GRADUATION AND OFF TO SWAN RIVER

My days back at the university were pretty uneventful. I picked up university life from where I had left off in the spring with the exception that I would take courses in subjects other than Physics and Mathematics to complete my degree. I took second and third year courses both at the same time in: Introduction to and History of Philosophy; Inorganic, Organic and Physical Chemistries; Fundamentals of Psychology and Applied Psychology. I also took fourth year Modern Physics and Calculus and Differential Equations just for old time’s sake.
I discovered a few weeks before my university graduation ceremony that I was expected to give a speech. It was because I was ‘Senior Stick’ or some such title. Preparing for the speech made me realize that I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do for the rest of my life after I had packed my belongings into my metal suitcase and left the university campus.
A few hours of studying career information and listings of jobs available convinced me that a general Bachelor of Science degree was not the ultimate key to any long and satisfying career I could identify. It didn’t even qualify me for a good temporary job. I had no marketable skills or useful experience. Everyone seemed to want ‘previous experience’.

Then it hit me. The only thing I knew, and was good at, was going to university. I could become a professional student—otherwise known as a university professor. I would need some money for more full-time study and, as always, I was temporarily out of funds. The date was 1955 and Manitoba was so short of qualified public school teachers they were hiring university graduates as ‘permit’ teachers to teach in small rural schools. The $2700 a year salary wasn’t great, but not bad for that era. It was the price of a new car in those days, so it was like maybe $27,000 is today. If I saved my money for the year, it would give me a good start on my master’s degree without needing to have too many other jobs during the year. AT LAST! I had a goal for my life and a plan to make it happen. I knew where I was going. Or at least, so I thought.

Swan River was a nice town, a 5-hour drive north of Winnipeg. It had one high school with one class each of Grades 9–12. As luck would have it they were looking for a Science/ Math teacher. It would be perfect for me, I thought, because I had majored in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. There would be a few classes of fill-in subjects like Art and maybe some Physical Education classes but I knew I could handle them.
It somehow did not occur to me that my background in the field of education consisted mostly of skipping classes or ignoring whatever the teacher was doing. The only teachers I had paid attention to in school were the ones who were interesting because they didn’t stick to the subject area. Of course I was ready to be a teacher. Bring on the students!
Most small cities at that time had room-and-board accommodation in private homes for the new teachers, ministers, or other unmarried transients. The one I found already had two young teachers staying there. The lady provided good meals, it was a pleasant atmosphere, and there was a pitcher and basin in the room for washing up. Occasionally, on the coldest winter mornings, there would be a thin layer of ice on the water in the pitcher. I had become used to this as a child and just took it as an effective way to ensure I was awake for school. There was a house rule that there would be no alcohol in the house. Being 21 years old and having only recently ‘come of age’ as far as buying liquor (and other adult activities), this was only a minor disadvantage for me. It became even less of a disadvantage when I discovered that she considered Guinness Stout to have medicinal benefits and was thereby exempt from the no-alcohol rule. I assured her that the reason it was sold at the local Liquor Commission was because it was manufactured in Canada by Labatt’s Brewery. It was true enough and she found it reassuring. By the end of the school year I was very healthy (mentally and physically) but never did develop a taste for room temperature Stout.
I preferred the cold beer in the local hotel beverage room for two reasons. The first reason is self-evident—it was cold beer. The other reason is because of an unsolved mystery.
The first time I went into the beverage room and was served my cold beer the waiter refused payment with the comment, “It’s paid for.”
My second beer was also free; as was every one I had there all year. No amount of interrogation or subtle investigation brought me any closer to finding out who my unknown benefactor was. The beer arrived automatically as soon as I sat down regardless of what waiter was on duty, leading me to suspect the hotel owner. But it was only a suspicion unsubstantiated by any facts.

I prepared for my classes as much I could by going over the curriculum and making sure I knew the content I was supposed to teach. If I had been the one writing the exams I would have really aced those courses. My first few days of ‘teaching’ consisted of my demonstrating to the students that I could do the work while they watched in fascination at my skillful performances. I went over everything slowly, clearly and methodically, being careful not to make any errors. They copied down the work from the blackboard as instructed and no one asked any questions. I was confident that I was doing a superb job of teaching . . . until after I gave a couple of tests. The results were astonishingly bad.
One weekend, while quaffing my regular free beer, I realized that I was doing to my students exactly what Dr. M. had done to us in my Mathematical Analysis course in university. I was launching into diagrams and statements of proof on the blackboard without giving the students any idea of what I was doing or why. The only difference was that in my proofs there was a Latin notation, ‘Q. E. D.’ meaning, ‘what was to be proven’, so students would at least know when I was finished. My students knew when I was finished, even if they had no idea what it was that was finished.
On the following Monday, I embarked on a program of teaching WITH the students instead of AT them. When there was no real reason to learn something I would invent one (“Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if someone stopped you on the street and asked you what the molecular weight and valence of Aluminum was and you didn’t know? You can avoid this embarrassment by memorizing it as 27 and plus 3”). I discovered that the weirder or more humorous the made-up reason, the easier it was for them to remember. I also learned from the world of advertising that frequent repetition of a simple fact or statement makes it memorable. I began starting and ending my lessons with a brief quiz or reiteration of important information.
I was not much older than the students I taught. I was 21 and Mavis was a well-developed 22-year-old who initially sat in the front seat of the middle row. She liked tight sweaters and frequently leaned back to stretch her arms. After the first two weeks I moved her to the back of the class directly behind a large boy. I’m sure she had no idea why I moved her . . . yeah, right.

There was not much formal entertainment in Swan River and no larger cities anywhere nearby. I had never taken an active part in team sports mostly because I was never a  ‘team player’. Whatever I knew about team sports was theoretical and gained by reading, or in a few instances, by observation. In fact, I have never owned or even put on an athletic ‘cup’. The students were keen on sports but the staff was less interested in coaching and supporting them. What would be more logical than my volunteering to coach the school hockey team? I had never played hockey in my life so I knew nothing of the rules—let alone what a coach is supposed to do. The team said that didn’t matter because they did. And I didn’t know how to skate—obviously not a big problem for the same reason.
Once I got into the hockey business it was a short jump to serve as referee for basketball games. I read the rulebook and it all seemed pretty straightforward. Fouls and most things were obvious except for ‘traveling’. It sounded so easy when I read it. The player must bounce the ball at least once for every step taken. Unfortunately, there was no way I could watch the ball and the player’s feet at the same time as they raced from one end of the court to the other. In order to avoid rampant traveling by both teams I set up with a member of each team to give me the traveling sign if they saw a member of their own team traveling. The students had an innate feeling for fairness and honesty. Besides, they knew I would verbally abuse them if they cheated. It was just all for fun anyway, not for championships.

I also got enlisted into being the football team’s official ‘medic’. Generally, it was an easy job once I learned how to tape up sprains and apply Band-aids. Fortunately, I had studied up on how to make stitches out of Band-aids, because in one game a player impaled his calf on a metal stake in the ground—in one side and out the other. The flow of blood was more impressive than the time I had a compass imbedded in my shinbone, but that experience reassured me I could handle the situation.
First thing was to decide what to do with the metal rod. Common sense told me that it would be best to leave it in his leg. However, the stake was also firmly anchored in the ground, so I gently lifted him and his leg off it. Except for the increased blood flow (and my sudden interest in throwing up my lunch) things seemed to be going well. I did a mostly adequate job of stopping the bleeding and fixing him up for his trip to the hospital. From there on it wasn’t my problem. In those olden days one never even thought about lawsuits.

And speaking of lawsuits, I started an after school science club. Not knowing any better, I let the students choose the areas of study. They chose ‘explosives’. To make a long story short, I obtained some fuming (that is one step more potent than concentrated) nitric acid from Winnipeg and we proceeded to make up a small batch of nitroglycerin—not something I had ever done at university. In the labs at university we made things like aspirin. I spent a number of sleepless nights wondering how we could explode our experiment in relative safety. As fate would have it, my worry time was wasted. One of the students spilled the ‘brew’ all over the lab desk. I used a rag to wipe it up. To the amusement of all of us, there was a trail of bright little popping explosions behind the rag as the diluted drops of nitro exploded individually. Everyone agreed the experiment had been successful and I decreed we should terminate the club in order to spend time on sports activities.
By the end of the year I was also umpire for the city adult softball team. The rules were more complicated than I expected until I caught on that the players didn’t know (or at least, care about) some of the more esoteric rules, like invoking the ‘infield fly rule’ or the need to ‘tag up’ on an infield catch. That’s the trouble with rulebooks—they don’t say which rules are essential and which aren’t. Some of my calls were surprising to the players (even if technically correct), but they accepted that I was better than nobody, and at least I was consistent. I suppose it might have helped if I had ever played softball or any kind of ball, for that matter.

There were many interesting students in the school. There was a pair of identical twin boys in Grade 9. They invariably dressed identically except that only one wore a belt. It was widely accepted that it was the same twin who always wore a belt and the other didn’t. This made it very easy for the teachers to tell them apart and to identify them. We spent some time together in class and also after school. Eventually, I could tell then apart by their facial expressions. And then I discovered their secret. They would frequently switch the belt when it was more convenient for one of them to miss a detention than the other, or for some other reason, or just for fun. They admitted their deception to me and I promised to keep their secret. I was surprised at how often they switched identities for large periods of time, even for whole days.

Fortunately for me, the principal had no concerns about my fraternization with male students at recess or after school. He thought I was handling discipline matters on my own and saving him some problems. Besides, I helped fill out his extracurricular Physical Education program. It was really just that I preferred the company of the students who were my closer to my own age to the teachers who tended to be older and hence more boring.
I became good friends with three boys in particular: Mel, Jack and Al. Somehow, I’m not sure how, Al and I went on a ‘field trip’ by Greyhound Bus to Chicago during the spring break. He was planning to go to university in Vancouver when he graduated because his sister and her husband lived there and could provide room and board. He had spent his life in the sparsely populated area around Swan River and asked me about life in a big city like Vancouver. I don’t know whose idea it was, but it seemed like a good idea to go to some big city. Winnipeg was handy, but not very exciting (or warm). We were both sick of winter and were suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. It wasn’t exactly like spring break in Cancun, but it was warmer and the snow was melting in Chicago. We even got to hear Dean Martin perform in person, semi-drunk . . . him, not us.
The three of them were destined to play a major part in the next year of my life. After they graduated from Grade 12, the four of us set off to the University of British Columbia to live with Al’s sister—them for their first year and me for my Bachelor of Education.
I think we drove non-stop from Swan River to Vancouver—something more than 24 hours. This would account for my lack of memory concerning the trip. The only thing I remember is the four of us constantly playing musical chairs to drive or to get a back seat for sleeping.

***

~ Ouch ~

It was my first day as the school hockey team coach. The students were changing and putting on their equipment.
I noticed one boy walking up to another and kneeing him severely in the groin.
My initial reaction was one of horror until I realized that was how they checked to see that their ‘cup’ was properly installed.
I never did learn not to wince every time I saw that.