Saturday, May 29, 2010

University of Winnipeg

I was expelled from Vincent Massey Collegiate. I'd performed a song about God and drugs and the feelings of adolescence that got Catcher in the Rye on the banned book list. I'd used the word "fuddle-duddle" in my song long before I learned that some words are reserved for Prime Ministers. I didn't know then that political loyalty came down to "agreeing with a leader when they're wrong".

I was naïve. I went off to work in a lumber yard, glad to get out of the classroom, ready to work with my hands. I was called back to school a week later to be told that the backlash on poetry which had been feared, hadn't occurred so I could return to classes. My mother was very instrumental in this decision, education being very important to both my parents. I was rather liking the smell of fresh cut wood and the prospect of having some money for a change. If I'd stayed in lumber I could have made my own cross.

I'd missed my French classes so didn't figure I could pass the exam so didn't show up. Not showing up is really just plain stupid, so I deserved not to pass. Mrs. Borgoyne was the softest sexiest teacher in the school. She'd later chide me, "If you'd just shown up, I could have passed you. Your work was 'tres bien' all year." Today I know she would have. French women have hearts the size of continents and they're always tripping over them.

I went to University of Winnipeg to complete my Gr. 12. It makes me feel like a fraud. I didn't graduate with the rest of my class. Vincent Massey issued me a diploma later. I did a year of economics. Later I'd repeat my Gr. 12 Math, physics and chemistry at University of Winnipeg just to see if I really did have the stuff it would take to be a doctor. Apparently I did.

However, I started University of Winnipeg in the Arts department. It was studying English that I met Dr. Carl Ridd. I'd wanted to be a play wright. I was writing for the Uniter, the university newspaper. My identity then was as a poet. I always carried a note book and jotted down dribbles of snot and genius. I recited beat poetry on the stages of coffeehouses. We wre all intellectuals. I wore oversized navy blue turtle neck sweaters from the Amy Navy store on Portage across from the Bay. It was cool to shop there. I had a black beret I'd bought in Montreal. Leonard Cohen and Lenny Bruce were my heros. Neil Young was singing songs on Pembina.

University of Winnipeg is where Nina came from as well. I took her to a Vincent Massey prom. She was an older woman. A year older. We'd met in the green room at the Manitoba Theatre School. I'd started an improvisation troupe and she and her brother were a couple of the performers. She came out regularly to the gigs I'd arrange.

I'd organized coffeehouses around Winnipeg in church basements and finally the Wise Eye at the YWCA so I knew a lot of people who were interested in that kind of theatre. I don't even know if it had ever been done here before . Creative dramatics and improv were new to me so the way they young think they must be new to everyone.

I remember us all doing improv one time in the Hudson Bay store during their Fashion Show. It's almost a cartoon memory, the shoppers all laughing and applauding while these beautiful girls dressed haute courture waited in the wings.

Nina wore round Lennon glasses. She was very mysterious. She wanted to be a fashion designer. She wore her own unique multi coloured designs. She also wore "White Shoulders" perfume. I'd always think of her later when I heard Gordon Lightfoot's song, " Affair on 8th Avenue": "the perfume that she wore/ was from some little store/ on the downside of town, /but it lingered on /long after she'd gone/ I remember it well."

Those first years at University of Winnipeg were inextricably wrapped in love and romance. Then too there was the sheer excitement of the Arts Department. All the profound ideas of that shook the world and caused revolutions of war and culture. And there was also the new theatre school. I remember Becky teaching.

And later, falling in love, again, in the Science department, this time.

Today I wanted to pray in a church. Augustine United where I stood with yet another angelic woman was closed. So I came to University of Winnipeg. Wesley Chapel was where I was kneeling in prayer and felt a calling to enter medicine. It was a wee small voice event not a Charlton Heston experience. I just left the theatre, dance and Arts Department where I was getting straight A's for the sciences, cadavers, and chemistry.

That church was locked to me too. I began to wonder what that meant.

Walking about the hallowed halls of the University of Winnipeg I found the library. I actually had to ask directions from a student. I told him I used to live there. Like the library at Vincent Massey Collegiate, the University of Winnipeg library became my place of safety and certainty. All the people I'd meet here were safe in some ways though so very much more dangerous in others.

Paul Simon's song, "I am a rock" comes back to haunt me. "I have my books, my poetry to protect me."

I found the study carols, I think, where I literally lived those years of pre med. Benoit with his motorcycle. The guys playing pranks on each other as we studied. Hour after hour after hour.

Education is a just a service that they sell. High school and below are really day care centres in many ways. I was thankful that the teachers at Vincent Massey were as good as they were. They prepared us for a higher education.

At the Vincent Massey High School 50 year Reunion I hear how many have gone on to be professionals, educated, academic, successful. When I graduated it had the highest percentage of students going on to university among the high schools. My parents liked that about it. Dad and Mom actually moved to Fort Garry to ensure their sons had a good education.

University of Winnipeg was something entirely different. The baby sitting had ended. The students were committed. The teachers here were in love with teaching and with their subjects. Later I'd learn from researchers and those world reknowned in their fields that most of them didn't care about teaching. Many didn't have time from their portfolios. Mostly professors were judged not on their teaching but on how much grant money they brought to the unversity.

We'd say then that there were 'no bad students in undergraduate and no bad teachers in post graduate.' By post graduate studies the student is supposed to be their own teacher.

I literally had to pry the secrets out of some of the bastards that were supposed to be my mentors in later years. Getting supervisors to come into hospital at 3 in the morning to help out is sometimes even more of a nightmare than facing the extraordinoma that came through the night into the emergency.

Only the best share freely. In the upper echelons it's all copywright and secrecy. We're literally buying knowledge at the top end. I've begged and crawled on my belly to learn from the best. Then too they were often so far ahead of me I was literally running to catch the crumbs.

I don't think I would have taught at Universities myself or gone on to be a specialist or sub specialist if it weren't for this beginning.

I'm sitting in the University of Winnipeg library. There's a lot more computers but the books and magazines still comfort me. It's the old book smells like the incense in the church that get under the skin.

I just can't understand where it all went. It seems it was just yesterday. I know that's such a cliché.

I kissed her under that lamplight over there. Now I can't remember if it was before, or after, the University got that huge granite rock and planted it by the street. Her face morphs into all three women I loved here, two of whom I married.

I wasn't a very good husband or lover when I think back on it. Learning was always my mistress and I wasn't really there a lot of that time. After a while I 'd look up and the light would be gone. I've stumbled around in the darkness for years.

You learn something new every day, they say, who ever the hell they are. It's just the feelings that get older. And my knees. I'm down on my knees praying more, for what it's worth. I've rarely been more frightened but you'd never know it.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because I'm the meanest in the valley.

And somewhere, love, whoever you are, I know you're with me.

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