BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 3

OF FIRST LOVES AND LAURA SECORD

 

In addition to my handsome hero General Brock standing above me on the Heights, I had yet another noble historic model to guide me.   My days at school began with first grade at age five at Laura Secord Memorial Public School, dedicated to Canada's most famous heroine of the War of 1812. 

 

Laura was the loyal wife of James Secord, a soldier wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights.  She claimed, years later when applying for a franchise for the ferry crossing to Lewiston, to have helped the British after the Americans captured the village in 1813. 

 

According to the legend, when a group of American soldiers were billeted in the Secord home, Laura overhead them planning to move west to attack the British troops.  The beautiful and faithful wife and patriot left her injured husband, and as a diversion, chased her milk cow through the enemy lines posted just beyond the village.  She then set out on a trek of twenty miles through dangerous woods to Beaver Dams to warn the British of the forthcoming attack. 

 

Laura Secord taken by Indian warriors to Major Fitzgibbons, the British Officer at Beaver Dams

 

Above the blackboard in my first grade classroom hung a vividly romanticized picture of a lovely Laura in a filmy white dress being seized by nearly nude and muscular young Indian braves in the dark forest.  This Victorian tableau clearly reminded all of us of the perils this loyal and virtuous woman suffered to protect her new country.  Luckily for Laura, these turned out to be chivalrous and friendly Indians who took her immediately to the British leader, Major Fitzgibbon.  Confronted daily with this inspiring picture of a noble Laura leading the way, I had to believe that by striving for justice, goodness and love, I would be rewarded handsomely and be protected from unknown dark dangers.  But life and love was never so simple and idyllic for me, even in those early years at Laura Secord.

 

Life was often lonely growing up beneath the heights in the small village and attending this small two-room school.  I seemed to identify, not with the other kids my own age, especially the rowdy boys, but with more mature adult models both historic and real.  And my earliest memories of friends and teachers were of strong women: my mother, my teachers and my own sweet Laura Secord.

 

For each of these strong women, I learned to cultivate my own “best little boy in the world” persona.  I found the perfect place to play out this role, at Laura Secord Memorial, the elementary school where I spent eight long childhood years.  I soon learned how to get good grades, be polite and charm the adults and the adversaries in my life.  Well, most of the time I could do just that.

 

On the Tuesday after Labor Day in 1947, I was ready to begin the first grade at Laura Secord Memorial.  My older brother David would be in the same room, seated with the “big kids” in the third grade on the other side of the room.  Now it was my turn to venture from the safety of our home.  I was delighted to leave my baby brother Ralph behind and start out on my own.  Furthermore, I was determined not to be shy or frightened on that first day of school.  I would learn “the ropes” first.

 

Earlier that summer my little tricycle had somehow taken me to the far end of the village where I met beautiful Ginger with carrot red hair much bolder than my own.  She was my first love and I had fallen as deeply in love as any young boy of five could possibly fall.  Ginger was an “older woman” going into the third grade along with David, but over that summer she coached me, teaching me all the ropes in the brutal world facing me in the first grade.   And so as we had planned for weeks, on that first school day, Ginger and I stood outside the Girl's Entrance and I kissed her bravely each time one of the girls went through the door. 

 

For my outrageous behavior before we went upstairs to class on that first morning I suffered through a lecture on moral propriety befitting a first grader and five year old.  But it didn’t matter to me, soon I was in love again.  This time it was with an even older woman, my stern lecturer in proper conduct, my new first grade teacher, Miss McGinnis. 

 

Into our classroom we marched, grades one to four all together in one of two classrooms on the second floor of Laura Secord Memorial.  Our desks, six rows of six desks each, were old wooden models bearing the marks of many former students since they were first installed when the school was built back in 1913.  Bolted to the floor, the black cast iron legs held a simple wooden desk with one shelf and slanted hinged top with a round hole for an inkbottle.  The hard swivel seats, full of splinters, were also bolted to the floor on a single black tapered pedestal.  Up at the front of the room firmly behind her huge desk stood Miss McGinnis.  The handsome young woman was dressed sternly in a no nonsense brown skirt and double-breasted beige suit coat with six large brown buttons in two orderly protective rows. She was as anxious to begin our lessons as I was to learn from her.

 

And so I learned quickly that first year.   I not only memorized dutifully the alphabet printed out on the cardboard display cards mounted above the blackboard, but also listened carefully to what was happening across the room in the other grades beyond me.  Sometimes we had group activities like when Miss McGinnis read aloud to all of us wonderful stories like The Adventures of Marco Polo after the lunch hour.   At other times she moved skillfully from grade to grade, teaching different subjects to each of us in turn.  I soon loved her firmness and her love of learning.  I also learned what pleased her and soon I was doing all I could to earn her praise.

 

During my second grade, I had a year break from Miss McGinnis and a new love awaited me on stage just below our classrooms.  During the summer of 1948, Laura Secord Memorial had grown into a three-room school.  My classmates and I were moved downstairs to a new temporary second grade classroom built on the small stage of the public auditorium.  When I first learned I had to leave Miss McGinnis, I was angry and distraught, but not for long.  Our new teacher, Miss Pauline Armbrust, was even younger, more beautiful and more patient.  She wore long red and white plaid skirts with the side seam held in place with a huge stainless steel safety pin.  This was her first teaching assignment and she could not have been more than twenty-one years old.  Despite her youth she could be stern at times and insisted that I sit up straight in my seat and not slouch.  Even after the day she put a ruler done my back to remind me, I still loved her.

 

My infatuation with Miss Armbrust only lasted that one year, for by the third grade I was back upstairs again with Miss McGinnis.  We were together in that same classroom each year for three more years, right through the fifth grade. I grieved only briefly when she became Mrs. Murray during my fourth grade.  The love and respect grew deeper as I worked harder and harder every year to please her by being first in my class.  I could endure the ridicule of being “teacher's pet” as long as I could please this important adult in my own little world.

 

Grade 3 Class with Mrs. Murray (1949)

 

Falling in love with my teacher seemed natural for boy who loved schoolwork.  And then in the sixth grade I was suddenly falling in love once more with yet another new adult teacher.  By 1952, Laura Secord Memorial School had doubled in size to four classrooms.   The first three grades now met on the first floor in the old auditorium and stage area until two brand new classrooms could be built.  Mrs. Murray seemed to prefer the younger children and so she deserted us and moved downstairs.  We stayed behind in the same classroom where I had already spent four years.  Yet, now we were the “big kids” in the room with the fourth and fifth grades dutifully respecting their “elders” in the two rows of senior grade six students next to the tall windows with the coveted view to the street.  I enjoyed my new status and struck out again without Mrs. Murray to be my own person.  But my newfound confidence was soon challenged.   I was hopelessly in love all over again.  But this time it was different and more confusing for a boy of eleven full of many strange new feelings.

 

Our new teacher, Mr. Thompson, was a strange man, and sadly, a rather comic figure. Laura Secord had never had a male teacher as long as anyone could remember.  When we heard the news that summer before he arrived, everyone was curious.  This was a real oddity not only for us, but also for the whole community.  When Mr. Thompson appeared after Labour Day to begin his first classes, we were amazed and amused.  Although he could not have been beyond 30 he looked like an old man.  Here was our very own Ichabod Crane, complete with receding chin, wispy thin hair, a light and sappy voice and tweed jackets with leather patches at the elbow.  But instead of riding a broken down horse, our Ichabod proudly drove an old 1928 Nash sedan that he insisted on parking on the street in full view right outside our classroom windows. 

 

Grade 6 Class with Mr. Thompson (1953)

 

We laughed at this strange tweedy man and his wheezing old car, and we gave him no mercy.   Soon we had become the most unruly classroom at Laura Secord.  On numerous occasions, an angry Miss Corman, the old spinster principal who taught the senior grades next door, showed up at our classroom door to settle us down after yet another unruly session with Mr. Thompson.  For the first months in the sixth grade, I forgot about the hard work of the past and trying to please my teacher.  I too joined my classmates in tormenting poor Mr. Thompson.  Then, one night a powerful and vivid dream changed everything for me.  After that I wanted no part of our relentless teasing.  I could only sit and stare with sad cow eyes at this pitiful man and hope that somehow he would know that now I was no longer a part of my classmates' spiteful games, but that I loved him dearly.

 

My dream began like many of those dreams that reflect the everyday things we do.  One of our favourite boyhood games was to steal a few matches and candles from home and make a forbidden passage through an old creek tunnel that ran under the road in front of the house and down to the river.  This was a dangerous trip and our parents had ruled such dangerous journeys out of bounds.  This only deepened the intrigue and desire to try again.  We made it an adventure game for only the bravest of us.  David was the first of us to make the trek in the early spring when the stream was still full of icy winter runoff that rushed beneath his feet.  Within a year or two, I became the leader of my own expeditions and challenged my friends to a clandestine run through the forbidden passage.  These adventures became part of the rites and rituals of the many secret clubs we founded throughout our boyhood days.  And the tunnel was also a perfect place to hide out of sight of prying parents to indulge in the new and forbidden things most boys seemed to experiment with together during that horny age of puberty.

 

In my dream, I was about to make a trip through that dark mysterious tunnel, yet this time I was strangely aware of unexplained new feelings.  Suddenly, above me appeared a tall powerful figure, a mysterious giant like the mighty Cyclops that Ulysses once found in the dark cave.  I felt like one of those ancient mariners who wanted only to hide out of sight beneath this giant's powerful legs.  Although rooted firmly in place by strong and mythic powers, I was not afraid.  In fact, all the fear and hurt and loneliness of my young life seemed to melt away.  I was slowly overpowered by a sense of joy and warmth that comforted me.  Here was a security I had never felt before, an acceptance, an unspoken understanding that all was right within my own small world beneath the heights.

 

When I looked up at the handsome form above me, I suddenly realized that this benevolent and loving giant protecting me was our own unfortunate Mr. Thompson.   I awoke suddenly, confused and frightened by my depth of feeling.  Where did such strong and powerful emotions come from?   After four blissful years with my beloved Mrs. Murray, how could I feel this way about another teacher, and a man?  Yet somehow I knew that I was helplessly, and hopelessly, in love again. 

 

Once more I seemed to need yet another teacher's attention.  Now I wanted desperately for Mr. Thompson to notice that I cared for him and shared his pain at being so different from the others.  I began again to work hard in class to do my best, just as I had for the previous years with Mrs. Murray.  She seemed so far away now, wiping the noses of first graders in the classroom below.  I begged my parents to invite Mr. Thompson and his wife to dinner at our home so I could show them my special new friend.  When they came to the house, he was charming and gallant and his wife beautiful and loving.  He was nothing like the failed teacher we endured each day.   Over that dinner at home or back in class, I doubt that he ever noticed that my childish and adoring eyes were focused on him wanting his approval and his love.

 

Sadly, as the weeks of his ineffectual teaching and control continued, the benevolent image of my strong beloved giant slowly faded.  Back into focus appeared a weak sad man unable to deal with thirty-four kids in three unruly grades.  Mr. Thompson’s greatest humiliation came from the class clown, Brian.  One day after completing an exercise at the blackboard, Brian moved directly behind Mr. Thompson as he sat unsuspecting at his desk.   Brian then began to mock the teacher’s ineffectual mannerisms in mime.  We all began to snicker.  Finally, even Mr. Thompson had guessed what was going on behind his back.  He sat there stoically showing no emotion, letting us continue in our games at his expense.  We went on howling until suddenly he stood up, purple with rage.  We had never seen him so angry.  He lectured us on our insolence and poor workmanship for fully an hour and then made us all stay late after school.  I was mortified.  How could I have been so cruel to a teacher I loved and how could I let my own schoolwork slip as well.

 

Yet by the end of that year, all the love I bore so silently for this sorry man had slipped away.  In its place came an uneasy ache and many unanswered questions about my mythical dream and its uncertain, yet comforting, images.   By the next year, Mr. Thompson and his 1928 Nash with the wooden spokes were gone from Laura Second and my life.  

 

After that I focused my love on my schoolwork and a few close friends.  Loving my teachers was somehow suspect and definitely unreliable.  It had only brought embarrassment, fear and frustration.  Mr. Bigwin, the new Principal hired to replace old Miss Corman when she finally retired, was a second discipline disaster for us during the seventh grade.  But somehow I survived without falling in love again with this handsome part Indian who looked nothing like the braves who guided Laura through the dark woods. 

 

In 1954, my last year at Laura Secord, a third male teacher was hired to bring us all back into line.  Mr. Aldred had been hired the previous year to replace Mr. Thompson.  He was so successful at bringing back discipline to the intermediate grades at Laura Secord that within a year he replaced Mr. Bigwin as Principal and became our eighth grade teacher.  A strict taskmaster and no nonsense fellow, we at first locked horns when I could no longer so easily impress this teacher with my “best boy” routines.  But by graduation I learned to respect and love his firm fair ways, at a much safer distance.

 

But not all my love was reserved for the adults in my life.  I also loved a long succession of girls my own age in those puppy dog days.  Redheaded Ginger had lasted only that first week in the first grade.  By the third grade I had a crush on Ethel Storey.  Then in the fifth grade I worshipped the silent Janet Thibeault from afar.  By the sixth grade my girlfriend was the lively and funny Beverly. 

 

Beverly and I kidded and clowned along with Brian that year in Mr. Thompson's unruly class.  One day working on the huge wall map of Canada that hung at the front of the classroom, we vowed we would drop whatever we were doing and meet far off in the future in some remote location in northern Canada.  I no longer recall either the exact time or location, but we were so sure then that we would remember both always and be there for one another. 

 

My longest and closest childhood love during those days at Laura Secord was for a bright and beautiful Japanese girl, Diane Ikeda.  She lived with her parents and younger sister in the third floor of an old house in the village, one of the many apartments built during the construction of the new Hydro Electric plant.  As white Canadian children, we were never told about the shameful internment camps our government had set up for our Japanese-born citizens just a few short years before.  Yet somehow I sensed indirectly from both her parents and my own that our relationship was futile and forbidden.  But I was never one to follow the usual traditions.  The quiet and shy Diane was one of the few I could talk to and enjoy at recess during those long years avoiding sports and the boyhood gangs.  She excelled in her schoolwork too and was always first in her class, two years behind me.  Diane was my choice for my first real date for a teen dance in the school auditorium. 

 

When I graduated from the eighth grade at Laura Secord in 1955 and moved on to another world at high school in Niagara Falls, I left Diane and childhood loves behind.  Both sets of parents must have breathed a sigh of relief that our forbidden love would not disturb centuries of differences.  

 

Never again did I fall in love with any of my teachers.  Childhood crushes was impossible over the next five years of detached and distant high school life where we spent just an hour with one teacher before dashing off to another teacher down the corridor.  The days of mother-father-teacher were thankfully over and I was free to pursue other loves beyond the limitations of Laura Secord and the Heights.

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