I started high school at Woburn Collegiate Institute in Scarborough in 1974. Woburn is a huge school. It has separate tech, art, and athletic wings, a large cafeteria with an outdoor quad, and a full-size auditorium with plush, fold down seats. There were some 2,400 students at the school when I attended, and I was extremely scared when I began because I was barely 13 years old and still looked like a child. The grade 12 and 13 boys in particular made me nervous – they were big and loud and intimidating. Many of them already had facial hair.
Most high schools now have an orientation day for grade 9s featuring food, games, and other fun stuff to make freshmen feel welcome. Not so in my day. We had a whole week of initiation during which grade 9s were expected to unquestioningly perform various humiliating tasks at the command of over-zealous prefects. They might have to sing the school song from atop a table in the cafeteria, or push pennies down the hall with their noses. At some point during the week pretty well every grade 9 ended up with a large, poorly formed “W” written on their cheek in bright red lipstick. None of these pranks seemed welcoming to me. In fact, just the opposite was true. I dreaded going to school during initiation because I feared I would be publicly humiliated.
I managed to make it to Thursday without being noticed, but then a couple of prefects stopped me in the hall and told me to open my binders and empty them on the floor. Then one of them got out a tube of red lipstick and came towards me. I’m not a violent person, but I have always been pretty good at sticking up for myself. On this occasion I pushed the prefect’s hand away and refused to open my binders. They both noted that this was supposed to be fun, to which I replied something along the lines of, “Fun for whom?”. That’s when they escorted me to the office, and why only four days into my high school career I had my one and only discussion with a vice principal.
His name was Mr. Hannah, and the first thing he said to me was, “I know your sister.” He was referring to my older sister Lisa who was a regular in the office during her days at Woburn a few years before me. She was the kind of teenager who viewed high school as more of a social club than a learning institution, and she consequently had little concern for pesky details like attending classes and following school rules. Clearly I was already behind the 8 ball as far as Mr. Hannah was concerned. He asked me why I wouldn’t play along with initiation, and I said again that I thought the pranks were humiliating. Mr. Hannah felt that if he made an exception for me, he would have to do the same for everyone. Therefore, I could either get on board with initiation or I would have to serve detentions after school every day the following week. The decision was mine. I don’t know where I got my moxie from, but I told him I would be doing neither and if he had a problem with that then he should call my mother. Mum and I had discussed initiation just the day before and she had agreed that it sounded awful, so I was pretty sure she would back my hand. I’m not sure if Mr. Hannah ever phoned my mother, but I do know that the prefects left me alone from that day on.
I had made some good friends while I was in senior public school, all of whom attended Woburn as well. It was comforting to have built-in allies in this strange, frenetic new world. We pretty much stuck to ourselves throughout grade 9, but by grade 10 I felt confident enough to join the wind ensemble and the drama club. I had no interest in acting, so I took on the position of assistant director to the two theatre arts teachers, Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Hunt. Mr. Wilcox was a no-nonsense kind of guy and a very good director. Once a year he and I would go downtown to shop for props, set pieces, and costumes for our upcoming production. He was a very nice man, and always took me out to lunch at Shopsy’s Deli on these occasions, treating me to an over-sized corned beef on rye with an ice cold root beer. I was also very fond of Mr. Hunt, an Irish immigrant who’d come to Canada as a teenager. He had a lovely Irish lilt to his voice, a disarming, crooked smile, and was completely dreamy overall. I had a killer crush on him for the entire four years I worked with him. He was happily married with two young daughters and a good 20 years older than me, but that didn’t dampen the flames of my devotion. There is nothing quite so satisfying to a teenage girl as overwhelming unrequited love. It allows one to be the heroine in a gothic romance fraught with drama and hopeless yearning.
The theatre arts department at Woburn was well-established and very well funded. The auditorium had a full-sized stage with large wings, and there was an entire classroom in the arts corridor devoted to costumes and props. There were stairs leaded up from the apron on either side of the stage with rooms at the top. Stage right housed a large makeup room with expansive mirrors on every wall, and stage left was where the office of Mssrs. Wilcox and Hunt was located. I had a position of some responsibility and consequently had keys to all the theatre rooms.
On one occasion both teachers had to leave immediately following an after school rehearsal and consequently asked me to lock up. I systematically went around locking all the doors, and then made my way to the office to pick up my coat and bag before leaving. I was about half-way up the stairs to the office when I heard noises coming from behind the door. There shouldn’t have been anyone else in the space at that late hour, so I was a little alarmed by this development. I placed myself right in front of the door and tentatively put my hand on the knob. Just then the door flew open revealing the entire stage crew. They were all laughing at my alarm so I called them stupid a**holes, thinking that was the extent of the gag. It was then that I realized that Mike Filipowitz, the crew member who’d pulled the door open, had his pants down and his penis and testicles were hanging out. The guys all burst into loud guffaws when they saw my face – jaw agape, with wide eyes that I couldn’t seem to tear away from his dangling genitals. I don’t know exactly how long I stood staring, but eventually Mike pulled up his pants and they all marched past me. I’m pretty sure Mike had exposed himself on a bet because some of the guys were handing him money as they departed. I grabbed my stuff, locked the office door, and hurried out as quickly as possible. These days such pranks are forbidden, falling under the umbrella of sexual harassment, and I say “Huzzah” to that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was traumatized by the incident, but it was none the less a mortifying experience. I could never look Mike fully in the face again.
I had a crush on a boy named Jim McGilton in grades 9 and 10. He had piercing blue eyes, wavy blonde hair that hung perfectly to his collar and, best of all, he didn’t know I was alive (see the unrequited love reference above). In grade 10 he started dating a girl named Laura Neilson. She was tall and well developed, with deep green eyes and beautiful, lush red hair cascading down her back. She also had a locker just two over from mine, meaning I was constantly having the sometimes salty evidence of their attraction rubbed into my open wound. Such delicious pain!
One day I came to my locker to find Jim and Laura standing at hers. She was busy searching for something while Jim loomed over her. I couldn’t hear what they were saying at first, but eventually Jim loudly said, “As hard as you can.” Then he took a couple of steps back, spread his legs firmly apart and planted his fists on his hips with his arms bent out to either side. Laura was giggling and acting all girly as she insisted that she would never punch him. This ridiculous banter when back and forth a few more times before Laura finally relented. She put down the books she had just withdrawn from her locker, stepped closer to her paramour and, as instructed, punched him as hard as she could in the stomach. Jim immediately doubled over, gasping for breath as he clutched his gut. Laura began vociferously apologizing. She put her arm around Jim’s shoulder, but he shrugged her off and stood up, desperately pretending that he was fine when he clearly was not. I bit my tongue so as not to laugh out loud and at that very moment my crush on Jim McGilton simply evaporated. The guy was clearly an idiot.
We had two music teachers – Mr. Fowler, an affable, largely incompetent Woburn fixture, and Mr. Danes, a new hire who really knew his stuff but had a distinctly rigid air about him. Mr. Fowler was pretty laid back about attendance and silly details like hitting all the notes. No, that’s not fair. He really did care about how we sounded, he was just highly ineffectual. He desperately wanted us to like him. That impulse is, as I learned throughout my career in education, the number one no-no in teaching. You can’t possibly maintain control if you care more about students liking you than respecting you. Kids can smell desperation on a teacher as readily as sharks smell blood in the water.
My favourite memory of Mr. Fowler occurred when we were playing a Star Wars medley at a school performance. Never a stickler for tempo, he counted us in at far too fast a clip. We all dutifully followed his lead, but by a few bars into the piece he realized his mistake. He looked up at us with real alarm on his face, his eyes desperately telegraphing, “Yikes. I know it’s too fast, but I don’t know how to slow it down!” The theme we were playing was extremely well known to the audience as the first Stars Wars movie had just come out earlier that year, and it wasn’t long before we could hear people tittering. Everyone in the auditorium knew that the conductor had made a substantial mistake. Poor Mr. Fowler.
I had some friends in the band, but my posse was in the drama club. It included me and four actors: my best friend Vera and three boys named Dan, Peter, and Chris. Vera and I had been fast friends since grade 7. Our backgrounds and families were completely different, but somehow we just fit. There was an ineffable quality to our friendship which I just put down to chemistry. We got each other through our difficult teen years, then unfortunately lost touch in our late 20s when I moved out of the city. Happily though, we recently reconnected on Facebook and met for lunch. I know we were both nervous before the meeting, but that old chemistry was still there and we just fell into stride as if no time had passed at all. There are people in my life that I will always love regardless of where they are or even if they are still alive. Vera is one of those people.
Dan was a good actor but a little intense. He fancied himself a method actor and thus would stay in character throughout an entire play, even when in the wings waiting for his next entrance. I always stood backstage during performances making sure people got their props and entered on cue, and occasionally whispering prompts to actors who’d clearly frozen. One time when we were doing The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Dan stood next to me in the wing. He quietly whispered a greeting addressing me as Goody Monis, “Goody” being the preferred term for married women in 17th century Salem, where the play is set. I turned to him and said in a withering tone, “Don’t do that.” He never did again – at least not to me.
Peter was a very nice if rather exacting guy. I didn’t mind his fussiness though, because he expected at least as much of himself as of others. Both Peter and his older sister Natalie were in the band, so I knew her as well. Natalie was utterly lovely, but unfortunately was known more for her very large breasts than her kindness. I remember Peter coming into the band room one day, clearly distraught. He was desperately trying to smooth down the front of his sweater which sagged with the outline of a pair of large boobs. Clearly Natalie had worn the sweater and stretched it into its current embarrassing shape. “This,” he said, pointing angrily at his chest, “is why she is not allowed to borrow my clothes.”
Peter was perennially the guy in the back calling out, “Wait up!” He was just somehow always the last – to know, to arrive, to make a decision. We often went out to eat after rehearsals, and one time we landed at Dairy Queen. Peter had clearly decided he was tired of being last, so on this occasions he pushed past the rest of us as we left the restaurant. He made a mad dash for the car and was sitting in the back seat when we got there, looking very pleased with himself indeed. Unfortunately, in his haste he had mistakenly gotten into the wrong car. We all knocked on the window and gave Peter the thumbs up as we walked past him and made our way to the car we had actually arrived in. We had a quick discussion in the car before Peter got there and all agreed that we wouldn’t mention what had just happened in an effort to spare his bruised ego. I won’t recount how utterly shamefaced Peter was when he finally climbed into the car, but I’m sure you can imagine.
Chris was also a very nice guy, full of energy and fun. He was extremely effeminate and as a result spent the entirety of high school insisting he wasn’t gay. This was at a time when such an admission could have dire consequences, so even though we all knew he was, we heartily endorsed his charade for the sake of his safety. In grade 12 an odd situation arose with Chris’s father and the sister of another friend of ours named Susan. It came to pass that Chris’s parents were separating, and his dad, rather than running into the arms of a woman his age, somehow ended up dating Susan’s 15 year old sister Elaine. I’ll never forget a party Chris hosted for the cast and crew. We all made our way into his basement to be greeted by the vision of his middle-aged dad with Elaine on his lap. We tried our best to ignore them as the party heated up, but they insisted on furiously necking from time to time, making the whole experience more embarrassing than fun. We all stayed for Chris’s sake, but it was clear he felt humiliated by his father’s behaviour.
I was thoroughly fed up with high school by the time I got to grade 13. I was absent more than I was there that year. I was particularly remiss at showing up for Relations and Functions, as math had never been of much interest to me. My teacher that year was Mr. Glickman, a fine teacher and a very kind man. He simply couldn’t understand why I was away so much. Every time I was absent, which is to say most of the time, he would ask my poor friend Vera if she knew where I was. Eventually she asked me if I would please start attending because she was tired of seeing the hurt look on Mr. Glickman’s kind face every time she replied, “I don’t know, sir.” I heard what she was saying and I felt for both of them, but I still didn’t go. I had come to realize that I could skip and still get good marks, so what incentive was there for me to attend? I made my way through that year and was overjoyed to leave high school behind.
I know I had some terrible teachers in high school, but the human memory is beautifully selective and I really only remember the good ones; Mr. Patterson, my quiet grade 10 history teacher who taught me as much about patience and humour as about the past; Mrs. Verashack and Mrs. Wilcox, both excellent English teachers who fanned and fostered my love of reading; Mr. Dick, whose quick mind often outstripped his hand while he was writing notes on the board, leaving whole words out in his haste to get his ideas down. I loved science, but for those who didn’t Mr. Dick was deadly accurate with a piece of chalk. His projectiles wouldn’t hit people who were chatting, but they’d come awfully close. High school is an intense time of change, growth, and learning. I know that many people don’t have a good high school experience, and that’s why I feel fortunate to have attended a school where I felt safe and free to engage fully in everything it had to offer. I’m happy to say high school wasn’t the best time of my life (because who wants to peak that early?), but it was one of them.