantage in that I easily did well academically, not to mention the fact that I had beautiful printing and handwriting, and every year earned the H. B. McLean Writing Certificate for my grade, which put me in very high esteem with the administration. In grade six, we had a young male teacher straight out of that hive of radicalism, the new Simon Fraser University, and he had the unmitigated nerve to stand up to Mr. Hopper, and insist, first, on having real art lessons in his class, and, even worse, giving me “straight A’s” one report period – something which had never before happened under Mr. Hopper’s illustrious leadership, as he believed that students should always be encouraged to work harder by giving them poor grades.

When I was in grade seven, five students from our school were chosen, first on the basis of our classroom marks, and then on the basis of IQ testing, to attend another school to be part of “Major Work Class.” This was a fairly new idea, separating the “acdemic cream of the crop” to place them in a group of peers who would provide strong academic competitiveness, while also affording them an “enriched” environment with such things as several sets of classroom encyclopedias, and actual hands-on science experiments (I especially remember a lab in which we dissected a cow’s lungs before lunch, and then during the lunch period, the teacher left the room, and the boys sliced up the experiment into tiny bits and had a wild time flinging them at each other and all over the room. So much for academic excellence! Turned out we were pretty normal kids, after all).

Meanwhile, my brother was in grade five. He had shown such “intelligence” when he was small, that my parents had enrolled him in a private kindergarten to provide him with some challenge. Unfortunately, when he entered grade one, it became very quickly apparent that learning to read and write was not going to be one of his strengths, and at the end of the year, he was of course delegated to the “slow learners” grade two class. He must have shown some potential, however, because despite the fact that by grade five he could still barely read or write, he had managed to pass every grade, which was surprising in that day and age. Grade failure was a very common experience for many students, and indeed, by grade seven, the end of elementary school, there were always quite a number of students in their teens, who of course quit school as soon as they turned 15, so quite a few never did go on to high school. There was certainly no such thing as “social passing.”

At any rate, my brother’s grade five teacher noticed one day that, in a handwriting exercise, he had neatly and faithfully copied the sentence all the way down one side of the page, then turned the paper over, and wrote it all the way down the other side – just as neatly, but entirely backward! She also noted that he had developed some interesting coping devices in reading, such as reading all words which had “ch” at the beginning or end, as “church,” which of course conveniently had the letter combination at both ends. She had been reading an article about something new called “dyslexia” and brought her observations to my parents’ attention, also telling them that there was a new psychologist in town who was willing to test for this condition.

My parents went to the principal, who very firmly told them, “That dyslexia stuff is a bunch of garbage! I know you are both teachers, and intelligent people, and that your daughter is also intelligent, but you need to face the fact that your son is slow and always will be!” Since the school district would not pay for such testing, my parents took my brother to be tested, paying for it themselves, and of course it turned out that he did indeed have dyslexia. This was a bit of an epiphany to my mom’s relations, for there had been several cases in the family tree of boys who had been “dumb” in school, and gotten kicked out in grade 2 or 3, but who had ended up becoming successful businessmen. My parents were gratified to be told that their son was not “slow” after all, but it took several months of a group of parents advocating to the district office, until for the last three months of the school year, a number of students from throughout the district were bussed to a special class taught by a professional with this new knowledge of learning disabilities. At the end of the three months, my brother was actually reading and comprehending quite well, though it never became easy for him. He did well enough, however, that he later graduated from British Columbia Institute of Technology, and for some years was a high school Industrial Education teacher, later ran his own very successful welding business; and now is a youth pastor!

Of course, for those of who went on from elementary school, high school was another interesting experience. Our academic streaming intensified, and our parents were asked to choose which non-academic courses they would like us to take. I desperately wanted to take art; however, my parents signed me up for band, and I traveled on through the 5 years of my high school education with a rather protected, and somewhat elite, group of academic-band students. Also, while boys were allowed to take cooking and sewing, girls were firmly forbidden to take any “male” courses, even courses like drafting! Perhaps I will write more another time about high school education, and post-secondary education “back in the day.”

(And yes, although I firmly intended to do something exciting like go to Carleton to take journalism, or back-pack through Europe, or become a meteorologist, or, as I wrote in a grad yearbook, become a ski bum, I too ended up with the dread family disease, and like many of my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and now nephews and nieces, I became a school teacher – at least part of the time!)

Posted: Aug 23, 2008

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