I didn’t realize it at the time, but growing up in Kingston, Ontario, in the fifties was a breeding ground for the cultivation of one’s curiosity and imagination. As I recall, my parents struggled mightily just to make ends meet. Consequently, there was no money for extras. Those kinds of things were found in parks and churches, or near armouries; or simply by walking to and from public school.
My mother was a psychiatric nurse, who worked nights at Rockwood Hospital, and was the bread-winner for our family. Rockwood became part of the Ontario provincial asylum system in 1877 and, in fact, Kingston Penitentiary convicts were conscripted to build it. Her shift was from 11:00 pm -7:00 am, and public transit was her only option to and from work in Portsmouth.
My father was a stay-at-home dad long before the socioeconomics of parenting dictated its’ social acceptance. However, to imply that he was the main caregiver and homemaker for my brother and I might be a stretch. To be honest, I always had some difficulty and felt a little embarrassed at school, when asked by the teacher to provide information regarding my father’s occupation and place of work.
Central School was a five-block walk from our one bedroom, third story apartment on Princess Street, Kingston’s main drag. Miss Holland, a weathered spinster, spawned of the city’s public education system, was my grade three teacher. Although I cannot claim her to be a pioneer of the learner-centred approach to teaching, I will say she never could be accused of treating her learners the same. During the first week of classes she made a point of dividing her students into three distinct Aves-named groups according to their final marks in grade two – hence, the Bluebirds, the Robins, and the Crows.
As an aside, in The Art of Teaching (circa 1950), written by Gilbert Highet, he urges those who have chosen teaching as a profession to “like the pupils.” He goes as far as to say, “If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching.” Well, it could be said that Miss Holland was a Highet discipline, because she not only appeared to like the young, but she also enjoyed their company in groups, such as her aforementioned feathered flocks.
Adjoining Central School’s playground, and separated only by a high chain-linked fence, was The Armoury or, as some called it, The Kingston Drill Hall. Because of its’ functional design, which featured medieval revival features and almost Hollywood-like qualities that resembled Sherwood Forest, or Camelot, it became an imagination-rich playground for the more adventuresome grade threes, such as your writer. Many a day did I encounter the wrath of my father upon arriving home late from school, because I was waging war amongst The Armoury’s trees and rocks with the Sheriff of Nottingham, or fighting along-side King Arthur as one of his storied Knights of the Round Table.
To be candid, it was challenging, to say the least, for a curious eight-year old to faithfully answer the bell at home. There were just too many fascinating distractions, which re-calibrated my route from school. For instance, sometimes a stop was required at the graveyard at St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its’ cavernous tombs and mausoleums, to pretend to be defending the honor of Helen of Troy from the invading Spartans. Another time, it was the need born out of curiosity to follow a fire truck racing its way down Princess Street, which captured my attention and, ultimately, led me to the raging blaze at St. Remy’s dealership.
Granted it was a simpler time in schools and communities. Things and activities were not particularly well-organized. Fun and play and games were where you made it happen. If you pictured yourself as a major-league baseball player, like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron, you sought out the summer evening games at the Cricket Field. That’s where senior baseball was played and, for all intends and purposes, it surely looked like the major leagues to this eight year old.
I was intrigued by baseball and its numbers, and it must have showed. The man responsible for the ball game logistics at the Cricket Field picked up on my interest from the summer activity supervisors at John A. McDonald Park and asked me if I’d manage the scoreboard. The deal was transactional. He’d provide the step-ladder, the tin numbers, and the wagon to transport them; and providing everything went well, I’d get 25 cents from him at the end of the evening. That was a dime for my Mother, and 15 cents for yours truly, which was spent in part on a bottle Coca-Cola and a Cuban Lunch bar on my six block walk home.
In summary, it’s said that curiosity makes our brains more receptive for learning, and that as we learn, we enjoy the sensation of learning. This theory must have validity for I have never lost that delicious feeling, which I felt initially during those countless hours spent as a young boy growing up and dreaming away my childhood.
Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” I suspect that because a public education system or a variety of communities did not thwart my imagination I found learning to be more effective and enjoyable. Yes, I asked many questions, but also had the capacity to actively seek out the answers. Instilling students with a strong will to know, or learn something deeply, is what educators strive for. And, arguably, at the end of the day, curiosity is just as important as intelligence in determining how well suited we become for life, love and learning.