Friday, October 15, 2010


My friend Scott has been sending me childhood stories lately. What a pleasure it is to read them! Short, vivid and descriptive, they are gentle invitations to a by-gone day. Reading them you can almost believe you are growing up with Scott in the 1950’s.
He’s got me interested in my own memories, few and undescribed as they may be. Still, the older I get, the more of them I seem to have. Go figure! So I am finding memories back there, and I’ve started to notice a few things about them.
There are a couple of kinds of memories, the ones I actually have, and the ones I wish I had. The memories of my real childhood tend to be dull, devoid of the intrigue and adventure craved by a reading world. The memories I wish I had are diverse in nature. In fact, they are quite subject to variation, depending on the context of the present day. On the days when I’m feeling light and cheerful, I wish I’d had a more adventurous childhood—one you could sink your teeth into. Why are there no stories about Wendy breaking an arm in a fall while trying to retrieve a robin’s nest from a sky-high poplar? Where are the tales of a teen-ager sneaking out of the house for romance after the folks had gone to bed? What is the potential entertainment value of a childhood lived out in relative obedience?
On other days, today for example, I wish I had more memories—any memories actually--of me in the role of a compassionate child, a kind child, a supportive child. There are kids like that, you know, and I really want to grow down to be like them.
There’s one such child attending elementary school in Guelph Ontario. I heard the story from my daughter, a substitute teacher—correction—an emergency substitute teacher. In Ontario, you see, they have two kinds of substitute teachers. Substitute teachers have their names on a list and when somebody is unable to teach they get called in. Emergency substitute teachers lurk on shadowy lists that are more mysterious. They are called in when the notice is so short, or the conditions so difficult that no substitute teacher can fill the gap. When it’s time for the second bell, and the teacher is lying delirious on the floor waiting for an ambulance, that’s when you need an emergency sub—one who will take charge with no preparation, no orientation and no lesson plans.
I don’t know if we had emergency substitute teachers when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll recall that later. For now I can only say that I disliked subs of all kinds. My list of complaints against them was lengthy indeed. They failed to follow our established routines. They seldom knew what to do. They didn’t learn our names. They had trouble controlling the class. Sometimes they were idiots and I had the facts to prove it! Once, when we were studying the theories of Freud in a high school psychology class, a sub came in and called him Frude. How outrageous! I fumed at the very idea of paying a salary to such an incompetent!
But time changes perspective. For my daughter, who is now a sub, I have nothing but respect. Imagine getting up in the morning and racing off to teach a class of self-righteous little Wendys. I brace myself to hear the tales she will tell.
Here’s today’s tale. Every classroom has its own features. Her Edmonton room had a telephone for direct calls and an intercom for messages intended for the entire school. Having made a rushed entry into an unfamiliar class, she had not noticed the absence of a telephone when a voice came over the intercom. “Excuse me,” it said. She hushed the children and there they sat, waiting quietly for an announcement to be made. Finally, a child whispered, “You’re supposed to say Hello.”
“Good thing Grade ones and twos are kind,” she writes to her mother.
Her mother says, “Good thing you didn’t have to emergency substitute teach your mother.”

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