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By Jennifer McMackon

I attended primary school in Burlington, a small city between Hamilton and Toronto on the Northwest shore of Lake Ontario in the early seventies. My alma mater was called Strathcona Public School.

If I really, really think about my early education, considering the extensive value it placed on creativity, exploration and play, perhaps it should come as no surprise that I became a visual artist. Obviously, other kids went through the same system, making other something else of their lives, pursuing different dreams, and making different contributions to the world, but I think Strathcona instilled an art heartbeat in its students.

In a playground full of old maple trees, the school’s construction was architecturally fantastic. It retained its old kindergarten as a round, glass Victorian appendage on a modern flat top "box," of a schoolhouse where all the other kids studied. I know there must have been hallways, but I hardly remember a single wall or doorway to a distinct classroom in the larger building.

There was a kitten sleeping or playing in the desk of every other student and we cared for other creatures also, notably goldfish and turtles, snakes and frogs, caterpillars, moths and butterflies. I also remember several guinea pigs in cages. They were nice - but I liked cats.

Charts on the walls tracked our scholastic accomplishments. Math's progress report was comprised of a row of stars beside each student's name. My row of stars grew only incrementally compared to that of some of the other students in my class. My teacher, Miss Cody told my Mom not to worry about it. I also wrote certain letters of the alphabet backward.

We did phonics. We did phonics. And we did more phonics. We drew pictures of things and sang songs, both of which I loved. Mrs. Waddington read us Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach every afternoon at two. After that, she read us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed by Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I went to the land of the imagination every afternoon and returned a little later as if from a very long voyage.

Spelling for us was called "vocabulary." We practiced it as "creative movement" - (think yoga or ballet with flashcards) with our beautiful beloved Miss Umetsu, who wore tracksuits to school.

We spent long periods of time seated wearing headphones at "learning pods." We preserved autumn leaves in waxed paper. We made candy, carved soap and potatoes and every now and then we gathered together in front of a television high up on a tall cart in the library or gym to watch an astronaut walk on the moon or Team Canada play hockey against the Soviet Union.

I'd like to say I remember telling one of my girlfriends about a plan I developed in third grade to own a fashionable boutique when I grew up, but I forgot about it until she reminded me in high school. We had a good laugh about it. When I did actually "grow up" I left the dream of my boutique behind with the troublesome stars of math to become a visual artist.

Looking back on it, a surprising detail about the Ontario provincial government at the time I attended Strathcona is that it was “Progressive Conservative.” The federal government was Liberal, but the provincial, Progressive Conservative. I guess progressive was the operative word. That the public school I attended, an enterprise so colorful and free, was a conservative public education initiative, is something that surprises me now - even as much as I am grateful for it.

I don't think very many conservatives in Canada's newly elected minority could imagine an education system as arts fecund as the one Strathcona exemplified. I do foresee they will, however, come to imagine the cultural values of its alumni in far more concrete terms.

All images found on Google Image Search.


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