LONDON, ONTARIO – Overcoming her customary aversion to anything resembling a high school reunion, my wife dared to accompany me back to South Collegiate four years ago for a special screening of ninety minutes’ worth of 16 mm films and clips that were produced half a century ago by students in the very first high school film course in the country. That 1970-’71 class was the only one that Kirtley and I ever took together. That it was her second year studying film and my first – I didn’t bother with a second – does not signify that she is the senior partner in our union. It only indicates that she didn’t share my affinity for cramming entire years of adolescence down the garburator by flunking grade nine, quitting grade ten at a different school and then re-enrolling at South with a slightly improved attitude which then conked out for good halfway through grade twelve. So, no piece of parchment from South Secondary School is tacked on my study wall. Nor hers, for that matter; but at least she has one, somewhere.
While we were too absorbed in our own revelations that year to complete either of our film projects, Kirtley’s distraction-free first year had been much more productive on the cinematic front; so much so that her memories of film class – and her regard for the dynamic English and theatre teacher who personally designed the course and taught it - were sufficiently positive to lure her out of her comfort zone all those decades later for an evening of reminiscence.
After cajoling and charming $16,000 out of the Board of Education to buy cameras, sound equipment, a splicing table and lights, it seemed that Fraser Boa (1932–92) had no sooner set this innovative educational experiment in motion, then he bailed out of teaching altogether in the spring of 1971 to operate a repertory cinema in Toronto and then went on to become a Toronto-based Jungian therapist with a sideline in directing some rather grandiose documentary film projects. A huge figure in the lives of many of his students, I have recounted our own richly entangled relationship with Fraser and his sister and brother-in-law, Marion and Ross Woodman, in this Hermaneutics saga from August of 2018: The Boa Woodman Enlightenment Axis.
For the last eight years of its operation, the course was helmed by Fraser’s English department colleague, Norm Hargreaves. By the end of its run in the spring of 1980, the course was attracting fewer students and economic corners were being cut with the introduction of 8 mm stock instead of 16; a demotion in quality of materials that elicited pity from we smug veterans of the early years. While most of the films from Fraser’s tenure unfortunately went missing (such mercurial types rarely make great archivists) South’s Alumni Association did a heroic job of gathering up whatever old reels they could find and then passed the whole ragtag collection over to Cam Tingley (Class of ’72) to review and clean up and transfer onto three thirty-minute reels of greatest hits. Cam did a great job of emceeing that evening and setting up each of the reels which featured highlights from the Boa years, the Hargreaves years, and miscellaneous bits like promo clips for school plays, snippets from a couple of larger documentaries that the whole class worked on and footage from basketball and football games.
Perhaps the most salutary effect of that 2017 film night was to show that any disdain we film class pioneers harboured for what was produced in the later ‘70s was as ill-informed as it was obnoxious. Indeed, a few features in the second reel were among my favourites of the night. The fact that I hadn’t seen them all before was undoubtedly an advantage but those later selections, on the whole, were a lot less pretentious – and a lot more fun – than some of the doomy dreck we turned out early in the decade. Indeed, seeing some of those dreary clunkers again reconciled me to a similarly hysterical tone that is struck in a lot of my old writing for high school newspapers. That tone seemed to be a real occupational hazard for we tortured and too self-conscious artistes of the high Aquarian age.
Among my favourites of the later films screened that night was a cleverly done short featuring narrative scribbles that changed shapes in diverting ways. There was a stop-motion piece with two skeletons on a heavy date – first dining out and then going home to have sex – that was probably too long but a considerable accomplishment all the same. And a sweet little thing called Puppy Love, set to the song of that name, featured an adorable three year old boy tracking a teenaged girl as she walks the streets around South. When she meets up with a boy of her own age and they kiss, this shattered little Heathcliff staggers over to a tree to weep copious manly tears. Cam made an astute observation while threading another reel into the projector that generally speaking, the films made by boys were all about conflicts and pretty crude humour while the ones by girls were more thoughtful and inventive.
On our way out of the school that night, Kirtley and I slipped upstairs to Room 24 in the northwest corner of the third floor for old times’ sake. We’d been amused by how many of the films we’d just seen were shot within two or three blocks of South; as if the students (or perhaps all that expensive film equipment) were attached to a sort of retractable leash that didn’t extend beyond a certain radius. Well, nobody’s leash was shorter than Kirtley’s whose first-year opus, A Day in the Life of Shelagh, Part Three, was entirely filmed in the girls’ washroom, kitty-corner from the film class door.
The toilet stalls stood in as a row of suburban houses; each doorstep marked out with its own distinguishing touch such as a manicured shrub in a decorative flowerpot, a piece of regrettable lawn-boy statuary or a folded up newspaper just dropped off by a paperboy on his rounds. Few student films ran for longer than ten or even five minutes and plot-wise, they could be quite shockingly minimalist. Was there anything more to Kirtley’s film than that surreal premise? We’ll never know because her shooting script has vanished and nobody’s seen the film in half a century. A Day in the Life of Shelagh is among the permanently lost masterpieces.
After that 2017 film night, about ten of us repaired to the Wortley Road House where we sat around a few mushed-together tables for a couple more hours and started to put together the planning committee for the 50th anniversary reunion of South Secondary School’s Class of ’71 which finally takes place this Friday night at the Highland Country Club.
The work of the planners only started to get serious this spring and being much on my mind, the subject of reunions started to turn up in Hermaneutics. On May 10th I posted a fictional dialogue that explored the tensions in a household where the husband has an appetite for such sentimental soirees and the wife most decidedly does not: Post-Reunion Rehab. Then on May 24th I put up an essay recounting how tricky it can be to persuade a lot of people to revisit their old alma mater at all: Is There Life After High School?
One of the crummiest students who ever drew breath, I’ve always been a sucker for reunions. But by high summer, I was starting to discern the writing on the wall and realized that not only would our lisping black-faced pyjama boy of a PM be re-elected, the shameless little twerp was going to deflect just criticism of his spineless mismanagement of Wuhan Batflu pandemic protocols by hanging ‘leper’ signs around the necks of the unvaccinated and banishing them from most forms of public life. Apparently the protected need to be protected from the unprotected because that protection isn’t doing such a shit hot job of protecting anyone from an infection that many people don’t even know they have until they’re tested for it.
Do you know when I stopped paying attention to anything our governmental overlords have to say about managing the mortal threat posed to us all by the Batflu? When the chief medical officer of the Middlesex Health Unit, Chris Mackie, announced in June of 2020 that he was lifting the lockdown that had paralyzed the city and isolated Londoners for three freaking months – but only for one day – so that thousands of Londoners could gather in Victoria Park to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. No dice, I thought. I do not derive my rights from virtue-signaling monsters like this.
So, no reunion after all for Mr. G. I can’t say I was really relishing the idea of standing around for five or six hours talking to old friends and teachers whose half-remembered faces would be maddeningly obscured by surgical masks but – unlike being badgered to inject a series of experimental concoctions into my bloodstream at four month intervals – it was an indignity I would have put up with. I’ve enjoyed my meetings – personal and virtual – with the other committee members these last several months and was touched when a few of them let me know that even though we might disagree about the wisdom of getting the jab, they think the imposition of a vaccine mandate is brutish governmental overreach.
While I’ve always found reunions specific to our graduating year to be the most meaningful, there will be a 100th anniversary reunion for the whole school in 2023 and – who knows? – perhaps some of this mass neurosis that is crippling our civic life will have lifted by then. And Kirtley and I will always be glad that we got out for that proto-reunion four years ago with a few dozen of our favourite ghosts from the past back at the place where our life together began.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :