SCHOOL DAYS - SCHOOL DAYS
SCHOOL DAYS - SCHOOL DAYS By Mel Robertson
Once again it is October and once again schools have re-opened. Evidence of reopening is everywhere - in the yellow school busses, the lines of school kids at the chip wagon, the re-opening of short-cuts through everyone's back yard and traffic problems in front of the Post Office. Everywhere we see a generation of young people who, while condemning conformity in older people, practise it in what they wear, what they say and the music they hear. How's that for interest-catchers?
Several weeks ago I wrote a short article about the old Burford Public school for the "Golden Memories" section of the "Expositor". The article was limited to 250 words and thus the description of the noble edifice was short. However, since then a number of my readers have asked me to write a longer account and I hope this will suffice. In writing about the old Burford Public School I am aware of the fact that many of my readers are graduates of the school whose memories may differ from mine. I recognize this fact and would emphasize that my recollections are not absolute in any way. They are merely my memories of Burford Public School in the 1920s.
In writing about the old Burford Public School we must realize that the educational system of the 1920s was much different from that of the 1990s. Burford was not the centre to which all area students were bussed. There were many area one-room schools such as Fairfield, South School (9th Concession), Mt. Vernon, Tansley, Cath-cart, New Durham, Hatchley, Woodbury, Kelvin, Valley School (south on the East Townline) Harley, Block School (north on the East Townline), Salem and others. These drew students who were a "walking distance" from the school. "Walking Distance" in the 1920s could be several miles and Burford Village students will recall looking out on the north road in winter to see arriving or departing friends trudging to or from school barely visible through swirling blizzards. Most of the one room schools were of wooden construction and have disappeared but a few, like South School and Woodbury, were of brick and have been converted to dwellings.
School entrance in the 1920s was different from today for children were allowed to start school at Easter or Christmas depending on their birthday. Classes were A, B, and C followed by Jr. & Sr. 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes. It took about eight years to complete Public school. A, B and C classes would seem to have been a form of kindergarten or pre-school. I don't know if this applies today, but in the 1920s most of my friends knew the alphabet, could count to 10, do the "two-times table" and read and write simple words before they went to school. This, I suppose, was a hangover from pioneer days when these simple things were taught in the home.
Curriculum at the old Burford Public School included writing grammar, reading, arithmetic, art, spelling and some geography. Later, history and English was added. Reading was taught from a five book set of Readers. The first of these was the Primer (always pronounced "primmer") which opened with several pages of handwritten sentences. One of these was "Run, Sam, Run, Run and Hop, Sam" (Was "Sam" perhaps the father of "Dick & Jane"?). Since the 1920s were a time of British Imperialism each book had a large Union Jack on the frontispiece with the words "One Flag, One Fleet, One Throne". All of the Readers contained examples of well-known prose and verse. Each book ended with a poem that would indicate the end of a stage of life. The Primer, for example, closed with the beautiful Baring-Gould poem "Now the Day is Over", an inappropriate poem for young people but perhaps chosen because its words were simple. Burford Public School in the 1920s was a T-shaped building made of white brick. It had three classrooms around a central hall. At the west end was bell-tower and a little room from which the bell was tolled. On the north and south sides were entrances for boys and girls. Classrooms had 20 foot ceilings and two of the four walls in each room were filled with big windows set too high for anyone to see out or in. Along the inner wall of each room was a partition that enclosed the "Cloak room" where we hung our coats and where we were sent to be disciplined, or to have our heads examined for "nits". Desks were a mixture of double and single types with folding tops, a book shelf and an ink-well. Double desks caused problems for (like it or not) there were a few Rurford families who did not believe in washing and "nits", or body lice, were not uncommon. Mothers who kept their children clean raised great objections if their kids were assigned seats with "The Great Unwashed". Each classroom contained a cupboard with books that could be borrowed, and off the 4th room there was a little utility room which housed books from the defunct Btirford Public Library which could not be borrowed or touched.
Outside, the grounds were divided into two playgrounds by a high board fence and since the 1920s was a time of male chauvinism the boys' playground was twice the size of the girls'. Later the big field east of the school was bought for an extra playground but only a small part was used. At the far east end was a line of poplar bushes where the more precocious boys and girls went to be "silly". Since I was a shy kid I never knew what the word "silly" meant. However, later on I was told that it meant kissing. The big field also had a low spot that filled with water every Spring and Fall. Boys liked to play in this pond even though they knew that they would have to sit in class with wet feet. In the late 1920s a wooden classroom was built on the girls' playground. Since this took up most of their play space the girls were allowed to make a ball diamond on the big field. Last, but not least, of the big field facilities was a school garden that specialized in parsnips.
No description of the old Burford Public School would be complete without some reference to the terrible toilet facilities students had to endure. These were housed in an old building that also served as a woodshed. I know nothing about the girls' facilities but those of the boys would have made the Black Hole of Calcutta look like Buckingham Palace. One part was a semi-open shed with metal troughs that deposited liquid waste on the playground where any unwary child could fall into it. The inner sanctum was a four-holer whose cellars had not been cleaned since the Year One. Toilet paper was not provided, as apparently the School Board felt that if any child really had to use this horrible place a sheet torn from a scribbler would suffice. To add to the awful situation there were no washing facilities in either the outhouse, or the school.
The walls of the boys' toilet were covered with juvenile graffiti. One day a female principal inspected this building after four o'clock. She was stricken by the things she saw and ordered all boys to assemble in the
4th class room. There each boy was subjected to a "Third Degree" with much shaking and pushing. No one would admit having written anything on the walls. Finally, after an hour or so, one boy admitted having put a rubber-stamp on the wall depicting one monkey kicking another monkey in the butt. That ended the Inquisition and the artist was strapped.
The school day began with the first bell at 8:45 and the final bell at 9. Then we assembled by class in the central hall where we sang a patriotic song and heard the principal shout his daily orders and warnings. After that Jean Thomas played a march on the piano and we paraded to class stomping hard in the "Knees Up Mother Brown" step that was in vogue. In class we stood by our desks until ordered to sit down. The next event was the reading of a portion of Scripture and the Lord's Prayer.
We also had to memorize parts of the Bible such as the 23rd Psalm or the portion of 1st Corinthians about Love and Charity. I realize that such religious exercises and "memory work" are frowned upon in 1991 as promoting religious bigotry and that "comparative religion" should be taught. I will not enter into that discussion but I do not feel that any 1920s Burford Public School student suffered greatly from not knowing that somewhere in the world there might be a tiny sect who worshipped cow dung, or felt that the gastronomic rumblings of their guts represented some sort of divine prophecy. I do know that there are 1920s students who still remember their religious "memory work" for the beauty of the language used and the sincerity of the sentiments expressed.
Classes at old Burford Public School were by "recitation" which meant that we marched to the front and stood at attention while one or more of our class "recited" the lesson. If we had books or scribblers we put them on the floor when told to do so. After the "recitations" we "about turned" and marched back to our desks where we stood until we were told to sit down, keep quiet and put our hands behind our backs.
Two events took place periodically at old Burford Public School - one pleasant and one unpleasant. The pleasant one was the regular visit of the school nurse. I don't remember her name but she was a large, kindly, nurse from the Reserve. She checked our fingernails for length and cleanliness, examined our heads for "nits" and said something friendly to us. Since students were not accustomed to receive nice comments from teachers This was a bright spot in our school life. The unpleasant event was the regular visit from Mr. Standing, the School Inspector. Mr. Standing was a kindly gentleman but part of his duty was to ask students to "recite" the lesson before the entire class. We were all terrified that we might be chosen for if, in our excitement, we forgot something we were apt to be strapped after Mr. Standing left.
Corporal punishment played a big part in 1920s school life. It is tabu in 1991 but we must remember that in the 1920s many parents still felt that "Children should be seen and not heard" and that to "Spare the Rod" would "spoil the child". Corporal punishment was common in some homes and many parents did not object if an acquaintance, or even a stranger, gave one of their kids "one alongside the ear" if they got "sassy". Strapping was administered for a variety of things such as whispering, playing tricks, failing to obey a teacher, etc. Consequently, no one was alarmed when one new principal (not Dune Fisher) declared that he intended to strap every kid before Christmas. This man was adept at handing out punishment and bragged about fulfilling his promise to strap everyone.
Personally I place little value in the 1920s idea of discipline but I have often wondered if a bit of it would have lessened the obscene abuse I had to take as a supply teacher at Burford and Brantford High schools in the 1960s.
The liberal use of the strap made most children fear and dislike their Public School teachers and I cannot recall any instance where I saw a little child rush to a teacher to give him/her an impulsive
embrace. However, I was surprised once when I was invited to a birthday party at the home of a severe principal to find that he entered into the games and fun with enthusiasm. Likewise, when female teachers were invited to my home for supper I was astonished to see that they were as human as everyone else.
The 1920s Burford Public School year tended to be a nose-to-the-grindstone thing with only the Christmas concert or an occasional Arbor Day to break the monotony. No sports equipment was provided by the school and if we wanted to play ball someone had to bring his own ball and bat. At other times boys played "tag", "Prisoners' Base" and "Cock-Fighting". There was a considerable amount of fighting, some in fun and some otherwise. Of the latter type I recall one time when two boys fought viciously every recess for two days without interference from teachers.
Later in my time at Burford Public School singing was introduced and every Friday everyone gathered in the 4th Class room where the Rev. George Kelly of the Congregational church taught us part-singing. This was all good fun until some boys found that by singing "Catch the sunshine, Catch it quickly" very fast they could produce a reference to cats. Mr. Kelly was quick to catch this and was very annoyed. Many people will remember Mr. Kelly who was in Burford at the time of Church Union. He was a popular garden party singer and played cornet in the Burford Symphony Orchestra.
One Burford Public School event that will always remain clear in my mind took place on May 30th, 1923 when we had a surprise visit from Lord Byng the Governor General, and Harry Cockshutt the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Lord Byng had been officiating at some function in Brantford and decided to visit Burford Public School without prior warning. He arrived with Colonel Cockshutt and other dignitaries during morning recess. No one knew who was in Cockshutt's gleaming Fierce-Arrow touring car and we rushed up friore interested in occupants. Those who got too close were roughly shoved aside by the snooty chauffeur and a couple of aides. The entourage swept into the school and surprised the principal. However, he managed to assemble most of the student body in the 4th Class room. There we. sang a patriotic song and listened while Lord Byng gave a "British Empire" sort of speech and gave us a half-holiday. Everyone recorded this visit in their Reader. Looking back I have to admire the coolness and fortitude our principal displayed when faced with this unexpected visit from such distinguished people. I say this with some knowledge of the problems involved in such visits since I was a member of a Royal Visit Committee that handled arrangements for the visit of our present Queen in the 1950s.
So, these are some of my recollections of 1920s Burford Public School. I don't cherish them with any fondness. They just remain in my mind like the memory of a severe toothache or a chronic case of constipation. Old Burford Public School gave me a start but it was more of a kick in the pants than a pat on the back. There is a saying "other days have other ways" and we must remember this when comparing 1920 ways with those of 1990. Which is the better way? I visited a school recently where, as soon as I entered, I was deafened by loud. "heavy metal" rock music and had to pick my way through kids sprawled all over the hall. The principal seemed to accept this as routine. I had to contrast this with the rigid military-type of behaviour that was forced on us at Burford Public School in the 1920s. My immediate thought was that surely there must be a better way somewhere between.
My happy recollections of old Burford Public School are of life-long friendships and the lasting beauty of the 23rd Psalm and memorized poems such as Tennyson's "Bugle Song". All this, I dare say, means little to the "Lean and Mean" generation that now inhabits the earth but, in the long run, in this era of electronically-supported intelligence, who cares?