How I became an academic: Part 1: My Elementary and High School Years.

Sometimes committing to something years in advance is a tricky thing. Your life can change significantly in the intervening time and you can find yourself feeling a little anachronistic when the moment of fulfilling your commitment arrives. That’s what it felt like for me to organise and host the LACUS linguistics conference a week ago. Here are a few thoughts on how my life background led me to academia. Or at least led me to where I am now.

Elementary School

Oh, what blissful moments I spent in elementary school! I loved reading and writing and painting. Sports and phys-ed class were my faves. Playing hide and seek, frisbee in the schoolyard with the other kids, playing handball against the wall of the school. I as competitive, but in a caring way – in the end, I really wanted everyone to win! It’s funny, when I think back, I was such an open, caring and loving little guy. Sadly, a terrible tragedy struck my family when I was in grade three and it threw us into a tailspin that lasted quite a while. It is something that marked me for the rest of my life, really. It deepened an often complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic faith that I practice and love for its compassion, inclusion and forgiveness. The other great event from elementary school was in grade 6 when I was identified as “gifted and creative” and enrolled into the P.A.C.E. Programme – an experiment in educating highly creative young people. I will write a post about that experience on another day. Suffice to say that PACE put me in a lot of very unique learning and social situations from grade 6 until the end of high school… I went to three different schools every week in grade 7 and then switched schools again in grade 8. In fact, I went to Kindergarten at the Toronto French School, then grades 1-2 at St. Bonaventure under Sister Mary Anthony as Principal, then grades 3-6 at Holy Name School in King City, then grade seven between three schools: Monday-Tuesday at Holy Name, Wednesday at St Anne’s, and Thusday-Friday at St. David’s. Grade 8 was spent at St. David’s in Richmond Hill. All in all, it was a pretty unstable but exhilarating experience! I encountered many many interesting people. In fact, I was cabbed to school from grades 7-8 and my cab driver was a former engineer on Space Shuttle Program who washed out because he suffered from anxiety disorder. He was driving me and my friend Paul Racco back to Holy Name when the space shuttle Columbia exploded, on my birthday, January 28. That was just one of the many characters and weird experiences I had because of PACE.

High School

When I was in high school, at Sacred Catholic High School in Newmarket, Ontario. I was interested in many things. In retrospect, I realise that I was experiencing life in funny ways – on the one hand I was an extrovert who loved people, but I was also two years younger than everyone else given that I had skipped a grade in elementary school and essentially compressed grades 7/8 into one year. Life was pretty good, but I didn’t really fit in and I wasn’t sure why at the time. So I lost myself in the arts and in literature. I literally lived through the performances that I attended, by my fellow students – I would, at times, be moved to tears at the ballet or at the opera. For me art galleries and literature opened windows and brought transport to the imaginations of the artists – free, creative places where I could experience the world. Even though I was a boy with a delicate composition who loved sports, spoke with a very slight accent and had very European manners. I loved sports, but I had to be careful because I hurt myself easily. My peers didn’t mock me, rather they embraced me – protected me.When I played hockey or soccer or baseball (all of which I was quite good at), my team mates would protect me ferociously, and often try to elect me captain. I didn’t fit in because I hadn’t found my voice – the thing that would define my contribution to social life. I revelled in trips that we took to Athens and Rome, Paris and London. I lived for editing Heartline, our student newspaper, and writing short stories or poems that I shared with my close female friends. I didn’t have a girl friend, but I had many very close friends who were girls. It was a strange, ephemeral moment in my life. I knew that high school was a waiting room to other places, and, although I enjoyed it, I never really felt a part of it.

PACE was interesting in high school because it opened doors to creativity for me – even though it made me a bit of a social outcast. It also allowed me to go to a “gifted kids conference” at EPCOT Centre – that was an amazing experience! Being surrounded by the smartest and most creative kids from all of Canada and the USA was a mind-bending and exciting experience! We talked philosophy, mathematics, literature and culture and futurism. We were lectured by superb scientists, crazy hippie computer programmers, and psychologists who made us meditate. Plus we got to go to Disney World, which I really enjoyed. We also took courses in “Personal Life Management,” presumably because we were gifted, artistic and high-strung. Hmm. PLM involved daily meditation, lots of introspection and studies in interpersonal communication and the psychology of communication. It was really something. In fact, I now recognise that it was PLM that started giving me the sensitivity to communication that has made me an effective communications practitioner and academic today.

I finished high school very quickly. In grade 8 I did two grade 9 credits: one in Maths and the other in History. That gave me the impetus to accelerate through high school, taking two condensed courses every summer – one summer at Brother André in Woodbridge and another at Westview Centennial High School in the Jane/Finch. It was quite the experience. Incredibly enriching and diverse for a preppy French Canadian from a well-to-do academic family living in King City.

More on my university experience in Part 2 soon.

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