Posted in 20th Century, anecdotes, childhood, growing up, memoirs, personal history

Grade School Confidential

When I wasn’t shoving mathematical compass-points under my finger-nails (by mistake, I assure you – I wasn’t some juvenile masochist), or trying not to gag up my peanut-butter and apple-slice sandwich after someone in the class barfed up HIS Beefaroni, I, like many of my female counterparts, was caught up in a crush.

A crush means you’re “sweet on” somebody, or you write their name in a big heart with a big AND, and your own moniker below. In my case, it meant being obsessed to the point of making anonymous phone calls and doing drive-bys on my one-speed bike.

I had many the crush in my early years. I have often wondered what it was that really drew me to the boys at such a young age. What did I truly hope to accomplish if and when I got their attention? Was I expecting to tiptoe through the tulips hand-in-hand and share ice-cream sandwiches at the Becker’s convenience store? Did I really anticipate little kisses and making daisy-chains together? Where did I get this notion?

Why did I have this yearning to get close to the members of the opposite sex in my elementary school? Even in nursery school there are photos of me holding the chubby hand of another boy in my class. Perhaps it all came about from seeing my parents so cozy and cuddly together. As much as I squeezed my Teddy (and rubbed his glass eye) he never squeezed back. Maybe it was at the same nursery school, when I was paired with a “Prince Charming” in a performance for our parents that I began to envision living out my own fairy tale. Perhaps it was the 1965 T.V. film of “Cinderella” with Lesley Anne Warren and Stuart Damon, I don’t know. All I do know is that I was smitten with every tow-headed, freckle-faced, checked-shirted shorty of the Sixties and Seventies that even smiled crookedly at me or loaned me a pencil from his prized plaid case.

The sad part is, they weren’t smitten back.

I was a pretty smart kid in Grade School. I had transferred from Our Lady of Sorrows elementary in Toronto, where I had astonished my teachers at my ability to read and write. In my new school, St. Francis de Sales, I was in Grade One when I was summoned to the Principal’s interior office for a personal assessment by him. His name was Mr. Miller and he was the nicest man. Over a few days, he tested my abilities with the conclusion being that I was rather advanced for my age.

In the 60s we didn’t really have “enriched” programs and I wasn’t accelerated to Grade Two or anything, but I was designated some work that was more appropriate to my strengths. This was great for my education, but not so great for my personal advancement in the eyes of the boys. I became a bit of a threatening figure I guess. I was too much of a smarty pants for those young lads who were still grappling with spelling their own names.

I was a shrimpy little kid. My mother will be pleased to relate the story about how I’m an “eight-month baby” and that apparently accounts for any ailment I’ve ever had from Chicken Pox to Alopecia. To this day, my pre-mature origins are put down as the cause for every sniffle, sore throat and stomach upset To my way of thinking, the only detrimental effect of being premature was that it gave me a handicap in stature and made me as clumsy and uncoordinated as a foal just popped out of its mother’s belly.

When it came to gym class, I was hopeless – a scrawny little, bandy-legged runt with bad eyesight. No baseball, volleyball, basketball, or scoop-ball didn’t get the better of me. I couldn’t catch, throw, run, jump, vault, or whack in any way shape or form. I was always the last one picked for a team, and spent most of my outdoor Phys-ed days as far out in the field as possible, hoping to be forgotten or at least left alone.

My one saving grace was that I could dance. In folk-dancing, I was a pretty little thing in peasant dress and buster browns – all smiles, with coloured ribbons streaming from my golden hair.

Problem is, boys don’t like to dance, do they? A little too close for comfort, right? Too many steps to learn, restrictive clothing and it’s just not manly enough. So, where did that leave me? I was a too-smart, non-athletic, puny girl with no hope of attracting the boys I so longed to be with. So, what did I do?

I did what many girls have always done through the ages, I got my friend to tell the boy that I liked him. Then there was that waiting … and waiting … and waiting to find out what he said. Problem was, nine times out of ten, he liked the girlfriend, didn’t he? Or, he was just a boy’s boy – didn’t like the girls (yet) and just was NOT interested.

So then what did I do? I got out the phonebook, looked up his last name and tracked down his phone number. (I have been known to do some pretty amazing detective work with a phone book in my time. I have infinite patience when it comes to getting a result over a man/boy. I had no problem spending literally hours tracking down someone’s address simply because I had the phone number and it was in my home-city.)

The phone number was excellent for making those after-school calls to the boy’s house. Unfortunately, it was often his older brother who answered and gave your true love a really hard time, thus turning him off the prospect of speaking with you even before he reached the phone. Worse still, was if a parent answered and he was embarrassed even more. Often he would not even come to the phone.

In that case, Plan B had to be put into action; time to get out the blue bicycle, put on the windbreaker, grab your best friend (who wasn’t always as keen as you would hope) and cycle over to his house. This involved skill in anticipating where he might be at the time. He was most likely outside on his or a neighbour’s driveway shooting a ball at a raggy old hockey net (this is Canada, after all), or he’d be playing tag with a bunch of friends (just like I should have been doing, if I’d had any sense).

Often, you would ride by and there’d be no sign of your prey. The adrenaline would be flowing as you cycled past the white-siding bungalow like the alter-ego of the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”. Quite frankly, I think, to your boy-target you had about as much appeal as Miss Gulch too.

When you didn’t catch sight of him, you’d circle around and have another breeze past the house. As many times as it took, you and your gal-pal would pedal furiously back and forth until the boy emerged, unknowingly, rather like a deer in the forest, held in the sight of a hunter’s rifle.

Bang! There he is! You’d squeal, and suddenly he’d catch sight of you and his face would run scarlet as the behind of a newborn with diaper rash. Swiftly, he would make a mad dash around the corner and out of sight, never to be seen again.

In school, you’d send scrap-paper missives his way asking if he saw you at his house. He would ignore them. Undaunted, you’d send a friend over to ask him point blank. Never a good plan, for these little charmers can turn when cornered. He would go all red again, but this time, not with embarrassment, with anger. “Get lost!” He’d say pointedly to her, all the while glaring at you. Your hopes dashed, you would go home that night and sniff a bit, but in those days you were a resilient little madam and the next day, you’d set your sights on some other Mc or Mac or St. Something-or-other (Catholic school, remember?)There was always somebody else to fill their size 4 sneakers.

I’ll leave you with my most catastrophic fatal attraction:
It was Grade Eight and I still had not learned that I needed to let the boys come to me. I was absolutely smitten with a bleach-blonde boy called DW, who was in Grade Seven. I can still picture him: he wore a brown-plaid mid-length jacket most of the time that offset his beachy hair. He had a gorgeous smile and blue eyes. I had just seen “The Way We Were” and I fancied him as a very (very) young Robert Redford. I was really in love this time.

DW also went to my church, so every Sunday I was keen to get to mass, where I knew I could catch a glimpse of him dressed in his finery for the Lord. At school, he barely gave me the time of day. By junior high, I had attained two broken teeth in a bicycle accident, was sporting gorgeous tortoise-shell framed glasses that could start a fire in an instant and my now mousy-brown hair had a tendency toward the oily side. Hand-me-down polyester top-stitched jeans and skin tight sweaters that revealed either my undershirt or training-bra, did nothing to captivate the boys in school (for all the Yardley pot-o-gloss lipgloss I smeared on my lips).

I truly was a brave young lady though, because I wrote DW a long letter trying to explain my admiration for him, appealing to his sense of Christianity and decency to give me a chance. Not only did he tear it to pieces and flush it down the toilet, when I asked him if he had read it, he took fiendish delight in telling me he had done so.

Such is the course of young love, mostly one-sided and often ending up down the pan.

Kathleen Mortensen©2009

Posted in 20th Century, anecdotes, childhood, growing up, memoirs, personal history

Miss Sporting Life

I was born early – a month early to be precise. I was meant to be brought into the world at the end of July, 1961. Instead, I made my entrance on June 24th at St. Blank’s Hospital in a large city in Ontario. I weighed 5 lbs. 2 oz. and went down to 4 lbs. 9. I spent my first month in an incubator.

I was a puny kid—scrawny, gangly, knock-kneed and in need of corrective shoes. I also learned at an early age that I needed glasses (in those days poor eyesight was discovered when in Grade 4 you were found to be squinting at the blackboard and not because you were regularly tested by a nurse).

Just picture it! Here’s little me, four-foot nothing in size 4 shoes with boney knees and elbows and what does the school board expect? They think I should participate in the rough-housing activities that they call “Physical Education” and get this … it’s for the good of my health! So put a teeny tot like me in a line-up of bruiser-boys with plastic hockey sticks and let the fun begin! Or, give me a baseball glove and let me catch those stingers that could snap my hand off at the wrist! Throw me out on a field in the middle of a game of “Red Rover” and just pray I make it out alive! It’s all for the “good of my health”. Yeah. Right.

I remember vividly the days when gym class would roll around. I had a calendar at home with the dates circled in red. My stomach started twisting in knots from the time I took off my royal blue bloomers and packed up my blue Keds at the end of each class.

It seems there was not a single sport for which I was suited.

Baseball: I couldn’t connect that bat with the ball if my life depended on it. This was probably due to the fact that I was so short, my eyesight was so bad and I bruised very easily, so my protective instincts would make step back from the comet headed towards me. Thankfully, no one ever put me on a base, I was always outfield which suited me just fine. In fact, the further out field, the better (less likely to be hit and less opportunity to make a fool of myself). Occasionally, a ball would head my way and I would make an effort to catch it, but the sun would blind me and the ball would either hit the ground and roll maddeningly out of reach, or else it would conk me on the head. Laughter ensued (and of course groans and yells from my team).

Gymnastics: Don’t get me wrong, I think gymnasts are amazing to watch and I marvel at their abilities, but putting an awkward kid on a balance beam and trying to get them to walk across with grace and balance is a lose-lose situation. I inched my way across like I was suspended over a pool of gaping gators and inevitably would lose said “balance” to land on said beam resulting in numbness of the privates I can only liken to being wacked with a mallet in the Brazil zone.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was my real nemesis to be faced: the box horse. I’ve seen enough war movies to know that the box horse was used in military training camps, so tell me, what sadistic genius came up with the idea that KIDS should be doing the same thing? What health guru with the Ministry of Education decided that little girls should be stomping on a springboard and flying over a wooden box with a sheath of leather, covering its hidden cement interior?

Not once in all the trials I made against that looming mountain of wood, did I ever sail over to land on the dark blue mat on the other side. I stalled in front of the thing like a donkey who doesn’t want to cross the stream. I slammed into it like the giant iron ball used to destroy a building. I got stuck on top of it like I was paddling out to catch the big kahuna, but never did I get over. I even had nightmares of giant box horses lined up hurdle-style and a coach with a whistle, shrieking my name.

It was never a good day either, when I walked into a phys ed class to find “stations” for various activities. Teams were alternately selected by the Olympic-caliber athletes who dwindled down the group to an unlucky bunch of misfits: the chubby kid, the nose-picker, and me, the uncoordinated pipsqueak. Good times.

Of course on days such as this, there was always the torture wall with the wooden rungs and the Marine Corps-style ropes upon which we were meant to hoist ourselves up without any a) assistance from below and b) grips to hold onto other than the dang rope that ripped shreds out of your hands. I believe my big triumph in this event was to actually reach the point where my feet couldn’t touch the floor.

If indoor activities were intimidating, they were nothing compared to the dreaded Track and Field events that came around every Spring. Apart from mere humiliation with the Long Jump and Standing Broad Jump, the most terrifying thing for me was the High Jump. I don’t know whether I was afraid of looking bad or getting hurt. Wait. Yes I do, I was definitely afraid of getting hurt. The ironic thing was that I was really, really good at the game “Jumpsies”. Remember that? You would interconnect a bunch of elastic bands to create a length about 5 feet long, then two people would each hold an end and they would put it at different heights: ankle, knee, thigh, hip, waist, underarm, shoulder, ear and top of the head. The idea was, you would take turns jumping over, but the difference between “jumpsies” and High Jump was that you could touch the line and push it down in order to jump it. With the High Jump, if you couldn’t get enough elevation, you were going down hard along with the bamboo pole that rested between the two ends.

I remember one time I was so fearful of doing the High Jump that I hid under my desk in the classroom as everyone filed out for Track and Field day. I had no intention of going out to do it. I was petrified. The sad thing is, no one even noticed I was missing— not my classmates and not the teachers. No wonder I quit gym class as soon as I was able after Grade Ten.

I did nearly have one shining moment of glory — it wasn’t all busted fingers from flying volleyballs, or nicked shins from random field hockey sticks. We were having a running competition around the big gym in my junior high class. Teams of three were making circuits of the gym from corner to corner all the way around. I was doing really well. I was actually ahead of the two other people on my team and they were no slackers. I was pretty pleased with myself when I rounded a corner and I tripped over my own feet. Splat! I hit the cold, hard gym floor and my bare knees skidded me to a halt. Limping off to the sidelines, I realized once and for all that I would never be any kind of athlete.

It’s funny how some things never leave your memory. I carried the hurt and frustration and fear of being inadequate at sports for years. Even as an adult I would never join any teams for softball or play any sort of sport, ever.

A few years ago, while working for a big insurance company in town, I buried my fears and took one last shot at performing something athletic.

We were having a carnival on the front lawn and there was a dunking booth set up. I didn’t sit in the booth and let people take shots at me, I actually lined up to try my hand at putting somebody in the tank. I was in a fairly long line-up waiting my turn to hit the target and dunk one of the senior vice-presidents of the company. Frankly, I didn’t think I had a hope in H.E. double hockey-sticks, but I waited my turn (albeit a little apprehensively).

When it came, I took the ball in my right hand, stepped up to the mark, said a quick prayer and hurled it at the black circle on the flat disc. Whomp! It hit dead centre and clunk-splash, down went the Veep and I was the only one to sink him! I had finally done it! At last, I was vindicated after all those years, and it felt good.

Kathleen Mortensen©2009