Thursday, June 3, 2010

Visiting your old high school haunt has you coming of age all over again

Yesterday I did something seemingly benign, yet something that dredged up a lot more emotion than I thought I had lying dormant inside me. I walked through my old high school and took pictures. Now, this institution was not just any high school. Wagar High, which opened in the Montreal suburb/municipality of Cote Saint-Luc in 1963 or so, owns a bit of a legendary spot in the annals of secondary education in this city.

From its opening until its closure about four years ago, Wagar was, in its heyday, one of the hotbeds of intellectual activity in Montreal. Until its final years, Wagar’s students perennially placed at or near the top rungs of the academic ladder among English-speaking institutions in the province of Quebec. And while not known for its sporting skills, Wagar teams always competed ably in sports such as basketball and, for a time until the early 1970s, high school football.

While a secular school, Wagar was comprised primarily of Jewish teens from the surrounding cities of Cote Saint-Luc, Hampstead and Montreal West, as well as from the Montreal suburb of Notre Dame de Grace (NDG), where I lived. During the years I attended, 1970 – 1974, enrolment was not open to students outside these geographic parts of town. Yet, my graduating Grade 11 (Secondary V) class of 1974 had something like 300 students, the school thriving, vibrant and packed with students spanning grades 8 – 11. In our time, junior high – Grade 7 - did not yet exist at the secondary level.

I was admittedly not a huge fan of Wagar while a student. Then again, I wasn’t much of a student period. I enjoyed the learning component of school, but not the rules and regulations that went along with the process. Today there are schools for people like me, for kids who don’t fit into traditional academia but, when left to their own (supervised) devices, are able to be successful, creative and move on to meaningful careers. I also didn’t really “fit in” back then, hailing from an outside area, NDG, when most of my peers knew one another from their elementary school years in Cote Saint-Luc. I was an outsider, a state-of-mind that was further complicated by my extreme shyness. It was hard for me to make friends back then, even harder to realize the normal rites of passage, like dating girls. But I succeeded on both counts.

So, here I was, back to scene of the crime. And as I walked through the school, my footsteps echoing through the now empty halls, I had an emotional reaction. My eyes filled with tears, the result of mourning for my lost youth, I presume. In the auditorium, I remembered sitting proudly, watching my Grade 10 girlfriend Marla Tobin dancing as a chorus member of the musical South Pacific. I still have the programme. I recalled hanging in the halls and the cafeteria with my buddies Joel, Joey, Richard and Stanley, a group of guys with whom I am only friends with Joel to this day. I couldn’t remember where my locker was, but I think it was on the third floor, where the old banks of grey lockers still stand like silent sentinels, tired-looking but somehow still relevant. Funny how a mere school locker – which in effect is your own private office - can be meaningful so many years later.

Then there is the gymnasium, which surprised me because it is so much larger than I remembered it. I bumped into the school janitor yesterday, a man who started working there in 1981, seven years after I departed. He told me that the gym floors had been damaged, so they had set down new ones. Still, the sounds of the floor hockey “doughnuts” hitting my extended appendages as I tended goal came back to me, as did massive, former semi-pro football player and gym teacher Judd Porter’s menacing Texan drawl.

Of all the interesting sensations, however, those that I felt walking into the modest library were the strongest. The principal for the school’s main current tenant, Marymount Adult Centre (the other tenant is John Grant High School, for special needs students, that offers them an incredible, cutting-edge job program), had informed me that Wagar had simply left their original library books behind when the school was closed. And to me that meant only one thing: the library cards inside had been signed out by the people I went to school with. I spent one solid hour rifling through one book after another, looking for names I knew. And I found quite a few, including one for a book on rookie NHL goalie Gerry Desjardins taken out on May 11, 1973 by my old friend Lenny Litwin. Lenny lived on Prince of Wales, a few houses down the street from me, and was like my younger brother. We both loved hockey goalies growing up and seeing his name on the card sent a thrill through me. We lost touch over 30 years ago, so, for me, this was totally a sentimental “lost youth” moment.

I took some more pictures and placed the whole slew of them on Facebook for many of the old Wagar alum to peruse, knowing that these images would rekindle some feelings in them, as well. For those of you who didn’t attend Wagar, it’s no loss... if you want to remember, sometimes achingly so, take a walk through your old high school if it’s still around, but wait at least three decades. If you left five years ago or less, you probably think it’s the last place you’d ever want to see again, just like I did.

At my age, however, I challenge you to experience this and not be extremely moved. As we turn the corner onto the final stretch of our mortal lives, the years that most helped define us become more precious all the time. As I endure some of the fiercest struggles of my life today, my years at Wagar were likely among the finest I have ever lived.

If only I knew so back then. Man, ain’t that the truth.


  1. Great writeup. I recently went to my undergrad school after almost 25 years of separation and cannot agree more with you. Then someone asked as to why I spent my time all alone walking thru the corridors and wasting time. I did not know how to answer him..thought of googling for the right answer and you provided one. thanks a bunch

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  3. Thanks so much for posting this- I really enjoyed reading it! I had a chance to be in Wagar this week, 30 years after I graduated. It's the first time I was in the building since I graduated, watching high school kids from another school who had rented the auditorium to perform a play. The same stage I walked across in 1986 to get my diploma. The same stage I performed on in a bit part in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and danced on in an original play by our then drama teacher. Like you, I found the lockers and halls looked the same (I peeked in) as did the office. The same mural hung in the entrance. My son, aged 10, kept asking if I recognized things. Indeed I did-and although some things had changed in design, it still felt like there were ghosts.

    He asked if he could go to this high school when he was in grade 7. I had to tell him he could not- it had closed over a decade ago because there just wasn't enough English speaking kids in the area to support a big school like this, one that graduated about 250 kids back in the 1980s (and it sounds like more when you graduated) And while I have a few tougher memories, mostly I loved a lot of things about the school then and my time there- in fact, my time in art class, in at the school newspaper and yearbook helped set me on my career path. Wish I could have gone to the library though like you did! Thanks again sharing this.