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COMMUNITY COLUMNIST: Reflections on the old Onteora Public School

By Penny Gumbert, special to the News

In 1948, the corner of Upper Wellington and Fennell boasted an educational jewel: Onteora Public School, my first ‘home’ away from home. Now, nearing 70, I just had to revisit the place on a recent realtor’s open house that was offering a rare single-storey condo close to bus stops.
The school buildings are gone, but not my memories. The blackboards have been replaced by plasma TVs, but ghostly writings appear in my mind: Bell Work in coloured chalks. Singing groups: Crows, Robins, Canaries too clearly delineating the talents of pupils. Word lists and health check lists (teeth cleaned? nails clipped, hankie?).
This was Canada in the middle of the 20th century when girls wore dresses to school and everyone went home for lunch. The flag is there, too, in my mind’s eye as we tots sang “God Save the Queen” and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The realtor takes me to a businesslike den, but I can’t escape my trip down memory lane. Instead I see a small office where I’m trying to shape my mouth around the ‘r’ sound, tutored by a speech pathologist who asks if I have an English accent. I’m five years old and confused. “Did you come across the water in a big boat?” she asks finally.
Sounds like fun, but I say no. I am wondering what my brother is doing in the building that houses fifth and sixth grades. Can he rescue me? No, with his artistic brilliance he is designing a poster that would win first prize. It depicts a house and a school as people sitting on tiny chairs discussing issues. I copied his idea the next year for the annual home and school poster contest (he’d moved on to George L. Armstrong and wouldn’t know!), but fooled no one.
As I inspect the condo’s living space, the sounds of children’s voices ring out. There was lots of singing back then, harmonizing in two and three parts, regular rote learning of addition and multiplication tables and the occasional whirr of a film projector. Children read whole passages together, they memorized rhyming poetry and always began with “Good Morning, Mr. Tourney,” or “Good afternoon, Mr. McLeod.”
A true original was Miss Island, my Grade 1 teacher with tight blonde curls who wore costumes to better illustrate lessons. No wonder I became a teacher.
In a bathroom mirror I see the reflection of a prepubescent girl attempting to make a dimple in her chin to emulate the cutest girl in the class (I had a crush on Mr. McLeod and thought he favoured the dimpled one). Cleaning blackboard brushes was a perk, but sorting wire coat hangers was done by everyone on fundraising drives.
Halloween parades and play days brought everyone, and their competitive spirit, outside onto the playground and adjoining field. The present configuration has boarded what was one of the entrances to the playground, while the open field is no more, but this is Onteora Place (so says a permanent plaque), where ghosts will always beckon.
Penny Gumbert is a Mountain resident. If you would like to write in this space, call editor Gord Bowes at 905-664-8800 ext. 335.

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