First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
This week, both teachers and students share their back to school stories in First Person.
“You didn’t actually write them a note, did you?” I asked my grandmothers, who both sat across from me at the dinner table that evening.
“We did.” They answered in a proud and stubborn unison.
“What did you say, ‘Please excuse Jack and Peter from school today, they are going golfing with their friends?’” I asked in mockery.
“Yes. Essentially. Something like that.” My Oma Lepp answered in all seriousness on behalf of them both.
“But they’re grown-ups. Surely they don’t need a note? What’s next? Are you going to start attending the football games? School dances?” I probed, horrified and pleading.
“Actually, Marge, there is that social next week, a dance of some kind I believe, Jack mentioned it to me – were you and Peter going to attend?”
“You can’t be serious!” I said, as the two wrinkled women withdrew calendars from their purses to compare dates and make notes in the tiny pocket-size calendars you acquired for free at the bank teller or the local drugstore when you picked up a prescription.
But they were. All four of them.
I was in Grade 9, navigating my first year of high school. My 71-year-old grandfathers were also back in high school.
For years, my parents had hosted family dinners on Sunday nights. A gathering of casseroles, steamed vegetables and senior citizens. Conversation flowed in a seamless and bizarre fusion of English, Lingala and German. It was a gathering of immigrants and missionaries who had a collective mouthful of languages between them which they could easily use to include or confuse me in the local gossip being dished out alongside the limp carrots. I followed along as best I could until the dishes were cleared and the dominoes laid out for after-dinner entertainment.
I had always considered myself fortunate to have both sets of grandparents residing in nearby towns, each no further than 10 minutes from where I lived in rural southern Ontario, but I was beginning to question my good fortune. They were friendly with each other and had a relationship predating that of my parents so the presence of all four of them at the table was as natural as these habitual Sunday suppers.
Table talk that used to consist of stories from the farms growing up in the Canadian Prairies, days spent logging or driving cab as conscientious objectors during the war, church gossip and nursing home news was quickly being replaced with the latest antics of my two grandfathers who had, rather later in life, decided to return to school.
Peter and Jack – a retired pastor and engineer, respectively – had decided they would like to learn typing, computers and this “inter-web” thing so they could connect them to the world.
There was no reason for them to go. They weren’t looking to pad a resume or get letters behind their names. They had letters already, and retirement didn’t require a resume. There was no reason to be giving up golf a few days a week or to take a pass on their snowbird season in Florida. There was no reason to wander halls filled with unfamiliar and questioning glances. There was really no reason for them to learn about Dos or HTML at all, apart from curiosity.
They were intrigued. I was embarrassed.
I couldn’t decide if it was better or worse that they attended my rival school where I couldn’t keep a closer eye on them. While I wandered the halls of Beamsville District Secondary School, they were navigating their way through Grimsby High where friends of mine wore their teen angst, tattoos and piercings in equal measure. This was in stark contrast to my Opas in their polyester, elastic-waist pants and thick-soled white shoes shuffling along between the lockers discussing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the mornings obituaries.
Do you remember high school? Do you remember how easily ashamed you were of anything and anyone related to you? Can you fathom the humiliation of this?
Their interpretation of gossip, fights and bands, while amusing, paled in comparison to their first encounter with a transgendered person. Jack and Peter – two Depression-era children from a time where gender was simply understood as one or the other – just didn’t get it. But their increasing curiosity for a changing world after an era of ignorance exasperated by small-town isolation was admirable, and their attempts to understand it were lively topics of conversation.
If I didn’t hear about their antics at Sunday dinner I most certainly heard about it in chemistry lab where someone undoubtedly had news of the Grimsby Grandpas. Twenty three years later, if you talk to me about going “back to school” my first thought isn’t to my own awkward toothless porch photos nor escorting my youngest child a block and a half to his first day of kindergarten. If you talk to me about going back to school I think of my grandfathers, both now deceased, and their epic and amusing return to the classroom.
I marvel at that now from where I stand, one year into graduate school after a 15-year absence from school myself (10 of those spent dedicated to raising my three children). While at 37 I’m hardly nearing retirement, and I’m not starting from quite the same technological or fashion deficit my grandfathers were, but I, too, am humbly returning to the classroom in pursuit of knowledge.
In fact, humbling is the only word to describe an admissions process to a prestigious university when you have a stale resume, no academic references and no current professional ones either. Humbling is what it is like to prepare a “Statement of Intent” as apart of the application when your days are spent volunteering on field trips and your nights are spent reading nothing more academic than Harry Potter, to your 6, 8, and 10-year-old kids. Going back to school at a stage in the game where it’s not the typical next step requires a different form of sacrifice and a different sort of desire.
As a single mother of three beginning again, I am acutely aware of my children who are wondering why someone would voluntarily go back to school – and one without recess. As I try to explain it to them I think about my Opas and why they did it, and discover my own reasons aren’t entirely different.
While I sat in the front row of my high-school class each day, frantically waving my hand as an extension of my knowing I’d hear about my grandpas who’d sit in the front row due to vision impairment, but equipped with the same genuine curiosity, flailing their arms with arthritic elbows.
My Opas didn’t shout out much of anything in class – except when one of them forgot a hearing aid – apart from questions. They were, rather boldly and bravely, declaring their lack of knowledge, their genuine curiosity and their keen desire to learn. It is with that same admission that I have returned to school, boldly and bravely waiting to see where my curiosity leads me next.
Shelley Lepp lives in Toronto.