By Marvin Ross
I’ve been contemplating a personal follow up to David’s blog on the importance of public education but I’ve been procrastinating. I decided to write it after having lunch with someone who was complaining that a grandchild was being sent to a private school at a cost of $25,000. His argument was that the local school the child goes to is quite good and he will have to be driven to the new school where he will lose contact with all his friends in the area.
The ability to play with other kids on the block, walk to and from school with them, and to hang out is an invaluable educational tool. I grew up in a Toronto that was just starting to break free of the grip of the Loyal Orange Order – a Protestant fraternal group that celebrated the defeat of the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Most important jobs were reserved for Orangemen who proudly marched on Yonge St every July 12 behind someone outfitted on a white steed playing King Billy to celebrate the victory of William of Orange over Catholics.
Toronto was just beginning to see an influx of immigrants from all over the world at that time. Up to then, the main immigrants were Jews and Italians. The elementary schools were becoming mix of ethnicities and we all mingled and played together (with the occasional fights that were settled easily). As English Protestants ruled, classes began with the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of God Save the Queen. Once a week, some kindly minister conducted a class on religion.
Jews could be excused but I stayed as did most of the others as I recall. This invariably led to our existence being recognized by the holy man who talked about religion in general rather than his own denomination. We learned about and from each other. Groups of kids from different backgrounds would share experiences outside of class. I can still remember our comparing what we ate for Christmas dinner (which I didn’t have) and being intrigued because my best friend was Japanese and they ate octopus.
As I progressed through the years, more diverse people began showing up in class. At this time, most Blacks were descendants of those who came via the underground railroad but we were soon joined by people from the Caribbean. In elementary school, I went to a drop in centre across the street from our house run by the African Episcopal Methodist Church. One year, I was one of the three wise men in their Christmas pageant. Of new arrivals at that time, the most exotic was a new Algebra teacher called Mr Gupta. No one had ever seen a South Asian before but what was most remarkable was that his two sons were in his class. They were math whizzes much to our disgust.
I don’t want to give the impression that there was no racism as there was but it was slowly beginning to break down thanks to the children from large groups of people from diverse places. We mingled together in school, played and fought together on the playgrounds in the neighborhood and began to develop understandings of each other. In her book on growing up in Toronto as a child of Holocaust survivors (When Their Memories Became Mine: Moving Beyond My Parents’ Past), Pearl Goodman describes how playing with the neighbourhood kids and dealing with them in the local school, helped her contend with the views and trauma her parents had from their experiences. The outliers were Jewish kids in the area who were sent to Jewish parochial schools rather than the public schools. They were quite different from us and even talked differently with the sing song accents so familiar to those whose first language was Yiddish.
During that time, there was even a radio program hosted by the Minister of Citizenship, Jack Pickersgill, who gave his audience information about the various immigrant groups (called New Canadians), who were flooding into the country. The Governments attempt to help them gain acceptance
Education was a prime reason that fear and distrust of others began to break down. Aside from the fact that most kids in my high school could swear in Yiddish (as Jews were the largest group), tolerance and understanding was starting to emerge in all areas. A holdover from the War was the fact that high schools in those days all had cadet corps affiliated with various regiments and often our teachers were called by their military rank. My history teacher was a major.
My school was affiliated with the Queen’s Own Rifles, an old and respected regiment that landed at Normandy on D-Day and fought its way north to help in the liberation of Belgium and The Netherlands. We had to go on a Church Parade one Sunday to the regimental church and when we got there, the Sgt had us all lined up. His command was Jews and Catholics, fall out and we did and spent the church service in the basement playing foot hockey while the poor Protestants had to endure a religious service.
Education helped us integrate and learn to understand and tolerate each other and is very crucial today more than ever. And it is this understanding and respect for each other that results in US Muslim Vets offering to stand guard to protect Jewish cemeteries from vandals or Toronto Jews standing guard at Mosques to show solidarity.
It has always been important for us to learn about and accept others as equals and that process flourishes when we all go to school together.