Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Story I Didn't Write"

You have to understand. There was a lot at stake.
Plus, I’m not that brave.
But, looking back, I probably should have gone for it.
Regrets, I’ve had a million…
And every one, a semi-interesting story.
I’m eighteen. I’m in Grade Thirteen. That’s not a “Clockwork Orange”, “The clock struck thirteen.” In the province of Ontario (a province is like a state, only bigger, and with no guns), when I was in high school, Grade Thirteen was like a college preparatory year. If you weren’t going to college, you could graduate after Grade Twelve. And proceed straight into the adult world.
My plan was to never proceed into the adult world. It was unlikely I’d be able to pull that off, but at least Grade Thirteen bought me a year’s reprieve. Then, it was the extended adolescence of college, and after that, hopefully, a career in show business. With luck, I would never have to grow up at all.
I have to say, I’ve come gratifyingly close to achieving that objective.
The most prestigious college in Ontario, at the time, I don’t know if it’s still true, was the University of Toronto. That’s where you wanted to go. But, owing to the school’s limited enrollment, not every Ontario Grade Thirteener could get in. If your grades didn’t measure up, your alternative was a lower tier Ontario college. And if your grades really stunk, you went to the States, where they have thousands of colleges, one of the which would happily accept a Canadian castoff. In the name, I suppose, of diversity, but still white.
Our college entrance exams were the Grade Thirteen Finals, whixh were held at the end of the school year, in June. Since our high schools did not run on the semester system, the Grade Thirteen Finals covered the entire year’s work.
That’s a whole lot of work. I’m feeling the queasies just writing about it.
Thousands of Ontario Grade Thirteen students took their finals at the same time. Each exam lasted two-and-a-half hours, and students regularly took two of them a day, the two generally covering differing aspects of the same subject. For example, I studied Latin, German, French and English. So in the morning I’d take, say, the Latin Literature exam, and after lunch – though there was very little eating, are you kidding me, our futures were on the line – I would return for Latin Grammar.
On top of the acceptance issue, for students like myself, struggling with financial hardship – our family business had recently gone bankrupt – there was the Ontario Scholarship to shoot for, the obtaining of which would allow a student to attend their first year of college vitually free. Tuition at the time was four hundred and eighty dollars. The Ontario Scholarship covered four hundred.
These were high stakes indeed.

I won’t talk about nervousness, or my admirably rigorous study routine. At least not today. My study routine is particularly interesting. Since I always studied listening to music, while I absorbed the material for the exams, I simultaneously osmosised the entire Top Forty playlist of 1963.
“Blame it on the Bossa Nova…”
Okay, so it’s the English Grammar exam. Part of it was, you do things with sentences – subject, predicate, subordinate clauses – you circled and underlined them, and stuff. That was one part of the exam. The other requirement was to write an original story. They gave you various topics, you picked one, and off you went. The examiners – High School teachers picking up some extra money – graded you on your efforts. If you fared poorly, you’d be atttending a college in a town you’d have to look up on a map to find out how to get there.
I run down the list of topics. “A Trip To The Dentist.” Okay, I’m there! And off I go. Writing, writing, writing. Describing how my dentist is the spitting image of Harry Lumley, who had once played goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ironic, isn’t it? A dentist resembling a hockey player whose own teeth extractions came courtesy of flying pucks (I don’t know if I wrote that then, or it just came to me now. It could be either.)
On I go. About how my mother once sent me to the dentist, insisting it was just for a cleaning, only to have Mr. Harry Lumley lookalike yank out two of my teeth. I whimpered, through bleeding gauze, “Ma, why didn’t you tell me the truth?” She said, “If I’d told the truth, would you have gone to the dentist?”
And then, I stopped. And I thought. I was writing comedy. With my future on the line. Sure, the examiner, wading through the tedium of thousands of exam essays might have found my lighter approach an invigorating relief. On the other hand, this was a Canadian High School teacher. Angry. Bitter. Very likely with a military haircut. And a sense of humor…well, I knew these teachers. Many of them didn’t have one.
What if they didn’t think I was funny? I could wind up at Southeastern Wisconsin State. (Sorry, if that’s an actual place. That’s always the problem with “name” jokes.)
I put a big “X” through “A Trip To The Dentist.” And I started again. With an entirely different topic.
“My Favorite Season.”
I can no longer recall which season I wrote about, though I’m certain it wasn’t winter. What I do remember is I made sure my effort included nothing even vaguely humorous. Birds and leaves. But no jokes.
I obtained my Ontario Scholarship by a whisker.
And my lowest grade was English Grammar.

1 comment:

Max Clarke said...

You did the right thing, though, Earl.

We know it's funny, your dentist essay, but those guys would have assumed you were a deeply neurotic boy who couldn't get over his dental experiences, and obviously couldn't succeed in college until he forgot about his teeth.

You remind me of Ben Hogan, one of the best golfers the game has seen.

When Ben Hogan was closing in on a tournament win, he would play just well enough to win. If he needed par on the last three holes to win, he didn't go for the birdies. He would win with par-par-par. It wasn't exciting, it wasn't Arnold Palmer going for the flagstick, but it won. Course management, they called it.

You needed an adequate essay to win, and that's what you gave them, birds and leaves.