Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Confessions of an "outsider"

I just finished watching a video of Martha Hall Findlay's announcement of her leadership bid for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Impressive for her academic record, high school graduation at 15, degrees in International Relations and Law, executive and leadership positions in private business, as well as in the corporate sector, at home and abroad (Europe), and her athletic career as a downhill ski racer, her bilingualism, and her "gutsy" and courageous approach to most challenges, she points to how she got to the starting gate in competitive downhill skiiing: by working with a team!
A perfectly qualified, perfectly admirable, perfectly bilingual, perfectly intellectually competent and perfectly trained, educated and experienced candidate for leadership of a national political party in 2012. Were there no "Shadows" and no references to anything smacking of failure, and vulnerability except the reference to knowing about cutting hotdogs and mixing them with Kraft Dinner?
Following her speech, I decided to enjoy the November afternoon sunshine and cool temperatures with a walk through the neighbourhood.
Walking along Helen Street, (means little to anyone not living in Kingston) I discovered something: my life seems to have been a statement of bucking the expected, of bucking power and authority, of living outside the box (if there even is a box!), almost without fully being aware of what I was doing.
Precisely opposite to the kind of platinum achievements of one Ms Hall Findlay!
There is a small button attached to the lamp shade in our kitchen bow-window that reads, "Question Authority" that I received from a former professor of theology at Trinity College. But the button could have been emblazoned on my forehead decades earlier.
Elsewhere I have documented my long-running conflict with my Hollywood-ambitious and hard-driving mother trained by nuns at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
Suffice, here, to record some of many other conflicts, on the one hand subtle and covert, and on the other, the more public and overt variety, both self-sabotage and exposing others' pomposity, hypocrisy, alcoholism, inconsistency and spiritual arrogance, among other pet targets.
I really despise being treated in a manner that does not challenge me and those who, too, are targets of the directives from others, that require, for example, perfect notebooks, mere copies of the textbooks, so that the teacher could "mark" that perfection. I "forgot" my history notebook in grade eleven history class, for weeks, months, perhaps even the whole school year, although those classes were conducted extremely professionally by Ted Mitchell and I paid close attention to the requirements for tests and exams, scoring successfully, I guess, enough to convince him to turn the other way when marking notebooks. I simply could never see the benefit of copying a textbook, even perfectly and perfectly neatly, to please a very good teacher!
And then, in grade twelve, we had another strict History teacher, Isobel Marshall, trained by the nuns at Brescia Hall at the University of Western Ontario. Her routine was to instruct all students, at the beginning of class, to close their note and text books, so that she could interrogate her class on last night's assignment. What were the terms of the treaty of X?" she would ask, her hand cupped at her spindle waist, her physical and emotional control, even dominance, of the moment so complete that many generations literally feared even entering her classroom. And then she would speak the name of the next "victim" who either "performed" as expected or remained silent, in embarrassed but silent derision for failing to 'do his homework.' As one of those whose parents were on a very friendly relationship with Miss Marshall, I brazenly left my textbook open on my desk at the appropriate page, surreptitiously of course, and without mentioning my gall to any classmate, and when called upon, provided a semblance of an answer that seemed to "pass muster" for Miss Marshall, uttered while glancing at the words I was mouthing orally.
In grade thirteen, I recall, in her class, I asked a question about the United Nations, about "why" it did or did not do something. Her response, "We do not have time for that question; we have to prepare for a final departmental examination in June." And the matter of my question was dropped...forever, except in my memory!
At university (U.W.O.), having never learned to "spot" important themes in a first-year multi-century history course, in order to prepare for final examinations, I attempted, unsuccessfully of course, to memorize all the details of all the incidents and documents from 300 to 1300 A.D. in European History and scored a poor "D". I had originally enrolled in Honours History and now seemed to be making a slight turn, in the direction of English Literature, primarily because of a lecturer named John Wichello Graham, of whom I have written elsewhere in this blog.
However, after diligently attaining a "B" average in first year, primarily out of fear of my mother, had I returned home with anything less, I decided in the summer between first and second year that "I was not getting a degree for anyone else, including my mother," (hence dump the fear of failure that drove me in first year) and took out membership in a local fraternity, with two other sophomores, one from Windsor, Jerry Dimmick, and the other from Woodstock, Grant Geall.
Also, nearing the end of first year, there were elections for Residence Council at Medway Hall, then in its first year of operation, with Warden Milton Gregg, former Liberal Member of Parliament, and a distinguished presence in the beautiful new men's residence.
Feeling a little energy in my gait, I submitted my name as a candidate for Vice-president. The nomination meeting, including speechs of the candidates and their introducers/nominators/supporters was held following dinner in the Medway dining room. Earlier, I had fortunately secured the commitment of a fourth-year ROTC student, Don Milne, an aristocrat in both demeanour and intellect, who delivered, not unexpectedly, one of the more authentic and hearty nominations anyone could have expected...on the strength of his speech alone, I won the election.
Having 'shed' the umbilical cord of fear of physical punishment, and secured the election, I also reflected on the many students who were obviously getting A's and B's, from my perspective, for repeating their professors' lecture notes on tests and exams, something I found quite distasteful, especially given the new environment of the university, where, I thought, believed, perceived...(and I have no idea where this comes from!) that we were engaged in a process of discovery, not one of regurgitation. This was 1960, when the student protests, and anti-establishment activities had not really taken hold, yet I was attempting to find new ways to "get an education" that was different from the regurgitation of high school.
So, in second year, I put my name up in nomination for class president, at University College, at Western, and without any other nominees, secured the post.
In the spring of second year, after studying some fourteen hours on an April Sunday, a friend and I went out for pizza, to what was then Bondi's in the east end of London. We drove down Richmond, and entered the turn at Central, where there was a traffic island. It was about 11.30 p.m. and large wet flakes of snow were falling, as I pulled the recently purchased Volkswagen out into the northbound lane of Richmond, and was struck by an on-coming car whose lights I did not see, if they were even on.
I was charged with careless driving, appeared in a London court, following final exams, pled guilty, after which the Magistrate commented, "Just another absent-minded college student on his way for pizza"...and levied a fine. The car was badly damaged, towed to the body shop, and I was in some shock. Final exams were but a week or two away! I had no money for repairs, and although I told my father early Monday morning, I never did tell my mother about the accident.
Needless to say, exam results were not sufficient to remain in Honours English Language and Literature where I had been taking 3 English courses (Romantic, Elizabethan non dramatic, and Literary Criticism), 2 French courses (Seventeenth Century Literature and an Oral Laboratory with Grammar), 2 Latin (one prose and the other poetry) and 1 Greek course in translation for the school year.
In third year, I was required to enrol in General Arts, a significant "humbling" from the Honours program of the previous year.
Nevertheless, I had the Student Council, and the Arts and Science Ball to think about, so I would be fully occupied.
It was as UCC (University College Council) member that I was invited, along with another member of the UCC, Sheila Tweedie, to co-host the Arts and Science Ball, on February 2, 1962. The campus formal had gone by the name, UC Ball previously, but expanded in name and in venue for our year. Previously it had been held in the John Metras gym with a 'big name band' providing the music.
Our committee wanted it moved to the more formal campus dining room, in Stephenson Hall. In order to secure permission for the change of venue, Ms Tweedie and I made the appropriate appointment with the then President of the University, Dr. G. Edward Hall, who received us in his well-furnished office, with his Buckingham cigarettes on the coffee table, grey three-piece suit and  impeccably combed hair, befitting the aristocracy of the colony, of the day.
We made our pitch, to which Dr. Hall responded, "You have made a very compelling case. We will be in touch. Thank you for coming."
And he showed us out.
About one week later, we received his letter of approval.
Next it was onto the details of the formal, and how to put our "stamp" on a tradition, without merely repeating the past.
"A Flight to the Sun" was chosen as the theme, complete with mock Air Canada tickets as passes to the dance, maracas originating from the Caribbean as favours, painted with U.C. Ball '62 (note the transition to the new name was 'in progress' and not fully completed) and the music would be provided by a CBC band of some regional repute, but certainly not in the league of Tommy or Jimmy Dorsey, The Elgarts, Ray Conniff, or Glen Miller. The band was conducted by Chico Valle (pronounced Bai'yay), and had a distinctively Latin beat and sound.
One of my fraternity brothers, Geoff Stevens, then editor of the Western Gazette, chose the "ears" on the day of the long-awaited announcement of the band, to include in his highly visible box, the words, "Who the hell is Chico Valle?" as his own inimitable imprint of sardonic wit.
I feared a drop in ticket sales, but was gratified that the occasion was well attended.
For the "throne" on which to crown the "Queen of the Ball," one of the ten candidates who were vying for the honour, John Blackwell, in charge of decorations, had chosen a "shell" of some ten to twelve feet in height and perhaps eight to ten feet in width, composed of shaped re-bar steel welded to a flat iron base, with aluminum foil covering the massive shell and coloured spot lights beamed up the 'shell' from the floor. There may even be a photo in the Western yearbook of 1962.
During the last month prior to the "event," I had missed several classes, one in particular conducted by Dr. Helen Battle (that is not a misprint!) in Zoology, who had marked my absents from the lecture hall of 150 students, and forwarded a note of censure to the Dean of Arts, Dr. Stirling. Upon entering the Dean's Office, I was greeted thusly by Dr. Stirling: "You put on one helluva dance. Now go and make your peace with Dr. Battle."
Seemed reasonable to me, and not an affront either to the university's standards, nor to Dr. Battle.
Still nagging me as I watched many peers prepare for tests and exams, (not essays which required original research, some considerable thought, and some considerable planning, organizing and editing, not to mention writing, complete with footnotes, bibliography, formal typing, usually by hiring a near-campus typist), was that "regurgigating" theme, of which I was sadly, even tragically disdainful. If a college degree meant little more than mastery of a new set of definitions, new vocabulary and little or no new reading and, with most professors themselves reading from worn, tattered, decades old lecture notes, including tests and examinations that also enhanced the repetition process, then I guess I had grown less than respectful of the process, or so my behaviour seemed to indicate.
This same disdain accompanied me following graduation into the classroom of an Ontario private school, where I began teaching Grade 5 and coaching basketball and football. A thwarted athlete, first following the clipped front teeth in a minor hockey game at twelve, and then because of a sizeable commitment to piano studies through grade twelve, I finally 'tried out' for the basketball team when I entered grade thirteen, made the junior team because of my age, and made a very insignificant contribution to that effort, lacking the necessary skills and training that would have accompanied four years of team play. Not surprisingly I took to coaching like a fish to water.
At the private school I also took the opportunity to learn to play squash, that rough-and-tumble racket game in a white concrete cell with a small rubber ball. I have never been in a squash court, as a competitor, that I did not feel completely comfortable, although I had no formal training and coaching in the sport.
And when I transitioned from private school to the public system, there was considerable pressure to upgrade my qualifications, encourage both by the administration and by the OSSTF, the teachers' union, whose negotiated salary grid rewarded those with additional subject credits in their chosen speciality. I resisted, preferring a more "educational" and general Master's program, believing then, (and I am not so sure now!) that more subject training did not necessarily lead to improved teaching. Once again, I watched many of my colleagues who had "category four" qualifications, some of whom were not exactly what I would call inspiring teachers. Being stubbornly on a different page, preferring the M.Ed. (for which there was a much smaller incentive in salary) I also resisted any pressure to apply for consideration as a candidate for the Vice-principal's course, the most obvious "promotion" in the secondary school system outside of Department Head and Assistant. This pressure came mostly from my then spouse, whose perception was that I could serve in that capacity, that it would mean a significant increase in salary, and what was holding me back?
I saw those already in the post staying long hours after school, returning to school early following abbreviated summer vacations to design the timetable for the upcoming school year, attending many meetings at the board offices, running through hours of delinquent students and dispensing "punishments" (often some form of English essay which I deeply resented) during the school days and showing up as part of their job description for school games, partly as interested observers and partly as "crowd control" agents. In short, their work, like that of the principal, was never finished, and rarely rewarded either formally or informally unless and until they "moved up" to the principal's office.
I genuinely liked teaching too much to give it up for that kind of professional life.
When the opportunity presented itself, to enter the world of television journalism, I volunteered my name, without knowing or caring about the financial prospects, or even the chances of acceptance. It seemed, although a little unconventional, I belived then, and still do today, that demonstrating the use of the English language through television reporting and interviewing was one way to demonstrate the utility of learning its use, to those students, many of whom considered Engish class to be little more than BS, if that!
Television, then radio, and then print opportunities gave me a Walter Mitty playfield, in which I could ask questions, read about interesting issues at city hall, meet and converse with some very interesting and intelligent local, provincial and national political actors. I used to tell others, "Reporting is my fishing and hunting; I don't carry a gun, just a pen and a microphone, and I troll for interesting stories about interesting people...in my  Walter Mitty hobby."
Like Martha Findlay, I was a little younger than my classmates when I graduated high school. However, unlike her in so many other ways, I nearly failed to graduate from university, took two additional degrees later in life, regrettably     never became fluently bilingual, coached some entrepreneurs, yet never really opened my own business, and never competed at the national level in anything including piano, even attempting and not completing the associateship degree from the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, at the same, inappropriate time as I was studying for grade thirteen departmentals.
My teaching career, while interesting does not command either high recognition nor high achievment, and while journalism nourished my soul, in so many different ways, I never even applied for a national position in any media nor did I envy those who held them.
I publicly scorned the peripheral development of a shopping mall on the bypass of the city where I lived, preferring and openly campaigning for a similar development in the downtown core, as part of my belief that the downtowns of too many Ontario cities and towns were being sacificed and literally and metaphorically destroyed with the inception of the chain-store-anchored peripheral mall.
In the community college, where I served in the president's office as his "assistant" (not the Vice-president), I became appalled at the sycophancy of the bureaucracy, the refusal to make waves, to ask questions, to overturn sacred cows, to innovate and to challenge the status quo. I could not then, and cannot today, some twenty years later, reconcile the politically correct sycophancy with an "educational institution." While I campaigned for enhanced opportunities in leadership for women, enhanced learning opportunities for French-language instruction, and limits to the opportunities for students and staff to smoke nicotine products, before public approval of such limits became conventional, and attempted to write staff and faculty profiles that would help the 500-plus employees of the college get to know each other a little more personally, I never made any real waves of tidal proportions, knowing that there were clear and strong limits to the changes that were feasible.
The president of the college often reminded me, "I will send you anywhere they will teach you patience!" And while I know his assessment was warranted, I nevertheless wear it with a comfort and an ease today that was not available when he pinned it to my lapel.
Later in the church, I opposed the kind of "rote" immaturity of many of the rules, expectations and military discipline which treated clergy and laity alike as infants or, at best, mere children. I never espoused either the mind-set nor the positions of the conservative side of politics, nor the Republican side, inside or outside the church (and often church and politics are indisinguishable!) preferring instead, the far-left kind of rebellion that I could not or did not express in my youth and mid-life.
 Protest(ant) and protest(or) to the end, I have invariably found myself outside looking in to the seats and board rooms of power, of influence, of sanctimony, of party membership, preferring to find a place, based on my assessment of the available information, ingested and digested as carefully and completely as seemed possible given the available time and energy, that I feel comfortable sitting in, always ready to adjust that position if and when new information becomes available, from reliable sources, and from responsible thought leaders.
And therein lies the "rub"...reliable sources, and responsible thought leaders....
I find it almost impossible to trust completely other sources, especially if and when I know that their agenda is merely transactional, as it is in too many cases today.
I hold an opinion, or express a view, because it is a view I have come to consider reasonable....however tenuously or assertively I might either express or hold that view.
I do not believe, unless I have to impart an agenda as a part of other duties and responsibilities, that I really care whether or not the reader, listener observer thinks favourably about my opinion or not. I offer it, to the universe, in the hope that it might spark some reflection, some thought, some reading and even occasionally some heartfelt conversation that might, in turn, bring about a different perspective for those engaged.
I do not wish to become involved in conversations based on some idle gossip about another human being, or in some coversations that would pass as "politically correct" or merely for appearances. I seek out others whose unconventionality supports and reinforces my own, and I find most interesting those whom many would consider "eccentric" if and when such people dare to make themselves known in a world that worships conventionality, political correctness and risk-aversion.
And I feel, on reflection, that this position has accompanied me for seven decades, through both delightful rhapsodic times and the darkest dungeons of other times.

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