By Stephen Boyd
September 7th 2003. A small, blonde haired 1st grade boy poses for pictures beside his older sisters on the first day of school. The sky was clear, “not a cloud in the sky,” as the boy’s father would say. The air reeked of expectations. He is dwarfed by over a foot by each of his sisters, grade 6 and grade 8 respectively. They are posing in front of a birch tree in their front yard, the largest on the left, smallest in the middle, and medium on the right, as is customary in all first-day-of-school photos at the household. What could the boy be thinking? How will he cope with the mounds of homework that his sisters have been talking about for years? Will the people he meets be friends with him? Will the teachers be fair? “Look at my gray pants! Ha-ha, you don’t have gray pants!” he says to his 6th grade sister. Wearing polished black shoes, freshly ironed gray pants, a pristine buttoned up white shirt, and a navy blue blazer, looking like an officer ready for war, there is no way he could properly prepare himself mentally for the next 8 years. As he looks down, distracted, the picture is being taken. “Stephen, look at the camera, say ‘Cheese!’” his mother says. He obediently obeys, after 6 different pictures are taken of him giving bunny ears to his older sisters.
They all load up into the family’s grizzly Dodge Durango, one at a time, making sure not to wrinkle their costumes. Hours were spent in this car going to and from school every single day for the entirety of the boy’s middle school life. Over the years it had been transporting the kids, the car slowly developed rust around the extremities of the body. The boy’s father had his own horse farm, and this was the vehicle he would use to transport his equipment; it reeked of dirt and horses. It is a 5-minute drive along Royal York Road to reach Kingsway College School, and with each passing second, the boy’s heart beats faster and faster, slowing climbing until it is at its peak in the parking lot.
“Here we are,” he thought. His father parks the car, and the family of five unloads with the grace of a hippopotamus as backpacks are caught in random crevices in the car, the back seat will not collapse –classic! – and the young boy is stuck in the backseat. The father rescues him from the clutches of the back seat, and has only has a faint idea that he is about to send his son into a hyper-social environment. The thing that the father and the mother do not recognize, and do not recognize throughout the boy’s school experience is that school has changed. The expectation for a teenager in their time was 75% average. Times have changed, and the boy seems to be experiencing it the most. The family walks together, approaching the entrance to the school, and the boy can’t help but think, “It’s not too late! I can take the keys from dad’s pocket and drive away!” But it was too late, and he remembered that he had no idea how to drive. The then headmaster of the school, Dr. Glenn Zederayko, was standing in front of the entrance, greeting every family as they entered, and he was already saying, “Hello!” and “Welcome back!” to the mother. He was a tall and fit man with black hair and a welcoming smile, someone that the boy immediately trusted. After greeting the boy’s sisters and welcoming them back, he knelt down, getting to the boy’s eye-level, gave him a firm handshake –but not too firm, he was in the first grade after all-, and said, “Welcome to KCS.”
The tiles on the hall floors in junction with the boy’s black shoes gave a click to the boy’s step, which thoroughly entertained him. He made sure to drag his ankles when he walked to amplify the sound it was making. His parents guided him into his assigned home-form classroom, 1V. The classroom was filled with classmates who he would become extremely close with, even to this day. The classroom was vibrant with life, kids reluctantly talking to other kids, introducing themselves, parents talking to other parents, boosting their own kid, and the teacher, Ms. Van, talking to parents. The room was filled with light, had windows covering the wall opposite the door, and a whiteboard, directly to the right of the door. The boy’s eyes wander to the different boys and girls in the classroom, thinking of the future they would share, but unable to truly envision it. His mother introducing him to the teacher interrupts his thought process, “This is my son, Stephen!” “Hi,” the boy says quietly to her. “Quiet” is an adjective that would not be associated with his name in the school ever again. Ms. Van gives a quick introduction, pointing to each student who was already in the classroom and saying their names, assuming that somehow he would remember their names. His parents give him strong embracing hugs and loving kisses as they bid him good luck as they leave the building to go to work.
The boy is introduced into a group of kids who were standing around talking as Ms. Van says, “This is Stephen. Stephen, this is Frankie, Harry, Ross, and Ford.” “Hi” The boy repeats, reluctantly. They stand in awkward silence, waiting for someone to break it, until Ross asks us, “So where do you guys live?” The conversation continued from there, as they all learned more about each other, until Ms. Van gathers the attention of the class and announces, “It’s time for first period! Today, we have French first period”, inspiring awe in the children of the classroom.
“French? We are expected to know French?” races through the boy’s mind as Ms. Van informs the students of the common protocol for going to classrooms –single file lines, lining up at the door before leaving a classroom- while the boy paces back and forth panicking. Thoughts were racing through his head, “I don’t know French! How am I expected to learn French?” The boy approaches Ms. Van extremely concerned, “I don’t like French,” he says. “That’s why we learn French in school, to get better at it,” she responds. The boy does not take this as anything close to an answer. “I’m not learning French,” the boy states firmly, standing tall. “We’re going to go to the French classroom, and I promise you will have a great time there. Please don’t cause problems on the first period of grade 1,” Ms. Van replies democratically. The boy was overcome with emotions of sadness and anger, and replied the only way he knew how when things did not go his way: he caused a problem. Within the next 2 minutes, the boy was sent to the office; this must be a new record, fastest time sent to the office! After being talked to by the school’s most senior of staff on his behavioral issues, he was defeated. He grumpily walked into the French classroom halfway through the period, and his day continued without disciplinary pause.
This first grade French experience gave him an insight that he didn’t think was true in the educational system: there are consequences for your actions. In the following years, the boy settled into the school and its systems, but found it much easier to cope with the pressures of the workload with laughter. Early in the boy’s school career he read a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.“ This quote stuck with him because he knew that life would be filled with hardships, and he would have to deal with them in one way or another. This transferred into school and social life quite well, giving him an escape if something was not going his way. A kid is insulting him about his height? Ha-ha, what an idiot! A teacher assigns an assignment when there is a test the next day? Ha-ha, I am not going to get this done. What is the teacher, crazy? He used laughter and jokes as a defensive mechanism in everyday life. People told him that this mechanism gave him approachability because of his humility, but at the same time, people could hardly take him seriously. With every action, the boy learned that there is a reaction.
Now a seventeen year old and hearing countless tales of how to never change for other people, he finds himself changing every day. He changes to fit what other people want him to be for acceptance. He adapted early to recognize that he would be well liked if he used his height as a comedic advantage instead of a reason to get mad. Still the question is posed to him, is changing for other people wrong? The answer that he has created: if everyone -including himself- enjoys the change, then it must be a change for the better.