School was very easy for me and astonishingly boring. Sometimes I didn’t get really good marks because I forgot to pay enough attention to know what the topic was, or I didn’t pause to figure out what the teacher would expect to be the correct answer. Often my ideas were different from those of the teacher . . . or of the rest of the world, for that matter.
I don’t remember much about my years in the elementary grades. Mostly, I think I stayed out of everyone’s way and they stayed out of mine, with the exception of two incidents that I remember. One was when a friend of mine was picking a fight with me and wouldn’t leave me alone. I put him in a headlock, with his head under my arm, and punched him in the face three times in rapid succession and then let him go. He was surprised but not really hurt. There wasn’t even any blood. I think he had been expecting some pushing, sparring, and light punching, but I couldn’t be bothered with that sort of thing. We continued to be friends, but he paid more attention to what I was saying after that. The other incident occurred when I was at a urinal doing my business. Another student I didn’t know, but remember him as being older and bigger, came up behind me, pushed me and told me to hurry up. I wheeled around and told him to leave me alone. He swore at me and disappeared to try and get himself dried off. I turned back and continued emptying my bladder. It may not have been the best way to make friends, but I didn’t get teased or bullied . . . at least not twice. Don was a fellow in my grade through high school who always wanted to come and visit the farm. He loved the open spaces and besides, I had an archery bow and a dozen arrows. We would shoot the arrows as far away as we could and then try to find them. We would do this until we ran out of arrows and had to find something else to do. During the days after he left, I would slowly recover most of the arrows, and by the time I had found them it would be time for him to come and visit again. For a couple of years a lot of my spare time was spent reading everything I could find about perpetual motion machines. My research got a huge boost the time I read an ‘Unforgettable Experience’ in the Readers Digest. It described in detail how a person got trapped in an underground tunnel by a water flood. The tunnel came to a blind end with a solid wall of water blocking the open end. The writer was trapped in the air space between the solid dirt wall on one side and the solid wall of water at the other end. This to me was a perfect model for a perpetual motion machine. All one would need is a paddle wheel half-in and half-out of the water wall and it would spin forever. I tried a few small experiments but couldn’t manage to create the necessary vertical wall of water because gravity kept pulling it down. I didn’t have the equipment necessary to dig a big horizontal tunnel. I did think of using a gopher tunnel. We had lots of those at home, but I would have needed such a very small paddle wheel. I wrote to the Readers Digest for more information on the article and/or author. To their credit, they replied honestly. Unfortunately, the news was that they did no research on articles submitted and took no responsibility for the truth of them. I don’t suppose they noticed, but their readership immediately went down by one. I was disillusioned with them. A few times I hit roadblocks in school that seemed insurmountable. One was at the end of Grade 6. I was advised that I wouldn’t pass to junior high until I memorized the multiplication table up to the ‘twelve times’ table. For some reason, probably psychological or attitudinal, the information just would not stick. I spent a miserable first month of the summer holidays trying to memorize the table but couldn’t get past the ‘six times’ tables. Then one day I had an epiphany. I could multiply in my head by two very easily. So, eight times seven (a total impossibility for me to memorize) was the same as twice four times seven. Four times seven was easy, and that just left me with simply multiplying by two. If both numbers were odd (like nine times seven) it took one more step. Just subtract one from one of the numbers to make it even, divide that number by two, use the memorized table in my head to multiply the numbers together, then double the answer and add the other number back onto it. Now, isn’t that easier than memorizing a bunch of unrelated facts? It was for me and I finally passed into junior high. Fortunately for me, the teachers never caught on that I couldn’t learn the alphabet either. I could recite it by rote but had no idea what letter came before or after another unless I took a run at it from the beginning. I even learned to recite the alphabet backwards, but that didn’t turn out to be very useful. I still can’t find a letter in the dictionary without taking a run at it. I have improved in that I don’t need to start from ‘A’ I only need a few letters lead. Lucky for me the teachers didn’t clue into this or I’d probably still be in Grade 6. Getting out of Grade 9 presented an unexpected problem for me. I had a straight ‘A’ report card, but at the end of the year I was late in handing in my Art project. I told the teacher I had it done (which I did) and would hand it in as soon as I could. The teacher advised me that if I didn’t get it handed in the next morning I would fail Art and not get into High School. Not wanting to take the chance that I might forget to bring it to school the next day, I solved the problem rather simply. I told her I was not handing it in tomorrow or ever and she could fail me if she wanted to have me in her class for another year. In retrospect, that was maybe not the smartest course of action. I’m not sure how it all played out, but it didn’t involve me anymore and I was passed into High School. It wasn’t as if Art were a major subject except in her mind. I wondered what world she was living in.
So much for my first nine years of school—high school turned out to be much the same.
History was a major pain in high school because I couldn’t memorize dates. Well, that’s not quite true. I had no trouble memorizing the actual dates. I just had trouble remembering which dates went with what events. One of the highlights of my high school career was our school brass band, organized and led under the long-suffering baton of Mr. W. I had taken a few piano lessons when I was in elementary school but they were not very memorable for me. They may have been more memorable for my teacher because I had absolutely no sense of rhythm, couldn’t carry a tune, kept hitting the wrong keys, and was probably less than an ideal student in ways I have mercifully forgotten. At any rate, I discovered that I could play the trumpet. It had only three valves to push, so that was much easier for me to keep organized than with the 88 of a piano. I played the trumpet in the band for a year before I discovered that its sound was, to put it mildly, strident. I was more of a mellow person, so I switched to the coronet (a softer tone but still shrill), alto (uninteresting music), trombone (no way—the slide would provide me with an infinite choice of inaccurate notes), and tuba (really boring ‘oom pah pah’ music). I even tried the clarinet, but the reed always seemed to need adjustment. Even then, it would often squawk in a most embarrassing manner. Then I discovered the euphonium, and it was love at first sound. Euphoniums come in a variety of types depending on the design. Check the Internet with Google for way more conflicting information than you could ever want: three-valve or four-valve, baritone or bass, one or two bell. The euphonium has the most magnificently mellow tone imaginable, and the music written for it features obligato passages, which wander and float around the main musical theme with reckless abandon while the band plods along with the melody, harmony, and bass. The euphonium is often featured in a cadenza, in which everyone (including the conductor) stops to give the euphonium player full freedom to do his/her own thing with an extended passage. The euphonium lends itself to the elaborate variations written originally for trumpet or even violin (such as ‘Carnival of Venice’ and ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ Check ‘YouTube’ for some magnificent performances by David Childs. The euphonium was never as popular in North America as in Europe (except for military and marching music) and is relatively unknown in jazz or orchestral music. It seems that many composers are under the impression the slide trombone can fill in adequately for the euphonium and has the added value of having the slide for glissando musical effects. The latter part is true. The baritone sax provides a more focused sound appropriate for jazz. A well-played euphonium fills the room with sound—not a desirable quality in jazz. I threw myself into my music with an enthusiasm that was borderline obsessive, practicing at least two or three hours every day, and always with a metronome. I learned to transpose music from any key and clef to the euphonium’s key of B-flat. Initially, I wrote the transpositions by hand but quickly learned to transpose by sight. Music had become my claim to fame. I was technically great, had great tone and expression, and could play almost any music written. When marching was added to the band’s repertoire, I discovered I had another problem. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had just done ordinary, straight down the road, marching, but they soon decided to get fancy and do formations and patterns as we went down the road. And then we started doing a few intermission shows, which embodied fancy formations on a playing field. I couldn’t remember which was my left foot and which was my right one. Drill sergeants are very fond of saying, ‘left foot’ or ‘turn right’. This was a problem for me because I wasn’t great at this kind of multi-tasking. Playing and marching was quite enough without having to figure out which was my left and right. I solved the problem by realizing that I was right handed. So I could just clench my writing hand (or pinch my pant leg) and I knew which was my right side. That helped me immeasurably. The school band helped me personally in that I was part of a group and traveled to other cities for festivals, concerts, and events like the Calgary Stampede. We did have impressive uniforms, which we wore for stage performances as well as marching. Somehow the uniforms were never as much of a chick magnet as I had hoped. Maybe the plumes on the hat were a turnoff. I frequently played solos and won competitions. Sports had proven hopeless for me and academic success was an empty achievement because I didn’t see any use for it. Music was a recognized achievement that maybe could become my future. After one festival, the adjudicator suggested I apply for a musical scholarship to study music and become a professional musician. I was excited . . . until I realized I had absolutely no real talent for music. I was functionally tone deaf and had to tune my instrument by listening for interference ‘beats’. I had no natural sense of rhythm—just a memorized metronome beating in my head. What the adjudicator had seen and thought was talent to be developed was actually the end result of all my hard work. I was as good as I was going to get, and I needed to accept it. The euphonium never became my destination but it remained a major part of my journey throughout university life. It was a great journey and helped me maintain some semblance of sanity.
Throughout my high school years (and sporadically during later years) I was active in amateur plays. My first experience was as the drunken choir director in Wilder’s ‘Our Town’. This was a memorable experience for me for several reasons. It was the first time I had acted on stage in a formal play, as opposed to acting as a magician or a brass band member. Goodness knows, I had done lots of impromptu acting in school classrooms over the years, and I was comfortable being on stage performing euphonium solos, but this was the first time I became a totally different person in front of an audience.
I was particularly pleased to get good reviews for my drunken acting role because I’d never even had an alcoholic drink up to that time, and probably had never seen a drunken person, as far as I can remember. I guess I was just had natural ability as a drunk. The teacher directing the play arranged for a professional acting coach to work with us for one session. I had no idea how emotions (real or not) could be conveyed through techniques such as changing the pitch of your voice as you go through a long speech. It is more effective than changing the volume, and the two together can be electrifying. The message of ‘Our Town’ that the love between human beings is divine, but we go about our lives trampling on the feelings of those around us, had a major effect on my developing philosophy and understanding of life. It is a great play.
~ One Of Ken’s Crazy Arithmetic Systems ~
Ken: “I didn’t like subtracting with borrowing (e. g. 35 – 8).
Instead, I could easily remember that 10-8=2,
and then add the 5 to get 2+5=7 for the last digit.
Then 30-10=20, so the answer is 27.”
(That is a rhetorical question.)