In 2011, when I taught English and career development at Windsor Park Collegiate in Winnipeg, I had the good fortune to sit on its 50th Anniversary Committee. We planned a busy weekend of events and organized a banquet to commemorate the school’s history and some of its famous grads such as curler Jennifer Jones, NHLer Butch Goring, author Evelyn Jacks and wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The weekend was full of stories about the good ‘ole days. One tale seemed too wild to believe, though I kept stumbling upon it through cryptic snippets on the anniversary website blog, curious side-conversations with students and serendipitous run-ins with 1972 grads since that 50th gig.
This story seemed to find me, then follow me, as if I was meant to tell the tale.
It all began with an innocuous roll call in Mr. W’s math class in September, 1971, which inadvertently ignited a torrent of student mischief and ingenuity remarkable for its scope and daring.
“Rod G?” “Yeah.”
“Brian R?” “Here.”
“John O.” “Yeah. Here.”
But then Mr. W called out: “Irving S?”
A smile slowly crept onto John O’s face, his eyes slid furtively to similar faces in the classroom.
With that “here,” the Grade 12 class smiled like a group of Cheshire cats and the origin of the voice that uttered the unremarkable syllable faded amidst the 30 students.
Irving Schwartz showed up on the official attendance ledger, wrote tests, had a picture and write-up among the grads in the yearbook and is listed on different online lists of grads for the school’s anniversary. He was even toasted during the valedictory address of 1972. The only trouble is Irving Schwartz doesn’t exist. Never did.
In those days before the information age, a teacher passed around a sheet of foolscap for all students to sign on the first day of class. The names on the sheet would be transcribed later into the official classroom register.
Why student John O wrote “Irving Schwartz” on that foolscap along with his own is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was an impish high school impulse, a mildly brazen act of defiance – adding a name to an official school list that had no business being there.
No one would have dreamed that John’s single scribble would become ingrained in the folklore of the school for over 50 years.
Mr. W was all business, he took attendance quickly and turned his attention to the lesson of the day, plowing through math problems on the blackboard. In this non-descript atmosphere, Irving Schwartz found an easy home to exist.
When Mr. W occasionally asked where Irving was, the complicit class offered any one of a series of excuses for their wayward classmate.
“He’s skipping today.”
“He’s running late.”
“He’s in the washroom.”
“He’s finishing a test in another class.”
“He’s at a medical appointment.”
“He’s in the office talking to Principal.”
“He got into trouble with Vice-Principal.”
“He’s talking to a social worker.”
The prolific alibis scripted a personal narrative of an intelligent, troubled and pesky high-school student who seemed to have a lot of medical conditions but who could ace math tests.
When tests were dispersed through the rows, one student was responsible for writing two tests, one with Irving Schwartz’s name on it.
Mr. W returned marked tests by leaving them in a pile at the front of the room for students to sift through. Someone would always be sure to extract Schwartz’s from the pile. The ghost test-takers turned him into a decent student.
As the ruse continued well into the spring, some staff members joined in on the charade and offered advice to Mr. W about how to get Irving to attend class more regularly.
The yearbook editors created a photograph of Irving for the grads’ section of the yearbook, a composite cut-up image of four different photos from 1972 yearbook. My research found that the face includes Cam Connor’s lips (who would later play for the Montreal Canadiens) and the eyes and glasses of Mr. Ginter, a teacher in the school. The jury’s still out on the forehead and shoulder sections.
If tests were being written and recorded, did Irving get an actual grade for the course at the end of the year, I wondered? Students I spoke to during the school’s 50th reunion and since then seemed to think it was possible.
Looking for a past record of some type, I asked a school board clerk about it but was told there were no records from the 1970s. Surely the Manitoba Student Records Department had the grade in its archives if it existed? With no digital records from that time, Irving’s math grade could only be in a box full of file folders in a warehouse somewhere. The official form to direct the search requires a signature. And I wasn’t too sure about the legality of forging the signature of a person who doesn’t exist or the indignity of inviting the department to question my sanity for the odd request.
To be honest, though, I prefer to think that the mark might be in one of those tattered old file folders and we should leave it at that. Irving would probably want it that way.
This level of subterfuge from the class of ‘72 is reminiscent of those Shakespearean comedies full of mistaken identities that we read in high school but it also might be inspired by an episode of M*A*S*H (when Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce invented and eulogized the fictitious Captain Jonathan Tuttle).
That year’s valedictorian was Neil Grafton. At the now-defunct Northstar Inn on Portage Avenue, Neil’s speech included a toast to “raise your glass to Irving Schwartz!” This was followed by a rousing ovation to the celebrated but misunderstood graduate.
When I talked to Neil decades later he said, “It was not done out of malice, just a high school prank that spiralled out of control – nobody wanted to stop it.”
Well, I propose a new toast: “To Irving Schwartz … firmly ensconced into the mythology of the class of 1972 at Winnipeg’s Windsor Park Collegiate, arguably the most famous graduate in the history of Canada.”
Earning this kind of recognition takes a special talent.
Adriano Magnifico lives in Winnipeg.