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April 30, 2006

  • The Tree and the Prince
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    In the back of Sunningdale Public School in Oakville was a singular tree that towered above any child there. I don't know what kind of a tree it actually was but when I summon it to my mind I think of something like the giant redwoods I stood under in California—something massive and older than me that provokes awe.

    It definitely wasn't as big as that. But when I was seven, that's what I thought. But then I thought the library at Sunningdale was big and vast and when I visited it as a high school student I was shocked to discover it was remarkably tiny (and still had the vintage Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books in the same spot they were ten years previous). That was the wonderful thing about being young—the whole world seemed huge and vast and brimming with adventure.

    To us, the back of Sunningdale was an endless expanse of soccer fields and playground and asphalt and hanging bars. And yet recesses were really quite segregated—half of the yard was for the primary kids, the other half was for the junior kids. This segregation wasn't deliberately enforced, but it just happened (the proximity of the entrances to the primary and junior wings of the school had a lot to do with that). The tree stood somewhere near the halfway point.

    The tree is something I forever associate with Ms. Kendra Allen, my Grade 1 and 2 teacher. Ms. Allen was the first Ms. I ever met. She had straight long hair, like everyone did, and she had funky glasses and wore peasant tops like everyone did back then. I suppose she looked a bit like Gloria Steinhem. But then most women did back then.

    I idolized Ms. Allen. She watched The Six Million Dollar Man and offered me Certs from time to time when I had bad breath. She read to us from Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins books and demonstrated how magnetism worked and showed us how to incubate eggs into baby chicks. She lived at 1130 Queens Avenue—I remember that because I once sold her some chocolate almonds for my youth bowling league and she wrote down her address on the form. The Saturday the consignment of almonds arrived, my Dad suggested we take them to her and we went to an apartment building just up the road from Towers and Food City. My Dad buzzed her apartment on the intercom and she sounded amused and invited us up to her apartment. I was six and the idea of my teacher having her own home was a completely foreign—and mind-blowing—concept. I was stunned as I looked in her apartment, the only trace of our usual relationship was in a pile of our creative writing scrap books waiting for block-printed comments and gold stars.

    The tree and Ms. Allen are inextricably linked. Ms. Allen liked having the class go outside from time to time during the early fall and late spring when the weather was nice. One spring day I remember drawing pictures of insects, and my best friend Rob wrote a story about The June Bug That Ate New York

    I met the first out-of-the-closet gay man I'd ever known there. His name was Mr. Coverdale. A couple of years later, he would become a grade four teacher at Sunningdale by day, sometime actor/stand-up comedian by night. He got into real trouble when the Oakville Journal Record profiled him and the gay stand-up act he was doing at Yuk Yuk's in Toronto. This was 1979 and this was looked quite dimly by many members of the community, our principal included, who tried to get him fired—although all of this went over the heads of most of the kids, including myself. What impressed me about that profile was that he'd worked on a film with Lee Majors one summer and had the Six Million Dollar Man sign an autograph for his class.

    By that time, I was in grade six. But I the first time I met Mr. Coverdale was in Grade 1, when he was practice teaching with Ms. Allen. Part of his work was getting us to sing all sorts of camp songs (in all the senses of the word). And so we'd go sit on the ground around the tree and we'd sing songs like:

    The cannibal king with his big nose ring
    Fell in love with a hoola dame
    Well he hugged and he kissed his pretty little miss under the bamboo tree.
    And every night by the pale moon light, this is what you'd see.
    Barump, *kiss, kiss* Barump, *kiss, kiss* Barump diddle-aye-dee-ay
    Barump, *kiss, kiss* Barump, *kiss, kiss* Barump diddle-aye-dee-ayyyy.

    Education was all a bold new frontier back in the mid-1970s. The primary wing of the school was two giant open concept ‘pods'. We were in the Lower Pod (grade 3s were mostly in the Upper Pod). There, each class was nominally contained within one of the four corners while collaborating with other classes. (Ms. Allen's class would often do stuff with Mrs. Barker's class), like learning about magnetism or chicks hatching. It must have been chaos for the teachers. There was an old-fashioned handbell in the centre of the room (there was a counter there) and a teacher would ring it to get everyone's attention. That bell rang a lot, I seem to recall. It was like the Wild West

    During grade one, Ms. Allen and Ms Barker's area was also split up into different ‘centres' for pupils to do different things during times designated for individual learning—so there was a reading centre, with books to read, a games and puzzles section, with the home edition of Password, and the drama centre, with lots of costumes and props, and an art centre, for drawing and painting. We were given times of the day to spend in whatever centre we wanted to do. It must have been insanity for the teachers, but I enjoyed it a lot.

    I spent a lot of time in the drama centre. This was probably not an easy experience for my classmates as Ms. Allen's detailed report card for me in first grade (back in the mid ‘70s primary school kids didn't have grades but rather detailed written notes on the child's progress, which amounted to two or so single-spaced typewritten pages) notes that I was generally only happy when I could be "both director and star". But that's not why I loved the drama centre. Why I loved the drama centre was that we could act out our favourite TV series and get away with it during class time.

    Usually this meant—depending on when in grade one or two this took place—play acting Batman (the ‘60s TV series was in syndication and was huge) or Star Trek (the same was true, plus they had a sticker book!) or The Six Million Dollar Man or The Hardy Boys. I remember there was a lot of arguing about how things should unfold (my tendency to be both director and star) and occasionally we were sent to the Principal's office if such disputes turned to fighting.

    Every so often we were convinced that what we had done was pure dramatic gold and we'd convince Ms. Allen to let us perform our dramatic work for the class. I don't know why, more often than not, she would agree with this, as what would unfold was a plotless excuse to re-enact a fight scene that made a lot more sense when William Dozier produced it in 1966. Even the director/star was forced to admit on more than once occasion that the desire for spectacle outstripped any actual attention to plot, character or incident. I remember one such performance of a Batman playlet—that we somehow managed to convince Ms. Allen and Mrs. Barker to let us perform in the school gymnasium—that was actually stopped part way through by Mrs. Barker, who then forced us—in an effort to no doubt salvage the experience for the probably bored audience—to break down what was supposed to happen next to the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder.

    This tendency toward child dadaism continued throughout my first two years of primary school (it climaxed with an embarrassing make-it-up-without-an-ending production of the Hardy Boys we did at the White Oaks Public Library in August, 1977 that the Librarian stopped part way through). But once, just once, we surprised everyone.

    It was toward the end of grade two. We came up with an amazing idea for a play while messing around the tree during recess. There were no superheroes, no action men, no teenaged detectives. It was just a story that I had come up with and myself, Rob, Igor and a couple of others. During successive recesses we ‘workshopped' it through repeated play-acting, and, miraculously, this time, we managed to stumble upon a beginning, middle and an end.

    We asked Ms. Allen if we could perform it. I remember her dubiousness about having us do another piece, but for once I knew we had something that would not require intervention. I was out to prove myself once and for all. With some pleading, she dutifully hauled the class outside to watch us perform our piece beside the tree.

    The story was of a much-loved Prince (played by the director/star, yours truly) who was murdered in his sleep by his stepbrother (played by my grade two nemesis Igor) so he could put himself in line for the throne. That night the Prince's ghost rose from the dead to tell his best friend (Rob) and the King (our classmate Korado, I think) of the stepbrother's evil deed. The stepbrother was then dispatched in a swordfight with the dead Prince's friend.

    In retrospect, what was really spooky is that, without knowing it, our story was, basically, the same basic idea as Hamlet—murdered noble who comes from beyond the grave to implicate a non-bloodline successor to the throne in the noble's own murder.

    Whether Ms. Allen had twigged that we had unconsciously aped Shakespeare (without knowing any Shakespeare) I do not know. What I do know that she was really impressed with our little play. Her praise was uplifting and full. It was obvious, even as a seven year-old, that the she was impressed, but mostly surprised, that we had enacted a play with a beginning, middle and end that did not involve a superhero in sight. Ms. Allen had us perform the same play for Miss Schneider's class of grade ones, and we performed for a couple of other classes as well.

    Even that tender age, my overwhelming thought in response was, proved you wrong.

    I don't get to visit that part of Oakville much anymore, but when I do I'm always struck at how small everything seems—the bungalows on Oxford Avenue seem dwarfed by the hugeness of the sky, and Sunningdale itself seems smaller. They scrapped the noble but perhaps doomed experiment of the Upper and Lower Pods by the mid-‘80s and renovated them into classrooms, and then that whole wing of the school was further renovated in the early ‘90s.

    The renovations also included putting most of the parking lot in the back, and the tree is now encroached by asphalt and minivans. But the tree still stands, a little bigger, yet a little smaller, too. Still growing in the midst of a world that keeps changing and evolving, but also a reminder of a time when the world had more possibilities and a group of children could perform Hamlet without knowing it.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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