Grade 5: 1976, Van Bellingham Elementary School, Winnipeg, MB Teacher – Mr. H.
I was super excited to start grade 5. Age 9 felt pretty grown up. With that new maturity came new responsibilities – being a crossing guard, having a house key and going home for lunch on my own. There was also the teacher – Mr. H., the liquorice-dealing student teacher from Grade 3 had returned for his first home-room gig. We all had high hopes and he did not disappoint.
Alas, I do not have a class photo, just this school portrait of me, sporting the stylish pixie cut (home-made version) and the Seventies era denim vest (which I believe had a matching maxi-skirt). You can also see the white string conferring my latchkey kid status – something I was quite proud of but which would most-likely be illegal today.
The classroom was no longer in the open area, but was instead one very large windowless room in the middle of the school. Both Grade 5 classes were in there, and Mr. H. and Mr. Chaput (the other teacher) provided all of the instruction that year, with Mr. Chaput doing math, French and some science, and Mr. H. doing language arts (i.e. reading and writing), social studies and the rest of science.
Mr. H. was a big proponent of incentivizing to instil good habits in kids, especially reading, physical fitness and responsibility. He challenged us with reading goals and then rewarded us with certificates of achievement. Ditto for sit-ups and push-ups – I keep this certificate as proof that I have actually done 1,000 push-ups in my life (which now only works out to 20 per year, but still…).
And he brought in and set-up a chicken hatching pen, and over the course of a few months we got to watch and egg hatch and then take responsibility for the care and feeding of the resulting Charlie the Chicken.
Grade 5 also included time with the venerable Girl Guides organization as a Brownie. I remember liking my uniform, even wearing it to school sometimes. I found the structure and organization of Brownies to be a bit odd – the strange mix of patriotism (doing my duty to Queen and country, as well as God), mysticism (I was a Fairy, reporting to someone named Brown Owl), woodsiness (in what seemed like lame mimicry of the boy scouts), homemaking (assignments about making tea and knitting), and militarism (the strict uniform rules, the badges and medals and pins). I was always a reluctant participant, often pleading to be allowed to skip it, but eventually made it through to “flying up” to the Guides, where the extreme participation of some of the girls – with their dozens of badges, pristine uniforms, and unassailable enthusiasm – eventually overcame me and I quit.
Unquestionably, the best part of being a Brownie was getting to go to Caddy Lake Girl Guide Camp. I believe my love of outdoors, especially the sights, sounds and smells of Canadian woods and lakes, was born at the age of 9 when I spent my first week at Caddy Lake, one of the members of Cliff Crest Camp. From the canvas tents nestled in the woods, we would wake to reveille and then march along the trails down to the mess hall for breakfast, singing our camp song at the top of our lungs (“We are the best/we are louder than the rest/We have more fun/We’re from Cliff Crest!”). It was like a camp straight out of the fifties – hearty meals served on melamine dishes (to be washed, rinsed and “anti-bac-ed” after each meal), long dining room tables with cacophonous chatter from dozens of tweens, followed by canoeing or swimming or archery, more meals, nap-time, and culminating each night in a campfire and sing-a-long. I still remember many songs from that time, and that each day ended with a lyrical taps:
Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lakes,
from the hills,
from the sky
All is well
God is nigh
Grade 5 was not a high-water mark for me academically. I was a poor student in both language arts and social studies, often failing to complete assignments and doing poorly on tests. I did better in math, and better still in science, foreshadowing my life’s direction. Still, I muddled through and was moved on to Grade 6. Both Mr. H. and Mr. Chaput advanced with us, so there was a nice continuation of style and structure the following year.
I remember Grade 5 mostly as a year where I started to feel more grown up. The combination of latchkey independence with the more formal extra-curricular activities of Brownies and the odd sport (I think I played softball that year), and feeling the consequences of poor academic performance, make this time feel in hindsight like a tipping point, a broad difficult plateau that would last for a few years.
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