wpe17.jpg (6911 bytes)
March 1999

School Days,
Not So Golden Rule Days

AG00041_.gif (503 bytes) Back to the College's Home Page

Mordecai Richler is one of many distinguished graduates of Montréal’s Baron Byng High School. Some of his teachers may share his ambivalence about the school days depicted in the author’s reflections for Professionally Speaking.

richler.jpg (5088 bytes)
     By Mordecai Richler

In high school, we were introduced to poetry as a punishment. Caught swearing, we were obliged to memorize 12 lines of Tennyson. Failing to deliver a composition on time ("‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’: Explain"), we were ordered to memorize 15 lines of Scott. Nineteen forty-four that was, and after all these years fragments are still lodged in my head:

"Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O sea
And I would that my tongue could utter,
The thoughts that arise in me."

"The stag at eve had drunk its fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s Rill"

In 10th grade, we finally connected with an admirable Scots class master who was a passionate poetry lover. A veteran of the Great War, Mr. McLetchie told us that when he was confined to a rat-infested trench during the nightly bombardments on the Somme, he fixed a candle to his steel helmet which enabled him to read Milton, Donne, Marvell, Blake. Marvell, it seemed to me, was just the ticket when I tried to get under Molly Herscovitch’s cashmere sweater late one night on a park bench in Outremont. "The grave’s a fine and private place," I recited, "But none, I think, do there embrace."

"Cut it out," she said, slapping my hand away.

The only Blake we knew at the time was Hector "Toe" Blake, who skated on the fabled Montreal Canadiens Punch Line with Elmer Lach and Maurice "The Rocket" Richard.

So we were not impressed by Mr. McLetchie. No wonder, said Bercovitch – who would go on to found Regal Ready-to-Wear, and turn up at our 1988 class reunion in a Rolls Royce, his name homogenized to Burke – that McLetchie ended up no better than a high school teacher, driving an ancient Austin.

In our defence, however shaky, I must protest that our poetry reader was a non-starter. We were not yet ready for the pretty stanzas of Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth. I mean, "A host of golden daffodils"? Forget it.

We dismissed such lines as sissy-stuff, remote from the experience of our own city streets, where Greenbaum, of Herky’s Best Fruit, suffered from a heavy thumb, and gave only 14 ounces to the pound. What we needed as an introduction to the canon was an anthology that featured poets who addressed us directly in our own idiom: say, W. H. Auden or e.e. cummings.

My education, inadequate as it was, began in a Jewish parochial school, the Talmud Torah. We breezed through the English language curriculum required by the Montreal Protestant School Board in the mornings, our day beginning with exercises of a sort:

"I am a tea pot, short and stout,
This is my handle, this is my spout.
Pour me out, pour me out."

But in the afternoons we concentrated on Hebrew studies. The Pentateuch: "Braishis boroh elohim ha’shomayim ve ha’eretz." Years later I dined out on that in the homes of Gentile friends. "You ought to read the original," I’d say.

Our striving mothers registered us for kindergarten when we were still underage.

"Birth certificate, please?"

"Lost in a fire."

"You too?"

"He’s short for his age. Do me something."

As far as our mothers were concerned, we were already in pre-med school. However, just in case we failed to get the point, we were force-fed Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters and were summoned in from games of run-sheep-run, or tic-tac-toe, to dig into The Books of Knowledge.

Fish, a highly recommended brain food, was good for us, but not playing with cats, which would make us forget everything we had learned.

The war in Europe intruded, inadvertently leading me into a taste for what was scorned as "classical" music. When I was an ignorant 12-year-old, back in 1943, wartime propaganda radio broadcasts were unfailingly preceded by four emphatic musical notes. These notes replicated the Morse code’s three dots and a dash for the letter "V" and were conscripted as a symbol for "V for Victory," the slogan we lived with in those troubled days.

"Who wrote that?" I once asked an aunt, whose literacy was certified by her membership in The Literary Guild.

"Beethoven," she said.

Such was my introduction to genius. For, of course, those were the rousing opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which my aunt was good enough to play for me on scratchy 78 records. So, at a tender age, I learned there was more to music than "Gertie from Bizerte" and "Bésame Mucho," two of 1943’s hit parade ditties. Beethoven was nifty, I conceded at the time, but you couldn’t dance close to his stuff with Bessie Goldfarb in her family’s furnished basement when her parents were out for the evening.

The Hebrew teachers, who instructed us in the Old Testament, were a sour lot.

"Obviously," I said, "Adam and Eve’s sons had to marry their sisters. Was that allowed in those days?"

"Idiot. Big mouth. You will stay in for an hour after school and wash the blackboards in every classroom."

Twice a week, after school, I was obliged to attend Talmud classes with Mr. Yalofsky in a stuffy back room of the Young Israel synagogue.

"If a man tumbles off the roof of a five-storey building," Mr. Yalofsky intoned, "and two storeys down another man sticks a sword out of the window and stabs him, is that second man guilty of murder or not?

"Rabbi Menasha asks, was the man already dead of heart failure before he was stabbed?

"Rabbi Yehuda asks, did he fall or was he pushed off the roof?

"Were the two men related?



"Was the sword already sticking out of the window or was it thrust into the falling body?

"Would the man have died from the fall in any event?"

Who cared?

Saturday mornings we used to wander downtown, puffing on Turret cigarettes, then on sale in packs of five for five cents, and whistling at girls older than us, unavailingly. Our destination was Eaton’s, our mission to shoplift. Assembling again on Fletcher’s Field we would compare our booty and trade.

Once I came away with an interesting paperback. It was one of the first of the Pocket Books, which I acquired in exchange for a pair of socks. It was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I started to read, going on from there to the Perry Mason books, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, some G.A. Henty and Kipling.

This led me into my first attempt at a short story, set in London clubland. Sir Marmaduke Tingley Winterbottom, remembering to pass the port to the left, says to Lord Beauchamp, pronounced Beecham, "I say, did I ever tell you about the time our thin red line confronted the Fuzzy Wuzzies on the African plain..?"

From the Talmud Torah, I graduated to a high school that was a legend in our neighbourhood: Baron Byng High School on St. Urbain Street. Under the aegis of the Protestant School Board, its student body was, nevertheless, just about 99 per cent Jewish. We were the progeny of taxi drivers, clothing factory cutters, junk dealers, peddlars and sewing machine operators, enjoined to do better or else, and so we did.

Baron Byng had already churned out more doctors and lawyers that I could count, a few rabbis, as well as a notorious stock swindler and a couple of writers. Assembled in the gym on our first day at school, we were forewarned that if we intended to go on to McGill, we would, because of the Jewish quota, have to earn a 75 per cent mark in our matriculation exams. Those of us who wished to study Latin were told to take a step forward. Unwilling to volunteer for anything, I remained in place, something I regret to this day.

Our mechanical drawing master, a dour Swede who couldn’t hack it as an architect, stepped up to the blackboard on our first day in his class, and said, "I’ll show you how the Jews make an ‘S.’" He drew an "S," paused, smirked and then ran two slashes through it, making a dollar sign.

Sex had begun to drive us crazy. The boys were taught on one side of the building and the girls, who had to wear black tunics, on the other, but we managed to mix at Friday afternoon "Tea Dances" in the gym. Dashing Gordy Birenbaum, sporting a brilliantined pompadour and a multi-crested sharkskin windbreaker, claimed to have "gone the limit" with Molly Hoffer, who was to die for. Not only that, he claimed, "But, you know, like she admitted to me that she masturbates once a week after ‘Lux Radio Theatre.’" Especially if it featured Ronald Colman or Tyrone Power.

Me, I wasn’t born yesterday. "How could she?" I protested. "She’s a girl, for Christ’s sake."

"Boy, are you ever wet behind the ears."

Each of our school masters was honoured with a Yiddish nickname. Yossel, who taught us physics, was deaf and wore a many-dialled apparatus on his chest the size of a chocolate box. We would speak softer and softer in his class, ultimately simply moving our lips, obliging him to adjust his dials higher and higher, and then we would all shout out at once, obliging Yossel to flee the physics lab, his hands held to his throbbing ears.

I earned my epaulettes by being strapped for insolence more than once, rubbing my palms with candle wax, the traditional precaution, before my appointment in the medical room. The first time I was dealt "ten of the best" on each hand, I cried. "I had hoped you’d take it like a man," Mr. Patterson said.

Trigonometry, a subject I abhorred, was the last class of the day on Tuesdays, taught by a Mr. Lathem. So I made a habit of fleeing the building before that class began, a ruse that enabled me to get to the Rachel Pool Room, claiming the prized first snooker table, before any of my chums turned up. Other afternoons, slouching home from school, I had to survive a gauntlet of temptations: the Rachel Pool Room, the Mount Royal Billiards Academy, the Laurier. I seldom made it.

A Christian mission to the Jews opened on Laurier. We enjoyed dropping in, chatting up the pale young missionary, assuring him we thought Jesus was one swell guy, misunderstood by our parents, and leaving with a stack of goodies. Unfortunately, the New Testament had no trading value in our neighbourhood. Why, you couldn’t even barter it for a five-pack of Turret cigarettes.

Our prose reader was not much better than our poetry book, most of its short stories set in unfamiliar England. I made another attempt at a story, also set in clubland. Viscount Leatherbottom said to Sir Peregrine, "I jolly well didn’t believe in ghosts until, by happenstance, I spent a weekend at Lord Mellanby’s country estate, where a beautiful virgin had been the victim of a murder most foul in my very boudoir. At the stroke of 3 a.m. her spirit appeared to me, attired in the flimsiest of negligees, her breasts very, very nice …"

Our music master, the formidable Mr. Herbert, a Welshman, also formed a school choir, and once a year he led us in a concert in the gym. An annual standard was "British Grenadiers."

Some talk of Alexander
And some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander
And such great names as these!
But of all the world’s great heroes
There’s none that can compare
With a tow-row-row-row-row-row
For the British Grenadier!

Fanning themselves with the program in the overheated gym, our girdled mothers sat bolt upright, and our fathers, in their three-piece suits from A. Gold & Sons, managed to stay awake. Beaming. Joy unconfined. Only once removed from the shtetles in the Pale of Settlement, terrified of rampaging Cossacks, they were thrilled that their children were acceptable enough to celebrate British Grenadiers.

My matriculation exam went badly. Boning up on trig the night before the exam, I did manage a .35. Not bad, considering. But my total average mark was .645, not good enough to get me into McGill, even had I been born a Gentile. So I enrolled in Sir George Williams College, as it then was, dropping out after two years to sail for Paris.

One day a letter from Sir George Williams was forwarded to my left bank hotel. For a $10 fee I was entitled to an Associate in Arts degree. I declined for fear that if I wrote "AA" after my name, strangers would conclude I was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.