Friday, June 19, 2009


To Dream Of The Future While Remembering

John Robarts, the stolid premier of Ontario who killed himself because his younger second wife was playing around, seems an unlikely person to educate me on the joys of graduation.
But I will never forget his words, and the graduations of my sons and grandsons are sweeter for it.
Robarts was explaining at his inquiry into Toronto regional government that he had to leave early because he as chancellor had to preside over the graduation at University of Western Ontario.
There was only a handful around, and I was the only journalist. I sympathized about how it would be a waste of a wonderful June day. Not at all, said Robarts, he loved watching the girls in their best frocks and the guys all shined up for the occasion coming with grins to get their degrees.
Robarts had his carousing side, then unknown to the voters, but I remember him as a nice gentleman for his words about the pleasures of watching the young take the next step.
And so it was that I was not enjoying the cottage but at Sunnylea junior school watching my grandson, Matthew, 11, graduate from Grade 5 into middle school.
And time gave me another kick in the teeth. We moved across from Sunnylea in the Bloor-Royal York area in 1963 just before Matthew's father, Brett, was born. So now a second generation is moving on from the familiar classrooms across the street which is usually filled with illegal parking by parents. I also recalled it was my time in Grade 5 in the old school at Chesley in the mid 1940s that gave me my career.
Miss Thompson started each day with current events, and about all I was allowed to do under my strict grandmother was listen to the radio news from the famous Jim Hunter in Toronto.
And I repeated all the best bits in school, and if there wasn't really any major news, I made it up. No one noticed. And so I started in journalism.
One thing struck me as the assured Matthew and his 29 classmates each gave a little speech about their favourite school incident. Because of junior and senior kindergarten, they had gone to that school for seven years. In the old days, after seven years of school, I was in high school.
So most of them had considerable confidence as they sat beaming at their relatives and each other and at the speakers. Most spoke well, some with bouncy verve. Far better, I suspect, than my Grade 5 class, which, of course, never had a graduation ceremony until the end of high school.
A few of us would have been tongue-tied (which I had to outgrow in Grade 1.) Even some of my classmates who went on to become high school teachers would have been scarlet faced if they had to rise before a full gym and talk about their favourite moment.
One of the teachers, Mrs. Barker (you know public school teachers don't have first names) had taken many pictures of the class during school activities and burned them onto discs for each of the graduates. How nice! The school showed the pictures as the ceremony began. So there was plenty of opportunity to watch all those happy faces at school and at play, and to recall what it was like so long ago, before sex intruded, when it was you and your buddies against the world and the most dreadful thing that could happen was more homework.
Our neighbourhood has never exactly been a WASP preserve but you could see in the faces and the last names (Bokla, Kapogines, Raszewska, Dore-Waschtschuk) that the waves of multiculturalism that have washed over Toronto in the last four decades have sent ripples on to our streets.
I recall that long ago in Grade 2 at Sunnylea, a little girl from India via England, whose medical father was one of the best contact fitters in the country, was being persecuted for being different. And her classmate, my oldest son, John Henry, became her protector, telling the kids to leave her alone or he would bash them. We never knew, until long afterwards, when the mother told me when I was seeing her husband as a patient.
I still am proud about that, even though these days in the schoolyard across the street, any WASP kids picking on someone because of skin colour or language would be confronted by more than just one boy.
I thought when I watched all those pictures just how much more fun these kids seemed to have than when I went to public school. And their class projects are interesting and complex. So what happens with all these high school graduates who can't really add or read or write. Does it all have to do with where they went to school? Or is it just the parents and lax teachers?

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