Something was happening here, Mr. Smith

Months ago, before COVID, I bumped into a man I’ll call John. He was what my mother would have called “an old high-school chum.” We began reminiscing, and he suggested the teachers we’d had at West Elgin District High School (WEDHS) weren’t all that good. His comment jolted me. My mind flashed to the past. Was there truth in what he said?

In the moment, I made the case that some of our teachers were very good. He conceded the point but countered with Mr. Smith. He taught phys ed when I was in Grade Nine and Ten and then left under a cloud. I was fuzzy about the details, although I did remember the paddle.

In the early 1960s, all WEDHS males seemed to know that Mr. Smith had access to a paddle for disciplining incorrigible boys. We passed this along with the gospel conviction we assigned to the certainty you could get drunk by mixing Aspirins with Coke, and that the letters to Penthouse magazine were penned by actual female readers getting things off their considerable chests.

Over the years, I have occasionally wondered whether the paddle existed? If it was in the principal’s office, was it ever used?

I asked John. He said he knew a boy who had done something deemed incorrigible, like smoking cigarettes on school property after ignoring a couple of warnings. The boy was offered a choice: A week’s worth of detentions after school or the paddle. He chose short-term pain and long-term gain.

Like Woodward or Bernstein, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper. I got in touch with another WEDHS “deep-throat” contact, a man I was reasonably sure had mixed with more potential paddlees than I ever had. Like John, he didn’t have first-butt experience. However, he assured me a classmate of his had “got the paddle” after Mr. Smith sent him to the principal’s office for acting up during track and field.

In my high school years, I’d imagined a canoe paddle, but that seems unlikely. Mr. Smith was quite capable of getting physical with male students. He would bounce them into lockers without thinking. He would mercilessly ride any boy who put little effort into sports. I have no reason to think he had seriously injured a student. If there was a paddle, it may not have been an oar. It could have been picked off a ping-pong table.

This same Mr. Smith coached track athletes that excelled, and volleyball teams that went to the provincials. He was good to me. I qualified for the provincials as a junior miler. He purchased – or arranged the purchase of – new running shoes which my parents didn’t think they could afford. He drove me to the track meet in Toronto when my farming father didn’t have the time.

As for the cloud under which Mr. Smith exited, one of my old school chums told me the school had discovered he was teaching phys ed without proper credentials. A small, out-of-the-way high school could have been ripe for that.

Lest all this sounds a bit too much like a bunch of rubes fumbling around a school in the dark ages, let me expand on what I told John. With one exception (a teacher whose teaching of history resembled a Monty Python sketch), I would argue all my instructors operated on a scale from competent to outstanding.

Let’s leap right to outstanding.

My Grade 13 English teacher designed and taught a course so spectacularly above average that I carry distinct memories of it after 51 years. Improbable as this may seem, her name was Miss Story. The theme was good and evil. A recurring motif was how they can shade into each other.

A divided phys ed teacher stalked the WEDHS halls. He was capable of deception and a level of discipline no longer remotely acceptable. He could also be an inspirational coach. Was a name like Mr. Smith even real? Like the question of a paddle’s existence, or its size, some things are better left shrouded in the fog of time.