Memories That Last

It was a harebrained idea. We were way too young. I have to admit though, we had fun.

It was the summer of 1966. I was almost 12-years old. And my father, I think, came up with an idea to keep two pre-teens from getting bored during a long summer. Send them to secretarial school.

It made sense in a way. Not the full course, just a typing class. It was skill my father thought might be useful.

These days you learn to keyboard practically before you learn how to read. But back then it wasn’t all that common. Most university students handed in their essays written in longhand.

My father knew the value of secretarial school – he had attended one. It was his only post-secondary education. 

His older brother went to university and became a lawyer, but there was no money for the younger sons. I’ve never asked, but I always thought my uncle may have financed his education using veterans’ benefits from the Second World War. 

When my father finished high school, he headed off to a couple of semesters of secretarial school in a neighboring village – his hometown wasn’t big enough for something like that.

He learned to type. He never mentioned learning shorthand. I think there were some business courses too. I got the impression most of his fellow students were male.

It was enough education to get him out of the Ottawa Valley and find a job as a clerk with Canadian National Railways in Montreal. It was there he met my mother. 

He had a long career in middle management for a number of companies, all on a secretarial school education. It was no wonder he thought I should learn to type.

To make the prospect of giving up three mornings a week for the entire summer, he convinced my best friend’s parents to sign him up too at Sylvia Gill Secretarial College.

We learned to type, though in my case not very well. By the time summer ended I was close to 30 words a minute, but then it was years before I next used a typewriter – no call for them in elementary school. 

As a result I have developed own touch-type system over the years. It isn’t that I don’t know how to type properly, I just prefer my own.

There were about 30 in the class. Me, my friend Ian and 28 beautiful young Quebecois women. We were old enough to realize just how beautiful they were, but too young to take advantage of the situation we found ourselves in – I don’t remember ever talking to any of them. Not that they would have spoken to us – we were children.

I came across a photo recently while sorting through a box of pictures my mother had saved. My friend Ian is on the left. I think it was the first day of class. 

(Looking at the picture I see the place was a “secretarial college and finishing school.” That sort of thing was still important in the 1960s. I doubt there are any finishing schools left in Canada.)

It brings back a flood of memories of innocence and youth. Two boys without a care in the world.

Ian’s family would move away that fall, if my memory serves me correctly, so his father could go to school for a doctorate. When they returned I had changed, and so had Ian. 

We had other friends and experiences and were never close again, even thoug he lived down the street. He had some issues I didn’t understand and was sent to boarding school. After that, we had nothing in common. 

In 1990 I was visiting Winnipeg, where Ian was living. He was an Anglican priest at that point, something I would never have predicted. We spoke on the phone, but didn’t see each other.

Eight years ago he died. Cancer. He was only 58, the first of my childhood friends to die of natural causes.

Discovering this photo has unleashed a torrent of memories. We shared so many childhood experiences – catching tadpoles, riding our bikes, playing road hockey, swimming at the local pool – and a few things I won’t mention because they were reckless and I don’t want to encourage such behavior.

Nothing though was more memorable and challenging than that time at Sylvia Gill Secretarial College. Many of the photos my mother saved are meaningless to me.

But not this one. This one is special.

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