In 1988, twenty eight years ago, I graduated from Birchwood Junior High. As part of an experimental Late-French Immersion program, top students were chosen to spend three years intensely learning French in all of the core subjects. The criteria for who was chosen was never really clear, but the group of children certainly seemed eager to learn and enthusiastic about the opportunity to access the French language. On an island where being bilingual meant that a person had a better chance at a big government job, parents were only more than willing to expose their child to French.
For my own part, my mother had no idea why I went to Birchwood other than that I came home one day and said that I was going. My family had not been overly involved in my education, thank God, and I had always been allowed to read or learn whatever I wanted. I do know that my Primary School teachers had each come to me to suggest that I accept the chance to go. Mr. Neatby, Mrs. MacAuley and Mrs. Miller each told that I would be crazy to let the chance to learn French seriously slip through my fingers, and that it would help me even if I wanted to go to the Atlantic Coast Guard School or become a lawyer [I was a strange 11 year old boy]. After a week of thinking, I opted in and never looked back. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions any 11 year old could make, but I do have to ask: who the hell lets an 11 year old make decisions like that?
Twenty eight years later, I find myself living in Toronto. I teach English to young boys at a prestigious boys’ school. I do miss Prince Edward Island, but even now feel like I never fit in here with the community. I had too many big ideas. Perhaps I wanted too much, and always felt misunderstood. I come home once a year in the summer, because only an insane person would love an island on the East Coast in February. I love the fresh food from the ocean and the fields. I love spending time with a few old friends and family, but I do not truly ever feel like I could have stayed here and become the man I am today.
Strangely enough, Facebook and my blog have brought me full circle back to otherwise distant family and friends that I have had contact with for almost 30 years. A few Messenger messages later, my wife and I were going to meet up with seven or so former classmates from Birchwood at the decidedly hipster Upstreet Brewery in Charlottetown. While I am good at taking risks, meeting up with people who I knew very little about from a time when I was a much, much different person terrified me. How would I been perceived? Would I enjoy the conversations or would this be one of those awful “do you remember when?” nights? I was fortunately surprised.
I will be honest and admit that I do not hold much confidence in society. My experience has shown me that most individuals are stuck in materialistic hoarding routines wherein a meeting becomes about their new car, shiny boat or real estate purchases. People go to all-inclusive resorts, eat McDonalds in Europe, and pine for the glory days of when they were the high school athlete. I simply do not relate to the average bear, even if I want to in so many ways. I demand a full life of myself on a daily basis. I value the short time I am on this earth, and I want to be kind to others, while still being in constant personal development myself. In a giant city like Toronto, the vast majority of citizens seldom see life as this type of journey. I have found a few like-minded people in my own journey, though, and have always followed Polonius’ advice for those who fall into that category:
Fortune would have it that as each classmate entered the brewery I found great relief in being genuinely moved with respect and admiration for who they had become. I do not say that in an elitist way, where I assert that “only I could have possibly done anything with my life.” I sincerely mean that I felt a great sense of pride from discovering that I was not alone, and that unlike so many other classmates I had known from places like McGill University, these people had grown into people who were worth coming to know again and who had lived” life to the lees”, to quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. Each person at the table who crushed a glass of beer or wine with us had lived their lives in a way that was inspirational and an ongoing work of art. While it may seem presumptuous, perhaps what we shared during our time in the French program prepared us for an uneven road or perhaps we came to that program because each of us were already seeking just such a road for ourselves.
In the end, the stories we shared will remain part of my memoryscape for years to come, and while the temptation was to spend more time with each of these individuals during my short vacation at home, I have decided to wait and give space to let these newly renewed friendships develop into more than a crammed two or three nights. It is all too easy to demand more of people than makes sense within the actual context. I will patiently reflect on the night’s dialogues until my next return to the Island. Next time, I will take my knife roll and kitchen basics to be able to cook a dinner to share at our next cottage rental. I will absorb the lessons that I have learned both about the people I have known and my own perceptions of how what was may not actually be what is.