This is me in grade 9 – except it’s not, as I don’t have a class picture from grade 9 to share. Grade 9 was the great convergence of students from the three local elementary schools into the one collegiate (a high school, plus grade 9). JH Bruns is a formidable building resembling most closely a medium-security prison (this early 70s institutional architecture is notable for its lack of windows and claustrophobic feel). The interior and the population did little to counter this, with dingy lighting, even dingier colours, and the surly gatherings of smoking kids clustering around the few doors, in winter cigarettes handled through holes cut in their “garbage mitts”, the height of Southdale fashion, just edging out head-to-toe lavender denim and Adidas bags as the must-have looks.
This was my first experience of a homeroom. At Bruns, homerooms were organized as StAGs – student advisory groups. Hoping to create a sense of community and student independence, StAGs included students from across all grades and areas. This ineptly and inaptly named period was really a class about nothing that amounted to a gathering at the start of every day for announcements, general guidance, and (I think) a 15-minute chance for the teachers to catch their breaths before the true onslaught of education and discipline began.
I struck up with a small group of new friends (who each dwelled within their own StAG), with whom I shared some class schedules and I think a general geekiness that drew us into loose association. I remember Tinla, Bruce, another smallish blond boy, and a vague outline of one other girl. We would eat together at lunch, connect between classes, and plan for dance attendances and other horrors.
I have few specific memories, but here are three:
In social studies (Mr. Ramsden), we were tasked with experiencing public speaking, and were to focus on a topic that was important to us personally. This ranged from someone’s pet maltese to a lecture from a budding environmentalist and likely future vegan about pollution and global cooling (how times change). I decided to talk about music and specifically classical music for the piano. I had been taking piano lessons for approximately half my life to this point, and while not a Conservatory student, I was still pretty conversant about fortes and legatos, making my way competently through the odd Chopin Nocturne. I prepared my talk and was scheduled to go right after a boy who sat a few seats away from me. I cannot remember his name, but I can see him very clearly in my memory – shaggy blond headbanger hair, t-shirt and jeans. He and his deskmate were the class clowns (and likely future bullies), and their antics were always interesting tending to scary.
The day of presentations arrived, and I dressed up a bit for school, to make a good impression. The blond shaggy boy goes to the podium and begins. His presentation is about his favourite band, the best band ever – AC/DC. He spends a few minutes on their musical style and history, and then talks about the founding members. He then talks about Bon Scott, the lead singer who died just six months earlier. At this point, shaggy blond begins to get very emotional. He holds up his precious copy of Back in Black, the band’s tribute album to their late bandmate. By the end, his speech was more eulogy than public speaking exercise, and several classmates were visibly moved by his presentation, including yours truly.
A hard act to follow. I then proceed to bore the pants off of everyone with my hugely anticlimactic lecture about classical music and piano lessons. I had no tears to shed for Chopin, and my lame music class jokes were met with painful silence, as students alternately dozed or doodled through the next five minutes. I am surprised this did not give me stage fright for life.
My other classroom memory is from science class. The teacher (Mr. Routledge, according to my transcript) was a round, beefy, bespectacled bastard. This was the year for us to learn about the inner workings of the human body, including the reproductive system in all its gory glory. He had never done this up to this point, but when we got to the part of the lessons about menstruation, I guess he preferred not to talk about it himself, so he had someone read out loud from the textbook. He picked Tinla, my fierce but innocent friend, who had a raucous laugh and was not fearful when it came to talking to bigger older kids but was unnerved by swearing or anything sexual in nature. She struggled through the three or four paragraphs, choking back her near-tears, and at the end of the section, slammed the book closed and put her head down. Afterwards, our little geek squad gathered around her and walked with her from class, as she wiped her eyes, held her head high and said, “son of a bitch” under her breath. I’d like to think that a braver me would have intervened somehow, would have started to read with her or called him out for his insensitivity. But it would be many years yet before I developed that kind of courage.
Lastly, I remember the school play that year was the musical Kiss Me Kate. I attended an early rehearsal (or at least part of one – I only remember two songs) and was put off by the haughty and cliquey drama seniors, for whom the sauciness of “Too Darned Hot” was close-to-normal cafeteria behaviour. When years later I would start to sing “So In Love” as part of my own repertoire, I was put in mind of the dreadful high school version of the play and so very glad that “So In Love” was not one of the tunes so much on demand in Grade 9, as it would have ruined it for me.
Tinla and I hung out mostly at school, and occasionally talked on the phone in the evenings. Her family had a restaurant, and so she was sometimes put to work when staff was short or (I think) when her parents needed a translator into English. She also didn’t live close to me (the catchment area for Bruns was huge), so school was our meeting place. She and I also shared English class, wherein we came up with this idea to write a murder mystery novel (inspired by that year’s reading of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado). We came up with pseudonyms (I was Julian Leonard, she was Finlay something), and I wish I could remember anything else about our brilliant title or story idea. We could have been famous.
You’re probably gathering that I did not enjoy the Bruns experience. Bingo. While I have to allow for 30+ years of haze between now and then to affect my memory and feelings, it was definitively not a place that I enjoyed going. I don’t recall ever feeling unsafe at the time, but my memories carry tinges of fear and seediness that are not pleasant.
This was my one and only year at Bruns, and I lost touch with my little group of geeky friends almost instantly that June. For Grade 10, my pop arranged for me to go to St. Mary’s Academy, one of Winnipeg’s all-girl schools and the one most familiar to him and my mom (she was a SMA alumnus). I welcomed the change from the depressing institutional feel of Bruns, welcomed the uniforms and the academic rigour and the nuns – all of it. Most of all, I welcomed being reunited with my good friend Angie. Little did I know the treasure trove of camaraderie and friendship that awaited me there. SMA, here I come.