What is one of the riskiest things you’ve ever done?

One of the riskiest things was to apply for and then accept a position to teach at the High Park Forest School in Toronto. Lorna saw an advertisement in one of the Toronto teacher’s papers that they were soliciting applications for one position at the school and I applied for it.

High Park Forest School had opened in 1915 as a school founded to provide a boost to children who were tubercular or had other physical detriments. While it was originally a place for children with tuberculosis, over the years it became a summer school for underprivileged and/or undernourished children. I was teaching at Park School in the Regent Park area of Toronto and all of my pupils were undernourished and underprivileged so I was quite accustomed to them. High Park was unique and the great attraction for me was that it operated 5 ½ days a week from the first of May until the end of October. This was equivalent to a full year of teaching for the staff and we were free to do what we wanted from the first of November to the end of April. There were only six teachers and while two older ladies went to Florida for the winter, the rest of us took university courses. I had completed the first year of my B.A. at the University of Toronto through night and summer school but it was difficult and slow. I thought that I could attend university full time if I taught at High Park provided that I could convince the university to allow me to enter a month and a half after classes had started and then get permission from the Board of Education to get time off to take the university exams that would be held in April.

This is where the risks came in. I had no idea whether the university or the board would agree nor whether I would be able to catch up and manage the coursework. U of T was very strict, unforgiving and punitive at that time. The rules were that you had to take five year long courses per year and that if you failed one they would delete your credit in all of the courses you had been taking no matter how well you had passed them.

Teaching at High Park was different and an interesting challenge. Mondays through Fridays the children would attend at outdoor classrooms. These were simply regular school desks fasted to a wooden platform under the trees. Each classroom had a blackboard at one end. In the mornings they were brought snacks of whole wheat bread and butter and at lunch time the children would line up and go into the main and only building where they were served a hot nutritious meal and milk. After lunch, the children would line up inside the building and pick up their bed rolls which consisted of a pillow, a sheet and an army blanket. They would take them to the cots which were set up under the trees and have a two hour nap. When they awoke from their naps, they returned their bedrolls to the room inside where they were stored. This was followed by an hour of playtime. After play time, the children returned to their classrooms for more education and then were served whole wheat bread and hot chocolate or milk again in mid-afternoon. When 4 o’clock came the teachers gave each child two street car tickets; one get home and the second to get to school the next day. We would escort each child up to Bloor Street and made sure they got on the street cars for their journey home.

The system worked well but when it rained everyone dashed into the main building which quickly became noisy and chaotic. Teaching anything under these conditions was impossible. Staff and students ate together and the meals were nutritious and wonderful. I still remember the hot liver, bacon and onion lunches and got the recipe from the cooks so that I could make it at home.

The teachers were caring and outstanding and we looked out for one another. For example I remember the day I drove into the school and one of the teachers, Jim Mitchell, met me and warned me that an angry father of one of my students was waiting for me and had told people that he was going to beat me up. Jim and I went into the school, picked up a couple of baseball bats, put them over our shoulders and went outside. We sat down on the front steps on each side of the parent. I introduced myself and asked him what he wanted. At this point he ran for his car and I never heard from him again.

We had some good principals and one very bad one. Harold Ranke had been transferred from a good North Toronto school to High Park and he hated it. He tried everything he could to get the school closed and eventually succeeded as the school closed in 1963.

I taught at the school for two years and managed to cope with the demands of university courses at the same time. Initially I tried to keep up by going to night school but found that I was very tired after a day’s teaching and fell asleep in the evening class.  At that time U of T was operating a small college as a separate department at Glendon, a manor house a few blocks from our apartment. It later became York University, but it was still part of U of T when I was there. It was small, unique and very collegial and everyone knew everyone else, both faculty and students. I made friends with Rick Wilkinson a student who was taking the same classes as I was and he made copies of his lecture notes using carbon paper and I picked them up from him once a week. I studied them at home and read them every day at school while the children were having their naps. In this way I kept up with my classmates. I assumed that my professors were aware of my situation but not all of them were briefed or remembered. I recall finding my way to my first history class, finding an empty classroom and a note on the board saying the exam was being held in room 403. I knew nothing about this but I dashed to the room and found the professor. He asked who I was and told me that I was a month and a half late. I explained and told him I wasn’t prepared for the exam. He said I was centuries behind in the course and told me to drop history. I couldn’t do that since I would lose my entire year of studies. Instead I never attended the class, but wrote the required papers and midterm exam and the year end exam and managed to pass. Apparently the university wasn’t making anything easier for me.

I ran into difficulties with the administration again when they determined that I had taken a second year psychology course (I got a B in it) before I had completed all six of my first year courses. This was forbidden for some obscure reason and I was told that I would have to repeat the course. I protested and the York officials petitioned U of T to allow me to keep the credit in my course but they refused and informed me that I couldn’t just sign up for the course again and do nothing as they decreed that whatever mark I obtained the second time would be the official mark for the course. Annoyed and frustrated I went to the course and found to my surprise that it was being taught by a guy I knew and had gone to school with. Phil Cowan was teaching it as a sessional lecture and was surprised to see me and asked why I was coming a month and a half after the course began. I told him why and about the problem with the U of T officials. Phil was appalled and asked me what grade I got before. I told him and he said “You have it again. Don’t bother to come to class or write any papers or sit any exams.” I didn’t and was very grateful.

In the midst of my last year at U of T/York the teachers at High Park were called to a meeting with the Toronto Board of Education where we were told that the school  had closed and that we were to return to regular teaching duties in January. Apparently they had no idea that we had completed our year of teaching and were now doing other things (including going to university) and were not obligated to work for the Board until the first of May. They were amazed. In May I had to begin teaching and was given a class of children with special needs and disabilities. I had no training for this and no idea what to do with them but no one seemed to notice or care. In the meantime I had completed my degree, attended convocation ceremonies at York and U of T and had won a fellowship for graduate studies at the University of Alberta. I finished my teaching and the day after the school year ended in June we left for Edmonton.

Teaching at High Park and going to school at Glendon involved several challenges and more than a few risks but I persevered and it all paid off. In retrospect I wonder if I would have done it if I had known what I was getting myself into.

Categories: About Me

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