Friday, June 24, 2011

Tearing down memories

They are tearing down my old alma mater. I guess I should shed a few tears. The thing is, I am trying hard to remember what the school looks like, both inside and out. David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute, on the corner of Brimley and Lawrence, in Scarborough, Ontario. Well, at least I have a point of reference. The only picture I have of the high school in my mind is from a recent drive by, when visiting my mother in the old homestead. How is it that I have shut out almost all memories of my high school years? Were they that traumatic?

Actually, I would say that the opposite was true. They were so bland as not to deserve remembering. Washed away in the flow of time.

A few memories do remain, though:

- The school newspaper that we put together in Mike Jackal’s basement while listening to Cat Stevens, a newspaper that quickly went underground when we chose to bypass the school censor and hand out birth control pamphlets together with it. Probably my only ever visit to the principal’s office, where the school censor appeared scared, the principal ended up talking about the Kennedy assassination for some unknown reason, and somehow the matter was closed. It didn’t appear that anyone knew what to do with so-called revolutionaries in a Toronto suburb.

- My best friend and I, bored to tears in Math and Physics classes, deciding to keep what little was left of our brains alive by unscrewing and removing all of the handles on the Physics cupboards underneath each student desk and storing them in our locker.  It took us at least a week to remove them all, all done during regular classes, and another week before this was noticed - the Physics teacher bringing the no-nonsense Vice Principal in to view the situation during one of our classes. We shifted the “merchandise” to an undisclosed area just in case they decided to do a locker check. Locker checks were quite unusual at the time. Drugs hadn’t yet become much of a problem in Scarborough, and no one appeared to want to enter into the grey area of constitutional rights over Physics desk handles. I think we had more fun putting the handles back, bit by bit during the Physics classes. It simply drove them crazy, and that was the whole point.

- Then there was the intellectual discussion over whether it was possible to make love in a sleeping bag - a literary critique of one of Hemmingway’s books - to the chagrin of our teacher. Another English teacher thought my comparison of “A Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies” was brilliant and announced to the class that I would “go places”. That shows how much he knew, although I did make it to Israel.

- One of my most creative moments was when I wrote a paper for my Physics class disproving the existence of matter. I got a very high mark. Apparently the Physics teacher didn’t understand a word, and was still shell shocked from the disappearing cupboard handles.

- Another less demanding creative moment was when I went beyond the usual strategies of writing a book report without reading the book, by making up a title of a book, publisher, date of publication and storyline. I got a very high mark for that also. Best composition I ever wrote. That was before the days when a teacher could easily check such things through the Internet, if they knew how, and instead had to depend on their own common sense.

- My best friend and I, looking for new ways to amuse ourselves, took a creative approach to an English project by providing a tape of musical appreciation. Those were the days of cassette tapes and old tape players where we could attach a microphone. We would tape the beginning of a song, then come in with our own commentary, explaining the song’s meaning, history and relevance. These were all popular songs that we grew up with and we had a great time, rolling on the floor with laughter at times. The English teacher surprised us by giving us a mark of 100, and we never did see the tape again. I guess it is one of those treasures that teachers like to lock away. I guess we were surprised because we never thought that we were supposed to find learning that much fun.

- One of my warmest memories is that of a scholastic history class, run by Mr. Brown who played the devil’s advocate while we explored and compared the great revolutions: Russian, Chinese, French... I owe many of my critical skills to him. Yet, it was the same Mr. Brown who warned me about going to Israel when he heard of my plans to learn at an ulpan there. “I know you, David. You won’t be able to keep your mouth shut about what is going on over there and will probably end up in jail.” He must have seen the picture of me that had appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail, a few years earlier,  where I appeared in the front ranks of a demonstration at City Hall against the War Measures Act imposed by Prime Minister Trudeau during The October Crisis. Ah, those were the years when I still saw things in black and white, and didn’t understand that most of it is grey, and still more grey. My “liberal leaning” friends also weren’t appreciative of my going to Israel. Most of them disowned me long ago. Not that there were many. Friends, that is. You know, that thing that we used to have before Facebook Friends took over.

So they are tearing down my old school, freeing up a choice piece of real estate, as the school merges with a school nearby - or so I heard from a fellow Thomsonite through facebook. The other school received notoriety not long ago when one student stabbed another. Long gone from the days when underground newspapers and birth control pamphlets were the main concern.

For some reason, the thing I remember more from my Scarborough years is my elementary school - Knob Hill Public School. I still visit it, each time that I am back to visit my mother, when I go with my other best friend on the “neighborhood walk”. Leaving Danforth Road, we go up along Barrymore and then down Miramar Crescent where she lived. Turning left onto Gage upon passing the United Church, which keeps adding on new extensions, then over to Seminole and up to the school. At the back of the school I can still envisage myself playing foot hockey with a tennis ball during recess on the same small outside basketball court, which has changed little.  Then herded back into the school  by Mr. Wolf.

And what about the faces? It seems that the only faces that I remember, or recognize - when flipping through the old D&M Thomson yearbook - are the same faces who were with me at Knob Hill Public School. One day I tried looking up a few of those faces on Facebook. This may not be the best idea, for our saved image of people is nowhere near to what they look like now. And if they have changed that much, then what does it say about us? But we are tough. We can take it. So, you Thomsonites out there  - if you want to drop me a friend request, I promise to accept, and we can talk over forgotten times. I hope your memory is better than mine.


  1. David I reminded of a recent experience of bumping into somebody I hadn't seen for about 30 years. I had my own little story firmly entrenched in my mind of everything up to and including the last time we saw each other.... and the other person gave me a story that diverged so wildly from mine that it was hard to believe we had actually been in the same place at the same time. We create our own take on everything, to support our own beliefs - and we filter out what doesn't work for us. As time passes I wonder more and more how much my own memories are suspect because of this, and try to not give much weight to them becuase of htat. And as all the great sages have said, we're better off in this moment - it's the only one we have. But of course our past is what has made us what we are so of course it has great allure. I drive past your mother's house every day and pass the spot where my 8 year old self crossed the street to spend her allowance on Saturday mornings - and I wonder if the person I am can even know who that girl was.

    And on that note - your memories of the back of the school conveniently don't include being horrified at me approaching you in broad daylight causing you to be seen by all your foot hockey friends. Or had you blocked it out, thereby affirming my musings!!!

  2. Gayle, I definitely haven't blocked out any memories of the two of us together - not even the very defining moment when you approached me in broad daylight at such an early age. Actually, I wrote down my recollection of this a while back and plan to use it in a future book.

    Our memories will always be subjective, even in this digital age where almost every moment is documented. They say that history is written by the victors - which then becomes a part of our collective memory. You have always managed to remember events in the distant past far beyond what Paul and I could ever remember. As a result, your subjective memory of such events have become a part of our collective memory, as your long-term memory is clearly the victor over ours.

  3. Tearing down the memories as Canadian is so tough, the contents and the ideas given in this article can also be considered well in the future to be taken for the further use.