BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 4

 

 LOVING FIRSTS

 

There were other “first loves” at Laura Secord Memorial School.  My other love was school itself and the success it seemed to bring me.  Success on my own terms.  And I always had to come in “first” in my class.

 

I had little in common with the boys who grew up on neighbouring farms, in the rough Hydro work camps or within the few privileged homes along River Road to the north.   Most boys played and excelled at sports.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in any sport, and besides I was terrible at all of them.  I hated and feared the scorn and did everything I could to avoid playing those masculine games or pursuits like softball, wrestling, shooting guns, even smoking cigarettes, or hanging out in the playground after dark.  After striking out yet again or taunts like, “You throw the ball like a girl,” I just avoided the sports field and never tried to learn to play better.

 

In fact, during recess I preferred to gossip and skip rope with the girls.  But more ridicule from the older boys and disapproval even from my beloved teachers soon shamed me into silence and inactivity.  Besides, I was far better instead at spelling or arithmetic or social studies.  Why should I embarrass myself if I could not be the best?  Not a healthy mantra, but one that seemed necessary for me to survive the sometimes unwelcoming and hostile world I encountered beneath the heights.   

 

Once I learned that I was good at schoolwork, every year I launched into the same important contest for me at Laura Secord.  I had to be the best student in my class.  Being first was more important than anything else in my world. 

 

My eagerness to be first did not always serve me well.  Every day I would rush through my textbook exercises quickly and relish being finished ahead of everyone else.  My best friend Ernest and I both ruined our penmanship from the moment Miss McGinnis placed us across the aisle from one another in the first grade.  We would each scratch away furiously to see who could finish the exercise first.  It was often a dead heat, but the loser was our legibility, then and forever.  Each year the teacher’s comments on my Report Card would read, “Robin’s only fault is his carelessness in printing” or “Robin is a good worker but a careless writer.”  My handwriting today provides clear evidence of those races I had with my classmates. 

 

Spelling bees were my favourite sport.  We would number off and line up on opposite sides of the classroom, cloakroom side against the window side.   I could outlast most of them as the contest went through the ranks.  But sometimes the girls would beat me on the toughest words.   They could keep cool while I fidgeted in my place and let my tongue work faster than my mind.  But more often, I would end up a winner and sat down proud of my accomplishment for Mrs. Murray.

 

Before long I had earned the label “Teacher's Suck,” a dreaded term that I soon learned to fear and hate.  But I earned the term honestly.  In my alien world it had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with wanting to be first, or to impress the teacher I liked so much. 

 

Then one day in the third grade, I learned painfully from the big kids in the fifth grade across the room that I was important not to reveal my loves.   Our class had been asked to write on that most ubiquitous topic of all teachers of all times: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Of course I knew immediately and quickly wrote a glowing poetic love fest on my dream of becoming a teacher, “just like Mrs. Murray.”   I hung that cloying concluding phrase on the end of every sentence when it was my turn to read out my response.  With each “just like Mrs. Murray,” a chorus of groans and hisses went up from the big kids on other side of the room.  And under it all, the unmistakable loathsome chant “Suck, Suck, Teacher's Suck.”  

 

Even Mrs. Murray was embarrassed by my unquestioning devotion to her and to her profession.  She politely moved onto the next student without a word and I sank, mortified, into my seat.  How could I be so stupid, so transparent?  How could I have let them all know that I wanted to succeed in school?  That I wanted to be just like her?  Did they know that I really adored her, or did they just think I was playing up to her in order to get higher grades?  

 

My older brother David joined in the scorn from the big kids across the room.  I rushed into the boy's cloakroom and hid beneath the rows of winter coats hanging along the wall.  Later at recess, as my sobs grew still, by best friend Ernest had to come to coax me out of the closet to face my shame.  My place in this universe had been established indelibly and forever.  I was the class teacher's suck who loved not just school, but his teacher as well. 

 

Yet all the schoolyard taunts of “suck” or “sissy” could not keep me from my love of learning and excelling.  I used the wit and charm that seemed to come easily to me to make the others laugh and to keep just one step ahead of schoolyard bullies.  These earth-bound creatures would not intimidate me and keep me down with them.  This Robin wanted to fly beyond their low horizons and beyond the comfortable heights that stood above our village.  And after that I learned to hide my loves, so different from the others, and pretend not to care so much.  But whether or not others knew of my passions, I still had to come first among them.

 

Ernest, my friend and opponent in those early penmanship races, was no match when it came to grades.  I constantly battled a series of prissy girls.  For the first few years my rival was Ethel Storey.  We were always neck in neck for being first in the class.   Ethel wore white starched dresses and blue ribbons in her hair.   For a time I worshipped her from afar.  But beneath that innocent exterior lurked the heart of a bloodthirsty fighter, and each year we battled it out for first place.  I could not let her best me in front of my teacher and idol, Mrs. Murray.  And I did not let her win often.  Each June, I would be listed first and she second, in those all-important squares across the bottom of our Report Cards.  Then after the land above the Heights that her family lived on was appropriated for the new Hydro Plant reservoir, she moved away and our little playing field shifted.

 

Being first in my class somehow seemed essential to me to win more favour for myself at home as well.  Mum and Dad never pushed me to excel, yet I wanted to be first with them too.  David, the oldest son, had all the rights due his elder and independent status.  Ralph, the youngest, got all the attention due the cutest and most­ junior family member.  I as middle son had to find some other route to earn all the favour and love I seemed to need so much, perhaps more than my brothers.

 

I was intensely proud each time I carried home that little double-folded yellow Report Card, neatly printed with my Name, Grade and Teacher across the cover.  Inside, on the left, were listed my attendance record and all those important moral deportment categories such as obedience, cooperation, politeness and honesty.  I usually got check marks in the “Excellent” column.  Over on the right side across the page, our achievement was measured in solemn letter grades.  Here I stood the most proud with a list of As in almost every category.  I didn't even mind the B in penmanship.  After all I was able to finish before everyone else, and that had to count for something!

 

Then one year, disaster struck unexpectedly.  My “best little boy in the world” image was suddenly challenged.   There on the left side was a bold “X” mark for deportment or attitude or some such critical moral value.  I was destroyed.  How could this be?   That most likely was the year I struck a blow for escaping sissy hood and was goaded by the older boys to write “Fuck Mrs. Murray” in chalk on the street where she would be sure to read it on her walk home.

 

The whole class was kept after school and we were implored to confess and take our punishment “like a man.”  How could the “best little boy” lie?  After class that day, I squealed and implicated the boys who urged me on, and thus committed even greater unpardonable sin in the eyes of the “brotherhood.”   I alone escaped the punishing strap when a saddened Mrs. Murray claimed she didn’t want to hurt my shoulder, although my broken collarbone had long since healed.

 

I was truly mortified at the time and tried to bury that memory and momentary lapse in behavior forever.  But now it was coming back to haunt me and destroy my own “best boy” image of myself.  I could not let my parents see this single bad mark on my Report Card and on my character.  Such shame had never confronted me before.

 

Like penmanship, creative invention was not one of my stronger suits.   All I could think to do to blot out this dishonour was to drop a spot of ink on the offending “X”.  But somehow it had to look like a careless accident.   After avoiding asking my parents to sign the Report for several days, without a word I left it on the kitchen table with its telltale splotch of ink.  I may also have feigned an illness to deflect attention from the blotchy card.  They already knew I was not their neatest offspring, perhaps they would excuse just one small ink smear from a feverish bed-bound son. 

 

“Out Out Damned Spot”

The Offending Report Card

 

Neither Mum nor Dad said a word.  The Blot did not seem to give up its secret.  My Report was signed and I returned it to school without discussion.  My honour seemed intact.  Or so I thought. 

 

The drive for being first was fortunately not to last for long.   By the fifth grade the class rank suddenly disappeared from the Report Cards.  Then in 1955, I began high school where I was no longer one of just twelve other students in a tiny village grade school.   That first year in Grade Nine at Niagara Falls Collegiate and Vocational Institute, I competed with several hundred others.  I did my best and received good grades, but I was no match for big city brains.  I was devastated when I learned that I had been placed in Class 9B, the class that rated second place to the first place Class 9A.

 

Many years after Laura Secord days, under the influence of my parent's adherence to "absolute honesty" espoused by the Moral Rearmament movement that they struggled valiantly to follow, I eventually confessed my deviousness and deceit with that ink-stained Report Card.  I was amazed to discover that Mum and Dad had seen through my childish blot from the start.  They had known all along what I had done, but said nothing to me.  My need to be first and best was clearly transparent to them, along with my need to hide my failures and weaknesses.

 

They, more than I, were able to accept my shortcomings and continue to love me all the same.  Why had they not been able to tell me that then?   I wish I could have learned that lesson from them when I was young.  Perhaps, growing up and growing older would have been a bit easier for me, released from beneath that terrible burden of having to be the best.   Perhaps, more importantly, I could have had more to give to my friends and family, more acceptances and love and less competition and rivalry and the bruising need always to be first.

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Beneath the Heights

Robin's Writing

Robin's Home Page

Jim and Robin's Home Page