Wednesday, May 18, 2011

School Days

My Dad never had much formal schooling when he was a child. He did attend a small one room schoolhouse in his early years in Northern Ontario for long enough to master the basics. When he was just going into Grade 4, his family moved to a cabin back in the woods and my Grandma Landry carried on with teaching the children their lessons at home. Eventually they moved back to a farm that was close enough to the school for them to join the other children but the teacher refused to recognize the work that had been done at home and Dad was told he would have to repeat the grade. It was to be the last grade he completed before he left school for good to work in the lumber camps with his father and older brother. In the meantime, he was placed back with the younger students and that was a serious blow to his pride.

Perhaps that explains why he felt the need to put on a little extra swagger when he was out in the schoolyard during the lunch break one frosty day in January. It just so happened that he was carrying a brand new pocket knife. It was his most treasured possession and he brought it out to carve himself a whistle from a twig he stripped from a tree in the yard. The other boys cast envious glances at that shiny new knife as they gathered around him to watch. He even consented to let one of them hold it for a moment before the bell rang to call them back to their desks. That was the beginning. That very afternoon one of the boys tried to buy the pocket knife from him. He offered him a whole nickel but Dad was adamant that the knife was not for sale. He didn’t reckon on how determined that boy was. He simply refused to accept ‘no’ as a final answer. He was convinced that if he kept at it long enough and tried every incentive he could think of Dad would eventually give in.

Over the next few days his dogged persistence became a form of exquisite torture to Dad. It seemed that no matter where he went he couldn’t escape that wheedling voice. Telling the boy to quit did no good at all and attempts at ignoring him failed utterly. He almost regretted ever bringing the knife to school in the first place but what was the use of having a treasure if you couldn’t show it off from time to time. He couldn’t even walk home in peace with his young schoolmate trailing along behind him offering in his most coaxing tones to do whatever Dad asked if only he would give up his pocketknife.

Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Dad stopped in the middle of the snowy road and turned to his tormenter who skidded to an eager halt beside him.

“So you’ll do whatever I say will you?” he shouted. “Well then…eat that!” He pointed to a pile of horse droppings that lay frozen on the ground and then stood scowling his most formidable scowl with his arms folded across his chest as he waited.

Now horse droppings, sometimes known as ‘road apples’, could hardly be termed an appetizing prospect even in a frozen state. Dad was fairly confident that his demand would be the end of it once and for all. It wasn’t his fault that he seriously underestimated the strength of the boy’s resolve. He must have wanted that pocketknife in the worst way because he only hesitated for a moment. He snatched up one of the hard brown lumps, screwed his eyes tightly shut and sank his teeth into it before Dad could even think about saying he changed his mind.

It was inevitable that a fight would ensue. The boy loudly insisted that he had fulfilled my Dad’s terms and the knife was forfeit while Dad just as loudly proclaimed that one bite most certainly did not constitute eating, especially since he’d meant for him to eat the whole pile. There was no way that he was going to hand over his precious knife. What began as a shouting match quickly degenerated to the two of them rolling around on the ground pummeling one another for all they were worth.

In the end, Dad emerged victorious. His shirt was torn and his nose bloodied but the knife still rested where it belonged…in his pocket. He smiled to himself when he thought of how the boy finally cried mercy and promised to give it up for good. ‘I should have done that in the first place,’ he thought. The smile slipped a fraction as he pictured the tanning he would get from his mother when she saw the state of his shirt. Ah well, it was worth it.

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