Remembering Whitney Public

My sister and I are exchanging memories of our public school in Toronto, in the 1940s. We walked the seven or eight blocks, sometimes together.

I wrote: “Memories of Whitney are flooding back. The Railway Bridge: there was always the moment of terror as you crossed. Would a train go through beneath before you got to the other side? I remember climbing the escarpment stairs. I never thought of it as a hardship. It was what you did to get to school.

“I loved the games at recess. Alleys. I didn’t play well, but I had fun. And then I discovered that you could buy bags of alleys at the dime store. That seemed a bit of a cheat. Some people had to win their marbles, some could buy them. Remember the fun we had clattering ink well lids? All the business with pens was fun, filling the well and changing nibs. Getting inky fingers. I loved cleaning the blackboard erasers. You’d go down to the yard and whack the brushes together, raising messy clouds of chalk dust.

“I never had enough to read. The library was open only one or two days a week. And I never understood what I was supposed to be doing at school. Sometimes people would say to me, Janet, you should try harder. I’d get my homework or assignment, and do it. What else was required? “Apply yourself.” What did that mean?

“But those were happy days. Did we know we were happy? I don’t think so. The best thing about getting older is that when happiness comes you recognize it.

She wrote: “I remember other stuff. We all wore a lot of wool, which would get wet and muddy. The classrooms were really smelly places because of the soggy mitts, wool socks, sweaters and thick pants drying in the over-heated classroom, on us or on the radiators that were under the tall windows. Some of the kids hardly washed at all and that was another layer of smell. Clothes didn’t get tossed into washing machines like they do now. Those odd pants the boys wore – breeks – never got washed from September to spring. Now when I go into schools the children look so clean and so very healthy. I remember everyone having sties, pink eye, impetigo, bad dandruff, even ringworm. I used to get boils all the time. Everyone had bloody knees from the rough recess games. There was sneezing and colds. Someone would get measles or chickenpox and that would make the rounds. Physically, we were all repulsive little things. But we did play good games and laugh, in between the bouts of utter terror from bullies or tests or general confusion as to just what was expected.”

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