That 70’s Dickens Edition

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I guess my experience in Red Deer Public School System in the 70’s wasn’t too different from many kids in Alberta. We walked to school, no buses and home for lunch every day. When it got cold you were bundled up tight in a scarf, toque and wool mittens, lined mitts or gloves. You’d have long johns or snow pants, a sweater, and a winter jacket with some kind of stuffing for insulation, or if you folks could afford it, down. Most had 2-3 pairs of socks on, some kind of felt lined boots that were warm indoors, but didn’t hold the heat outside. Some also wore moccasins, but from old Harold’s experience, if you had an inexpensive pair, your feet would freeze faster than water from a Zamboni on an outdoor rink in January…although most rinks were cleaned by shovel, and Zambonis used for outdoor rinks didn’t flood to build and smooth the surface.

On cold days either or all your feet, face and hands would freeze to the point of severe tingling when thawed out once inside. Schools closed if it hit -40C, and without computers, email or smartphones, everyone tuned into radio 850 CKRD (a.k.a. CRUD) for announcements. We also had at least 2 ft of snow by Halloween that you dragged your pillowcase through, mostly filled with Halloween candy (i.e. wax paper wrapped sugary substances, usually brown with the consistency of frozen axel grease). Everyone knew not to accept apples or other fruit, as they might have a pin or razorblade…a rumour likely started by Halloween candy makers.

The schoolyard had a definite hierarchy. Older, younger, bigger, smaller, girls, boys, kids with/without glasses/braces, kids with/without siblings, oops kids, average kids, kids pushing IQ curve tails, hockey players, non-hockey players, rich, poor, kids you went to school from grades 1-12, kids you only knew for a year or two. Most kids had both parents, with a stay-at-home mom and dad who went to work. Gay meant happy. Maybe one or two Asians per class and no blacks or browns. ADHD was the jittery kid that spent more time in detention then recess. Recess was broken into 2 x 15 minutes periods of mayhem on the playground. Sponge puck hockey and king of the snow hill in the winter, and tackle football without pads or helmets in the spring and fall. Track meet was a day in the spring where you’d line up for the 100 yard dash or events like high jump and long jump into sand pits slightly softer than concrete, and if you placed worst than 3rd you got SFA. For a couple of years, we also did the Canada Fitness Test, and because most kids got more outdoor exercise in a week than todays ‘indoor’ kids get in a year, everyone got a gold or the coveted AWARD OF EXCELLENCE badge.

Female teachers wore skirts and blouses and had their hair nicely styled, and male teachers wore dress pants/shirt, jacket or sweater and sometimes a tie. For kids, haircuts ranged from the latest styles to obvious home haircuts and most experienced a season or two of hair past their shoulders. Kids clothes also ranged from the latest styles and labels to Army and Navy indestructible clothing pass down form sibling to sibling. Most clothes were bought or handed down at the start of the school year, sized to grow in to or frequently Christmas or birthday “presents”, and for some, gifts from far away relatives. One-year our grandma from the east sent old Harold’s brother a pair of red pants with purple pockets, which instantly led to beatings on the playground. Those pants never got passed down.

In elementary school we sang Oh Canada and God Save the Queen every morning. There were no calculators, we drilled multiplication/division tables and learned to print and write. At the beginning of the year, textbooks were handed out, and for old Harold with three older siblings, chances were one of their names was listed on the card glued inside the back cover. You had a scribbler for every subject, pencils, pens, ruler, compass and a plastic triangle that could be thrown like a Ninja star. You got assigned an all-wooden desk, with a drawer under the seat. The smartest and worst were at the front, kids with potential in the middle and future plumbers and hairdressers at the back.

There were at least 2 parent teacher interviews per year, which generally highlighted more deficiencies than praise. Teachers also provided comparisons with older siblings, and old Harold often heard “he and his year older brother were nothing like their older brother and sister”, which to our amazement never led to negative repercussions as our older siblings had been bullied. Report cards also came out 4 times a year, and you had to bring them back with a parent’s signature. Old Harold got better marks in math and science then English and social studies, and scraped through year to year. The shock felt around the schoolyard was, however, felt when final report cards came out in grade six, and my best friend was absent. He and his parents had been in earlier and found out he’d be giving an encore performance.

There were no teacher’s aids. Bad behavior was rewarded with detention and trips to the Principal’s office, where I’ve been told the Vice Principal would sometimes be called in to administer “the strap”. The strap was about a foot long, inch and a half wide resin coated piece of woven fiberglass that stung something fierce on the palm of your hand, often triggering a pullback reflex in your arm and squeezed tears from the corner of you eye.

Yes my friends, the 1970’s RDPS system provided a first rate education for the average kid, and although “dangerous” playground equipment had injured and maimed a few, no one ever died.

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