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School Reunions

My sister forwarded me an email that West Prep is having a 75th reunion.
For those not living in Toronto, there were three “ preps” in Toronto: North, South and West Preps. They were public schools, but someone back when, must have thought they were making the local elementary schools elite by calling them preps. Many years ago, Forest Hill was its own entity, even requiring garbage men to trek to the backdoor to remove that distasteful trash from the view of the neighbours. So surrounding this predominantly upper middle class neighbourhood was an aura of entitlement and not surprisingly, resentment by the plebs in Leaside or North York who had to drag their garbage to the curb, and not to mention, their unfortunate offspring who were required to attend TDSB’s ordinary- sounding public schools. 
Although we lived on the edge of Forest Hill behind our store on a main street, my parents had chosen the location for our store on the basis of the schools’ reputation. So we attended West Prep with the usual load of teachers, some great, some awful such  as my Grade one teacher with her tie up oxfords who raked my scalp with her nails, and made me shiver at her approach. But as well, the librarian was lovely and introduced me to Ramona and Beezus and B is for Betsy books . 
Those  were the formative years of my child’s life, whooping it up at recess as we ran up and down the hills in the school yard and lining up our purée biggees in games of marbles. There we were introduced to Sex- Ed in Grade 5( I think) with a movie called Personally Yours along with square dances and rainy day movies in the auditorium where no one seemed to care if a film ( shown on rainy days) was equally appropriate for grade ones or grade sevens. I recall being kept in to redo arithmetic in Grade five when I wanted to be out screaming and skipping with my friends on the playground. My reflections of those days are filled with childish bounding, skipping, hopping and nasty tangles of little girls bickering or choosing who will be their friend and who not.. Of course, my mother always provided a nickel or dime to stop at Louis on the way so as to buy candy. I would meander slowly on my way to school, often picking flowers from the front lawns en route : to offer to my teachers.
Perhaps my favourite moment was a Friday gathering for all classes in that auditorium devoid of any furniture so that the kids sat cross- legged on the wooden floor. In our weekly assemblies I read my story that described a monkey’s confusion when he nibbled the cherries on a lady’s chapeau , believing they were the real thing. I read loudly and strongly to the assembled hoards, unlike the presentations I gave later in high school : one in which my grade 12 teacher admonished my shaking voice for actually ruined my beautifully written work, or at least that’s how I recall the excitement of being chosen being dashed by my performance.

When I reflect back on those early years at West Prep, no one name, save my next door neighbour’s, comes to mind. There was, however, one girl named Beverley. I recall her because she was different, very different. She had a funny crooked smile, was taller, more awkward with a pyramid of unruly dark hair. In the years before Special Education, Beverley was always there, moving on the playground, always by herself, not included in games or chatting groups, usually mocked or ignored. I think her parents had insisted her inclusion at West Prep, but she was anything but included. Not a bad child, not a mean child, but one who moved like a friendly ghost, circling the clots of kids playing on that barren playground, hoping for acceptance or acknowledgment, but never ever part of the numerous cliques or circles of squabbling girls who spied or lied or cheated on you. Was she delayed or just different? Why did no one, not a supervising adult or kind child, ever try and include her in our hopscotch or singing circles. And besides a “ hi” or disinterested glance, why did not one of us engage her in some form of interaction?
In grade 4 all ready, we were being divided, judged as smart and stupid.To ascertain our suitability for a musical education, which meant selecting an instrument to lug back and forth to school, we were arranged in our desks and told to differentiate high, middle and low sounds played by trumpets, violins or on piano. Unable to properly perform this task, I was separated with the group of other musically illiterate children. Besides the humiliation of floundering, unable to parse the sounds that came to me, I was now corralled, publicly scorned and made to stand at the edge of the classroom while the welcoming smiles of the adjudicator gathered the successful towards her. These small seemingly superficially tests yield a huge impact on a child’s sense of self- concept. One quickly learns discrimination as the large homogeneous association of children is now divided into smarter and stupider kids and you definitely do not belong to the first group. Later, there will be The Prefects and the German class and you will always be designated as not fitting the definition and offered the key to the best teachers and the preferred classes. Eventually you will offer sarcastic quips to announce that you really do not care. But of course, you do. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you have all ready been marked as low or under – achiever and identified as lacking.
I think of my student at Westview Centennial and her insightful comment, and she only in Grade 12, not a graduate from a teachers education program, who considering Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty expressed her contention that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature. Sometimes simple thoughts can be the most profound.And I wonder about the educational environment that does not tie kids to their chairs but still makes it clear they are unteachable. Several years ago, my brilliant grandson was downcast that he was not identified as “ the star” of the week. I explained to him that he was my star, and that every child in his class was also a star, for I believe each one is so- called gifted in some way. What is required is teaching that meets the needs of individual minds and multiple intelligences( see Howard Gardner for more). So the philosophy goes today supported by multiple choice tests or those standardized ones that do not allow for one extra word to explain your thoughts.

I never wanted to be a teacher or teacher educator, but that was where my path took me and as I sift through my own memories I contemplate that my own experiences as “the average child” most often disinterested or  bored lead me to my profession. I poured over ASNeill’s Summerhill in Britain, The Hurried Child, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and so many more as I endeavoured to arrive at my own concept of good education. Eventually I decanted it to one sentence, “ If you can read and possess a curious, open mind, you have the keys to an amazing education. Perhaps, again,  overly simplistic, but research does substantiate that a “ bad” educational experience may shut you down for three years at school, so traumatizing is an event that impacts on your ability to learn. 

School reunions dredge up memories of oneself as a child, the struggles, the delights, the friends and the school yards of socializing.The crib of West Prep was overall for me a good place to begin my adventures. In spite of being shut down by my Grade one teacher, there was much else to propel me on. Most of the early bright lights did continue to  soar on at high school and into professions, however, there were the others like me who might have surprised anyone reading the roster , all those weeds that somehow were not identified as the blooming flowers.

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Revisiting The Little Prince

“Taming means more than the literal act of domesticating an animal; it’s about experiencing , be it romantic or platonic, and the perils and rewards that come with it. Once you grow close to someone else, you risk experiencing loss, “How the National Ballet brought Le Petit Prince to life. “Globe June 4, p 1.

The widespread attention to Antoine de Saint- Exupery’s novella seems to have burst everywhere this spring- from movies to games and ballets. Martha Schabas’ criticism in The Globe and Mail of the performance suggested a commercialism as opposed to a focus on the ballet, akin perhaps to the National Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland ( also  revived everywhere in film and theatre) which there was an emphasis on entertainment, surprise contraptions rather than highlighting the pas- de- deux. Setting and costume were lauded, dancing as well, but this season I cannot know.The ticket prices soared to $175 for Prince and the actual availability was sparse, so I will have to await responses from friends fortunate enough to have seen the production to speculate.

***

I do know and cherish the book. It was a mantra that caused me untold happiness because it was introduced to me by my first real friends at university.It fortified an emotional girl often ridiculed for being “ too sensitive”: that only with the heart that one sees correctly. It designated that one must meet on a regular basis to truly engage in the process of knowing someone else, setting out specific parameters and demands. It disparaged the pursuits, ignorance and arrogance of diverse classes of people; and it encapsulated what I had always believed,cementing my philosophical view on life. I had read Machiavelli, agreed with Pascal’s Pensees, even been enamoured by St. Augustus; however, the simplicity of The Little Prince, seared my soul in a way that no other had. It was my cadre’s secret book in the 60’s a guide against the rich and snobbish.mIt just cut through so directly to what I recognized to be wisdom. 

Much like coveted books,there are those phrases and sentences we make our own through reading, or possibly bon mots from films, and we keep them close, sharing them when they are suggested by events or scenes in our life; they resonate and actually echo in our heads, enlivening and enhancing the moments that stand alone and provide pause.The lovely Philip Roth sentence regarding surface is one , my husband treasures.  

That is the way with poetry too. As elementary school students, poetry was intended to test our memories so, in grade 4, we had to accumulate a certain number of lines by the end of the year, practicing out loud in front of the class, allowed to select long passages or several rhyming couplets as long as we fulfilled the magic number. To this day when I see a grey squirrel, the image that jumps at me originates from those days and reminds me that the grey squirrel is like a teapot, ( although he is NOT).. Similarly a loud noise evokes Vachel Lindsay’s”Boomlay, boomlay,boomlay,boom…”. And the sweet delicacy of Louis MacNeice’s “spit the pips” from his poem Snow are the bits that flutter into my consciousness,totally unbidden. 

When I had to select a poem to teach as a beginning teacher I had vague memories of Henry Reed’s Naming of Parts and the contrasts of the recruit enchanted by flowers in the midst of having to memorize the names and functions of gun parts. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the lank and gawky body of a languid boy gazing at japonica outside his window on a spring day. Reed laces killing and procreation as the juxtaposition of bees and swivels, slings, bolts and safety- catches, underlining the contradictions to be faced by the youth. 

Throughout life, William Butler Yeats’ lost love of Maude Gonne and Pied Beauty  by Gerard Manley Hopkins have been my companions reinforcing some of life’s lessons: beauty in difference ; we will not always be loved back by those we desire; and there is an intrinsic beauty between form and function . Poets and artist give us the handles, providing us and expressing our emotions bigger and best than we mere mortals could.They wrestle with to commandeer the words to describe and symbolize what we hint at and feel, making them loom larger and helping us put outside our mere selves the ideas. I never thought while daydreaming in those stodgy leafy classrooms that I would be so imprinted by images that have become my walking companions. They have spoken for me, held me up, given me a place to hear what often were tangled, confused and painful emotions. 

Alternately they have been a way to sing out, a catalogue of people and observations, a stream of delight. Best of all, I loved Walt Whitman’s words”Do I contradict myself? Very well,I contradict myself…” for, as we are all full of opposing views,contrary notions, complicated cares, thoughts and emotions that do not coalesce, we often do not make wrongs into a right.So if I contradict myself, well, so be it. 

As the years flow by, we stand on the shores surveying what we have collected over time. The possessions that have contributed to our sense of self, taught and reassured us- often as we have stood against a popular tide. Once we looked to the books that lined our shelves that reflected where we had gone and what had contributed to our growth. Today those tomes are dwindled as Kobo and Kindle give us a page that disappears once our eyes have passed over it. The evidence rests in our hearts and minds and if we want to revisit, we must search on Google, should we be able to pinpoint the phrase, the word, the idea.  

Life changes, but the longing to hold a book in one’s hand and escape somewhere new or different does not. I assume Gatsby also yearned for the multicoloured backdrop of books, even though his were covers with blank pages. I suppose he felt they attested to his character. Perhaps now the reverse is true; however, coming upon a line that has demarcated in an old book or noting a comment beside a sentence brings one back to a time and a place we might have truly forgotten. I think that making a mark is important , the actual act of stopping, considering and responding before the thought has slipped away meaningful.Perhaps that is why I love art. Making the mark records and connects a person to something else and that connection can spark a revelation. 

For me, I will always treasure the words of the The Little Prince- and welcome its journey back from the shelves where it was not lost, but hiding. 

Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

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