The Boarding School Experience

While there are many private schools of every description in Canada and elsewhere, when I attended St. Andrew’s College, Aurora, Ontario in 1963 we flattered ourselves to be among a select group called the “Little Big Four” which applied to St. Andrew’s College, Upper Canada College (Toronto), Bishop Ridley College (St. Catharines) and Trinity College School (Port Hope). We had occasional reciprocal football games with Pickering College (Newmarket) and Lakefield College or “The Grove” (Lakefield) but they were considered outside the normal orbit.

All the buildings on campus had the settled appearance of brick and stone. Each of the residences was three storeys.  The oldest residence was MacDonald House (named after the first Housemaster) which then housed the boys of the Lower School.  The rooms in MacDonald House were dormitories of many beds in a large room. The four Upper School residences were housed in one long building overlooking the “Quad”, a large park-like area where the annual Cadet Inspection and Prize Day were held.  The rooms there housed two or four students.  Some of the rooms of Fourth House had been renovated to remove the old veneer and replace it with the a new modern though sterile look.  There still remained however a room with a working fireplace (which room I was fortunate to have as a House Captain in Lower Sixth Form).  In both the Upper School and Lower School residences there were rooms reserved for the Prefects who had the luxury of their own room. The House Captains in the Lower School shared a room. In each of the Houses was an apartment for the House Master and his family.  The Head Master and his family had a separate house at one end of the Quad.  The other Masters and their families lived in small brick houses surrounding the campus.

It was clear from the outset that students were expected to work hard at what they were doing, whether academics, athletics, drama, debating or whatever.  At every turn there was no tolerance for slacking.  To ensure the motivation was there, there were constant rewards.  Everything had a trophy of one sort or another.  Even just belonging to one of the four “Clans” (which was mandatory for everyone in the school) entitled you to a piece of identifying cloth to sew onto your school sweater coat.  Membership at every level was accommodated.  The “New Boys” were required to wear a bland blue tie which was by design shortly replaced with the striped school tie.  As other achievements were achieved different ties were awarded to identify position or accomplishment.  The so-called “Number One Dress” was grey flannels and blue blazer (with the school crest on the breast pocket).  This could be exchanged for the kilt (Gordon tartan) and blue blazer.

The Masters imposed strict terms of reference.  They were always addressed as “Sir”.  The Masters addressed the boys only by their family name.  If there were more than one Smith, then it was Smith I (pronounced “Smith Primus”), Smith II (“Smith Secundus”), Smith III (“Smith Tertius”), Smith IV (“Smith Quartus”) and so on (though I can’t recall a fifth denomination).  Among themselves the boys normally used first names except when referring to someone outside their Form.  Fourth Form for example was the equivalent of Grade X in the provincial school system.  Fifth Form was Grade XI; Lower Sixth was Grade XII and Upper Sixth was Grade XIII.

Athletics adopted a similar system of priority, the senior teams of any sport being First Team.  First Team members were entitled to wear a white sweater coat with red trim.  The standard school sweater coat was red with white trim. Apart from the usual sports of tennis, football, hockey and swimming there was a very active cricket group. Those boys wore white ducks, buck shoes and white cable-knit sleeveless sweaters.

Debating was popular at each of the Little Big Four schools.  This extracurricular activity blended nicely with the equal affection for Stratford theatre.  It was all about performance. In later years the debating platform was expanded to include competition between schools from all over the world.  The debates held with other schools of the Little Big Four attracted celebrated personalities (politicians and industrialists) as Judges.

During the school year the highlights were the football games with competing schools of the Little Big Four; the Christmas Carol Service in the Chapel; and the Cadet Parade through Rosedale in Toronto.  Each of these instances provided an opportunity for family and friends to entertain the students at local restaurants and golf clubs.  The only other time the boys were permitted to be absent from the school was for Sunday evening dinner which was almost guaranteed to be roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes with gravy.  If the boys were senior enough (and the parents were lavish enough) they could also count on having a beer or a glass of sherry before dinner.

All students were required to attend Chapel every morning (Matins) and twice on Sundays (Matins and Vespers).  No one ever enforced prayer but everybody had to sing.  The flavour of each service was decidedly Anglican (Church of England) and such hymns as later popularized by the movie “Chariots of Fire” were among the favourites.

Everyone in the school participated in the Highland Cadet corps.  Some were part of the pipes and drums band.  In addition to having to keep one’s shoes polished there was the added aggravation of having to polish the brass buttons on one’s red tunic.    If you were a Prefect or House Captain you were entitled to punish misdemeanours by having the younger student polish your gear.  The hierarchy of cadets included Private, Corporal, Sergeant, Captain, Regimental Sergeant Major, Second-in-Command and Commanding Officer.

“Prize Day” at the end of the year was the crown for the year’s work.  Parents and friends were invited to enjoy the display of accomplishment for the boys. There was of course always a lecture given by some visiting personality; occasionally the lecture was directed to the boys alone and actually contained some entertaining material (usually as the expense of some of the current Masters).

While events at the school were unquestionably predictable, from time to time there were disruptions and misfortune.  A boy might be expelled for having gone off campus and returned drunk.  A boy who had enormous promise was abruptly removed from the school when his parents divorced.  A boy died in a field while walking in the winter from the Toronto airport to the school. There was once innuendo about promiscuity between an older boy (nicknamed “Horse”) and boys in the Lower School; sometimes the innuendo extended to the Masters but only to the extent of mockery.

There were two annual dances, one of a semi-formal nature, the other the Highland Cadet Ball.  For the younger boys who were often from other parts of the world, the “dates” were pre-arranged.  The girls arrived from one of the Toronto girls schools such as Branksome Hall or Havergal College and were effectively paired with one of the boys.  The Cadet Ball typically involved closer alliances.  Plans for that occasion included such extravagances as breakfast parties held afterwards.  The participants were chauffeured to the party which in some instances took place in nearby private residences or in a downtown Toronto Hotel. Once the party was in a private car of a train to Kingston, Ontario and back.