Phil Burpee, Columnist
My Grade 4 teacher was Mrs. Knox, who could fling a piece of chalk on a fast swivel, and without so much as a wind-up, with the estimable velocity of a pea-shooter - ping! - ouch!! Grade 5 brought Miss Hopper. She favoured the blackboard pointer in a light whack across the back of the head. Grade 6 was Mrs. Rowsome, a fearsome old creature with eyeglasses slung on a string down onto her ample, sagging bosom, and whose preferred weapons of retribution were either a yardstick brought down with righteous fury across the backbone or, her specialty, about a four ounce wood and felt chalk eraser hurled with deadly accuracy at the unsuspecting temple of some miscreant who had the temerity to be seen turning around to his neighbour for some wisecrack remark. Grade 7 brought Mr. Beckstead, of dubious obsessive sub currents, who would rise into apoplectic rage and banish the appointed wrong-doer to go kneel in the back corner in supplication ("Get back there and pray, mister!!"). And if you still hadn't learned to toe the line, there was Mr. Hanton in Grade 8 - the Principal - who had the power to drag you into his office by the ear and remove from the drawer about a fourteen inch hunk of laminated, cross-hatched leather (aka the Strap) which he would whack down across your outstretched palm a number of times as a firm reminder that you were approximately on a par with a maggot, before returning you to the classroom in quietly blubbering shame. Ah, school days.................all warm and fuzzy.
I had a pretty good time though, over all, even if my pernicious lippyness and flippyness did net me my fair share of the above-mentioned non-sparing of the rod. I was smart enough to get along, and was basically a cheery sort of a kid anyway. But certainly the message was clear enough - if you fool around you will suffer the wages of sin. A buddy of mine was aiming for me with a spitball one time and missed - beaned Mr. Hanton right in the back of the neck. As the Voice is a family publication, I will not recount the outcome, but suffice to say that another time I did see him lift Barry Brundidge off his feet up against the wall by the neck for being just that little bit too smart-ass. Yes, behaviour did have consequences alright. And god forbid that the child be spoiled.
Come high school time, the students got bigger and older, and the teachers seemed to get smaller and younger. Physical punishments tapered right off, partly because dangerously irritating a fifteen-year old boy is a lot less safe than brow-beating a ten-year old, and also because the times were changing and litigation, along with an evolving awareness of human rights, was beginning to tone down the old ways of 'improving' young people's outlooks. And so they switched to psychological warfare. What better way to remind the young of their impoverished state of awareness and their overall inferiority than to beat them into apathetic submission with endless rote and rows of sterile desks? Oh, and here was another good idea - why not keep kicking them out of school for long hair, short skirts and other social infractions, even as the Beatles and the Summer of Love were transforming the very rules of life. Failing to recognize that it is the essential spark of youthful inquiry, and rebellion, that provides the oxygen for the blood of learning, the deadbeats who ran my schools thought they could threaten us into acquiring knowledge through grading, marks, conformity, credit-obsession, meaningless exams, report cards, quashing of curiosity, and a general inclination towards herd mentality. It filled me with incentive alright - to get the hell out of Dodge asap.
So I like to blame my secondary education for me not getting a post-secondary one. But that's at least partly bogus, I know. I could've made the effort. I guess it was too late though - I soon figured out that I was big and strong and could make a buck carrying stuff, and packing stuff around, and banging stuff together, and driving stuff around in trucks, and just generally abandoning my brains to duties other than making a living. I can't say that I've ever fixed that either - still pounding nails and dragging stuff around. And still wondering how it is that we don't seem to be able to tap into the bravery and forthrightness of the young in order to truly affect education, which, as mentioned elsewhere, stems from the Latin e ducere - to lead out - as from the darkness.
But I still love looking at Grad pictures this time of year. Those dudes in those suits and those hats - and half of them with baritone voices now. They're big and they're stupid, in that lovely, fleeting way of young men. They'd jump in raging rivers to save drowning kittens - they'd go to war (or not!) - they'd stand up to bullies - they'd forget to lie. They practise their gallantry on the young lovelies, feeling that first flush of the power bestowed upon their sex. And those belles! - those blossoms! - those fabulous, sumptuous, bodacious babes! - with hair piled so high it just about needs nav lights - their dresses spread out like carpets of spring flowers across the photographer's frame - chartreuse, tangerine, lime, hot pink, crimson, flaming yellow. Fabulous cleavages spring out with splendour and pride. Smiles flash that could shame the Sun itself, and all the promise of the world seems to hang in the air - the very cusp of life itself floating above these eager, hungry heads like a bright halo.
The true measure of an education system, however, is the extent to which it advocates for and supports those children for whom conventional expectations do not necessarily apply. For it is amongst these outliers, and sometimes outcasts, that often lie the extraordinary talents that are the tinder for renewing the fires of our civilization. In Alberta today we hear many academics and commentators ringing the alarm bells of a post-secondary system of education mired in ever-narrowing demands. Corporate endowments increasingly squeeze course prerogatives for many universities and colleges. Industry, if it is to foot the bill for various aspects of academic institutions, demands return on its investment - this is no gesture of altruism. And so, unsurprisingly, we find more and more institutions having to accommodate the oil patch's need for geologists and geophysicists and enviro-techs, for instance, and along with that, a diminishment of capacity to offer courses in the humanities and non-applied sciences. The result is a system of education more and more constricted towards a particular view of societal priorities, and less and less towards a general expanding of human awareness in these most perilous of times when every scrap of imagination and ingenuity will be required to meet the upcoming challenges of a rapidly changing, and deteriorating, world.
Of course it was bad enough having to deal with B.O. and zits, without the added burden of mind-numbing boredom. If it weren't for the girls and the rock n' roll to keep a lad's juices flowing, you might imagine that he might simply have stopped getting up in the morning - which, as I understand it, does happen to some people when the purpose of life sometimes seems to wither away to nothing. But there is a larger theme. I hear lots of clucking and tut-tutting concerning the kids on the streets in Montreal these days. Some people who ought to know better choose to condemn the whole thing as an exercise in brattishness - just a bunch of no account, spoiled young people who should be thankful for the benefits of living in a free society. And some of the behaviour has indeed been very bad, often exacerbated by unbalanced media coverage of shit-for-brains pseudo-anarchists smashing windows. But one time a reporter did stop to interview a young woman who was looking on with considerable anguish at the smoke and mayhem - and I paraphrase: - "They are not us!" she complained. "Listen to what we are saying. We are not advocating the destruction of society - quite the opposite. We are expressing a deep concern, however, for some of the proclivities of our society, and especially as it pertains to our education. We, as a society, must maintain the widest possible access to higher learning for the young. The trap of ever-increasing tuitions and ever-narrowing academic options will only degrade us all. We must not abandon the education of our children - of my education - to a marketplace that cares only for quantifiable outcomes. This is wrong! What possible better investment can any society make than to fully and properly empower its youth?!"
I hope things are better these days in school. I think they are. Look at the fine roster of teachers available today, despite having various right-wing governments wage war on them. Many are they who love the very idea of learning, and who cherish knowledge, all knowledge. There are, of course, always kids who don't fit. And for this we must be thankful to various outreach and alternative schools whose business it is to help young people who might otherwise fall away to find a path through the academic curriculum that we provide for our young in a secular society. It is so often such kids who go on to unbounded and sometimes unexpected excellence - diamonds in the rough, shining like stars.
We don't hit kids in school anymore – nor shame or belittle them. This is a good thing. You can't beat knowledge into a child's mind, or make him/her believe that pain or humiliation is for their ultimate own good. The opening up of the blossom of understanding in a child is a gradual, delicate, sequential and wonderful thing to behold. It requires all of our attention, and all of our skill. What is required of us as adults is to lay the tools on the table and demonstrate their use. The creations that ensue, just like the people that the young become, are beyond our control - as well they should be.
June 23, 2012