English through the years at Uxbridge Secondary School

 

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     The opening day of that school year at Uxbridge High School followed the usual pattern. The students met in the auditorium; the representative of the School Board, the principal and five teachers were on stage. During the pleasant introductions and the necessary announcements the students eyed those in authority and vice versa. On being dismissed, the scholars trooped off down Brock Street to buy their textbooks. Day One!
     A startling, unusual event was the ringing of the town fire bell to celebrate the capitulation of Italy. The year was 1943. The senior grades were excused from classes at the beginning of the term so that they could help with the war effort.
     As the new English teacher, I looked forward to teaching my favourite subject to all five grades, undaunted by the report that English was not popular in this school. I also had time for two other subjects, art and Canadian history. Preparation periods had not been invented.
     What is there to say about methods in teaching English? Most of it depends on the teacher. The main objective is to make the subject live. I remember one year our hockey team played on Manitoulin Island, and, on their return, one of the boys said to me, “I saw Wuthering Heights! I really did! It was away up ....” He talked as if he had made a thrilling discovery. During the first classes on Julius Caesar, anonymous versions in semi-contemporary diction used to appear on the classroom notice board. In the opening scene the tribunes discussed tearing down decorations. One of them cautioned, “May we do so? You know it is Scott Fair Day.” There should be fun and there should be discussion. One episode has amused me for many years. It was an exercise in the grade 10 composition textbook on oral expression - “What would you do if...” One situation was being out on a lake when the boat sprang a leak or some similar situation. A blond young Viking with twinkling eye arose, held his head proudly, and announced, “I would go down with my ship.”
     Now let us be serious. Over the years, certain valuable aids came into use such as the fine recordings of the Shakespearean plays and of some poetry. When Canterbury Tales was on the upper school course, the record was played every morning before classes when the Tales were being studied. No one was required to listen but no one could escape assimilating the rhythms and tones of Chaucer’s poetry.
     Before the bus trips to Stratford became an annual event, we went by bus to the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto to see The Merchant of Venice. It was in winter, and on our way home it snowed and snowed, until I was rather concerned that we would be spending what remained of the night in a snowbank   between Goodwood and home. I need not comment on what seeing an actual professional performance does for the appreciation of drama.
     Along came ETV — Educational Television, hailed as a breakthrough beyond compare. A series on Shakespeare was advertised. Of course, we turned the time table upside down so that three or four classes could see Macbeth on television.
     It took me several years to recover from the shock I suffered when Macbeth, the thane of Glamis, loomed large and black on the screen. Obviously, his roots did not go back to the heather clad hills of Scotland but a land nearer the equator. The interpretation of the theme was equally unacceptable. That was a low point in my career. You may have guessed that the actor had been hired to play Othello.
     Meanwhile the school enrolment increased greatly with the obvious results that there were more classes and more teachers were involved in teaching English. Textbooks were supplied to the students. As well, courses were set up for two streams - the five-year courses and the four-year courses. These changes required careful organization. The one English teacher of 1943 became the English Department.
     It is interesting to note that some school activities which began us the responsibility of English teachers later became independent. One example is the library. When the large north wing was built, there were no plans for a Library, which was then a small room at the end of a corridor. Money was not available — but the old auditorium was. In time, someone in the right place discovered that the library was “a resource centre,” and that made all the difference. A qualified librarian was engaged and the English teachers were relieved of responsibility.
     When the war was over, the school year book was revived under a new name, Astra.  If you examine the Astras of the forties, you will notice the large literary section. It will be obvious that the students produced the whole book except for the cover and stapling. What changes there have been!
      Another interesting contrast exists between the Commencements of the forties and those of later decades. Every year the Music Hail would be packed for two performances. It was a tradition In Uxbrídge. Plays were the responsibility of English teachers usually, but other teachers were kind enough to take a turn. In 1943, Grade 9 asked if they might put on at Commencement the play which they had just studied. That was the Knave of Hearts.  Some of those one-act plays such as Admiral Peters and Brothers in Arms required very few characters; others like The Trysting Place and Pedlar’s Pack required several. Do some of you remember the year we had two complete casts for Balancing the Budget? We had never heard of theatre arts. If I do not comment on the operettas and the dances, it is not because I have forgotten them. They were masterpieces.
     However, one aspect of school life began and continued as an enterprise of the English Department and that is public speaking. For some students, It was an experience to be dreaded. I have listened to a few very fine speeches on “Why I can‘t give a speech” but I was the only audience. For others it was an opportunity to excel, to compete for the McClintock Shield or the Mellow Shield. For all it was a rigorous training in how to appear confident and poised whenever called upon to speak. Speech Night was an important event.
     So far, I have carefully avoided naming anyone, but at this point I must mention Mr. Bernhardt. His support and encouragement I appreciated very much. He added to my happiness when he somehow managed to have the shelf built along the windows for my plants. Students learned to respect them. I used to state as fact that plants are more important than people, and no one ever said, “Why?” I still have a similar shelf full of house plants with shelves full of books below them.
     As I conclude. I must admit that teaching English was never easy for me. It demanded a great deal emotionally and physically, but I cannot think of anything else I would rather have done than teach my favourite subject in Uxbridge High and Secondary School. To all of you, students and parents, friends and colleagues, who have made it possible for me to make this statement, I am very grateful.

Caroline McQuade



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