Kate Baggott

Recess is Over: Memories of a Small Neighbourhood School

The small neighbourhood elementary school has a romantic place in the adult mythology of childhood. It evokes the era of when children walked to school together and where everyone knew everyone else. When school boards and provinces recommend closures of small schools, parents and alumni organise, fund raise and speak out in impassioned defence of the old brick buildings. In my experience as an alumnus of the small neighbourhood school, I have to say the passion to save these institutions is misguided. I would like nothing more than to see the doors of my old school closed. I would like to know that future generations of children can have better elementary school experiences than I did.

I can remember all of my classmates names. There was Kathy R. and Cathy R., several Mikes and Michaels, two Jasons, a Jeff and a Geoff, Matthew, Martha, Leah, Kelly, Pam and two Julies. The small classes of neighbourhood Victoria Elementary in St. Catharine's, Ontario where I spent seven years with these people have left a historical imprint on my memory.

Almost every June, the rumour that Victoria School would be closed the next year due to falling enrollment would spread from grade six down to one during a fifteen-minute recess. For the last few days of school, I remember wondering where we'd all be the next September and if I would still be able to walk or if there would be school buses. The unknown was scary, but exciting. Now, it seems the threat of the rumour is more real. I found out about the potential closure of Victoria while I was preparing to leave Canada for Europe. Seventeen years and thousands of miles from Victoria school and I am still captivated by the question of will they or won't they. Every day, I visit the St. Catharine's Standard Web site in search of new developments.

I am sure than when it opened 93 years ago, Victoria was one of the most progressive institutions in the Niagara Region. After all, at the time, the one room schoolhouse was still the norm across most of Canada. Old buildings inspire our protective instincts by their reliable familiarity. Not surprisingly, after educating so many St. Catharine's residents and former residents, there have been a number if calls to protect the building and the institution of the small neighbourhood school itself.

I started Kindergarten at Victoria in September 1977 and finished grade six in June 1984. My memories of those seven years are vivid, perhaps too vivid. I was a strange kid. In fact, I'm not sure you could call me a kid as much as a really naïve miniature adult trapped in a kid's body. I had no idea how to relate to other kids and I didn't know how to play by the rules of the playground. It also meant that I had to figure out exactly what was happening in this land called childhood. I had to listen carefully and pay close attention. In the process of doing this at Victoria school, I learned how to be tolerant, how to improvise and how to feel for others. Those lessons were not easily learned and I am certain there were better ways to learn.

In adulthood, tolerance has limits. As we mature, we develop boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Kids don't have that opportunity. Kids at small neighbourhood schools have to accept everything. This was especially true at Victoria School. You had to accept that there were good kids and bad kids. If you were a bad kid (or a fat kid, or a dumb kid, or a mean kid for that matter), you could change yourself, but you had to accept that you could never change anyone else's opinion of you. You had to accept that you couldn't hope to escape the class bully by moving to the other grade four class because there was only one grade four class. And, if you didn't get along with your teacher, you had to accept that and pray you didn't fail a grade. If you passed, you could also accept that in a year or two, you'd get the nice teacher in the next grade or the one after that. Everyone knows that teacher. The one who smile brightly and acts like she actually likes kids. You can learn to tolerate a lot if there is the eventual promise that things will get better.

Of course that is not the complete story. Even the teachers who were known as strict or even mean had more good days than bad. They all taught us how to make due with what we had and to improvise with creative flair. The best illustrations of this come from the Victoria School gymnasium or lack of one. The gym was a basement room with a stage at one end and a ceiling so low that if I stretched from my full adult height, I could touch the ceiling. I know this because I saw a male teacher do it during a primary grade gym class and was impressed that he was so tall, but he was really just an average size man.

Low ceilings meant that students at Victoria School played sports unknown in other parts of Lincoln County. Most memorable was "Sit Down Volleyball." The game is played by two teams sitting on either side of a volleyball net. All the players sit cross-legged in a formation vaguely reminiscent of real volleyball. Following the serve, the volleyball was returned by players who would rock from side-to-side or back and forth on their buttocks. I usually just got hit in the head. The game had two objectives: First, to score points. Second, to avoid hitting the ceiling.

The improvisation was also featured outside gym class. Even before Premier Mike Harris took his hatchet to Ontario's education system, schools in Ontario were funded on a per-student basis and small schools had small budgets. Victoria School was no exception. I remember that my speller fell apart in grade one and my mother sewed it back together. In grade two, new spellers were purchased for the entire school, but because theses texts had soft covers rather than the traditional hard back binding, the decision was made in against letting primary students take the books home. It meant that kids who fell behind couldn't take their work home to catch up with parental help. While this was happening, I never felt that my school was poor. We had a parent's association that raised money through fun fairs and raffles. Briefly, our school even had a generous influx of funds from our participation in the filming of A Christmas Story, an MGM piece that now runs on television every Christmas. As extras in the movie, all the students played outside in the snow for wearing 1930s-era clothing. With the money the students earned, the school purchased two of the earliest models of VCRs for classroom use. In other words, there was plenty of candy, but there was no sustenance.

In spite of that, there was also a sense that our teachers were doing their best with what they had. And, I am certain that the strain of being expected to work with so little was the cause of the frustration our teachers experienced. At least, as an adult I need that justification to explain what happened.

Victoria School was one of the last Canadian elementary schools to abandon corporal punishment. Granted, the strap wasn't applied to trembling palms in front of one's peers the way it was in my grandparents' era. It happened in the principal's office or in the hallway, but all of us knew exactly when it was going to happen and to whom. I never got the strap, but I was scared of it. We all discovered its existence in grade one in a general way, but it's the memory of the first time I saw the device itself that is strongest.

During the primary grades, there was a student who had trouble concentrating in a crowd. These days he might have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. To the students of Victoria School, there weren't diagnoses. There were only good kids and bad kids. As was the pedagogical practice of the time, this bad boy's desk was pushed to the back of the room. While facing the wall, the desk was then surrounded by temporary dividers that were also used to form the classroom library. Inside this cube, the boy could be sure that nothing in his peripheral vision could distract him from his printing or arithmetic.

At the time, I only knew that this boy was different from the rest of us. Today, the memory of his appearance strikes me as more meaningful. His clothes were something out of a World Vision infomercial. His hair was unkempt and he was filthy. I am not talking about the appearance of a kid who played hard and got messy. I am talking about an image that is the epitome of poverty and neglect.

The first time I ever saw "the strap" it was being used to threaten this boy. The teacher dangled one end of it over the divider that separated the boy from the rest of the class.

"You know what this is, don't you," the teacher asked the boy. "You've had the strap before haven't you?"

I don't know how the boy reacted to these words. For many years I didn't know how I reacted either, but here's an interesting thing about me: I have never been able to take my place in a hierarchy. While I have never felt that I had to fight or reject authority, I've never been able to just accept it. If there is a reason why I never learned to respect authority, it is because of this incident. It is often said that children have an innate sense of justice. Seeing authority abused just ruins it.

If there was an upside to corporal punishment at Victoria School, it was that it taught me empathy. When we were all juniors, three boys decided to skip school. Since this was a new development in our lives as students, they naturally told everyone that they were going to do it.

The bell rang at 8:55 the next morning. It took until about 9:00 for word of what was going on to reach our teacher. By 10:00 all three boys were sitting in the chairs in the hallway outside the principal's office awaiting the verdict from parents contacted by telephone. The strap was to be applied. Our classroom was right next to the office and connected to it through a back door. It wasn't hard for at least one of us to gather information and pass it along to the others.

Immediately after, the three boys were returned to the classroom. Two of them were just laughing. The third was just bawling and I am sure someone called him a wimp or a cry baby.

"Yeah sure, they can go ahead and laugh," the crying boy said. "They don't have to worry, but I am going to get it again when I go home. First from my mom, then from my dad and then probably from my brothers too."

I had never felt so sorry for anyone in my whole life.

There is another reason why I remember these episodes so vividly. In a small school, you remember everyone all of your life. Through the years, you read their names in the newspaper coupled with birth announcements placed by teenage mothers, with court cases and sentences, and even with untimely obituaries brought on by self-destructive tendencies and bad judgment.

I think of the people attached to those names as 10 and 11 year olds in class pictures. For all these years, I have thought about those kids often and I can't help but wonder if they needed something earlier in their lives that they just didn't get at Victoria School. We were taught to make do with what we had. We were taught to improvise and to tolerate as part of making due. We also learned to accept what was, and is, unacceptable.

The history of children's education is often brutal and Victoria School's history is no exception. Childhood is short and there is no reason for another generation of students to spend their childhoods in a museum that cannot meet their needs. While it's true that additional resources of bigger schools don't teach kids to improvise or to make do, instead they provide tools that teach them to achieve and to make anew. While its true that kids won't know everyone at a bigger school, it's also true that no kid should have to experience a year of stress to escape a personality conflict that can't be resolved.

In the seventeen years since I left Victoria School, I have resolved my memories as a small part of my whole life. Small, but important. I think of all of us on occasion. I remember Richard and Robin, Scott and Chris, Christian and Byron, Tom and Tina and Monica. I hope that they learned and continue to learn what they need to know. We spent seven years together, growing up together and in that time, I learned to care about all of them and about what happened to us all. Wherever they are, I wish them well always.

UPDATE: Victoria School was closed almost two years ago. The building was recently purchased and will be renovated to act as a shelter for battered women and children.

Kate Baggott is a Canadian freelance journalist currently based near Frankfurt, Germany. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun and Today's Parent among other publications.



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