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Jim Hopkins Remembers a Career in Education

February 19, 2023

Jim Hopkins

When Jim Hopkins walked up the Third Concession of Somerville to attend Baddow School (SS#4 Somerville) he became part a one-room school system that was in many ways scarcely different from what his parents had experienced. In her first year of teaching prior to being married, his teacher had instructed Jim’s father Harold. Having taught Jim for his entire Jim’s public school journey, she retired the year before Jim’s daughter was to go to school. At the time he arrived, the Baddow School was threatened with closure, because there were only seven students attending, but shortly after Jim enrolled, a new family moved to the neighbourhood with five children.

Throughout his public school experience, Jim was the only student in his year, which made things difficult for the teacher and student alike. It was hard for the teacher to adequately instruct all the grades at the same time, and his teacher often focused her attention on the grades where there were multiple students. Jim was often left with a choice of working with younger students, or working on his own. Every month, a new box of books was delivered to the school, and once he was old enough to read, Jim devoured all the books in each shipment.

At recess the students played baseball together, but the school did not travel to play against other neighbouring schools. For Bally Over, two of the older students served as captains, choosing teams that would stand on opposite sides of the school’s woodshed. With a red, blue and white rubber ball, one side would toss a ball over the roof, and the captains would keep track of who caught the most lobs. If the ball dropped, no point would be awarded. All of the students made sure that things were well supervised: ‘Oh, no, you didn’t catch that!’

Fox and Goose was often played in winter. Participants would tramp down the snow, to create a small inner circle (free zone) and outer ring (neutral zone). The game was like tag, with one fox, everyone else as a goose. When the fox caught a goose, they would become the fox, who then had to count to five before they could touch the same person back. One person could be in the free zone, where they couldn’t be touched, but would have to leave when someone else came along. 

The most memorable event was the annual Christmas Concert. Leading up to the big day, the teacher and all the students would work together to put on a production—learning their parts and decorating the schoolhouse to become a makeshift stage. Then proud neighbourhood families would come out to enjoy seeing their youngsters perform. Sometimes in winter, the older boys would play hockey on the concession line with snow piles as goal posts.

The Baddow school did not have a well of its own, so two of the older boys would climb the fence and go to Mrs. Cundill’s spring to the south of the school. The water poured out of a rock, with a stream about an inch in diameter. The boys would hold the pail there until it was full. On the way back, there were 3 steps to climb as they carefully lifted the bucket over the fence. Once the bucket was empty, they would go back outside to refill it. Though it would certainly not pass safety standards today, “no one ever got sick drinking fresh water straight from the spring.”

A large box stove heated the school, fuelled with two-foot long pieces of maple. When Jim was in Grade 8, his mother had the contract for the custodial work at the school, so he would be there to help, at 7:30 am firing the stove to make the building was habitable and helping fill the woodshed in the fall. At night they cleaned the floors. During the day the older students fed the fire, which was right inside the front door. To spread the heat through the building, the pipes ran across the ceiling to the south, then out the chimney at the top. “Lots of mornings you wouldn’t get too far from the stove for the first hour or two.” The school bell on the roof chimed for the start of the day, end of recess and end of noon hour—after the school closed it was mounted at the front of the building.

Each school day began with a Bible reading, typically led by a senior student. The class then recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang God Save the King. At that point, teaching Christianity in school was not an issue, nor was the denomination of students. Jim was a student when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne. It was such an important occasion that the class listened in on the radio. Each morning, students learned math, English and spelling. The arts were saved for the afternoon, while penmanship might be practiced at any time of day. Back then, there was no such thing as PhysEd.

While his school teacher had to instruct almost all the subjects, Mr. Herlihey of Minden came down to teach industrial arts one half day per week in fall and winter. He would demonstrate how to use hand tools like a hand saw, coping saw, square, hammer and screw driver for woodworking. Their projects were typically useful items—once Jim made a coffee tray that would hold six cups.

Bruce Cooper visited many schools in the district to teach music, again a half-day each per week. The students would sing, play piano, and perform as soloists, duets, quartets and as a choir. The most talented girls would be selected to travel to the Kiwanis Music Festival. Coboconk’s Dr. Ingram visited the school to ensure that the students had their inoculations—especially for polio. In those days, all of the students were inoculated.

The Baddow school was only a few miles from the Somerville Tract (Pinery), where the Department of Lands and Forests was creating pine plantations to reforest old farms. The department invited schools from the area help plant countless red pines. When Lands and Forests staged a flyover, all of the students gathered to watch an aeroplane. They were treated to hot dogs and a drink. “They just harvested one of the plantations that we helped to create.”

In 1952, Jim caught the Algar Coach Lines bus to attend Fenelon Falls Continuation School (now Fenelon Falls Secondary School).  Attending a centralized school proved to be a vastly different experience. The year he started, the continuation schools in Bobcaygeon and Woodville closed, and FFCS was expanding. “I enjoyed every year immensely. At the time the school was growing and there were so many opportunities: basketball, football and track meets with other schools.” At the time, Ruth Sims was the music teacher, who greatly appreciated Jim’s two older sisters. She tried to recruit Jim to the music program, but he preferred basketball. Then “all the kids understood that the best five years of their life could be high school.”

At the time, everyone at school would be a cadet. All the cadets had uniforms—boots, beret, shirt and pants—and practiced marching around the school. Together the school comprised three or four platoons. Gus Martin led the FFCS cadets, and once they boys were in Grade 10, they would start shooting practice. Marching over to Hartley Graham’s pit (the sand hill on Louisa Street), they were supplied colourful bullseye targets to shoot at. The students learned how to handle a .22, and once they proved that they had learned how to shoot and would follow the rules, the cadets were allowed to go shooting on their own. By the time he was in Grade 11 or 12, Jim was leading the troop, “and if anyone did not follow the rules they would not go back. Lieutenant Jim Taggart was one of his comrades in the cadets, and even then he was memorable for his mischievous ways. Once, on inspection day, Jim went home and indulged in dandelion wine at lunch time, only to be sick on the inspector’s boots, as the other cadets were standing at attention. The rifle team went to compete at Camp Borden and Jordan, near Niagara Falls.

Ruth Sims’ music programs were very popular, especially their musical productions, and the school had an active student council. Mrs. Nina Salisbury was an exceptional math teacher, and Larry Skitch, a new PhysEd teacher, started when Jim was in grade 10. Jim loved basketball, “if I had any spare time I was in the gymnasium bouncing a ball.” When he was in Grade 12, he was part of the school basketball team that made it to COSSA—along with Murray Whitehead, Ivan Henry, Dow Selby, Craig McLeod, Jim White, Bill White and Ron Northmore. Jim also enjoyed playing on the football team.

While he was a high school, many teachers came and went, some even leaving in the middle of the year. At the time there was a real shortage of teachers, and new recruits could step into a public school classroom with just high school, plus a six-week summer school program. Except for Art Bell, the shop teacher, and Anne Kelly, in Home Economics, Fenelon Falls Continuation School teachers had a Bachelor’s Degree.

FFCS students loved to go to the Fenelon Theatre, which had opened just a few years before, and hosted shows several times week. After the movie, his classmates would congregate at Northey’s restaurant, enjoying a soda or ice cream, made fresh on-site, at the trendy metal tables and chairs. Though Northey’s would later sell alcohol, at the time, Fenelon Falls was a dry town, and drinking was not part of Jim’s high school experience.

Having greatly enjoyed his time at Fenelon Falls Continuation School, Jim decided to pursue a career in teaching. At the time, there was a lot of social pressure for female teachers to retire and spend time with their families once they got married—and also a great shortage of teachers. For any prospective teacher, the job prospects were good. As he attended teacher’s college, Jim came to see how teachers’ own backgrounds often limited the job that they could do. Having been in a grade by himself and spent much time in public school reading or studying individually, at teacher’s college he was handed a Grade 7/8 language worksheet. When asked to pick out the noun clause, half the class knew exactly what it was, and the others, who like Jim, had not received formal grammar instruction, had no idea what it meant. There were great differences between what was taught at different schools.

When he graduated, Jim’s first job was in a two-room school in Picton, where he stayed for four years and taught Grades 5-8. He moved on to teach PhysEd at Queen Elizabeth School in Picton, then became principal of a school at Bloomfield. In his first years, he was fortunate to be working alongside an early primary teacher who was exceptional. Though she taught all the students from Kindergarten to Grade 4, she found a way to make lessons that were relevant to everyone. Like many young professionals in his twenties, one of his first investments was a car—a 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible, costing $3000, though he only made $3500 per year.

Jim returned to teach at Coboconk in 1966, just as many of the local one-room schools were closing. At the time, the Albert Street school comprised five rooms: JK-SK, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8.  The school drew from Bexley Township, from Corson’s Siding to Head Lake, over to Highway 35. On the south end, the boundary was right at the edge of town, as nearby families in Somerville Township were bussed to Burnt River. Many schools in Victoria County did not rationalize their boundaries so students attended in the nearest village until the 1980s or 1990s.

One of Jim’s first projects at the new school was to create a library. There was an old storage room full of wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes, that he took to sell in Woodville. He used the money to buy pine boards, that they stacked up with bricks to make book cases. With a budget to purchase a few books, it was the beginning of a full-fledged library. Before long, classes would come to meet in the library.

When he first started, there was just a staff room upstairs, where the secretary came to work half days, through all the distractions of sharing a room with other staff—splitting time between Kirkfield, Coboconk and Burnt River. But as time passed, the school board required ever more reports to be filed, and the school came to have its own secretary.

In the 1960s, schools did not have teachers or educational assistants devoted to help students with special needs. Teachers were expected to deal with most special needs within the context of their existing classrooms. But students in wheelchairs were sent to a two-room school in Oakwood, that was set up with ramps for accessibility. An accessible bus picked up their students at their homes, taking them to Oakwood each day.

Though smoking was never allowed in any school, shortly after he moved back to become the principal at Coboconk in 1966, “I went down to Grade 5 & 6 to see how things were. The teacher was sitting with his feet on his desk with a cigarette. I asked him to come out of the class for a minute and said if I saw it again he wouldn’t be in the school. Back then you could say something like that. He left at Christmas time.” Later on, at Bobcaygeon, some of the staff would go to the basement to smoke. “When you walked by the door, you would choke,” so they were asked, if they wanted to smoke, to go out to their vehicles on break.

Jim went on to serve as principal at Dunsford, Bobcaygeon and Kirkfield. Throughout his career, local schools continued to consolidate. While early on, neighbourhood schools were closing in favour of larger village institutions, in the 1970s to 1990s, larger centralized schools replaced a system based on having a school in each village. While old schools closed in Burnt River, Norland and Fenelon Falls, they were replaced by Langton (Fenelon), Ridgewood (Coboconk) and Lady McKenzie (Kirkfield).

Over the three decades that Jim taught, schools changed immensely. Long gone are the days when if a student got in trouble at school, they would be in even more trouble when they got home. Today’s parents are much more active in advocating for their children, as discipline has become more of a suggestion than it once was. Schools have evolved to offer specialized staff to help with all kinds of special needs on site, as they grew to be able to offer so much more to students than was the norm in Jim’s day of being the only pupil in his grade. As all these changes have happened over the years, “the kids are the winners.”

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