‘PUNCH YOUR LIGHTS OUT to WONDER OF WONDERS
(Humberside Collegiate in the 1950’s…one persons memories)
just went along with the flow.
“Alan, you will go to Humberside next year.”
So spoke the principal at Runnymede Public School as he
made decisions about the big move from Grade 8 to Grade 9.
“Humberside! That’s a long way form Runnymede, especially when Western Tech is just over the fence and down the hill.” That’s what I thought in my mind but never said it. What did I know about schools?
So I made the walk eastward along Annette Street cutting down by St. Cecilia’s Separate School over to Ravina Gardens covered hockey rink and down to Humberside. What a building? it looked like some kind of palace that should have been in England. Towering burnished brown/red bricks piled three floors high with all kinds of masons decorations including a spire at the top. Intimidating is the word.
And that is what it became in that first year.
Mrs. James was our home room teacher and the class were all strangers to me. The teachers were even a bit strange like Mr. LaPierre who insisted upon singing Alouette whenever he could in his French classes. And then imitating his parts of his body with the words…”C’est la dos!”…C’est le bras!” “C’est la tete!” Nothing offensive…no private parts…but strange way of teaching. Enjoyable, of course.
Then there was Tiny Tim Talbot, our typing teacher. Quite a man. “You have a simple choice, learn to touch type or go out and climb telephone poles like Bob (last name deleted).” I learned to type. We were given one choice of subjects in 1953…music, art or typing. Who in their right mind would pick music or art. Typing was a real saleable skill. I mean it made sense. Odd that most kids chose music.
Our history teacher was Bert Tancock. Nice man. Tough last name. Latin was Mr. Mcquarry. Laid back kind of man who ate chalk. He would write some Latin declension on the board then chew the chalk as he worked us over.
Students really watch their teachers. Looking for idiosyncrasies and they are not hard to find. Miss Schroeder wore tight sweaters for instance.
We had lots of assemblies where the big kids smirked and joked around a lot. And LaPierre led everyone in the singing of Alouette with his funny gestures. “C’est la tete!” and we would holler back “c’est le bras” Then W.E. Taylor would try to impose order on all of us which was no easy task. I was such a puny little punk compared to the seniors. Were they ever big! Super athletes. Certainly eclipsed any hope I had of making a team. And the cheerleaders were something else. Beautiful especially when they broke out in a syncopated “Garnet, grey and white” followed by a quasi-military urge for us to “Fight, Fight, Fight”. A rumour spread around that somewhere in the basement there were hundreds of Italian rifles captured in WW 2 and given to the school. The rumour turned out to be true. No bolts on them just to make sure we didn’t shoot each other I guess.
The assembly hall had a great mural of Canada done by some artists called the Group of Seven I think. Best feature was a very attractive semi-clad First Nations girl. Very distracting.
And the assembly doubled as a dance hall. I remember that first Halloween dance like it was yesterday. Rock and roll was just making its appearance so we jumped around a lot. I remember picking up Elizabeth Kilty in one dance, whirled her around in some fancy step whereupon she fell in a very awkward manner. I closed my eyes.
The big guys in Humberside brought a bunch of apple cider crocks filled with hard cider which was passed around even to a lowly niner like me. No wonder some of us got polio for the nasty little virus must have loved life in a crock that was pressed to many mouths. Nothing was done to stop the crock passing. I think the teachers thought it was sweet cider. Not so. I think a couple of fights broke out but nothing big time.
Sounds idyllic, eh? Not so.
One day in late October I undid my combination lock on my locker and found my books had been vandalized. Lots of nasty words. “Asshole” being the prominent one and other including the f word followed the “off” word. How did that happen. The only person that knew my locker number was a friend from Runnymede who I had known for a long time. Maybe no longer a friend. I don’t know if I can accurately describe the fear this put in those Grade 9 days. It got worse. One day there was a note in my locker. “Someone wants to meet you at Western Tech for a fight. Today at 4 p.m. Be there. He’s going to knock the shit out of you.” (paraphrasing from memory)
Whoever these guys were, I was certainly not going over to Western to get the shit knocked out of me. I was plenty scared. Especially since the whole thing was so anonymous. I did not know who my friends were anymore.
“Think, Alan, think…what brought this on?” The only thing I could think of was a stupid incident at Ravina Gardens before school one day. I walked to school with what I thought were friends. They stopped for smoke in a hidden corner of the ice rink. So I did too. I had a couple of Craven A cigarettes I had liberated from Fran the pharmacist where I was a delivery boy at 35 cents an hour. Lit up one of them. Choked of course but kept up a good front. On the second day I thought …
“What am I doing this for? Cigarettes make no sense…waste time standing around. Upset my mom as well. She thinks smoking is dirty and can barely stand Dad’s White Own Invicible cigars which he has to smoke in the back yard. And I don’t see any of the big guys or the cheerleaders smoking. They were people to look up to.”
So I threw away the other Craven A. Maybe that offended my tenuous friends. Maybe the locker graffitti had nothing to do with them. I never did know. I did hear from a couple of the guys who were waiting for me at Western Tech. So there must have been a gang of them wanting to punch my lights out. Discretion is the better part of valour. Believe it. I had learned something from watching the Beanery Boys and Junction Boys fighting in Dufferin Park before we moved. Simple lesson. People that fight get hurt. The image of a lead pipe bashing one guys head from behind has lingered long in my head. Not a fighter.
End result. I changed all my friends. Made a whole lot of new ones that have stayed with me for more than half a century. The strangers in my Grade Nine class became my new friends. And the locker vandalism eventually ceased. Had to hide the cover of our English novel Moonfleet though for it featured a few more obscenities than I care to remember.
There was so much to do at Humberside that the fear eventually diminished. Camera Club, Drama Club, Science Club…Football games at exotic places…new friends houses to visit on my Raleigh Sports racer with no brakes which I had been able to buy at a special price form the Toronto Daily Star suing profits of half a cent a paper on our Fairview Avenue delivery route. Dances, Boy Scouts, Young Peoples…so much.
Deep down I wanted to be an athlete. But I just as not any good. Left handedness was a handicap. Teachers tried to break me in public school with the result that I still cannot quickly tell the difference between right and left. Baseball was a nightmare since I had a left handed glove. Catching the ball was hard enough but throwing off the glove to fire the ball back to first base was really awkward. I always got a job in the field somewhere and I prayed the ball would never be hit my way.
But I really wanted to be part of the teams. Loved the idea of a bunch of guys working together, laughing together, talking together. So I spent all my athletic years at Humberside joining teams. Football was the biggest thing in my life at school except for gawking at the girls.
I was assigned a job as left guard and stayed there my whole football career…also inside line backer when I got better at knocking people down.
“Hit them low with your shoulder. The lower the better. Get below their centre of gravity,” Fred Burford used to say. And he showed me the steps to use. I can still do that. I must have got really good at it for in my final year I made two City All Star teams (Toronto Star and Toronto Telegram) and won the Humberside Wildman Trophy. Deep down, however, I knew there were lots of people far better than I was. I remember Mr. Griffiths and Fred Burford buttonholing me in the hall late the fall of 1957 or 1958.
“Alan, you have won a place on the City All Star team. A big honour. But I want to you to remember you were and are part of a team.”
Boy, did I know that. The finest athlete I have ever seen was Rich Mermer who was so much better than i could ever be. Maybe I won the award more for being a booster of team spirit than anything else. One thing I know for sure. Every game I ever played was a nervous experience even at University of Toronto. Nothing wrong with being nervous I suppose. Overconfidence is not so good. Injured in one game…guy stepped on my fingers with his big cleats…broke one finger. Mom and dad had to work the day of the operation so I went by street car down and back. What an ordeal? Shaved the wrong arm and then left me in hall so long that the anesthetic wore off. “The pain! The pain!” I screamed as the surgeon cut open my finger to wire bones back in place (or near place). He shoved another needle in fast. Then back home on the street car with blood oozing through the cast. The really stupid think was that I continued to play football. Made one of my best tackles with cast and all…took the enemy halfback down perfectly. Of course it was my left hand which meant I could not write for months and that was a very bad thing. School notes were really important for I never had much time for homework.
So many teams to join. Like the swim team at Humberside. I was really no good as a swimmer. Never could get the hang of proper breathing with the crawl stroke. Burford must have noticed that so he made me the swim team manager. I looked after the lists and other tasks. Part of the team. Marvelled at Gary Logan’s symmetrical diving and Jim Romaniuk’s effortless crawl strokes. No girls. Just the boy’s swim team.
And then there was Duncan Green our English Teacher who also coached the Track and Field Team as well as directing the Drama Club. I joined both. But I was no good at track and field. Middle of the pack for tail end of the pack. Just not good enough. So Dunc assigned me to the pit. “Alan, you are going to be our man doing the Hop, Step and Jump.” I took it seriously but never was stellar. I marvelled at Jerry Zadeko doing the pole vault as if he was a bird on the wing. My job was much more earthy…sandy may be a better term.
Basketball was another sport. Teams at Humberside were terrific. Closest I came to hotshot team was in phys-ed class where Streak Maclelland asked us to form teams by a choice system. I got the lead job. And I picked George Chuvalo as I thought he would provide a little force around the basketball net after all he was a professional boxer. That did not happen. He was just a good member of our team…no elbows or fists. Since we could never hope to emulate the Basketball hotshots at Humberside we formed our own team, the Flashers, and joined a church league at Alhambra United. Lots of fun. Only five of us…Russ Vanstone, Bob Taylor, Red Stevenson, Eric Skeoch and myself. We never won a game that I remember. But we got an award for enthusiasm and dependability…long walk from our homes to Alhambra United. Sang our way there. Oh, yes, by the way we chose the name Flashers before that word took on its perverted meaning.
Hockey was out of the question. I could barely skate since the hand me down skates were a always a little too large. Sort of ankled my way around the rinks. Pleasure skating at High Park was fine. And that’s where the girls were anyway. Not that any took too much interest in me though. They loved my brother for he looked like Burt Lancaster. I just looked like my Dad which was OK with me.
Bottom line of all this print? I loved Humberside. Could not get enough of it. As did my brother, Eric.
Now for the teachers. Positive memories even though some may seem a little twisted.
Take Roberta Charlesworth for instance. I learned much from her boundless enthusiasm and tenacious control. She gave me a detention, maybe more than one, but one that has been memorable.
Sitting in her home room seemed pointless since she was coaching the girls basketball team in the girls gym next door. Why not made serving a detention a little more pleasant by serving it in the girls gym bleachers. Mrs. Charlesworth would know I was there and check off the detention and I would have something to watch while serving. Make sense to you? Did to me. Next day, however, the real lesson was applied.
“Mr. Skeoch, will you come up to the front of the class please?”
“Sure.” Whatever for I thought
Then she grabbed me by the ear and lifted. That is really painful…made my eyes water.
“When I say serve a detention, I mean serve a detention in this room not the girls gym.”
At which point she released my ear and Ihoped the class did not see my watery eyes. To no avail, of course. Some were amused and I hope some felt my pain and were sorry for me. But it was not over.
The lesson came next.
“Mr. Skeoch, I judge people by what they do not by what they say.”
Pointless to give my explanation of the incident. It was a learning moment that I have never forgotten and applied often. By the way, Mrs. Charlesworth did not hate me. She must have sort of liked me for
she gave me a job tutoring new immigrant students at their homes. Paid a little, I think, but that did not matter. One older Greek student always started our lessons with a sweet hard liquor in a glass. I wonder if Mrs. Charlesworth knew that. Maybe she would have lifted him by the ear had she known.
Every teacher was different. Skillful bunch. Many went on in later years to become the puppeteers of the Toronto and District School Boards which I thought was a great mistake for they were great teachers. Big Al Merritt for instance became a Director of Education and eventually controlled the purse strings of the whole system. I remember him as a teacher who had the most amusing take on Ancient history. He could make the Greek philosophers into characters that Charlie Chaplin would have replicated.
Duncan Green and Big Al had adjoining classrooms and I could not help but notice how much they enjoyed each others company. That made me feel good. They were always laughing about something…not destructive laughter but good natured laughter. Big Al got his dander up one time with Black Bill Daniels. We called him Black Bill because the Principal W.E. Taylor took Bill into his office one time and scolded him with this remark. “Daniels, you have an attitude as black as coal and, lad, I intend to change that attitude. Understand me lad?” Of course Black Bill never really changed much. That was why Big Al was chasing him down the hall. Bill had said some quick remark to Big Al (take your choice of possible remarks) and the chase began.
I think Bill eventually sought refuge with W.E. No matter both Big Al and Black Bill remember the chase to this day.
Duncan Green was a terrific English teacher. He was always more interested in his students than the content of the curriculum in my opinion. As a result he made the curriculum seem part of the life blood of the class. I remember to this day one essay Dunc asked Russ Vanstone to read to the class. It was as good as any hotshot literary guru. Amazing and unexpected. I got to know Dunc really well when I became a teacher. He climbed the ladder of administration really fast which was a damn shame for the kids lost a lot. I even had the temerity to tell him so. On his way up he became our VP at Parkdale Collegiate and I needed his advice one day just before being interviewed by a journalist on the ills of education.
“Dunc, how should I handle this. I am worried I will offend many teachers and maybe even say something that will hurt kids or parents or our teachers union.”
“Alan, just say what you honestly think.” In other words, don’t go around trying to placate people. ” Don’t hurt kids, though.” In other words, don’t dirty your own nest.
Dunc made a lot of speeches when he became Director of Education. One I remember well. He was speaking to a bunch of teachers in our auditorium. He got our attention fast with this remark:
“I have heard that teachers have second class minds.” Zip! Conversation stopped and Dunc was getting full attention of the hundred or so teachers in the hall. Some of them thought they had first class minds so the second class remark got their hackles up.
“And, you know I think the writer was likely correct.”
Dead silence in the auditorium. Maybe a little cold sweat as well. Maybe some of the teachers were silently getting a little huffy. I am sure Dunc knew that.
“But when I think of the all the possible minds in this world, being second class is not too bad.”
Ice broken. Humour came forward. And possibly more than a modicum of truth.
Lots of amusing incidents with Dunc. Most embarassing was when he asked me to join his curling team in a bonspiel. I was not a good curler. On the first rock I stretched a little too far and ripped the crotch right out of my pants. I may as well have been wearing a kilt for the rest of the game. Being laughed at is not always pleasant. But after the second or third end, no one seemed to care that I was almost bare ass to the wind. It was a male bonspiel thankfully.