My elementary school years were spent at a three-room “little red schoolhouse”, just north of Toronto. It still stands at the north-east corner of Meadowvale and Finch, kitty-corner to the Toronto Zoo property.
When I hear schoolyard horror stories these days, I’m reminded that my school years were relatively idyllic. They weren’t without social hierarchy, hurt feelings, or arguments, of course, but in hindsight I realize it all worked out well because ninety percent of us went to school together from Kindergarten through high school. We played, learned, and fought together, just like any other family. But a few other things made our years at Hillside Public School truly unique.
For starters, we had resident dogs who were accepted by staff and students as part of the Hillside family. Fearless, a huge Newfoundland, lived just across the road with Jennifer, Patty, and John. She usually came to the schoolyard alone, leaving her siblings, Reckless and Dauntless, at home. Sam, a black Lab, followed John when he biked to school from his farm down Finch Avenue.
In nice weather, our phys-ed classes took place outdoors, either on the paved volleyball/basketball/hockey court, or the baseball or football fields. In the winter we’d push the desks to one side of the classroom and drag heavy old gym mats up from the basement so we could work on “tumbling”, our answer to gymnastics. All classes were co-ed.
Just a few feet beyond the schoolyard’s back fence, the land dropped steeply, into a deep ravine where the Rouge River wound its way along the bottom. We were sometimes allowed to explore the ravine, usually in the name of science, or while leading younger, visiting classes through its wonders. There, I first discovered Snake Grass and we pulled it apart at its joints and then put back together again. We also picked goldenrod with swollen galls on the stems, and cut them open to find the larvae inside.
Sometimes we just followed the river. Given the chance, we headed south where the Rouge ran right past “The Big House”. Although we didn’t know it then, The Big House was actually an abandoned estate called Valley Halla (photos), and we were in awe of the wide lawns along the river that swept up to abandoned terraces around the house. I wish I’d known its history back then, but that was before the wonders of Google.
When I was in Room Three, where I spent grades six to eight, our teacher would sometimes combine winter lunch hours with a period of gym class and we’d go skating. The walk was long; from the school, across the fields that are now part of the zoo, to an area approximately where the admission gates now stand. That part of the field was low, and the area usually flooded. If weather conditions were right, the ice would be fairly smooth and it wouldn’t take the boys long to clear the snow with big shovels they’d brought from the school.
In Grade Six I began struggling with math. Our teacher’s answer to that was to set up a few desks in the basement near the magical duplicating machine. The room was a warm, dry cellar with fieldstone foundation walls lined with shelves full of paper, bristol board, and other supplies. From 8:30 – 9:00 a.m., while the other kids were freezing out on the playground, we chosen few did remedial math together in a cozy corner. There was an old kitchen stove down there too, and if it happened to be a day that our teacher brought homemade chili for the class, we’d be called upon to give the big pot a stir from time to time.
I’m happy that Hillside is still used as an outdoor education centre because so many country schools have met a less dignified fate. They say you can never go back, but I think “they” are wrong. Once every few years I return to Hillside to walk the schoolyard and peer into the windows. It never takes long before I feel like a kid again, and that reminds me: I’m due for another visit soon.