Williamson Road school days remembered in Chapter 19 of BOOM

Williamson Road Public School in the Beach. Inset photos show an old-style desk, and a student duck-and-cover drill at a U.S. school,

Below is Chapter 19 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

 BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER 19: ‘School Days’


Almost 2,200 years before I first made the trek up to Williamson Road Public School, there was a Greek gentleman named Eratosthenes who spent the greater portion of his life as the chief librarian in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He was an author, a mathematician, a geographer, a poet, an astronomer, a philosopher, and a music theorist. In short, he was a multitasker.

One of Eratosthenes’ major achievements was to calculate the circumference of the earth with startling accuracy which he did without ever leaving Alexandria. Of course, he would not have even started this endeavour unless he was aware that the world was a sphere.

Why then was I told in 1955 or 1956 that a guy named Christopher Columbus reached the conclusion in 1492 that the world was round by observing the masts of ships as they were leaving or returning to port.

He then set out to prove his theory, I was told, by sailing west into the unknown in an attempt to reach Asia. In doing so, he confounded most of the folks back home who were sure that he would sail off the edge of the earth. But, instead he managed to discover North America.

That is what I was taught by my third or fourth grade teacher who I had absolutely no reason to doubt. I didn’t hear anything about Vikings or other previous voyages of discovery and I certainly didn’t hear about Mr. Eratosthenes. And I wasn’t made aware of the Indigenous people who lived on the islands “found” by Columbus and what he did to them. The descendants of those folks like to say that they made their own discovery; they discovered a very lost and confused sailor, one Christopher Columbus. He offered them no gratitude.

During my years at Williamson Road Public School, I learned that a fellow named Galileo studied science by dropping things off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, although the consensus of opinion is that he never did, and that a chap named Newton was struck on the head by a falling apple and thus “discovered” gravity. And I learned that a famous lullaby was written by a Mr. Brown; it was Brown’s Lullaby, not (Johanne) Brahms’ Lullaby.

They lied to me. But I don’t know why.

Did the teachers then feel that it would be far more interesting for me if they could have me envision ships receding from view, objects falling from a tall height, and people getting hit on the head with fruit? Did they think that it was better for me if foreign names were anglicized and made to sound more familiar?

If that was the reason, and I can think of no other, they were wrong.

Eratosthenes was a far more interesting figure than Columbus and the voyages of the Vikings took place 500 years before his, and both Newton and Galileo led fascinating and complex lives.

Surely it would not have been that difficult to talk and write about the lives and accomplishments of these and so many other historic figures in a clear and simple fashion. And do it honestly.

Think of all of the characters in history, all of the frightening events, all of the joyous happenings, all of the romance, all of the triumphs, all of the fabulous discoveries, all of the successes and all of the dismal failures and all of the surprises. Why was it necessary to make stuff up?

Fortunately, there were some subjects taught in my school that could not be altered, amended or falsified or otherwise folded, spindled or mutilated; the 3R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic. And, in these, I was well taught. But, I will get back to that in a moment.

My first year at Williamson Road was in 1951 but I only attended for a half day; I was in Junior Kindergarten, a not very memorable experience. The following year I graduated to Senior Kindergarten and I remember a little more about it. That is where I learned about Mr. Brown’s musical composition and I recall being taught how to play a triangle. That’s about it.

Except that in one of the kindergarten classes we were taught how to sing God Save the Queen and the words to The Lord’s Prayer. I noticed that some of the kids already knew these and I wondered if I had missed something, but I soon realized that I wasn’t alone so I didn’t worry about it.

Throughout the decade at Williamson Road we would start every morning singing our musical tribute to The Queen accompanied by music being played through the public address system, followed by the recital of the prayer. Later in my “Willy” career I got to turn the P. A. system on and play the appropriate record. I managed to accomplish this without too much difficulty; there was only one record. But two sides.

In September 1953 I made the big step up into “real” school, Grade 1. I found myself in a real classroom with desks, blackboards (that actually were black) across the front wall and down one side, and a huge desk for the teacher, Miss (Myrtle) White, at the front.

The desks were bolted to the floor and each unit consisted of a wooden writing surface with a storage compartment beneath it and a bench seat attached to the front for the student in the next row forward. I was assigned a seat which remained mine for the entire school year and Miss White entered my name on her seating plan that she kept so that she would be able to learn all of our names quickly. She did learn them quickly and whenever I encountered her during the next 15 years or so, she greeted me by name.

In the first four grades, a considerable amount of our time was spent on reading, writing and arithmetic and, as I said previously, I believe that these subjects were very well taught. Fortunately, I learned to read very quickly other than stumbling over some foreign words such as “rendezvous”, and I was soon able to assemble some reasonably coherent sentences and was also able to memorize arithmetic tables. The one problem that I had was in the physical act of printing or writing (cursive).

I was doing all right until one of the teachers threw a curve at me. I am not sure who it was. I don’t think that it was Miss White; it may have been Miss (Anne) Morrow in Grade 2, or Miss (Margaret) Rimmer in Grade 3, or possibly Mrs. (Annie) Chadbourne in Grade 4. Whoever it was distributed bottles of ink which were inserted in holes in the upper right corners of the tops of our desks and we were given nib pens (otherwise known as dip pens) and blotters and told to put away our pencils. We were now going to write in pen and ink.

Writing with a nib pen and ink is exactly the same as writing in pencil except that you stop occasionally and use a blotter to soak up excess ink. I didn’t need any blotting paper; I am left-handed and the palm of my hand as it followed the nib of the pen managed to blot out or, more accurately, smudge or smear all that I had written. I resolved this dilemma by learning to grip the pen in a rather awkward fashion with the shaft of the pen resting just above the first joint of my middle finger and I was thus able to keep my palm slightly elevated. But my handwriting was not good.

Fortunately, this nonsense with inkwells (which, to me, were located on the wrong side of the desk) and nibs and blotters soon came to an end. I don’t even know why it started; ballpoint pens had been perfected during the Second World War. But thanks to this experience, I still hold a pencil or pen in the same odd way. And my handwriting is still atrocious. Incidentally, both Miss Morrow and Miss Rimmer left Williamson Road after one year; I hope it wasn’t something I said.

So the teaching of the basics at Williamson Road was well done and I say that because I don’t recall any of my classmates having great difficulty and being left behind. We all seemed to fare reasonably well.

There were a couple of exceptions, but that had nothing to do with the curriculum or quality of the teachers. Unlike many areas of Toronto, there weren’t a great number of immigrant children in the Beach and, if the few that we saw at Williamson Road are an accurate indication, apparently the Toronto Board of Education didn’t know what to do with them.

In my Grade 1 class we had a fellow named Rolf. I don’t know where he came from, but he towered over us; he was about 10 years old, whereas we were all six. He hadn’t been put in the appropriate grade because his reading and speaking skills were not up to standard. He didn’t speak English.  What was he doing in a class learning that four plus four equals eight? He already knew that; he just didn’t know how to say it.

Meanwhile, in Grade 4 there was a girl from Argentina who was the right age to be in that grade but she too didn’t speak a word of English. I don’t remember her name but I liked her. She was cute. And she was learning virtually nothing. Because of the Baby Boom, the schools were crowded and throughout public school my classes had about 36 pupils. There was a shortage of space, books, and teachers. And, apparently, a shortage of a coherent plan to deal with immigrant children.

When I entered Grade 5 in 1957 I met Mr. (Carl) Michailoff, my first male teacher. I liked him.  Perhaps it was because I was getting a little older, but I felt that the relationship was a little less formal with him and our conversations could be more relaxed. But he was still the boss and from time to time, he let us know it. I just recently read Mr. Michailoff’s obituary; he died in November 2019. In 1957 he was 22 years old.

I don’t know if it was an exercise outlined in the curriculum or if it was his idea, but I well remember a particular facet of our social studies training; social studies being a combination of geography, history, and civics.

Each day, Mr. Michailoff would select one of the students who would be told to study a newspaper that evening and select what they thought to be the most significant or interesting item. On the following day they were expected to stand in front of the class and tell everyone about it and discuss it in detail. It was a great idea. For one thing, it got one of us to read a newspaper and then do some analysis and make a decision. Next the chosen one had to formulate an explanation and deliver it orally in a public setting. It was a good exercise and we all enjoyed it….as long as we were not the one standing at the front of the class.

I am sure that you have heard that in retail, it’s “location, location, location”. Well, in social studies, it is “timing is everything”. On Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, Carl (I’m sure he won’t mind) told me that it was my turn and to be prepared to deliver my treatise on the following Monday. Right away I had an advantage; I had two papers to choose from, Friday and Saturday and I had all weekend to prepare.

Of course I put it off till the Saturday. I was delivering The Star at that time and when my bundle of papers had been thrown at my feet and I had cut the wire binding it, there it was staring back at me; “my” story.

In large type, the headline blared “REDS LAUNCH MOON TO CIRCLE WORLD”.  On Oct. 4, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. The paper was crammed with stories, analyses, photos, illustrations and predictions and it was a subject that had always fascinated me. In no time I was able to put together a presentation and when Monday came I stood in front of the class with an abundance of confidence. I aced it! They ate it up and I got a good mark. Like I said, timing is everything.

To me, the launch of Sputnik represented the exciting beginning of space exploration. To a lot of other people it signaled the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBM’s, meaning that we were all only minutes away from having nuclear bombs rain down upon us. To most kids it didn’t mean either one; they didn’t give it another thought.

For years we had known that the “reds” could use aircraft to deliver “the bomb”, but did we think about it or talk about it? Not really. We heard our parents speak of it occasionally but I can’t say that we paid much attention.

You may have seen films from the Fifties that showed the pupils in a schoolroom practicing “duck and cover” in preparation for a potential nuclear attack. They all ducked under their desks and covered their heads with their hands. I don’t remember ever doing that and I am sure that it never happened at Williamson Road. It must have been something practiced south of the border. We Canadian kids knew that the desktop, a three-quarter inch piece of maple, was not quite up to the job.

Children aren’t wired to consider that which might be, but are generally aware of existing conditions. And we were aware that there may have been something wrong with the air that we breathed and the food that we ate because of the radioactive “fallout” from weapons testing.  Aware, yes, but concerned? No.

I don’t recall ever talking about it with any of my friends or giving it much thought. But, Strontium 90 in our milk? A definite Fault of the Fifties.

I liked public school. I liked Williamson Road and the teachers. I liked all of my friends and all of my classmates; most of us spent the entire decade together and we had fun.

But I lost touch with all of them many years ago. None of us became particularly famous as did some of the alumni who preceded us; pianist Glenn Gould, his next door neighbour, journalist Robert Fulford, and artist Doris McCarthy. And, I hope, none of us became particularly infamous either.

I have nothing but good memories of my life in public school. But, I sometimes wonder whatever became of Rolf and that cute Argentinean girl; I hope they fared well.

To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Three, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Four, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Five, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Six, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 10, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 11, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/22/chapter-11-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 12, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/29/chapter-12-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

Tor read Chapter 13, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/06/chapter-13-of-boom-tells-how-the-garden-gate-became-the-goof/

To read Chapter 14, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/13/chapter-14-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beaches-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-back-at-the-night-hurricane-hazel-hit/

To read Chapter 15, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/20/rock-and-roll-arrives-in-chapter-15-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 16, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/27/marilyn-bell-swims-the-lake-and-other-memorable-moments-in-chapter-16-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 17, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/11/03/chapter-17-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-back-at-some-classic-tv-shows/

To read Chapter 18, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/11/10/hockey-night-in-canada-and-other-tv-memories-in-chapter-18-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

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