Dad had told me that I wanted to start school so badly that they enrolled me when I was only five. Apparently I just couldn’t wait the extra half a year to turn six.
For my first year of formal education, I was enrolled at St. Paul’s, a small private school situated right next door to St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Esquimalt. In fact, St. Paul’s church has a long and proud history in the area, being situated practically next door to the local dockyards and naval base. This picture below attests to this. St. Paul’s is the white building with the black trim to the left side of the picture, and you may also notice the church spire.
St. Paul’s Private School taught Kindergarten through Grade Six, operating out of the church hall next door and had originally opened its doors way back in the 1950s. I doubt it had changed very much by the time I arrived in the fall of 1971.
Private school meant strict rules and discipline; quite a contrast for me from the atmosphere at G. R. Pearkes. I’ve always wondered whose idea it was to put me in a private school – maybe Mum’s but more likely Sam’s, due to the strong English style and rituals that soon became part of the daily routine.
In any case, all this led up to one inevitable fact: I had to get a school uniform.
It wasn’t exactly the same as pictured here, so I’ll describe it: My uniform consisted of a navy blue blazer with matching cap and tie, grey short pants and matching long socks, and a light blue shirt. All in all, it was a pretty sharp get-up, and I was really rather proud to wear it.
The Headmaster and Principal of the school was Miss Gladys Pearcy. She was a stout, middle-aged entity who seemed omnipresent to me in that little school. To my fearful and biased young mind, she ruled in the Olde Englishe style, and seemed authoritative and intimidating to me. Basically, she was the boss as far as the kids were concerned.
Mornings at St. Paul’s always started with a bizarre ritual which was essentially a military-style inspection line. I have since learned from other people that this is common at other private schools or English grammar schools, but it still irks me to remember it.
Miss Pearcy would walk along from one child to the next, scrutinizing all aspects our appearance or attitude. Perfection and solemnity seemed to be the desired ideals here – things that were totally alien to a five or six year-old, fresh off the playground. A crooked tie or a snicker would be met with a sharp word – and there was always the dreaded ruler!
I tended to stand with my head cocked to one side, or with my hands in my pockets. This would garner me a curt “Head up straight!” and a disapproving glare, or maybe a flick in the ear. As she walked past, I furtively stored details of her features in my brain with a mixture of both fear and fascination. No mole, wrinkle, or boil went unrecorded. “Was she really as hard as she seemed?” I would ask myself. I had never before been treated like that, and it made me wonder how Mum and Dad would react if they knew.
It was inevitable that I would test the boundaries of this little microcosm.
One day, I decided quite certainly that there was no way I was going to attend French class. With Pearcy’s voice ringing out in anger behind me, I bolted upstairs to the gymnasium on the second floor. Panicking, I realized that there was nowhere for me to hide. I had crossed the line into deep trouble and had to think fast. I could hear Pearcy’s feet coming up the stairs when I saw the solution: a stack of steel chairs right next to the gymnasium doors. Desperately, I squeezed underneath, my pulse racing with fear. The old “under-the-chair” maneuver would save me yet, I was sure.
A moment later, Pearcy’s feet came through the doors and I experienced the dry, coppery taste of fear. She was furious, and ordered me out from my supposed refuge. Barking out “I’m very cross with you”, she hauled me back downstairs to class by the ear. I don’t think my feet touched the ground the whole way. By the time I was plunked back at my desk, I was blubbering my eyes out, and my ear felt about three sizes too big for my head. My teacher, the polar opposite to Pearcy in every possible way – young, pretty, and kind – regarded my tears with a sympathetic expression that made me regret skipping out in the first place. My teacher was a french poodle to Miss Pearcy’s bulldog. Sitting there with my fat ear and demolished rebellion, I decided that I would never cross the bulldog ever again.
Miss Pearcy was also the choir leader of the St. Pauls Anglican Church, and had formed many of us into quite a respectable children’s choir. I don’t remember how or where it was first noticed, but apparently I had a fine little soprano singing voice, so I was trained by her as a boy soprano.
As a singing teacher, Miss Pearcy seemed like a different person altogether. She seemed to transform anytime she played piano, conducted, or sang with us. Her demeanor would lighten and her face would turn very joyful. It seemed that this was her true calling. Singing was something that also made me feel special. It felt like we were engaged in something that was very pure and beautiful.
She taught me how to sing in the style of an English church choir, and I gradually learned many an Anglican hymn.
Although she was still quite young, all of three years old, my sister Kim was also recruited into Pearcy’s children’s choir, singing with “The Wee Ones”. She’s in the photo below.
Not too many years ago, my sister, my wife and I visited St. Paul’s School and Church. We spoke to the gentleman who maintained the buildings and learned that the school had ceased operations in the ’80s, but Miss Pearcy had stayed involved with it and various choirs throughout. We were allowed into the building to have a look around, and there, in what used to be the primary classroom, was a big framed photograph of Miss Pearcy, looking greyer but also very happy and dignified. She was quite a grand lady.
As we walked through the old school and I thought about Miss Pearcy again after so long, I had to admit to quite a wave of nostalgia.
My “Ode to Spring”, Grade 1.