Wondering how the public health care system will accommodate the unprecedented leap in numbers when the baby boomers begin to reach their 80s in just 10 years brings back baby boom memories of what it was like in overcrowded public schools.
My high school classes always had more than 40 students. There were 42 students in my Grade 9 English class and 44 in Grade 10 biology. Students’ desks were lined up to the blackboard.
In elementary school there were so many students that in Grade 2, I only went to school for half-days. I was in a class of 40-plus in the morning. In the afternoon, another Grade 2 class of equal size used the same classroom.
Large classes brought on all kinds of issues. Like, how about having five Roberts in the same classroom? I still recall the day the teacher had to figure that out. The five Roberts figured it out themselves.
As the teacher went up and down the long rows asking students to call out their names, the second Robert announced she could call him “Robbie.” The third said he would go with “Bobby.” The fourth said “Bob” and when she came to the fifth Robert, he said everyone could call him “Bucky.”
Only at Wagar High School in Montreal, a nominally Protestant school with an enrolment that was probably 98 per cent Jewish, could there be more than one student in the same class named David Cohen.
As for the quality of education, you would think it could not have been very good at my overcrowded school. Yet, every year, Wagar had the highest number of top students in Quebec. The school also always had one of the highest overall averages in Quebec’s high school leaving exams.
But, while the academic achievements were exemplary, the behavioural issues were often deplorable. It was so hard for teachers to control a classroom of almost 50 teenagers – especially when teacher and students were from different worlds.
My Grade 10 biology class was a case in point. Of the 44 students, you could bet 42 were Jewish, but our teacher wasn’t. Her name was Miss Martin. She was a classic Brit, a spinster as they used to say, fit and proper with a navy blue dress well below her knees and hair tied in a bun. I don’t remember if she was a good teacher. I do remember that she could not control the class.
There was no hiding the huge cultural gap. Miss Martin had no understanding of our identity, our culture, our religion. And we had little understanding of hers. We were so different. She was a fish in a shark tank and we had a sense from the first day that it was not going to end well.
I am not proud to say that we drove the poor woman nuts. She could never get a grip on either herself or the classroom. It was like a daily journey to chaos and confusion instead of learning. It was about surviving bad behaviour, which only got worse because bad behaviour inevitably feeds on itself.
Although September and October went by badly, Miss Martin was still standing in November, and we were still being rotten, spoiled teenagers. Then, one day in early December, we drove her over the edge.
Miss Martin stood in front of the class trying to get our attention. She couldn’t, and in total exasperation, said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Sometimes I wonder if what Hitler did in Germany was so wrong.”
Within a month Miss Martin was gone. The principal told us a Trump-like whopper: that her leaving had nothing to do with what she had said. To this day, I remember how ugly the whole thing got. Overcrowding a classroom is to invite ugliness.
And I guess logic tells me that when life and death issues are on the line, it is going to get even uglier for baby boomers in super-overcrowded hospitals.