Friday, October 31, 2014

Tales From the First Century: the Veterans

When World War II ended, many ex-servicemen ended up in teacher’s college. Some of these were still teaching in the 70s when I went to high school. At my school, we all knew that a couple of our teachers were war veterans. One of them played the trumpet at our gym-based Remembrance Day ceremonies. The only one I heard talk about the war was our eccentric English teacher Mr. West. He claimed to have survived the war by acting strange. He was a messenger in a camp prone to snipers, and he figured that if he dressed funny and put weird things on his jeep, the snipers would decide he was unimportant. I think he used the same tactic on his teenage students.

My mom, Anne Hill, was a young teacher trainee in the late 40s. This is the story she wrote about one of her fellow trainees.

Bruce was a student teacher at the University of British Columbia (UBC) when I was. The strange fellow student and sufferer of the year of Teacher Training was a veteran. Teacher Training class began in the fall of ’49, four years after the war ended. Our class, beginning university in ’45, was lucky in having so many returning veterans in it, whose education was being paid for by a grateful government. Many of them were married and had children. The contrast between them and the 17-year-old freshmen was marked. Certainly no one tried to make them take part in the usual frosh pranks labelled “initiation.” Their contributions in class discussions left the rest of us in the dust. They were there to learn and get on with their lives, unlike many of us who felt life was still a long way off.

At UBC in Teacher Training, the Practice Teaching sessions were fraught with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Bruce, though, was unfailingly cheerful, which was enough in that year to make him strange. The rest of us tended to earnestness and sobriety. We would all be sitting at lunch in the cafeteria worrying, exchanging horrible stories of sessions in classrooms with teens. Into this cloud of gloom would come Bruce, almost leaping into our presence, declaring, with finger raised, “Never mind: Conflict is Life, Indifference Death!” My spirits lifted then and were eased by laughter.

My first Practice Teaching session was in Victoria in a huge Junior High School of about 1200 students in grades 7, 8, and 9. It was the first time that school had ever had student teachers. My group of three student teachers included Bruce and another veteran. We were required to sit in the back of the classroom and write critiques of whichever of us was in front of the class. Bruce’s notes about me included “You are looking very fetching this morning Miss Christie,” and “Do be kind to our Miss Taylor (a delicate child who looked like Elizabeth Taylor).” As for Bruce, he always left the kids smiling, if not laughing. He was a natural ham, which was not always appreciated by those who evaluated him. But his obvious regard for that age group makes me think he must have carried on as a teacher.

At the end of the practice sessions, we went off in all directions to remote corners of B.C. and were never in touch again.

My Grade 11 granddaughter asked what I was scribbling, as I wrote this while we waited at the SAAQ for her driver’s test. So I told her about Bruce. “Oh,” she said with some spirit, “that’s the kind of person who should be a teacher.”

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