I was in danger of failing chemistry. Did my mother bribe the teacher?

The high school that I attended was Lisgar Collegiate Institute in downtown Ottawa, a few blocks from the Parliament Buildings. It was known for high academic standards with a clutch of students achieving averages of over 90 per cent and more gaining 80 per cent or better. They scooped up scholarships to prominent universities and went on to renown in their fields. Others had exceptional leadership skills and talents in a variety of areas and they blossomed in show business and the arts. Many became entrepreneurs.

I will cite the example of Adrienne Poy, the head girl who chaired the student council along with the head boy, when I entered Lisgar. She was strong academically, a confident public speaker and, as Adrienne Clarkson, carved out a stellar career in broadcasting before acceding to the position of governor-general of Canada, the numero uno job in the country.

I was several atmospheric zones below that nosebleed level of high achievers, more at the level of the Scottie dogs that terrorized my ankles when I delivered newspapers in Rockliffe, the well-off community of successful professionals and deputy ministers, and where I did not live.

My academic career is best summed up by an incident in Grade 10 English composition class with Albert Proctor at the helm telling us about syntax, subordinate clauses and the sins of dangling participles.

Staring out the window

Bored stiff, I was staring out the window lost in some other world when Mr. Proctor directed a question at me. It flew over my head, but my mind snapped to attention when I heard my name at the end.

I responded with a blank stare and a few seconds of silence went by.

“What do you come to school for, Yates, to keep warm?” asked Mr. Proctor, much to the amusement of my colleagues. I may not have been a pioneer, but I was certainly proficient in education by osmosis. That was the path that chose me.

Attendance at school was never a problem, but staying focused on the matter at hand undermined my scholastic achievement. I believe there were many more like me at high school.

We had an assembly every morning before classes started and it seemed to be in everybody’s interest to stretch them as long as possible so as to shorten the first class of the day. For example, the orchestra, which put on a brief concert one day a week, received sustained applause for all its numbers. Mr. Mracek, the music teacher, basked in all the attention. Often there was an encore for the music lovers in the assembly. I don’t know whether Mr. Mracek quite recognized what was happening – that he was complicit in reducing the school day.

However, the longest and loudest reaction in my five years at the school was strictly spontaneous and came during an assembly one morning in Grade 10 when awards were handed out, likely for some sports accomplishments.

A name would be called and the student would walk across the stage to receive his award. When it was the turn of Millicent Farnsworth (not her real name) to be honored all hell broke loose. She strode across the stage in front of 1,000 students wearing a grey skirt (normal for the time) and a neon orange sweater over a very impressive set of breasts. That caught the attention of the boys whose teenaged arteries were coursing with testosterone. The applause started with the older boys in the Grade 13 section of the assembly hall and soon went into overdrive with whistles, hoots and foot stomping. The roar spread like a wave through the assembly right to the Grade 9 section.

Burned the sweater

Millicent did not miss a beat or show any sign of concern as she picked up her award and walked off the stage, but her brother told me later that she burned the orange sweater. I never saw her wearing it again. However, the incident did not prove to be too traumatic because she became a cheerleader a bit later. I guess she liked the attention after all and her presence became another good reason to attend football games.

The school overlooked the Rideau Canal with its landscaped lawns, tall elms and tulip beds. It was (and still is) an idyllic spot and a favorite place to gather at lunchtime in the good weather.  After eating lunch, we would roll up our crusts, uneaten sandwiches, greasy waxed paper and apple cores in brown bags and hurl them at the boats full of tourists plying the canal.

That prompted complaints to the school and the principal, V.N. Bruce had to ask students to cease and desist. Girls and boys going steady also liked to wander over to the canal where they could find a private spot behind bushes to hold hands, kiss and more.

That resulted in reports of untoward behavior and Mr. Bruce told the students in a stern manner during an assembly to stop “petting” by the canal. That was 1950s jargon for groping.

Being teenagers, sex was on our minds a lot of the time. I recall one student, whom I will call Benny, took a great deal of delight in recounting how he was interviewing young women for the post of maid at his house. He said he had fired the incumbent when his parents took off to Florida for a winter vacation. It seems the woman had resisted Benny’s suggestion for a tryst and he was hoping to hire someone more accommodating. Whether you want to believe that or not is up to you. Benny did tell the story, but it was totally unverifiable, like those stories in supermarket tabloids.

Denizens of the area

Students also liked to amuse themselves with some lunchtime gambling. There was a cinder track at a lower level of the canal bank and it was out of site of the school. It was reached by sets of concrete steps at regular intervals. At the bottom of one set of steps was a regular game of craps with guys rolling dice for pennies (sneeringly called wood), dimes, quarters and even dollar bills. Often joining the games were older denizens of the area or what we called rubbies. They got their name because they consumed rubbing alcohol, other alcohol-based liquids and occasionally cheap wine if they were feeling flush.

Mr. Neil, the school’s vice-principal and as such the chief law enforcement officer, got wind of the canal casino and decided to put an end to it. He organized a raid, rounded up the miscreants and suspended them for a week or so.

In those days, the policy called for the school to send a letter to parents informing them of the suspension. A friend whom we called Buddha because he shaved his head, not for embracing the eastern religion, was suspended (for fighting, I believe) but he managed to short-circuit the process. He intercepted the mailman, took possession of the letter from the school and ripped it up.

As a result, his mother did not learn of the suspension and waved Buddha off to school every morning as usual. Or so she thought. He headed directly to the Ottawa public library studying until noon when he popped over to the canal and a spot on our favorite bench.

If sex was prominent in the minds of many boys (and possibly a few girls), then beer wasn’t far behind. Both together met just about everybody’s idea of a perfect combination. Three of us got talking about beer one warm evening toward the end of summer after a basketball game at St. Luke’s Park, a favorite pastime at a favorite spot. So we headed off to the tavern of the Bytown Inn on O’Connor Street at the suggestion of Frank. At 18, he was already an experienced beer drinker, although the legal drinking age was 21. We sat down at a table and the waiter came over to take our order. “What’ll it be?” he asked. Frank ordered an O’Keefe ale. No problem there. “I’ll have a small,” I said. It was at that point that the waiter started getting suspicious. I was all of 15 and it was my first time in a tavern. “I’ll have the same,” said Ron, who was 14 and in a tavern for the first time also. “Where’s your short pants, boys?” asked the waiter. He walked away laughing and we slinked out deeply humiliated.

Chicken fried rice

We became regulars at the Bytown a little more than a year later when many of us were in Grade 13 and shaving on a regular basis. We met just about every Friday night in the tavern and two dollars bought a lot of drafts. After closing time we walked to the Ho Ho Café as did many others for a plate of chicken fried rice. Keeping a close eye on the well-oiled proceedings was Bob Hum, our classmate, while his brother Lenny manned the cash. Their family owned the restaurant. Bob was an imposing figure and he was there to make sure no one got belligerent or skipped out on the bill.

Bob was a key member of the senior basketball team by that time and played a big role in the success of our Grade 10B intramural team three years earlier. Thanks to Peter Legzdins and Bill Crossley, both members of the school bantam team, and other good athletes in the class such as Larry Ballon, Wayne Livingstone and Sandy MacKay-Smith we finished at the top of our class league. We managed to win all our playoff games and ended up in the intramural final against the Grade 13D team, an unheard-of feat up to that time.

The final game was scheduled for a lunch hour near the end of winter and the stands were filled. It seemed the whole school had showed up to watch the game. The Grade 13 team was bigger and more experienced, an advantage for them, and had probably smoked many more cigarettes than we had, a disadvantage for them. We managed to win the championship game by four points, if I remember correctly. It was a big upset.

By the time I reached Grade 12, it was obvious that I was never going to be considered a brilliant scholar. My average started off in Grade 9 at around 70 per cent and gradually slipped to the low 60s by Grade 12. And I was in serious danger of failing at least one subject – chemistry.

No interest

Our teacher was an old white-haired geezer named Mr. Felker. He could tell us how many steps he covered in walking to school and how many stairs he climbed to the third-floor classroom, important stuff to him. But I could not generate any interest in the elements, symbols and paraphernalia of chemistry.

In those days, he told us about chemical reactions and wrote stuff on the blackboard. But we did not do many, if any, experiments that I remember. On one occasion, he showed us how rapid evaporation caused cold. He poured water on a small board and then placed a beaker containing ether on it.

Using a small compressor engine, he evaporated the ether and created a film of ice under the beaker. He held up the board and turned it upside down, the beaker stayed in place. It was stuck to the wood by the ice.

He then walked around the classroom showing us the ice. I reached out to feel it with my hand and he pulled the board away. “Don’t touch,” he said.

I can’t say my interest in chemistry waned, because it never got off the ground. My mark on the Christmas exam was 20 and at Easter I clocked in with two. That’s two per cent.

Former teacher

My mother, Edythe, a former school teacher who taught me Grade 4 arithmetic and English at home while I was in Grade 3 at school thereby allowing me to skip a grade, decided on drastic action.

She told me to set up tutoring with Mr. Felker. She had done the same thing a couple of years earlier when my math showed some weakness. However, the math teacher was not the one who taught my class. I trudged over to Mr. Felker’s house on Frank Street on nine occasions at $5 a pop for private instruction.

I wrote the final exam and had no clue as to whether I had passed or failed. So it was a big surprise when I opened my final Grade 12 report card in early July to find I had succeeded in chemistry with 60 per cent. So that’s what $45 bought you. Thanks to my mother, the tutoring had paid off. We never talked about it so I’ll never know whether my final mark surprised her.

Call it whatever you like, but I call it a close call and thank my mother for her pragmatism. However, she would be mortified if you called it a bribe

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