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“They” say you can’t go back, but they’re wrong.

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.

Snake grass

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.


Phyllis writes words: words for stories, and words for books. Phyllis writes words for blogs too.

15 thoughts on ““They” say you can’t go back, but they’re wrong.

  1. I pass the ol’ school house everyday going to/from MSH! Over the past couple of years I’ve run the trails in and around the property including the over gown property of Valley Halla. One sunny day we were running by VH and they were making a movie. The next thing you know my trail running partner is chatting up one of the crew and talked them into letting us look around “The Big House” which was truly amazing!

    1. Jo, I’m so jealous! I’d loe to go through that house! I’m glad you mentioned running down there, because I didn’t realize seeing the house was that easy. Now I need to to do that too. I haven’t been down there since I was about twelve!

  2. I’ve been having trouble trying to leave you a reply for this post and the last but I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. I LOVED both of these posts. I so look forward to receiving your posts. They are wonderfully written and always speak to something I either believe in or recognize.

    Your post about choices struck a nerve. I’ve actually stopped shopping in those giant stores. I now prefer my local foodland where they are only able to stock a reasonable amount of brands. Frankly, I don’t think I’m missing anything – except maybe the constant anxiety that I am not making the right/healthy/smart choice!

    The post about Valley Halla is particularly dear to my heart. Having worked at the Toronto Zoo for several years I can picture all the places you describe. Don’t tell the Zoo management this, but often in the afternoons when things were slow, some of the keepers (who shall remain nameless) used to go down to the river and explore the wildness there. It was our hidden delight in the midst of urban sprawl. Thanks for the memories.

  3. Hi Phyllis
    What wonderful memories you have written about and shared with us
    I really enjoy your stories and I am sharing your link with several of my email contacts who have responded with very positive and favorable comments.

  4. It’s fun to discover all the feelings you had as a young school girl. It certainly reminds me of by-gone years. Mom

    1. It’s a lot of fun to remember these things. It’s interesting to start with one memory, and as that comes, more start to tumble in. I could have written pages and pages.

  5. I had totally forgotten the “gym”. The skating and the river excursions were the best. I recall being given the strap for going on the “boys” baseball field to get the “girls” baseball which was against the rules. Had one of them just thrown it back I would not have had that experience and to this day cringe when I think of it. However, the rest of the time spent there was great. When you pull out the old yearbooks you will find that almost all of our grade eight class was on the honour roll in grade nine. We obviously had great educators as well as an amazing life experience. Love your blog!!

    1. I cringe to think of you getting the strap for such a minor infracton, Lynn. I don’t remember that, but it’s just awful!!

      As you say, the rest of the stuff made up for it. You’re right about the honour roll. I hadn’t thought of that, but we all did pretty well in high school, didn’t we? I wonder if being shown how to be curious and taught to love learning was as important as the actual classroom content.

      If I recall correctly, you and I were often vying for the highest category in reading. Remember that box of reading cards/stories and questions? My mind is recalling it as “The SRA Series” or something like that. Reading and comprehension — not bad skills to have!

  6. We also picked snake grass on our home school field trip to the river. We pulled it apart and put it back together. Found your post while looking to find the name of the grass. I wasn’t sure if it was Snake Grass or if that is just something locals call it.

  7. My sister and I, went to Hillside. I was in class with your sister Linda. I remember doing laps of the schoolyard, for cross-country running. I also remember, the time capsule, the choir, the licorice candies in the office, and all the different animals that were brought into the school. The animals, we’re kept at different barns around the area, waiting for their new home at the zoo. Do you remember waffles and ice cream? How about the drink crystals in a styrofoam cup, that we mixed with water. Great memories of the school. Say hello to Linda for me. Great articles! Jen Patrick and Beckey Middleton (Harris)

    1. So good to hear from you, Jen! I love your memories of Hillside. The one I don’t have an recollection of at all (maybe I was in a different class??) is the waffles and ice cream. Regardless, it was a great place to be a kid.

      I will see Linda in a couple of weeks, so I’ll pass on your hello.

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